On Trinity Sunday, we hold up the idea that God exists in community and God made us to exist in community.
Trinity also means God exists in diversity. The very nature of God is diverse. Creator. Redeemer. Sustainer. Spirit. Word made flesh.
The three persons of God are in relationship with each other. Not a relationship of hierarchy. Or of separate divisions of labor. But a relationship of connectedness–of integral need of, and for, the other.
To confess that God is triune is to affirm that God exists in communion far deeper than the relationships and partnerships we know in our human experience. To confess that God is triune is to affirm our own need of deep and abiding connection with each other.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “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!”Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Welcome to Trinity Sunday, which is where the lectionary writers punish preachers who had so much fun last week on Pentecost Sunday by foisting upon us today the most complicated and obfuscating texts and expecting us to make the Doctrine of the Trinity clear for each of you.
Just kidding. I won’t make it clear. And, as we begin, I’m going to cite the great church father, Augustine, who said, “If you comprehend something, it is not God.”
The doctrine of the Trinity is not supposed to be easy or simple. God is a mystery far beyond our ability to understand. So, give yourself permission to be flummoxed. And remember, it took the church four hundred years and many church councils to come up with this doctrine, to struggle over this.
Trinity is the attempt by Christians to understand how God is ONE, as the scriptures testify, (Deut. 6:4) while at the same time explain how Jesus, the Son of God, is also God. You hear Trinitarian formula in worship all the time,
Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creater, Redeemer, Sustainer; Trinitarian language is grounded in Scripture, even if the Doctrine is not explicitly spelled out in Scripture. (2 Cor 13:13 “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”)
I don’t want us to worry too much about doctrine, but to focus more on the consequences of it. Meaning, I’m less interested in you espousing the correct doctrine. Arresting people for heresy may be fun on a slow day, but it isn’t what we’re called to do. Alas. I’m less interested in you passing an exam on doctrine and I’m more interested in you living your faith in a way that reflects an understanding God’s Trinitarian love.
Because, as Jesus says to Nicodemus: If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
So, what are these earthly things we need to understand?
Our passage from John’s gospel begins with Nicodemus arriving after dark (as in, when nobody would see him) to ask Jesus some questions. Nicodemus, is a leader of the Jews, or we might call him an elder or a deacon perhaps. He’s trying to make a statement of faith about who Jesus is: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Because of his position in his community, he is at some risk by making this claim, this claim that Jesus is somehow connected to God in ways that the rest of us are not.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
This is the claim of Judaism. God is one.
And so Nicodemus comes at night. To claim that Jesus is somehow connected to God in new ways.
It is an illustration of where our experience of a person causes us to change our mind about doctrine.
Yes, there is one God. Nicodemus would claim that.
But there is also Jesus. And nobody could do what he was doing apart from God.
I’m thankful for the moments in my life when my certainties were upended.
If I were to ask you what came to mind when you hear of the country of Syria, you might see images from the news of bombs, violence, destruction. It is right for us to hold the people of that country in our prayers, as they deal with violence and oppression. It seems all the news we have gotten out of Syria for a long time has been bad.
When I went to the Middle East in 2006 on a trip in seminary, I was more than a little apprehensive when I noticed that Damascus was the first stop on the trip. I ended up spending a little more than a week in Syria. And while it was certainly a different place than the United States, it was not a scary place. We hear only a part of the reality on the news. And what I learned was humbling. While most Syrians did not seem to be big fans of the American government, they were extremely welcoming and hospitable to Americans. They welcomed us into their homes. They greeted us on the street. I wish I could go back to Syria. My heart breaks over the destruction and violence Syrians have endured in the last 15 years.
My experience there taught me how to offer hospitality to strangers. My time there taught me to separate the people of a country from their political leaders, as they had done for us. My time there changed the way I viewed everything I thought I knew about the Middle East, Islam, and hospitality.
When have you changed your minds about someone or about an issue, based on your interactions with people?
And I wonder if this is why this text is picked for Trinity Sunday. Because, ultimately, the concept of Trinity matters because of relationship.
The three persons of God are in relationship with each other. Not a relationship of hierarchy. Or of separate divisions of labor. But a relationship of connectedness. Of integral need of, and for, the other.
To confess that God is triune is to affirm that God exists in communion far deeper than the relationships and partnerships we know in our human experience.
Gregory of Nazianzus, everyone’s favorite 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople, said, “I cannot think of one person of the Trinity without being quickly encircled by splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being immediately led back to the one.”
This perfect community that is in God’s very being can help us think of how we live in community.
