A Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012
Welcome to Trinity Sunday, which is where the lectionary writers punish preachers who had so much fun last week on Pentecost Sunday by foisting upon us today the most complicated and obfuscating texts and expecting us to make the Doctrine of the Trinity clear for each of you.
Just kidding. I won’t make it clear.
And, as we begin, I’m going to cite the great church father, Augustine, who said, “If you comprehend something, it is not God.”
The doctrine of the Trinity is not supposed to be easy or simple. God is a mystery far beyond our ability to understand. So, give yourself permission to be flummoxed. And remember, it took the church four hundred years and many church councils to come up with this, to struggle over this.
Trinity is the attempt by Christians to understand how God is ONE, as the scriptures testify, (Deut. 6:4) while at the same time explain how Jesus, the Son of God, is also God. You hear Trinitarian formula in worship all the time,
Father, Son, Holy Spirit;
Creater, Redeemer, Sustainer;
Trinitarian language is grounded in Scripture, even if the Doctrine is not explicitly spelled out in Scripture. (2 Cor 13:13 “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”)
I have preached other sermons that explore the doctrine of Trinity in more depth, and you can dig through the blog to find those, but today I want to worry less about doctrine, and more about the consequences of it. Meaning, I’m less interested in you espousing the correct doctrine. Arresting people for heresy may be fun on a slow day, but it isn’t what we’re called to do. Alas.
So, I’m less interested in you passing an exam on doctrine and I’m more interested in you living your faith in a way that reflects an understanding God’s Trinitarian love.
Because, as Jesus says to Nicodemus:
If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
So, what are these earthly things we need to understand?
Our passage from John’s gospel begins with Nicodemus arriving after dark (as in, when nobody would see him) to ask Jesus some questions.
Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, or we might call him an elder or a deacon perhaps, is trying to make a statement of faith about who Jesus is:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Because of his position in his community, he is at some risk by making this claim, this claim that Jesus is somehow connected to God in ways that the rest of us are not.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
This is the claim of Judaism. God is one.
And so Nicodemus comes at night. To claim that Jesus is somehow God too.
It is an illustration of where our experience of a person causes us to change our mind about doctrine.
Yes, there is one God. Nicodemus would claim that.
But there is also Jesus. And nobody could do what he was doing apart from God.
I’m thankful for the moments in my life when my certainties were upended.
You have likely heard some horrible news out of Syria lately. It is right for us to hold the people of that country in our prayers, as they deal with violence and oppression. But even before the situation deteriorated in this past year, all news we have gotten out of Syria has been bad. For a long time.
And so when I went to the Middle East in 2006 on a trip in seminary, I was more than a little apprehensive when I noticed that Damascus was the first stop on the trip. I ended up spending a little more than a week in Syria.
And while it was certainly a different place than the United States, it was not a scary place. We hear only a part of the reality on the news.
And what I learned was humbling. While most Syrians did not seem to be big fans of the American government, they were extremely welcoming and hospitable to Americans. They welcomed us into their homes. They greeted us on the street. I wish I could go back to Syria. My experience there taught me how to offer hospitality to strangers. My time there taught me to separate the people of a country from their political leaders, as they had done for us. My time there changed the way I viewed everything I thought I knew about the Middle East, Islam, and hospitality.
When have you changed your minds about someone or about an issue, based on your interactions with people?
And I wonder if this is why this text is picked for Trinity Sunday. Because, ultimately, the Trinity matters because of relationship. The three persons of God are in relationship with each other. Not a relationship of hierarchy. Or of separate divisions of labor. But a relationship of connectedness. Of integral need of and for the other.
To confess that God is triune is to affirm that God exists in communion far deeper than the relationships and partnerships we know in our human experience.
Gregory of Nazianzus, a 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople, said, “I cannot think of one person of the Trinity without being quickly encircled by splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being immediately led back to the one.”
This perfect community that is in God’s very being can help us think of how we live in community.
Are we drawing close to people so that we can learn who they are, and find out their stories so we know how they came to be here next to us?
I’m thankful for Nicodemus. For his willingness to come and engage with Jesus, even if his own community didn’t approve, so he could ask questions and struggle through Jesus’ less than clear answers.
On Trinity Sunday, we hold up the idea that God exists in community and God made us to exist in community.
