Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Nicodemus, Nicodemus, Nicodemus… This is a man we here, at Resurrection specifically, can learn from. And deeply.
Who was this man? He was a Pharisee. That means that he was a teacher and leader in the Jewish community. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, a council of elders. It was a religious-governmental body that advised the house of Herod and the Roman prefect, administered the laws and collected the taxes. Nicodemus was highly educated and was comfortable economically. He was in religion/education/civil service work and probably had a nice public employee’s pension to look forward to. He was a good man, an upstanding citizen, a taxpayer. I can imagine getting along well with Nicodemus. I can imagine him finding a comfortable place here among this gathered body.
Our friend Nicodemus, however, found himself in a dilemma. He was of the establishment. His livelihood, his family, his entire social network, his standing in his community was all wrapped up in his station in life, which was as a Pharisee, a Rabbi. Then along comes this Jesus, a Nazarene peasant-prophet-revolutionary-muckraker and Nicodemus is pretty taken by Him and his teaching. It was not supposed to be that way. He was the establishment and They were not supposed to be taken by the likes of this Jesus rabble. It would be like southern Democratic senators taking up with SNCC leaders in the 60s or Wall Street bankers falling in with Occupy protesters right now. This won’t do; it is not supposed to be that way.
Now when St. John wrote this Gospel, the Jewish community was in a very fragile period (as of course was the Christian community). With the temple destroyed in 70, Judaism transitioned to a Rabbinic structure, meaning that the civilization was no longer carried in the rituals and traditions of the temple but by the Rabbis in the scripture and its teaching. Belief and thought was at the fore of this developing Jewish existence, so obviously ideas of heresy were very important. As of at least year 80 CE, anyone professing faith that Jesus was the Messiah was banished from the synagogues. Evangelizing Jews, particularly leaders, Pharisees, was quite difficult. It was high stakes religion. St. John, in his whole Gospel and in particular his story about Nicodemus, was writing to people with one foot in the synagogue and one foot in the Gospel. These people were following the normative path, the path they were born into, AND they were learning about a different way, the Jesus way. It was a risky thing for these folks. If Nicodemus “came out” as a Jesus follower, his life as he knew it would be over. He would loose everything that his culture had taught him to value and appreciate.
Does this sound familiar to anyone? Finding yourself invested in a career, a way of life, a system of beliefs that always worked or seemed right and then it begins not to? In this Great Recession, how many millions of people, people who had always done what they were supposed to do, had invested in the education they needed, had been loyal to companies, had literally bought into the American dream, and then find themselves with millions of others, pink slip in hand and no discernable way to continue the path they were on. It is graduation season, and I think of all the kids graduating with record setting and future crippling student debt and no real prospect for meaningful work. Something like 60% of 20 – 25 year olds live with their parents; 40% of 26 – 30 year olds… They have done what they were told to do, what our society expected of them and they are being left high and dry.
What Jesus is telling Nicodemus in this story is so spot on exactly what so many of us need to hear right now. Today, even. What is Jesus telling him and us? Well, Nicodemus is intrigued with what Jesus has to say. I can imagine them talking late into the night, discussing deep meaning, rolling scripture around and around between them, considering the state of Judaic spirituality. All of the intellectual stuff, I suspect Nicodemus found very gripping, but the praxis, the rubber/road intersection, the-give-up-everything-and-follow-me stuff, the this-is-my-mother-and-father stuff, the walking away from jobs and roles and networks and friends and families part… Nicodemus was not quite there. In fact, he was very secretive about it. Nicodemus’ friends did not know that he was curious about Jesus. When did Nicodemus come to talk? By night.
And here is Jesus saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, available to those who are ‘born of water and Spirit.” The born again that Jesus is talking about is not the baptized, that would be simplistic. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the Kingdom of Heaven is open, is real to those who give it up to God, those who give up the notion of control, who open themselves to the movement of God in themselves and in the world. Rebirth in the spirit is not a human doing, is not under our control and cannot be reconciled with what we know or think we know about the world around us. These are very difficult things to grasp by people like Nicodemus, people used to having control, used to having influence, used to being listened to, rewarded, respected, admired, even envied.
If there is anything scary in the world to people used to being in control it is the thought of losing it; control that is. Here is Nicodemus wanting to learn about holy, heavenly things, and he is ignoring the primary lesson Jesus is teaching him right in front of his face: it is not about you, it is not up to you, it is not on your time or your schedule. Jesus teaches that it is God’s doing in God’s time. “The wind blows where it chooses, 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 in the spirit.” Control is in the hand of God Almighty. This is a tall order for the controlling among us.
The answer to the immeasurable greatness of God’s power, Paul’s final Ascension question to us, is found precisely here. We are promised time and time again that the last will be first and the first will be last, that the lowly will be lifted up and the rich will be sent away empty; this tale of Nicodemus demonstrates how it works. Because Nicodemus cannot or will not walk away from what he has known to what he now knows, he may be lost. Nicodemus cannot grasp the heavenly because his investment in the earthly is too large. He puts things of the flesh: wealth, status, influence, position over and above surrender to the God and following the will of his own heart. His heart pulled him to Jesus. His head kept him firmly in the grasp of conventional wisdom.
This is such a fitting story for today. What are we celebrating today? Trinity Sunday. Today we “acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of God’s divine Majesty worship the Unity.” Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Ground, Word and Life. Three Persons of One Substance. It is fitting because we daily are called to live in the faith that the seen AND the unseen reconcile with each other. That the Earthly and the Heavenly align. That what seems random is from a God’s-eye-view part of a very elegant and inwardly simple pattern. I defy anyone to make any compelling sense out of this doctrine, yet it is one that I proclaim daily as a Christian and a priest. I’ll preach the Trinity ‘til the cows come home but I won’t claim an understanding of the prime Mystery of Being.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a notion, an inkling, a scent, an imagining of the inner economy of God. The Trinity is not a doctrine set in stone, it is much more organic than that. It is flexible, active, fluid, somehow. It is analog not digital. The organic, fleshy movability of this doctrine gives God one more path into our hearts. It gives God in Christ with the Holy Spirit one more opening to reach us. One more chance for a discerning heart to discern the will of the Almighty. One more opportunity for God to reach through the temporal clutter, over the roles and wealth, past the status and position, beyond respectability and conventional wisdom and to the inner child of God within each and every one of us that knows right from wrong, that knows what we are supposed to do, what we are supposed to be.
Jesus was right there and Nicodemus could not stretch as much as he needed to sense the Mysterious totality of God. I shutter to think how many times I have missed such chances, such close encounters with the Living God. Maybe some of us, if not most of us have passed by the second coming of Christ on the street and did not recognize Him (or Her). Maybe we are too invested in our worlds and interests and collars and churches and jobs and retirements and the rest of it to sense what is actually important; what is actually of God; what is meant in the Mysterium Tremedum of the most Holy Trinity. Maybe we are too close to being like Nicodemus for our own comfort, our own good, or the good of the world. Keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit: Father, Son and Holy Ghost; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Ground, Word, Life. AMEN. AMEN. AMEN.