Trinity Sunday-May 27, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17
If you’re are new to the Episcopal Church our opening hymn may seem like a ponderous thing. If you’ve been in the church for decades you may find it a familiar friend. Growing up in the church and hearing it sung at numerous ordinations, including my own 40 years ago, it makes me cry. It is a trip through a thousand memories—not least through the memory of the story of Christ.
1 I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
2 I bind this day to me for ever,
by power of faith, Christ’s Incarnation;
his baptism in the Jordan river;
his death on cross for my salvation;
his bursting from the spicèd tomb;
his riding up the heavenly way;
his coming at the day of doom:
I bind unto myself today.
Of course, what we celebrate today is NOT our ability to bind ourselves to Triune God. What we celebrate every day is that in Christ Triune God binds Godself to us….and through the power of the Spirit we can say “Yes”.
Some people have the idea that the gospel’s only purpose is to tell an individual how to get into heaven when he or she dies. Whenever the gospel of John uses the phrase “Eternal Life” they think that he is only talking about living forever in heaven, instead of talking about a heavenly type of life here and now. Therefore, the gospel becomes an evacuation system for leaving this world.
This kind of thinking takes our minds out of the present moment, which is actually the only place we ever are—we are never actually in the past or the future, though our minds like to pretend they are. But secondly this kind of thinking also turns a person inward, thereby making the gospel into a project of the ego, which feeds into our natural narcissism and thus destroys any chance for community and love. I cannot love my neighbor if my chief focus in life is guaranteeing I get into heaven when I die.
While the phrase Eternal Life does include living in the presence of God after our heart and brain shut down, its main meaning points us to this life we are living now. N.T. Wright puts it this way: “Many Jewish thinkers divided history into two periods: ’the present age’ and the ‘age to come’—the latter being the time when YHWH would at last act decisively to judge evil, to rescue Israel, and to create a new world of justice and peace. The early Christians believed that, though the full blessings of the coming age lay still in the future, it had already begun in Jesus, particularly with his death and resurrection.” John for Everyone, Part One, page 173.
In John 17:3 Jesus says, “This is eternal life—that they may know you the only true God, and him that you have sent, Jesus Christ.” Eternal Life, also called the kingdom of God, begins in this life, in this moment, for those the Spirit has awakened to the reality that Jesus embodies the One, True God.
Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is from God and does his signs of healing through the presence of God, but he has not yet come to faith in Jesus. The Spirit lures Nicodemus to investigate further, so he comes under the cover of darkness to see if Jesus will tell him the secret of who he is and what he is up to.
Not wasting time Jesus cuts to the chase and says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
I want to suggest this is not only a startling affirmation for Nicodemus, but also for Episcopalians, who are firm believers in the importance of Christian education. Our Mother Church, The Church of England, created both Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the Middle Ages to educate clergy, so they could educate the people about the good news. The Church realizes that ignorance can do great damage to any life.
I’m a product of that education and am deeply grateful to all the women and men who labored mightily to educate me from grade school on and even now through books, conferences, and podcasts.
Therefore, I believe one significant issue in the Church today is the idea that once you’ve gone through Confirmation there is nothing more to learn about nature of God and the meaning and purpose of life in Christ.
I believe education in living in God is a lifetime project.
But—but—based on what Jesus says to Nicodemus, education by itself is not enough. Jesus says something vital must come before education or along with it or through it, if we are ever to see the kingdom of God in this life: he says “unless you are born from above you will never see the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God”.
Nicodemus is right to be shocked. Jesus says something drastic like a new birth must happen to us, because without it all the education in the world is little more than rearranging the deck chairs on a ship going down.
Nicodemus will participate in the fullness of all that God brings through Jesus once he receives this new birth through the Spirit. He will understand the significance of Jesus’ miracles—that he brings and embodies God’s life—once the Spirit reorients him being a child of God, with a new family and a new set of commitments. As Marianne Thompson puts it in her Commentary on John: Page 79
This explains what every clergy person has experienced in every parish: that there are people who have no idea how to find a book in the Bible, but who are filled with the love of God and are living examples of new birth. Missionaries find people who are illiterate, yet are illuminated with an inner light of compassion and wisdom that is breathtaking to behold and can only come from the Spirit of Christ. And through as Richard Rohr is fond of saying through great love or great suffering.
John writes in the prologue of his gospel: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him….and to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God….”
What such a person has over many educated people is the power and practice to use their imagination in service of the gospel. Verse 6 of our opening hymn offers us to use our imagination to see and to experience what is true all the time, but which can
Memory can be a powerful and good thing in the service of our faith. On this Trinity Sunday I want to encourage you also to use your imagination, for it is our imagination that can make real to our minds what is real in fact—the protective, inspiring, transforming presence of Triune God: creator, redeemer, and sustainer. This is what Nicodemus could not do until after he was born from above through cross and resurrection.
Imagination is what verse 6 calls us to practice. As I read the verse let you imagination loose and see it as true for you—now in this moment, which is always the beginning of Eternal Life.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.