Last fall I launched a video series called The Tapestry. You can check it out here.
Upon watching some of my sermons, a trusted friend and mentor offered these words of admonition:
“Patrick, those are some fine sermons. But they aren’t very pragmatic. You’ve got to give people something practical to walk away with.”
As only an overly cocky confident 23-year-old with just over a year’s worth of ministry experience could respond, I said:
“Listen, I hear your concern but I just think there are a lot of ways in which a life with God is not pragmatic. In fact, God often does things that are the opposite of pragmatism. God often does things that do not make sense to anyone. Sacraments, for example, have little practical value. Baptism and the Eucharist always take us deeper into the mysteries of God. They aren’t practical. But they ARE beautiful.”
To be clear, I think there are times and places to think pragmatically, but I also think there is a dangerous tendency in modern evangelical preaching to be driven exclusively by pragmatic concerns. For thousands of years artists, sages, philosophers, and theologians have connected the beautiful and the sacred and identified art with our longing for God. Now we live in a day when pragmatism and morality have largely displaced beauty as a value. The church is no exception. For example, according to the liturgical calendar, this Sunday was Trinity Sunday. But I would be willing to bet my lunch that instead of hearing a sermon about the Trinity, you heard a sermon about fathers because according to the American calendar, this Sunday was also Father’s Day.
So why no Trinity…on Trinity Sunday?
First, we’ve somehow been convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity is simply too difficult to talk about, at least outside of the classroom, and that it basically has nothing to do with what really matters for the Christian’s life anyway. (We assume—wrongly—that if it were truly important, it would be simple and easily communicable.) Second, we are enthralled by the “practical.” We tend to see church as worth the trouble only if it addresses our felt needs— and the doctrine of the Trinity strikes us as impractical to the nth degree.
Without question, talking about the Trinity is difficult. This is so in part because the doctrine points to the mystery of the divine life. But to say that God is mysterious is not to say God makes no sense. It is say that God is so meaningful we can’t gather it all in. The wonder is, as we begin to talk faithfully about the mystery of God’s life in Trinity we find ourselves drawn up into the divine glory. The very God who dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16) dwells with and in and among us (Rev 21:3), inviting us to draw near boldly and without fear. Paul’s prayer for us “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3.19) is a prayer for us to know the mystery of God’s life as Father, Son, and Spirit.
Put differently, knowing God will always immerse you in greater mystery, not solve the mysteries for you.
When pragmatism drives Christian communities, the end result is always the same: we tell people, “here are the things you’ve always wanted to be and do…follow Jesus and He will help you be successful at these things. “
So simple. So clear.
Yet Jesus, then, becomes a means for a people to get better/be better at something. Ironically, my experience tells me that its the “failures” that seem to know Him best. Walking with Jesus is hardly ever simple or clear. The true path of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord may bring some clarity to your life but often times it is as much about unlearning the things that seem clear in this world and embracing the beautiful mystery that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
St. Augustine told us long ago: humans aren’t just for using things. We are also for enjoying. Above all, we are to enjoy God and neighbor, and to find ourselves through losing ourselves in God’s enjoyment of our neighbor and our neighbor’s enjoyment of God. Preaching on the Trinity, then, is a kind of rebellion against and subversion of the tyranny of the practical and pragmatic that so dominates modern Christianity. It’s a way of reminding ourselves that we are meant for more than getting things done and having things done to us. It’s a reminder that God gives us time but doesn’t put us on the clock. It’s a reminder that nothing is so enjoyable, nothing more human, than contemplating the beauty of this God and the glory of this neighbor.
Thomas Aquinas described salvation as basically nothing more or less than reflecting on God’s character for now and always, into eternity. If that doesn’t sound very sexy, it’s because we don’t really understand how beautiful and beautifying this God really is! May I suggest, then, that what we need are not more practical sermons but more worthless sermons and songs—worship that seemingly has no purpose except to direct our hearts and minds to the beauty of God in ways that cause us to re-imagine what it is that we truly need.
You probably didn’t hear about the Trinity because it isn’t practical.
But it is beautiful.
And “beauty will save the world.”