Unfinished

If you noticed my sermon title, then you may have wondered what interrupted my sermon writing, and when my words are going to come to an abrupt conclusion. But the title “Unfinished” is less a description of this particular sermon, and more a statement about the Church’s mission and ministry.

The sermon all started on Monday when I read a religion article. I reposted it on Facebook, received a couple of comments, and then thought about it all morning. (If I really had wanted a day off, then I would have done better to ditch the electronic gear, and go on a bike ride.) The article detailed several reasons why people don’t want to go to church anymore.[1] Frankly, in light of some of the points in this article, I feel like the Presbyterian Church offers a pretty good alternative. I think we’re one of the best-kept secrets on the religious scene, and that it’s a shame that more people don’t know about us.

I would like to make an announcement to the journalist who wrote, “It’s time for a new or revised Christian theology.” We do “new and revised Christian theology” here every Sunday. We do it in adult education classes, and we do it in sermons. From your pastor’s perspective, preaching represents a weekly attempt to be a grassroots theologian, discerning in community the leading of the Holy Spirit for this particular group, at this particular place, in our particular set of circumstances.

In my files, I have saved an article by Professor Jane Dempsey Douglass, who served as president of both the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the American Society of Church History, and who attempted to characterize our particular “brand” of theology. Here are her main points about theology in the Reformed tradition:

  • First, it is reflection on what God is doing in the world and how God calls us to participate in God’s work;
  • Second, it is done in, with, and for confessing Christian communities around the world;
  • Third, and pertinent to my sermon title, it is not a body of writing completed in the past, but a tradition of doing theology in a Reformed mode … still in the making, still unfinished.[2]

The unfinished character of Reformed theology doesn’t reflect the ineptitude or laziness of Reformed theologians, but rather the nature of God, whom all our work in theology seeks to understand. Underneath and behind the texts and traditions of Trinity Sunday is God,

  • who is more fluidly in motion than the waves and particles that make up light: three “persons” in one “substance”;
  • who, in our attempts is at description, is always more than description, who will not be domesticated by our desire for simplicity;
  • who, beyond time, is in relationship with Godself, and, in time, is working to bring history to a conclusion in keeping with divine purposes.

Our world isn’t finished, our lives aren’t finished, and our theology isn’t finished, because God isn’t finished with us yet.

If you take a trip to Nashville, then I hope you’ll visit the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s the best thing I’ve seen in three trips to that city. The visual highlight is a walk through the rotunda. The names of inductees are inscribed on plaques, placed in a series of galleries around the perimeter. Above, on a broad ring that functions as a lintel for the galleries, are words from an old hymn: “Will the circle be unbroken?”

That hymn, written by Ada Habershon, with music by Charles Gabriel, reflects both the human longing for security, and the biblical promise that such security awaits in a heavenly home. When you sing it, you can feel the tension. There’s the trust that God will make the family complete again, someday. And there is the poignancy of separation and loss. For now, there’s a feeling that things are incomplete and unfinished.

When Jesus was preparing to leave his closest friends, the circle already was broken. You see evidence in the opening phrase of today’s gospel reading: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee ….” Eleven disciples. One is missing. In that missing disciple, there is a story of betrayal, death, and darkness.[3] Certainly, Matthew’s original audience of Jewish-Christians would have felt the dissonance. Jacob’s twelve sons gave birth to the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus selected twelve disciples, but now there are only eleven. For early Christians, I imagine that the phrase “eleven disciples” was uncomfortable, like hearing the penultimate note of a fabulous musical score, then waiting to hear that final note. We long to hear the resolution. If it doesn’t come, then we’re unsatisfied. It is unfinished. You can almost imagine them singing it:

One by one their seats were emptied.

One by one they went away.

Now the family is parted.

Will it be complete one day?

Will the circle be unbroken ….

Presbyterian Bible students that you are, you may be jumping ahead to Luke’s narrative. You know that in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples do something about their cognitive dissonance. “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all our time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” they say, “one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” They pray, they cast lots, Matthias is chosen.

But we’re not reading Luke; we’re reading Matthew. We can’t assume that Matthew’s audience had access to Luke’s writing. We can’t read Matthew’s gospel only through the lens of Luke. In Matthew’s version of events, there is only one thing that follows the description of the eleven on the mountain in Galilee, only one way given to right what is wrong, to complete what is unfinished, and to hear the resolution to the song.

Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit ….” Jesus, as Matthew focuses his words for us, calls us to actively participate in concluding the story that he began. There’s still room for another disciple at the table. She is the daughter you teach to eat the bread and drink the cup. He is the son you present for baptism. They are the friends from school or the neighborhood who invited you to the party, who you joked with at the barbecue. They’re people with hopes and fears and successes and sorrows, who feel something missing, who are just waiting to be caught up in a dream greater and broader than they can make for themselves.

As we leave here each Sunday, remember that we worship the God who relates to us as Creator, and as Christ, and as Holy Spirit, in whom there is a dance of three persons in one substance, the God who is not finished moving and acting in this world. Our theology, our mission, and our ministry all are unfinished. “Go,” change one more time, “make disciples,” tell others what God can do. Baptize and teach. Open the circle wider; bring more people into the circle. Keep moving; keep the dance of faith alive.

[1] Steve McSwain, “The Final 6 Reasons Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore (Part Three),” 18 Nov. 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-mcswain/six-more-reasons-nobody-w_b_4224659.html

[2] “What Is Reformed Theology”? Jane Dempsey Douglass, Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1990.

[3] My attention was drawn to the phrase and the incompleteness of the eleven by Tom McGrath, in his Reflections on the lectionary, Christian Century, 6 May 2008, p. 21.

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~ by JohnH1962 on June 15, 2014.

2 Responses to “Unfinished”

  1. John this was one of your better sermons. With the recent loss of my sister, it struck close to home and was a message I really needed to hear as reminder.

  2. Thank you, and so sorry about your sister’s sudden death!

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