Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015 Lectionary B
ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Rector Scripture: John 3:1-17
Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to be with us, birth us, and fill us through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהֹוָה אֶחָד Shema Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” The words you just heard are from Deuteronomy 6:4. In short they are known as the Shema, the Hebrew word for hear. “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday. Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in a mighty sound of roaring wind and flames. Now, all three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have been identified, but what about God being one? Is that a misnomer? How are to understand that and does it matter?
The late Cardinal Richard Cushing once told of an incident from his days as a parish priest. Summoned to give last rites to a man who had collapsed in a store, Cushing knelt beside the man and began with the traditional question: “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?” The man opened one eye and said, “Here I am dying, and he asks me a riddle.”
As a boy I remember much being made of the Christian faith being monotheistic, worshiping one god. The Jews and Muslims likewise claim as much themselves. Indeed, one of the criticisms and objections that Muslims have of the Christian faith is their believing that Christianity is polytheistic, worshiping not one, but three gods. Which is it? Do we worship one god or three?
In today’s gospel from St. John we again hear the account of the Pharisee Nicodemus’ surreptitious encounter with Jesus. He came by night not wanting to be seen associating with Jesus. The Pharisees were the religious establishment. What Jesus was teaching and doing was perceived as a threat to them if not an indictment as well.
Before we move on to Nicodemus’ night visit, it is important to understand that John may use a word with more than one level of meaning. The word in this case is night. We are to understand that Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus by night refers not only to the day being darkened (the sun had set) but to Nicodemus’ understanding likewise being darkened. We might choose other words to describe Nicodemus’ state of mind like being confused, dense, or slow to understand—states of mind we ourselves have inhabited, on rare occasion, of course. In other words, what we hear in John’s gospel today asks a question not only of Nicodemus, but of us as well. “Will we come out of the dark into the light?”
If we remember the prologue in chapter one of John, we will recall these words in reference to Jesus: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4, 5). Nicodemus is a case in point, illustrating these very words.
So, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus begins. “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.” Nicodemus’ deductive reasoning appears to be very much in tack. If a person can do miracles (signs in John’s vocabulary) then God must be nearby, old Nic surmised. His observation appears cogent and on the mark. Somehow, though, he seems to have missed the mark. Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Jesus’ words apparently confused Nic, as they might very well confuse us—“born from above.” What does that mean? Nicodemus thinks out loud, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” We might surmise that he has unwittingly revealed his age. In today’s context his question might sound like, “Gee, I wonder if this Jesus can reverse the process of aging (He has done miracles). Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be young again?” In some ways what we are seeing in today’s gospel are the limits of language for describing the spiritual. Speak of being born and one quite naturally sees the very thing described by Nicodemus—birth from a mother’s womb.
Jesus, in attempting to enlighten Nicodemus’ darkened mind, says this about being born from above: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” This is a show stopping moment for Nicodemus for two reasons: one of which he identified by his question, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” The second is this: if there’s one thing in life we can’t do on our own, it’s being born. We burst into this world screaming and kicking — perceptions confused, eyesight blurred, thoroughly dependent upon others for everything. How can we ourselves possibly arrange to be reborn in the Spirit? It’s not our doing.
Jesus has now really begun to test and challenge Nicodemus’ capacity for understanding. The Pharisees, of which Nicodemus was one, were the most religious of the Jews. They followed the laws of Moses to the nth degree—all its 616 laws, all the kosher requirements, all the Sabbath restrictions. They were darn sure of their religion and how to do it, believing that made them spiritual, and that that made them members of the kingdom of God. They belonged to the club of righteousness, so they thought.
Consider this. Nicodemus had spent his entire life trying to get it right (remember he is old), trying to be righteous, trying to be holy and guess what. It was all for naught. He had missed the mark. He was no more righteous than the sinners, which the Pharisees were fond of belittling and criticizing. Can we imagine? All our lives’ works have been for nothing, nothing. I’m sure most of us have had some experience with this. It is a sobering reality—one that is now beginning to dawn on poor Nicodemus. He really has been in the dark and that’s scary to realize. The truth may set us free, but it may come with a baseball bat.
Craig Barns, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, recently wrote an article in the periodical, “Christian Century.” Here is some of what he wrote: “Forty years after leaving college, I am quick to say that I have no regrets about discerning a call to serve the church, and I think it’s often fulfilling (although I am not always certain what people mean when they say that word). But I am sure Jesus never promised that any job, including being a pastor, would make one fulfilled. As I tell our seminarians, one of the secrets of enjoying working for the church is to remember that it’s just church. It can’t fill up the hole you have in your heart. Some days it even seems like working for the church makes the hole bigger, but that is just a call to prayer.” In listening to Jesus’ words the hole in Nicodemus’ heart must have begun to feel like a bottomless pit.
Jesus explains to Nicodemus the obvious. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” It is a simple equation. Flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit. Flesh can no more give birth to spirit than a dog can give birth to a cat. It is the nature of flesh to give birth to flesh, and it is the nature of spirit to give birth to spirit. Flesh has a point of origin—the act of conception if you will. Spirit does not have such a point of origin, just as the wind does not, as Jesus explains to Nicodemus.
