Trinity Sunday June 7, 2009

Romans 8:12-17       

 John 3:1-17                                                                         


Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you

calling in the night. –Daniel L. Schutte


All of us, all human beings, have heard that call in the night. The call of something or Someone beyond ourselves, greater than ourselves. A Greater-Than that offers the hope of meaning to our lives here on earth, our struggles, our joys and sufferings.


Imagine two groups of scientists. The one searches the farthest reaches of the universe with powerful telescopes, offering data on what they see, further annotations in technical treatises, passed on to other experts who may be interested. The other group of scientists are standing around the rim of a huge crater in the surface of the earth, or perhaps in a submarine inspecting a deep concavity under the ocean. They are trying to work out what happened, what force, what dimensions and at what speed caused this impact, and what its consequences have been or are or will be for life on our planet.


I owe this analogy of the two groups of scientists to the Catholic theologian James Alison,* who says that it is the second group of scientists, those looking at the crater, who are most like us when we think about God. When we think about God, the Christian God, Alison says, we are not trying to discern data about some object far distant in the skies. We are trying to understand the consequences of the impact of something that happened, and is happening, in our midst, in our very lives, to us.


On this Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate what is after all a theological doctrine about God, I find Alison’s analogy helpful. We could have begun this service by singing the traditional Trinity hymn, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty . . . God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.” And I could preach about triangles enclosed in circles and thereby assured you of the orthodoxy of Holy Cross Church and of myself. But your eyes would be glazing over and your minds wandering.


Instead we began with that wonderful hymn about the Lord of sea and sky, the Lord who moves through Creation and history, the Lord who makes an impact on things, the Lord who calls us in the night. And we heard a gospel reading about someone called by that Lord, impacted by him, a man named Nicodemus.


Nicodemus is a religious man, a Pharisee, a leader in the Church of his day. But it seems he is like one of Alison’s first group of scientists. His God has been far off, an obscure object in the sky, about whom one may collect data—rules God expects people to follow, doctrinal precepts about who God is—but who doesn’t have much direct impact on people’s lives.


But in Jesus, Nicodemus senses something different—something that calls to him, specifically at night, under cover of darkness, because Jesus is somehow subversive to the established religious authorities. So Nicodemus comes to Jesus and there follows the wonderful encounter we heard about in the gospel. It would have been a great gospel to act out, wouldn’t it, in one of our Come With Joy dramas? Because it is a drama. Not a doctrine, not a creed; a drama. Like Alison’s crater, this scene in John’s gospel is about something happening. And as is typical in John—indeed in the gospels and the Bible generally—the drama is incomplete. It leaves it to us, the scientists peering at the crater, to figure out what this has all been about and what it means for our lives.


What it is about—the gospel encounter of Nicodemus with Jesus, but also the whole crater-event of God in creation and history and our lives—what it is about is love and salvation and eternal life. Now immediately I use those words and they throw a wet blanket over the drama we’ve been talking about. They’re not up to the task of describing the crater-impact of God. They’re worn, tired sermon words.


And I think that’s what Jesus is getting at when he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again (or it can be translated born from above). What we need is not to rush in and describe God with a bunch of prepackaged words and images, but to take a great leap of imagination, a leap into stunning intimacy, so that we may experience the impact of God in our own lives. So that we may be transformed, as Jesus was.


So here we need to circle back to the doctrine of the Trinity. You know, these great doctrines—the Incarnation (that Christ is both human and God), the Trinity (that God is Father, Son and Spirit in one unity), the Virgin Birth and all the rest—are not presented as doctrines in the Bible. They weren’t dropped down from the sky all written up by God. They weren’t even discerned by theologians peering through telescopes at far distant objects. They were cobbled together in the early centuries of Christianity by committees of believers trying to make sense of the impact of God in their lives. And sometimes, as was true of the Council of Nicaea which produced the doctrine of the Trinity and the Nicene Creed that we recite each Sunday, the committees of believers were coerced to come to an agreed conclusion by political authorities who wanted unity in their empire.


Which doesn’t mean that these doctrines aren’t true, don’t have value. It only means that they are human constructs, the work of people trying to describe what is always ultimately beyond human words and human images. They give us ground rules for playing a game, dreaming a dream, painting a picture, singing a song—living a life impacted by the Mystery of God. The ground rules, when you study them, are really about preventing us from over-simplifying God, from reducing God to an object, a bunch of rules and data. So they are useful, but they are only ground rules, not the thing, the impact, itself.


Like Nicodemus, if we want to respond to the living God who calls us in the night, we need to let go a little, take wing a little, be born again from above, be embraced as Jesus was embraced, and enter with him into the Mystery of God.


Oh, the love of my Lord is the essence

of all that I love here on earth. . . .

I’ve called on his name in the dark of my shame,

and his mercy was gentle as silence.

–E. White





*James Alison, Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (New York: The Continuum Publishing Group, 2006) p. 1. 






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