Rev. Rainey Dankel | 5.30.21
PRAYING THE TRINITY
In the mid-1600s, the English Parliament, under the control of the Puritans, created a group called the Westminster Assembly and tasked them with providing documents for the reform of the Church of England. It took almost five years for the Assembly to complete its work, as there was much debate over each point of doctrine, worship, and polity. In preparing the catechisms (which have a question-and-answer format), there was particular difficulty in writing an answer to the fundamental question “Who is God?” After hours of exhausting debate, it is said that the participants decided to take a break from writing and turn to prayer. One of the men stood up and began to pray, “O God, Thou who art a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in Thy wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth…” By the time the prayer was over, they had the makings of a beautiful answer. When they moved from a theoretical exercise to an experience of worship, their hearts were opened.
Today is Trinity Sunday, always observed on the Sunday following Pentecost. It is the time when the Church celebrates the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a fundamental expression of Christian faith as we have received it. So this is the Sunday when the preacher is expected to offer words of explanation about the doctrine of the Trinity, the affirmation of one God known in three “persons” as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You have undoubtedly heard many of these. We try analogies like ice, liquid, and vapor as the three states of water to affirm unity and diversity. Or the three-leaf clover or intersecting circles. I once attended a service where the preacher lobbed Three Musketeers candy bars into the congregation shouting, “All for one and one for all.” Relax, no such demonstrations here.
Instead, I am going to take my cue from the Westminster Divines and point us away from an intellectual exercise. The New Testament does not use the term “Trinity.” The three-part formula of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” only occurs a few times, and it is primarily a liturgical expression: in Matthew, we are commanded to baptize in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians it is a benediction (“The blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…”) You have heard those words in Baptism and in Blessings. So Scripture suggests that we experience God as Trinity through the poetic language of worship rather than discursive argument.
The Scripture readings for today invite us to make this move, to understand the unfolding revelation of God through the eyes of the heart more than the words in our head. So I will focus on these passages as we are invited to experience this revelation through prayerful worship rather than an analysis. (This reminds me of the tired joke about some kinds of Christians who expect when they die, not that they will go to heaven or hell, but they will go to a lecture on heaven and hell.)
In today’s Gospel reading from John, we encounter the figure of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader in the Jewish community, who comes by night to talk with Jesus. He wants to know more about this rabbi whose deeds mark him as one sent by God. He is prepared for an intellectual discussion. But Jesus immediately moves in a different direction: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus is perplexed at this unexpected turn. He keeps trying to understand as Jesus repeats the mysterious symbolic language. Nicodemus thinks he has come to this man for personal edification. Jesus takes the discussion to a cosmic level: God has come to the world out of love, not to argue but to save us.
Perhaps we are irritated with Jesus. Here is a chance for him to engage with an educated, curious person, who seems genuinely interested in learning about Jesus. What comes back seems unpastoral, even disrespectful. When Nicodemus is confused, Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). Jesus is not engaging in an intellectual exercise. An encounter with Jesus is not a lecture on heaven and hell. It is an opportunity to encounter the transformative power of God, the Spirit wind that blows where it will, whose source is shrouded in mystery. This encounter is so dramatic, so life-changing that it can only be understood with the metaphor of a second birth.
Just when we are feeling dismissed or discouraged, Jesus turns the attention to himself, as the One sent by God to embody this transformation. Jesus has been sent to be lifted up (John’s standard language pointing to crucifixion) to draw the world to himself, so that all might be reconciled through love. Jesus concludes this discourse with some of the most beloved words in Scripture: “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,” (John 3:16).
God has chosen to identify completely with this messy world, this world of darkness, in which we stumble around and try to find our way. This world where violence, greed, and hopelessness seem to be the dominant powers. Where we long to know that we are beloved of God, despite the ways we fail to live into that love. Like Nicodemus, we want to know, we want an explanation. With Nicodemus, we encounter one who says, “I want more than your mind. I want your whole self. Because I am offering you a different way of life. It is costly because it is infinitely valuable.” The Spirit whom Jesus offers, the one he has called the Counsellor, is his continuing presence, assuring us of God’s love and challenging us to live into that transforming power.
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah portrays an experience of the majesty of God that is also life-changing. Isaiah is in the Temple, where he has a vision of God seated on a throne, surrounded by angels calling “Holy, holy, holy.” In despair of his own sinfulness, he is touched by the cleansing power of God and responds to God’s call to serve. We sang those words today in our opening hymn, and you hear them every Sunday in the Eucharistic Prayer as we join with the heavenly beings, in the prayer we call by its Latin name “Sanctus”: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” I love this image: as we gather around the altar, we see ourselves in chorus with all those who are praising God in all times, in God’s eternal present. As another hymn says, we are “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
Our reading today from Romans continues this call to new life. Paul uses a familiar image of being children of God, a welcome that is extended to us through the Spirit: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” And how does this happen? It is through the radical action of God: we are adopted by God. This is not the result of our merit, our own struggling to be good, but out of the depths of God’s great love for us. It is symbolized as we use the words Jesus taught us: “Our Father!” Abba! Father! We acknowledge our dependence on the source of our life. We are called into a new relationship with God: as Creator, Savior, and Spirit of Love. We open our hearts to God, and we discover that we belong to God as beloved children.
The Spirit who makes us God’s children is the Spirit revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who has taught us to call God Father, Mother, the loving Creator of our life. Jesus, who throws himself on the ground in the dark of Gethsemane, to pray to Abba for the strength and fortitude to continue the fight. Jesus who assures his followers that they will receive the gift of new life on the other side of suffering, through the Spirit that the Father sends to them. The Spirit of God empowers us to reject the life of fear and move confidently into the future to which God calls us.
Nicodemus doesn’t say anything further in his encounter with Jesus, so we don’t know how he reacts. We see him only two more times in John’s gospel (the only book that mentions him). In chapter 7, when the Jewish leaders (the Sanhedrin) are talking about arresting Jesus, Nicodemus disagrees, pointing out that Jesus has not received a fair hearing. The last time we see Nicodemus, he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, bringing expensive spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
The one who had come to Jesus in the dark has now shown himself publicly to be one who knows and cares for Jesus. Perhaps this is a sign of the new birth that Jesus offers, turning to a new way that leaves the darkness of fear and moves into the light of love. It seems that Nicodemus is being born “from above,” as Jesus said. The Spirit of God is blowing into his heart, giving him new courage and a new direction.
I love that we read these passages on Trinity Sunday. And I love the figure of Nicodemus as a seeker, one who wants to understand and who discovers what it means to be reborn. We come together to pray and sing, to worship a God so mysterious and yet so present. In our liturgical tradition, there is a saying, “Praying shapes believing.” (That is a translation of the Latin “Lex orandi lex credendi.”) For us, worship is an invitation to discover God’s great love for us. To take us beyond fear of condemnation into the warmth of transforming love. To assure us of God’s never-failing care for us. To challenge us to come out of the shadows and to stand bravely in the light of that love, to work against oppression and hopelessness, to be willing to be made more and more into the likeness of the one who offers us this gift. To find ourselves as brothers and sisters in Christ, mirroring the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship of love with God as Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we come into this place, to pray Abba, Father! may we discover ourselves as newly-born children of God, brought into relationship with Christ and with each other. May we find ourselves renewed by the Spirit that helps us in our weakness and in our confusion. May we find ourselves renewed by the power of Christ’s love that enables us to share the gifts we have received, so that the world may see what this new life means. May everything that we experience in this place speak to us, and to all who enter here, that “God so loves the world!”