Should Nic have known this about the Spirit? Jesus seems to think so. He asks him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” To what might Jesus have been referring or was this some kind of secret that Nicodemus had missed out on? Nicodemus being the Pharisee Bible-studying individual that he was (probably even a scholar of the OT) surely would have been familiar with the prophet Ezekiel’s words. “Then (said the Lord) I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 “And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” Being born from above by the Spirit was no secret, but somehow it had not registered with Nicodemus. Why not? Well, it was not a matter of him not having studied the Bible enough.
Jesus explains, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” In other words, Nicodemus might have known the Bible, every word, but had he experienced it, more specifically, had he experienced the wind of the Spirit? The answer is an obvious no, but it highlights the importance of just that—experiencing the Spirit. Being born again of the Spirit not only brings new life, eternal life, it also opens our hearts and minds to understanding the things of the kingdom of God, the things of the Bible.
We addressed this experiencing of the Spirit last Sunday, as we celebrated Pentecost. You may recall that I asked this: “Do you and I feel as if we are filled with the Holy Spirit? Be honest, do we? Do we even want to be filled with the Holy Spirit? As Peter said in quoting the prophet Joel, “‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” This is not past tense. Why might we not want to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Maybe, I should put it this way? Why don’t you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit?” Some of you bravely offered responses and as it turned out those responses had an underlying common theme—that theme being fear—fear of becoming too spiritual, losing one’s identity, or becoming someone else were some of the responses.
In light of this morning’s gospel the question sounds like this: “Why might we not want to be born again of the Spirit?” Has not Jesus made it clear to Nicodemus, as well as to us, that until we are born again of the Spirit (or filled), we will be walking around in the dark, we will not understand scripture, nor will we see or enter the kingdom of God? Only that which is Spirit can enter the kingdom of God because the kingdom of God is Spirit. It is that simple.
In a way what we have heard in the gospel this morning not only speaks of the need for us to be born again; it also speaks of the need for God to be born again. No, He is not really being born again, but He is being fully revealed in three persons, three persons of the same spiritual substance in unity, acting as one, having the same will and purpose. So, we heard from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” “One” means together in unity.
This past week a clergy friend of my in Tennessee advertised his sermon on FB for this Sunday in this way: “Though Christians believe in the Holy Trinity, many don’t fully embrace all three members of the Trinity in how they live and think. This Sunday at Faith Anglican Church my sermon topic is “Truly Trinitarian,” exploring what it looks like to embrace all of God.” Did you hear it—to embrace all of God, meaning Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
I suspect that might be a bit of an issue for some of us. Do we relate to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all of Him? Do we and can we pray to all three? The answer is yes. We hear all three persons of the Trinity named when we pray during the service. I will tell you that the three can individually be prayed to, and in that respect we can have a relationship with each. There are times when I pray to God the Father. Those are probably times when I need what is fatherly from God. A father provides, protects, and watches over.
There are times when I only pray to Jesus. With Him, perhaps it is in respect to Him being my saviour, not only in respect from sin, but from any other adversity that might threaten me. For example, “Lord Jesus there is this darn thing going on in my life. Help me” (i.e., save me). You might say in praying to Him it is like appealing to a brother or friend.
As to the Holy Spirit, He is here and now. He is the power. If I lay my hands on you to be healed, I will call upon the Spirit in the name of Jesus. If I find myself going into a situation that I am unsure of or feel inadequate to, I will ask the Holy Spirit to come empower me to address whatever it is. You may think I am quibbling over minor distinctions, but when the rubber hits the road, it won’t feel that way. Your prayer will feel complete and you will have a peace about it, knowing that you have done what you can about the situation, letting it go to God.
When we think about it and about what Jesus has told us in this morning’s gospel, it all sounds rather personal, does it not, bringing God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, well, right up next to us. God is not at a distance. St. Paul’s words from the Romans’ reading this morning are helpful. “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.”
Trinity Sunday, which we celebrate today, reminds us that we have a wholly one God, who is not just a God of the Bible, or a saviour on the cross (which is not to diminish the immense value of either), but God the Spirit as well, sent by the Father and the Son to be with us even now. And, not merely to be with us, but to empower us, lead us, comfort us, and strengthen us, and to guide us into all truth. Knowing this, how could we not want to be born again of the Spirit and filled with Him? Having accepted Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we have only to ask that we be filled with the person and gift of the Holy Spirit.
This morning’s verses from John’s gospel are most famous for the sixteenth verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What is love if there is nothing there to show for it, not just in the past but in the present and into the future? This is why God’s gift of the Spirit is so important. He, the Spirit, is God’s statement of Him loving us now, and not just now, but into the future for eternity. It was by the Spirit that Jesus was raised from the dead. It is by the Spirit that we, too, will be raised from the dead. The Spirit is the Father’s and Jesus’ love for us today. Though St. Augustine’s understanding of the Spirit is short of adequate, it drives home the point. He said the Spirit is that love between the Father and the Son, indeed the very same love that you and I are graced to share.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the three in one. Amen.