Trinity Sunday – May 31, 2015
And so, on the church seasonal calendar, today is called Trinity Sunday. And we are Trinity Church. The Trinity – God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The three-in-one. The Triune God.
So, let’s think about the number three. Numbers were very important in Jesus’ day and so it makes one wonder why and how God is represented in the number 3. And fundamentally, any conception and presentation of the Trinity will address relationship in some way, shape, or form. Think about it. Numbers and relationship. Even numbers promote pairs, easy dyads for conversation. Three is harder. It’s why groups of three can be difficult. Do you know what I mean? Situations of three introduce a different ethos than those of two or four. What happens? You frequently end up leaving someone out or you are left out, when the two seem to get along better without you, or you get along better with one over the other.
And, our world seems to operate in, perhaps even prefer, even numbers — four sides to a table; two children (and, let’s make sure there’s one of each gender) so that each parent can be in charge of one child. Even numbers seem to secure a certain sense of order and predictability we have come to expect from numbers. Expectation and dependability. Add the odd person and it’s the odd person out. All of a sudden patterns of behavior, anticipated actions of relational dynamics, are offset. Odd numbers? The number three? Well, enter a disquieting disequilibrium. A lack of control. When you have three, the dynamics change. You are forced to share a conversation, to be attentive to another besides the one right in front of you. You have to listen to more than one person. Perhaps at the same time. You have to adjudicate feelings and responses and reactions that have doubled. That’s the problem and promise of three.
Yet God saw it fit to express God’s self with three, in three, and through three. Perhaps this says something about God. And about how we might view the Trinity. Maybe God likes disequilibrium. Maybe God thinks that’s what relationships are all about. Maybe God embraces and invites imbalance. Maybe this is essential to God’s character.
You see, theology is rarely an even, four sides to the table kind of reality. There always seems to be a third angle to consider, another perspective to ponder. We are awfully accomplished at focusing on what’s in front of us. That’s easy. One on one is a lot simpler than one on two. That takes more work – when all of a sudden comes the third interpretation, the third view. It upends or causes enough uncertainty to send us into questioning, wonder, even doubt.
The Trinity. The great mystery, truly. Celtic spirituality is a very definite Trinitarian spiritualty (and why I love it), but the Celts have long devoted their creative energies not so much to laying out a clearly articulated systematic theology of the Trinity but rather to invoking and evoking the triune God in the rhythms and rituals, relationships and routines of daily life
Celtic wellsprings of spirituality remind us that the Trinity is not merely an idea to be grasped but a mystery to be experienced and a relationship to be entered into. This approach finds it’s undergirding in such stories as the gospel we just heard, where we get to eavesdrop on the nighttime visit that Nicodemus makes to Jesus.
The fact that Jesus and Nicodemus have their conversation at night seems fitting not just because the darkness offers a measure of protection and secrecy for Nicodemus, away from the eyes of his fellow Pharisees, but because Jesus speaks here of a mystery. In response to the question that Nicodemus asks about being born anew, Jesus doesn’t really provide a clear explanation. Yet in his words about water and Spirit, about birthing and love, Jesus offers something better than an explanation: he extends to Nicodemus, and to us, an invitation to a relationship and to a journey of transformation.
“Very truly, I tell you,” says Jesus to Nicodemus, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” In responding to Nicodemus’s question, Jesus interrupts our tendency to think that chronology has the final power over our lives. He claims, instead, that there’s something more than linear time, with its physical progression from birth to death, at work in us. There is another way of being that is open to us. Jesus chooses the image of birth as a way to describe the passageway that he offers to us. His choice of the metaphor of birth offers a dizzying wealth of implications to sort through. In this context, such a metaphor implies that there is a process involved in what Jesus is talking about. Birthing involves gestation, and labor, and the beginning of perpetual change. When we are born, we achieve a new state, but not a static one. Physically, we don’t enter the world as adults; likewise with spiritual birth. The fact that we don’t start out full-formed in our faith ought to check any impulse to be overly judgmental about where we—and others—are on the journey. I’ve seen parts of this amazing lectionary passage used more as a bludgeon—BELIEVE! BELIEVE! BELIEVE OR BE DAMNED!—than as a doorway of invitation. Seeking to grow up, and to grow deep, we should ever seek out those who are wiser, those who are more practiced in this growing thing than we are, even as we hold the spiritual door open for others. This passage compels us toward humility and hospitality, those twins. From conception to delivery and beyond, the process of birth is intimate work. A lot of it happens in the dark, figuratively as well as literally. So it seems especially appropriate that Nicodemus and Jesus have this conversation at night. So much easier, sometimes, to talk in the shadowed hours, when the questions that the day has kept at bay can now steal forth, and the people who might judge are not present to see, and in the cloistering dark we can speak of what is intimate and eternal. “The wind blows where it chooses,” Jesus says to Nicodemus in that nighttime visit, “and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Perhaps it was this quality of the Spirit that inspired Christian folk in Celtic lands to choose the wild goose as an image of the Holy Spirit. Unpredictable, untamed, the goose flies in formation with its companions, offering strength that makes the arduous journey easier.
You probably remember the parable about the eagle who was raised with chickens, and so stood in its barnyard scratching for corn as it watched these glorious birds (eagles!) fly the skies. He didn’t know he could fly. He didn’t know he was an eagle. According to the apostle Paul, we’re all eagles.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. What Christ desires most for us to grasp is the love of God: the love that sent Christ into the world to show us the face of God; the love that claims us and calls us; the love that invites us to enter into relationship with the One who dwells in mystery yet seeks to know us in the midst of everyday life; the love that drenches us and draws us into new life. May we soar on the wings of God. Amen.