Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News for Midnight Riders” (2 Corinthians 13:13)
June 11, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As you know Southern rock icon Gregg Allman recently passed away and was buried in the legendary Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon. In attendance at the funeral were a number of celebrities, including his longtime friend, Jimmy Carter. Near the end of his fascinating 2012 autobiography My Cross to Bear Allman wrote:
Music is in my life’s blood. I love music, I love to play good music, and I love to play music for people who appreciate it. And when it’s all said and done, I’ll go to my grave and my brother (Duane) will greet me, saying, “Nice work, little brother—you did all right” (378).
One of my favorite songs by the Allman Brothers Band is “Midnight Rider.” See if you can relate to any of these lyrics:
I’ve got to run to keep from hiding
And I’m bound to keep on riding…
I don’t own the clothes I’m wearing
And the road goes on forever…
I’ve gone by the point of caring
Some old bed I’ll soon be sharing
And I’ve got one more silver dollar
But I’m not gonna let them catch me, no
Not gonna let them catch the Midnight Rider
(From the Allman Brothers Band 1970 album Idlewild South)
There are many people who have “to run to keep from hiding” or have “gone by the point of caring”? The world is full of Midnight Riders.
Today is the first Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the redeeming work of one God in three Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and “acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity” (The Book of Common Prayer 228).
Recently a professor named Ed Stetzer, who many years ago became a Christian at an Episcopal church, published an article in The Washington Post about the long term decline among Protestant mainline churches. “If current trends continue,” he wrote, “mainline Protestantism has about 23 Easters left.” He continues:
The news of mainline Protestantism’s decline is hardly new. Yet the trend lines are showing a trajectory toward zero in both those who attend a mainline church regularly and those who will identify with a mainline denomination 23 years from now.
He then posits his view as to why this is the case:
Over the past few decades, some mainline Protestants have abandoned central doctrines that were deemed “offensive” to the surrounding culture….Some mainline Protestant leaders rejected or minimized these beliefs—beliefs that made the “protest” in Protestantism 500 years ago—as an invitation for more people to join a more culturally relevant and socially acceptable church. But if the mainline Protestant expression isn’t different enough from mainstream culture, people turn to other answers (The Washington Post, April 28, 2017).
Stetzer is exactly right, “if the mainline Protestant expression isn’t different from mainstream culture,” people—especially Midnight Riders who “run to keep from hiding” and have passed “the point of caring”—will indeed “turn to other answers.” But rather than turn to other answers, in the Christian faith we are beckoned to turn to the Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
One of the “central doctrines” of the Anglican Church is the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, in the back of The Book of Common Prayer you will find the “Thirty-nine Articles,” the classic distillation of Anglican doctrine. The very first of these articles is entitled “Of Faith in the Holy Trinity” and states:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three persons, of one power, substance, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (867).
Our liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer is saturated with Trinitarian doctrine— from the Trinitarian doxology that concludes many collects, to the Trinitarian structure of the creeds, to the Eucharistic prayers, to the final benediction—“The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you forever” (BCP 339). When “central doctrines” like the Trinity are abandoned, there are dire consequences.
And yet, some do just that, and abandon this traditional understanding of the Trinity. The retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, John Shelby Spong, became famous for jettisoning many traditional Christian doctrines and went on to appear on several television news shows including The Today Show and 60 Minutes. His website contains his view of the Trinity:
The Trinity was a conclusion to which the Christian Church came after a long journey through history. It was not a part of early or original Christianity. If you read Paul closely you will find that he is not a Trinitarian. I think people fail to understand that the Trinity is not a description of God; it is rather a description of the human experience of God couched in the language of 4th century, Greek-speaking Europe.
With all due respect to Bishop Spong, and I sincerely mean that, biblically the Apostle Paul is a Trinitarian—and Jesus Himself, the Second Person of the Trinity, is also a Trinitarian. In today’s gospel lesson at the Great Commission Jesus commanded the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
And in the final verse of today’s lesson from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul, in one of the most theologically loaded verses in all scripture, wrote: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Corinthians 13:13). This verse summarizes how each of the three Persons of the Trinity ministers to us.
While there are many complicated and mysterious nuances in Trinitarian theology—like the difference between the Greek terms homoiousios and homoousios—as well as Trinitarian heresies like Docetism or Monarchianism or Modalism or Tritheism—this verse from Second Corinthians describes clearly how the Trinity connects with your actual life.
Paul begins, as he so often does, with grace—“the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” because he personally experienced this grace on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. As he vigorously and violently persecuted Christians, the Risen Jesus appeared to him and commissioned him instead to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul described this to his protégé Timothy—“I received mercy…and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me” (1 Timothy 1:13-14). And “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” is for you too. Scripture tells us that from Jesus Christ “we have all received grace upon grace,” that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17).
Referring to God the Father, Paul continues with “the love of God.” Scripture tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8); that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)—all an expression of the immeasurable love of God the Father for you.
One of my favorite comedy films is the lowbrow 1992 classic Wayne’s World, starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey as suburban teenage “metal heads” Wayne and Garth. One night they are at a concert when their friend Terry, a burly guy with long hair and sideburns, spins Wayne around and excitedly says, “Wayne! Wayne! Garth told me about this show, man. I love you man!” The awkwardness is palpable, and Wayne hesitatingly responds, “Yeah, and…I love you too, Terry.” “No, no, no, I mean it, man” Terry continues, pointing to Wayne with emphasis, “I love you!” “No…I mean it,” Wayne says as he looks around absentmindedly, “I love you.” Terry grins, “No you don’t, man—but I love you” and gives him a big hug anyway, while Wayne just stands there waiting for it to be over.
Meanwhile Garth enters the scene, sporting his blond mullet haircut, thick-rimmed glasses and old flannel shirt. Wayne calls out to him, “Garth! Hey, come over here! I think Terry has something he wants to say to you.” Terry then grabs Garth by the shoulders and says, you guessed it, “I love you, man!” Garth has no idea how to respond, so he simply says, “Thank you”—and then quickly spins away to dance to the music. It is hysterically funny. But while Terry may be flighty, his emphasis on love is exactly right—and although it was awkward for Wayne and Garth to hear that, their responses of “I love you too” and “thank you” were also exactly right. Who knew Wayne’s World was so theologically profound?
Finally, Paul concludes, “and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Again, Paul had personally experienced the communion—or fellowship—of the Holy Spirit in his life. In the midst of all his suffering for the gospel—and earlier in this letter Paul enumerated that suffering—he always sensed the communion of the Holy Spirit reminding him of his identity as a child of God. And as Paul wrote to the Romans, this goes for you as well:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14-17).
You are never alone. The Holy Spirit is always with you, and the same Holy Spirit who assured Paul that he was a child of God does so for you too.
So on the Trinity Sunday, if you are looking to turn to something or someone for answers, consider turning anew to our Triune God who ministers to you with “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:13). And when your earthly life is ending, you may be reminded again of the role of the Trinity in your salvation as this beautiful blessing entitled “A Commendation at the Time of Death” is prayed over you:
Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God (BCP 464).
While we do not know what mainline Protestantism in America will look like 23 years from now, we do know that God’s saving work of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” will continue. Gregg Allman was right—“the road goes on forever”—and so does the saving work of our Triune God…very good news for Midnight Riders, for eventually midnight will turn to dawn.