Are we drawing close to people so that we can learn who they are, and find out their stories so we know how they came to be here next to us? When we interact with people, do we see them as “other” or do we see them as part of “us”? I’m thankful for Nicodemus. For his willingness to come and engage with Jesus, even if his own community didn’t approve, so he could ask questions and struggle through Jesus’ less than clear answers.
On Trinity Sunday, we hold up the idea that God exists in community and God made us to exist in community. Trinity also means God exists in diversity. The very nature of God is diverse. Creator. Redeemer. Sustainer. Spirit. Word made flesh.
That God exists in unity does not mean that God exists in uniformity. Since God exists in diversity, we are expected to seek out diversity as well. But even today, this section of scripture from John is used to put people at risk, to force them to come to Jesus by night to ask their questions and be in conversation with him. Because there are people who want this passage to be a clear cut list of what it means to be a Christian, a list of uniformity.
I was a History major in college, so I am aware that the present divisiveness in our culture is not new—humanity can easily divide and separate into tribal hatred and violence. Maybe it feels so bad today because it is not the history of which we want to be a part. The fighting in congress, in American Christianity, the rhetoric around public health directives, or about the racism in our culture—it all leads us to divide, to see ourselves as disconnected one from the other. But that’s the brokenness I want to lift up on Trinity Sunday. On one level, it doesn’t even matter if they are right or if we are right. What matters is that we are supposed to be in relationship with each other. We are supposed to talk with each other, love one another and struggle together with the questions. We aren’t supposed to just walk away from each other. The word ‘relationship’ comes from a Latin root that means “to bring back”. 
We are called to keep coming back to each other, returning again and again, seeking healthy relationships with each other. I want to be clear, the concept of the Trinity doesn’t call us to keep coming back to abusive relationships. It is always appropriate to keep boundaries and distance between you and abusive people.
The relationships God calls us into with each other are life affirming, and supportive, and nurturing. That’s how the Trinity exists in relationship. When our relationships fall short, we remember to keep at it, to keep seeking health and wholeness in our interactions with each other.
After Nicodemus asks Jesus “How can these things be?” He disappears from this passage. But he doesn’t disappear from John’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry. At the end of chapter 7, we see him again, asking other religious leaders if Jesus should be convicted without a trial, doing what he feels he can do in the political climate to create a fair playing field–this time in the daylight and presumably at much greater cost.
And then, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea. They take Jesus’ body from the cross and take it to a tomb. Nicodemus brings 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes with which to embalm the body—the reverse gift of the Magi, perhaps. Nicodemus’ journey shows we sometimes come to understand the mystery of God in stages, and not all at once. Listen to these words from our reading from Isaiah this morning:
And I said: “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!”
Isaiah, when he is brought into the presence of God, cries out “woe is me”. And when we look at the brokenness of our relationships, the way we judge each other, the way we seek sameness at the expense of authenticity, it is right to come before God in confession and remorse. Isaiah is brought before the throne of God, experiences the diverse unity of God, and his first response is confession. And this is why I like Isaiah. Isaiah acknowledges our unworthiness to be in God’s presence, and then he stays anyway. God doesn’t hold our brokenness against us. God still wants to be in community with us. A seraph comes to Isaiah and touches his lips with a hot coal, saying that his sin has been blotted out. And then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God knows we don’t get it right. God knows who we are. And God calls us anyway. Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Isaiah could have said, “you can send someone who has it all together”. Instead he says, “Here am I; send me!”
So, be like Nicodemus. Seek out relationships that will challenge your expectations, be open to new ways of experiencing God, and feel free to ask Jesus for clarification when his comments don’t make no sense. And be like Isaiah, willing to answer the call, willing to seek community with each other and with God, even as we acknowledge that it is the mysterious grace of God, and not our own merits, that bring us into God’s presence. And pray for relationships. Pray for the people who have hurt you. Pray for churches that leave our denomination, and churches that wouldn’t choose to be in fellowship with us. Pray for all those who won’t get vaccinated, for those can’t get vaccinated, and for those still seeking to get appointments. Pray for each other. Pray for understanding and mutual forbearance. Pray for our nation and for a renewed sense of how we can work together for the common welfare, or how we could at least carry on a conversation with someone from the other side of the aisle. Pray for the people who feel they have no voice. And pray for the people who try to take away peoples’ voices. Pray for the Nicodemuses who are out there, forced into the darkness. And pray for the religious communities that don’t allow questions or dissent to be shared in the light. We have to pray for all of it. For the beautiful and the ugly, the kind and the horrible. Because we are called to be in relationship, called to be community. And that takes all of us.