Trinity also means God exists in diversity. The very nature of God is diverse. Creator. Redeemer. Sustainer. Spirit. Word made flesh. That God exists in unity does not mean that God exists in uniformity. Since God exists in diversity, we are expected to seek out diversity as well.
But even today, this section of scripture from John is used to put people at risk, to force them to come to Jesus by night to ask their questions and be in conversation with him. Because there are people who want this passage to be a clear cut list of what it means to be a Christian, a list of uniformity.
In our own denomination right now, churches are leaving because they think the denomination is not being faithful. Yesterday, the Presbytery dismissed Sterry Memorial Church, from out near Parma, to join another denomination. And it was sad. This church had been a part of our fellowship for over 100 years. And they have determined they can no longer be PCUSA because they don’t like the way we interpret scripture, among other things. Maybe they are right. Maybe they are wrong.
But that’s the brokenness I want to lift up on Trinity Sunday. It doesn’t matter if they are right or if we are right.
What is matters is that we are supposed to be in relationship with each other. We are supposed to talk with each other, love one another and struggle together with the questions. We aren’t supposed to just walk away from each other.
No where in Scripture does it suggest to us that we are supposed to agree with each other all the time. We aren’t supposed to just have one way of approaching God. God’s very nature isn’t even limited to sameness. Why do we hold it up as the way to be?
I am sad about the churches leaving our denomination. But I don’t think it is all their fault. We all have responsibility in the brokenness of our relationships.
Listen to these words from Isaiah.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Isaiah, when he is brought into the presence of God, cries out “woe is me”. And when we look at the brokenness of our relationships, the way we judge each other, the way we seek sameness at the expense of authenticity, it is right to come before God in confession and remorse.
Isaiah is brought before the throne of God, experiences the diverse unity of God, and his first response is confession. And this is why I like Isaiah.
Because he acknowledges our unworthiness to be in God’s presence, but he stays anyway.
But God doesn’t hold our brokenness against us. God still wants to be in community with us. A seraph comes to Isaiah and touches his lips with a hot coal, saying that his sin has been blotted out.
And then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
God knows we don’t get it right. God knows who we are. And God calls us anyway. Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
Isaiah could have said, “you can send someone who has it all together”. But he said, “Here am I; send me!”
So, be like Nicodemus. Seek out relationships that will challenge your expectations, be open to new ways of experiencing God, and feel free to ask Jesus for clarification when his comments don’t make no sense.
And be like Isaiah, willing to answer the call, willing to seek community with each other and with God, even as we acknowledge that it is the mysterious grace of God, and not our own merits, that bring us into God’s presence.
And pray for relationships.
Pray for the people who have hurt you.
Pray for Sterry Church as they leave the denomination.
Pray for all those who feel that they weren’t an important part of our denomination.
Pray for each other.
Pray for understanding and mutual forbearance.
Pray for our nation and for a renewed sense of how we can work together for the common welfare, or how we could at least carry on a conversation with someone from the other side of the aisle.
Pray for the people who feel they have no voice.
And pray for the people who try to take away peoples voices.
Pray for the Nicodemuses who are out there, forced into the darkness.
And pray for the religious communities that don’t allow questions or dissent to be shared in the light.
We have to pray for all of it. For the beautiful and the ugly, the kind and the horrible. Because we are called to be in relationship, called to be community. And that takes all of us.
I recognize that this sermon has been flavored by my sadness over what happened yesterday at Presbytery. But, ultimately, the divine model of Trinitarian community is a beautiful thing. Even yesterday, I got to see friends at Presbytery who I wouldn’t be friends with if I didn’t know them from Presbytery. Because we come from different communities, and we understand the world differently, and our culture suggests to us that we shouldn’t be friends. But we are. When a conservative farmer gives this liberal city girl a hug, it is a moment of Trinitarian living.
I want to end with this video, of a boy with Cerebral Palsy. He wanted to participate at Field Day at his school, even though it was going to be difficult for him with his physical limitations. Watch what happens.
This is Trinitarian living. Let’s go out and be like those kids. Amen.
And here’s a link to the video I showed at the beginning of the service. My Neighbor’s Music from The Work of the People. And the book I read during the Time with the Children is called White Flour by David LaMotte. More information on the book can be found here.