Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trinity Sunday: Participating in the life of the Trinity

Lectionary: Isaiah 6:1-8; Canticle 13; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

It’s Trinity Sunday – the most feared day for preachers! Honestly, I find every Sunday I preach to be fearsome. Breaking open my heart and mind to hear the word God wishes to be proclaimed to this people is difficult because my earth-centered mind wants to speak of what I think, what I’ve learned about – but it’s my spirit-centered heart that truly knows and it has few words to offer
So, let’s start with this: the Trinity is a mystery. The bad news is: this is a mystery we can never fully understand with our minds. The good news is: this is a mystery we can fully experience in our spirits.

And that is the dichotomy being discussed in our lessons today. Let’s start with Nicodemus. Jesus seems quite peeved in this story that Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, cannot understand his teaching.

Why is Jesus frustrated? I think because Nicodemus doesn’t even see the dichotomy. Nicodemus is so stuck in his head and caught in an earthly perspective that he can’t even conceive of the spiritual truth Jesus is offering him.

Paul understands this dichotomy extremely well and tries to explain it in his epistle to the Romans. He uses language familiar to his listeners, discussing the interplay between flesh and spirit.

Flesh refers to the earthly perspective, the body, the material, that which can be seen, touched, and analyzed. He places this perspective in direct contrast to the spirit – the “pneuma” (Greek), “ruach” (Hebrew).

Spirit is the life force that comes from God, the life that God breathed into ‘adam (humankind) in the beginning. It is the wind that blows where it wills, as Jesus said to Nicodemus. This life principle cannot be seen, or controlled, or understood. It can only be heard, and experienced, and shared with God.

Nicodemus, like the rest of us, has this in-dwelling Spirit, but is totally unaware of it. Like so many of us, what Nicodemus knows about God he learned from, in today’s terms, Sunday School and seminary. What Nicodemus knows about God is what he was taught about God and that knowledge is safe, sure, and ultimately controllable.

But Jesus is telling him that that isn’t enough. You must be born from above” Jesus says, and he goes on to describe the pneuma, the ruach of God: “You can hear the sound of it but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.” That kind of knowledge isn’t safe, it isn’t sure, and it isn’t controllable.

Jesus is trying to direct Nicodemus toward the kind of experience of God found in today’s reading in Isaiah where the prophet is describing a vision. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne…” Isaiah says. Beings from another world, heavenly beings, surround God and sing God’s praise saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.”

In this experience of the presence of God, Isaiah’s eyes are opened and he realizes his own smallness and sinfulness – and by sinfulness, I’m referring to Paul Tillich’s understanding of sin as a state of being, a state of separateness from God.

Isaiah confesses this new understanding, crying out, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips.” In other words, Isaiah now realizes that what he has known and said about God is not pure, it is not truth – and now, in the presence of God, who is ultimate truth, Isaiah understands.

And yet, proclaims Isaiah, even in my sinfulness “my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Now that his eyes have been opened, Isaiah has been born of the spirit. He no longer sees from an earthly perspective. He is no longer of the flesh. He is of the spirit.

And heaven responds by sending an angel to bring him heavenly communion. The seraph flies to him and taking a piece of coal from the altar of God, places it on his lips and declares, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Your sin is blotted out. Remembering Tillich’s assertion that sin is separation from God, the seraph declares, “Your sin (your separation) is blotted out.” What separates you from God is gone. You are one.

Now THAT’S holy communion!

Only after this holy communion, this rebirth of Isaiah in the spirit, did Isaiah hear the voice of God ask, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah wasn’t ready to be sent until he had experienced this holy communion with God. Neither are we.

How powerful would it be if our Sunday communion did the same for us?

We believe that our in Holy Communion, we consume the real presence of Christ. We take Christ into our bodies and he becomes part of us, empowering us, and strengthening us to serve.

We have been discussing for weeks now in our Sunday worship how our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s own gift to the world, the very same Holy Spirit who filled the disciples that first Pentecost, then sent them to preach the good news to all nations; the third person of the Trinity.

The disciples could be sent because they had been re-born in the spirit, just as Jesus was trying to explain to Nicodemus. They had been in holy communion with God, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Which leads us back to the Trinity.

We tend to like to settle into a safe and comfortable understanding of God. The Father is that guy with the long, white beard and outstretched hand who sits on a throne up on in heaven waiting to judge us when our lives are over.

Jesus is the son of Mary and Joseph, a carpenter from Jerusalem who taught and healed, and eventually died on the cross, then rose again, and ascended into heaven.

The Holy Spirit is a bit harder for most of us to grasp and picture. We aren’t sure what the Holy Spirit actually does, apart from that Pentecost thing we read about last week.

We get the Three-ness of God but we aren’t so clear on the Oneness, the Unity.

A recent headline in The Onion, one of my favorite satirical online publications, read: “God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out Of Trinity.” The story read like this:

HEAVEN—Calling the Holy Trinity "overstaffed and over budget," God announced plans Monday to downsize the group by slowly phasing out the Holy Ghost. "Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost's duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision," God said. "The Holy Ghost will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities until His formal resignation from Trinity duty following Easter services on April 20. Thereafter, the Father and the Son shall be referred to as the Holy Duo."

The thing about satire is it exposes our folly. The truth is, many of us live as if God were already a heavenly duo, opting not to dwell on our lack of understanding of or experience with the Holy Spirit.

The problem is, there is no life for us, there is nothing for us outside of the truth of God as Trinity in Unity. Everything the world, that is, the flesh, offers to us is an illusion. It isn’t real and it isn’t ultimately satisfying. As St. Augustine of Hippo famously said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Our goal today isn’t to figure out the mystery of God as Trinity in Unity. We can’t. Besides, we’re Episcopalians – we don’t do that (solve mysteries… we live in them). Our goal is to open ourselves to the awareness, the conscious awareness that God, who is Trinity in Unity, dwells in us. When we begin to acknowledge that, astounding things happen.

What once separated us from God has long since been blotted out by the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ. Now we participate in the life of the Trinity through Christ who reconciled us, who restored us to unity with God - which is why understanding the Unity of the Trinity matters.

Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God again – nothing but our own lack of awareness, our own lack of willingness to know and live that truth. That’s what frustrated Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus. I pray it won’t be the same for us.

I pray that at our holy communion today, the consecrated host will be for us like a bit of heavenly coal from the altar of God that transforms us as it touches our lips and makes us ready to be sent. I pray that our community, and each of us in it, hears the voice of God asking, “Whom shall I send?”

And I pray that we, being born of the spirit, will answer, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” Amen.

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