Archive for May, 2018

“Free as the wind,” (Trinity Sunday sermon, May 27th 2018)

Meda Stamper, an American Presbyterian preacher, wrote that in the Gospel of John “misunderstandings move the dialogue forward.”

I feel like that is the truest Trinity Sunday statement I’ve yet heard. We’re not really sure what the deal is with this concept, but our misunderstandings do seem to move the dialogue forward.

The readings don’t really help, although Isaiah and Paul sing such a good duet here. We have the prophet whose unclean lips are purified with a burning coal carried by a seraph, devoutly covering itself from the glory of a God so magnificent that the whole Temple is filled with the holy garments, the prophet consecrated to preach news of frightful disaster and war so that the unjust oppressors know the depth of their depravity and may be saved in the final redemption. This is our story of God the Creator, the one who made us.

We have Paul the Apostle, who cries out, “Who will save me from this body of death?” and answers his own question: Jesus will redeem not just one nation but the whole of creation from sin and death, and there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for we did not receive a spirit of slavery but of adoption. This is our story of Jesus, the Son, the one who redeems us.

And then we have this passage from John, and it’s…just weird.

And of course it is, because this is our Holy Spirit passage, and the Holy Spirit is a little weird. It’s the part of the Trinity that is the hardest to grasp, and if you don’t believe me, take a moment in your head to think about explaining each person of the Trinity to someone who had never heard of Christianity before. God? Easy. Jesus? Sure, we have stories! Like a bunch! Holy Spirit? Eeehhhh…

We tell this story as though it’s an isolated episode, but the Greek tells us that the story is actually connected to the sentence preceding it – the last sentence in John’s second chapter.

“When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.”

The following English word that begins our passage is “Now.” The actual Greek word used, though, is δε. This word should really be translated “but,” or “on the other hand.”

So Nicodemus is special. Jesus doesn’t choose to get chummy with anyone – so Nicodemus seeks him out. And he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Now whenever you hear this passage you always need to be thinking ahead to Chapter 4 – that’s the story of the woman at the well. Neither Nicodemus nor this woman can be read apart from each other. Nicodemus comes by night; she comes at noon. Nicodemus knows Jesus comes from God because of his signs; the woman is impressed with Jesus’ knowledge, but believes because of his self-identification.

The signs are not enough. Nicodemus isn’t there yet.

This is where it goes off the rails. These two are really having different conversations. My New Testament professor Harry Maier used to say reading the Gospel of John was like getting on the bus to UBC and ending up on Mars.

“Wow, Jesus, you must be special because of the amazing things you do!”

“Very truly I tell you, no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

BAM. Mars. Not in Kansas anymore.

No-one can see, ἰδεῖν, physically see, the kingdom of God without being γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, “born from above.” Or “born from the top.” Or “born again.” Or some other meaning we’ve since forgotten.

We’re supposed to laugh at Nicodemus, because he doesn’t get it – and yet put enough years between us and the community of John’s Gospel and we’re all Nicodemus.

And that’s appropriate for Trinity Sunday too! Many centuries ago all our important pointy-hatted folk got together to hash out doctrinal stuff. Who was Jesus? How was he God? How was the Holy Spirit in on it? How were they three and also one? What if I show you with this shamrock? Nope, that’s partialism and it’s a heresy, and so is modalism and Arianism and what the heck are those things, aw man, we shoulda stayed in bed as soon as we remembered it was Trinity Sunday…

Let’s find another way to enter.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”

That might sound like a criticism. But maybe it’s comfort. “Don’t get confused. Anything born of the Spirit is confusing.”

Then there’s that strange and haunting verse 8, “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 of the Spirit.”

The Greek word for “wind” is pneuma, which is the same as the word for “Spirit.” This whole verse is a clever play on words, made all the more lyrical by the fact that the word translated ‘sound’ is more accurately translated ‘voice.’

People born of water and the Spirit are as free and as mysterious as the wind. We don’t know where they come from or where they’re going…but we hear their voices.

Who are those people?

They are the baptized.

Because we baptize in the name of the Trinity, don’t we?

Understand this does not make the baptized magical or more important than those who have not been baptized. My freedom as a baptized Christian is not of my own making, and it wouldn’t be even if I had chosen baptism as an adult, which I didn’t. Many of us who are baptized would agree that despite our best efforts, God leads us where She wills, so perhaps we ourselves do not know where we come from or where we’re going.

What the doctrine of the Trinity tells us at its most pure is that God is both relational and invitational. God is so concerned with togetherness that God, perfect and self-contained, chooses not to be alone but to create a whole universe which is completely other – not out of lack or loneliness, but out of the wisdom that “together is better.” And this wisdom, this passion, is manifested not only through something that God created, but through who God is. God chooses not only to MAKE together, but to BE together – three in one and one in three.

By virtue of our creation, we are blessed, and that is good.

In baptism, we throw ourselves into the deep end, and surrender our wills utterly. And if like me you were baptized as an infant, don’t feel resentment or insecurity that someone made that choice for you. Rejoice that, whether they knew it or not, they marked you for the kind of love that dances to the edge of eternity. They made a mockery of society’s expectations for you and said, “No – my beloved is going to be God’s beloved, and nothing else is going to matter.”

People born of water and Spirit are free as the wind, and their voices can be heard.

If someone were to walk outside this church at just the right time, they would hear us, wouldn’t they? Singing a song they probably don’t know. Saying words they probably don’t understand. Telling a story they might not have heard before.

And completely independent of logical arguments, or a seminary education, or a full intellectual understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity or the hypostatic union, they may find themselves wandering in here.

Don’t be astonished.

We’ll see greater things than these.

We’ll do greater things than these.