I wrote this for Sermons that Work, the sermon service of the Episcopal Church.
We live in an age of conflict. It was probably always so, but we hear about things instantly nowadays and even find ourselves watching the most dreadful scenes while we blissfully consume a frozen dinner.
Our nation seems locked in battle between contending parties and groups, and division and tension have wracked even our church. Perhaps we came here today seeking a place of peace. Let’s hope no one gets into a quarrel over the flowers or perhaps the homily.
It would be so good if we were absolutely sure that a group practiced unity. Indeed there was a time, in the beginning, when people said of Christians, “See how they love one another.” One of the reasons we divide is that we feel we can’t be truly human, truly ourselves if someone or something is challenging us or threatening us.
Perhaps you remember the beginning of being in love with someone. In those enchanting days you couldn’t do enough for your lover, and nothing they said or did got to you, and you didn’t have to watch what you said and did in response. Math was confounded. One and one equaled not two, but one. The blessed ones are those who, whether that remained true most of the time or even some of the time, grew through problems – not further apart but closer together. Perhaps you know an old couple who have grown so close, they even begin to look alike. They anticipate what their partner is going to say or do, and smile knowingly.
Today is Trinity Sunday, popularized by St. Thomas a Becket centuries ago. The feast of the Trinity became so important that until recently Anglicans numbered the long summer Sundays as “Sundays After Trinity”.
In Christianity’s “new math” one plus one plus one equals one: one God. So in the Creed we will recite, we affirm that we believe in One God and then go on to talk about “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” For centuries on this day the church recited the long and complicated Creed of St. Athanasius. It is to be found in the Historical Document section in the Prayer Book. No, don’t look it up now.
In one section it states, “Father incomprehensible, Son incomprehensible, Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” George Bernard Shaw used to mutter, “the whole thing is incomprehensible.”
That’s not a bad place to start. The lesson today from Isaiah tells the tale of the prophet having a vision, in which he sees God and shouts, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” In the face of the majesty of God, Isaiah recoils in fear, conscious of his unworthiness.
Perhaps we have lost that feeling of total inadequacy in the face of God? We tend rather to recoil from mystery itself. Yet God showed himself not to frighten Isaiah, but to love him and to send him out to tell others about God. God’s purpose was to adopt Isaiah and to fill Isaiah with strength and purpose.
In the gospel today, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Isaiah experienced God in a dream by night, and Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Both sought something they lacked. Nicodemus, a leader in Israel, is curious. He has come to think that Jesus is particularly close to God in a unique way. He’s never met anyone quite like Jesus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to know what God is doing, he has to start from scratch, “be born anew.” Nicodemus finds that statement incredible. Here is a mystery and a seeming impossibility: how can someone possibly be born when they are old?
Basically, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to have a transplant, not unlike a stem cell transplant or a bone marrow transplant. But by water, through the Spirit. Nicodemus has to be re-born. “How may this be so?” asks Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he alone has “gone up into heaven and he has come down from heaven, for he is ‘the son of man.’” We don’t have time today to unpack that statement, except to say that “Son of Man” is a phrase a first-century Jew associated with the Messiah, the Chosen One.
Jesus then says some words that are familiar. The Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright translates Jesus’ familiar words in this way:
“So, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age. This you see, is how much God loved the world; enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age. After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world could be saved by him.”
So what has that to do with our vision of God the Three in One? The three “Persons” who are God are not drawn apart by their perfect individuality, but united into one through love. Jesus, in being lifted up, in dying, demonstrates what self-sacrificial love looks like. Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness and the story goes, all who touched the serpent were made whole. So we are invited to touch Jesus and to be made whole, and as whole people to be drawn into God’s incredible selfless love.
Isaiah, through his vision of God’s majesty was touched, made whole, and hears God’s call to serve the God who loves the world. Each of us, in baptism, have been “born from above” in order that we may witness to God’s love and share it in the world. We too have been called to give our lives, imperfect as we are, and in that act of sheer love and obedience, been made worthy to be God’s friends, his presence, as the church in a divided world.
We have been commissioned to show what real love is all about, as we are filled with the presence of God’s forgiving, restoring, compelling love. All we can reply is: “Here am I. Send me.”