Sunday, June 11, 2006

Trinity and the Story of Nicodemus

a Sermon for Trinity Sunday

From ancient times, when the theologians of the early Church were wrestling with the concept of Trinity, and all the nuanced and sophisticated philosophical language that appropriately described God -- three in One and One in three – many of them reached a conclusion:

The Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. . .

. . .was an ineffable mystery. Period.

Were that the sum total of every sermon, Trinity Sunday would be noted across the Church for having record-breaking, short homilies. And maybe everyone would go home smiling!

But the Trinity Sunday we often know can be a bit of a bore, because it’s tempting as a preacher to dig deep into the huge theological tomes that have multiplied around the Trinity in the past two millennia. . .tempting to share with a glazed-over congregation the deep thoughts of our heritage on the nature of God.

Breathe easy, I don’t intend to do that today.

But I do begin with what I said earlier. The suggestion that God comes to us in three persons and yet remains one truly is an ineffable mystery. And that mystery provides all the space for contemplating the great riddles of Life: like God, like the Cosmos, like “Why are we here?” and “Where are we going?”

God’s love for us is so strong and so infinite that it cannot be properly quantified or grasped by the human mind. God will not fit a neat human definition. Ultimate Being, the Maker of all that is, the Savior of humanity, the Spirit that upends the complacency of our lives – it is all too much to grasp within our limited perspective in our brief time in this tiny corner of the universe.

Yet we are born, live, and die in the great mystery that is God.

And this is precisely what Jesus is getting at in his conversation with Nicodemus in today’s Gospel from John – a prototypical story, if you will, of the Trinitarian doctrines resting at the foundation of our faith. And how wonderful that our tradition began this way – not with a fancy formulary written by doctors of the faith in ivory towers. . .or by highly academic intellectuals steeped for years in book learning. No, the Trinity of our faith springs from something as wonderful as a story anchored deeply in the struggling communities of our earliest Christian ancestors:

A story about a religious authority who comes to Jesus by night. Nicodemus, probably concerned for his own reputation, sneaks a visit with Christ when others are least likely to notice. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a well-trained and highly faithful Jew, a leader for his people. He is likely a person of some intelligence, a bit of wit, and quite a lot of learning. But he shows up to see Jesus with a burning question that is implied in today’s Gospel: “Who are you?”

Jesus doesn’t quite fit the expectations of the Jewish people of his day, nor the anticipations of the Pharisaic tradition. Yet, Nicodemus, with all his book learning and somewhat against common sense and sound logic, follows his heart to see Jesus. He’s drawn by a simple mystery. Jesus is working wonders and saying things that Nicodemus knows deep down cannot be apart from God.

I can’t help but wonder if Nicodemus was a little frightened – not only for his reputation, but for his faith. . .for what we might call his soul. Jesus was breaking the boundaries of the tradition, stirring up a crowd of disciples, and spooking the established religious authorities with his actions and teachings.

Nicodemus was wise enough, at least, to ask questions.

What Jesus offers him is a vision for all people of faith.

We live in an age where we are being hounded by the narrow-mindedness of a wide variety of traditions, including our own. We are caught up in controversy at home rooted in an unwillingness to change along with a hearty dose of self-righteousness about our own positions. I’m as guilty as anyone. Abroad, we know the hatred and terror that fundamentalism breeds.

The best theologies of the Trinity, and, even more importantly, the best stories of the Trinity undo all our notions of rightness and draw us into the ineffable mystery of God.

That is where Jesus takes Nicodemus in today’s gospel. He talks about being “born from above,” embracing water and Spirit and a God giving of self in a Child of the Divine – images of our baptism and faith. And they all defy complete description. Nicodemus gets caught up in the words, trapped – we hope only for a moment – in the narrowness of language. . .a literalism that refuses to embrace mystery.

“How can these things be?” he asks Jesus.

Jesus invites Nicodemus, with this story, out of the narrowness of the human mind and into the abundance of God’s heart: a Spirit of wind and fire that mysteriously comes and goes in the depths of our lives; a Son whose coming heralds the promise of eternal life; a Cosmos of incredible forces, diversity, and wonder. . .yet deeply bound together in the unity of the Life in God.

We are left to wonder if Nicodemus “gets it.” Whether he is willing to take this strange story Jesus tells him about the action of God and the actions of the faithful seriously enough to break free of the very human temptation to see the world through narrow vision.

We are like Nicodemus. We approach Trinity wanting to sum up God in simple formularies and conflating the divine mystery into our narrow traditional world views. Christ calls us away from these dead ends towards the baptismal waters of being “born again.” And being born again means letting go of everything that defines who we are and how we understand God and the world around us. That is our challenge of faith. The ineffable mystery of the Trinity calls into that challenge.

We are left to wonder how Nicodemus felt when he left Jesus. Challenged? Perhaps. Broken with disappointment? Possibly. Jesus had spoken something so strange and wonderful that Nicodemus’ mind was not fully able to take it in.

But I like to hope that Nicodemus left inspired to let go. To let go of the narrow confines of a particular tradition and wade into the deep waters of faith – that is relationship – with the mystery we call God.

If we are ready to let go like Jesus did. . .to begin leading a life of faith that truly embraces mystery and seeks unity where the world sees only division, compassion where the world drives enmity, hope where the hopeless have only spoken. . .then we will be ready to tell our story of the Trinity – very little book learning required. To talk about how we know God as Jesus knew God – intimate as a close Parent and yet a Great Riddle of Experience and Revelation that rallies the human heart and convicts the soul to embrace something greater than we can every understand or imagine. To describe, in our own humble words and out of our own real, tangible, fleshy lives, the acts of God in our midst. To be born again. . .and again. . .and again. . .with reopened eyes and an ever expanding understanding of the cosmos and how God moves in it with love.

And, if we are indeed ready to let go in this way, then from our words will come action ready to transform a broken world.

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