May 27, 2018
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using John 3.1-17, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 27th May 2018, Trinity Sunday.
Hot on the heels of Pentecost, with its mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire, comes Trinity Sunday. Some may expect a plunge from the heights of ecstatic, religious experience to the cool planes of rational theology and celestial mathematics – 3 in 1 and 1 and 3, and all that. In fact, the same message straddles both Sundays: God’s power is coming upon us; God is coming to save us.
At Pentecost we inhabit St Luke’s thought-world. It is Luke the Evangelist who gives us an account of the Church’s birth: Christ’s followers, who didn’t really understand Jesus’ parting message, were waiting to be clothed with power from on high. What came to them in wind and fire ten days after His ascension was nothing they could ever have anticipated. What came was sheer gift. What came lifted them up and left them transformed – joyful witnesses to the power and glory of God.
When we reflect on the event today on Trinity Sunday we’re more in the world of St John. Without his witness, I doubt we’d ever be celebrating the Trinity. But John and Luke share the conviction that God’s salvation must come to us. Without God’s initiative, we would simply be lost.
Nicodemus – the character facing Jesus in our gospel reading – emphasises just how bad our plight is. He’s a respectable, spiritual type: he comes to Jesus by night, fascinated by this teacher from God. He tries to visit in secret, to make sense of this stranger for himself. He is polite, but clueless, and throughout his encounter with Jesus he remains in the dark.
Jesus offers him a puzzle: to see the kingdom of God you must be ‘born from above’. The Greek word translated ‘from above’ – anothen – can also mean ‘again’, as in ‘born again’; but in the rest of John’s Gospel anothen always means ‘from above’, from God’s realm. Jesus here is saying in a different way exactly what Luke describes on the Day of Pentecost: that for people to relate to God there needs to be a radical new beginning, a birth. And this birth from above is possible. Yes, it is possible to be born of God’s Spirit.
This truth, which Jesus offers, is a truth we doubt. We believe that we are specks in the cosmos, and we doubt that we can be anything more than ‘selfish genes’. We know that we are flawed and undeserving and we doubt that we deserve a gift which is so totally beyond our own means and imagination.
The much-discussed sermon at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex used an interesting rhetorical device. Bishop Curry said several times, ‘If you don’t believe me’. How could we not believe a bishop? How could we not believe such good news as that love will change the world? But we just don’t – the message is incredible. Similarly, how could we not believe such good news as God coming to save and empower us?
Nicodemus stands for us all, fascinated by, frightened of, ultimate reality, the things that matter, the things that last – awkward, clumsy and baffled in our searching. Nicodemus wants to piece things together by himself, to broaden his understanding. That seems commendable enough, but Jesus won’t let him do it. He won’t let him because his search is fundamentally untrue. That’s why Jesus cuts across Nicodemus’s words with the solemn declaration, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you’.
Jesus knows that there is a gulf between ignorance and truth, between the finite and infinite, between the flesh and spirit, which can only be crossed by a revelation from God of what God is like, so that all our doubting and seeking can find a solid sounding-board.
So let’s take a step back from the story, because stories, however vivid, are easily dismissed as mere stories and explore what theologians have said of God as Trinity as they have pondered over the whole witness of the Bible, as well as addressing the demands of reason. I will doubtless fail to summarise so briefly, but perhaps succeed in raising your interest in Prof Alister McGrath’s talk on 26th June in the Wessex Centre on this very subject, as advertised in this month’s Newsletter.
You’ll remember that Bishop Curry’s theme at Windsor was the power of love: God the Holy Trinity is a powerful Mystery of love. We’re right to think of this Mystery as beyond our comprehension, to come before God with a sense of awe and wonder.
Yet we know that any true love is about relationship. However, unfathomable God may ultimately be, it is not Love’s nature to keep itself to itself. Love reaches out. So while God the Father is the uncreated source of all being, always beyond our grasp and scrutiny, He is also the One who from all eternity has been in relationship. Divine love has been shared from the beginning, overflowing, abundant and generative.
But who has shared this love with the Father? It’s the Son – the One who in the fullness of time was fully humanised in the life of Jesus. He was born to show us what divine love looks like when it stands with us and faces our sin, pain and sorrow. Jesus is God’s definitive envoy of Love.
The battles that went on in the Church over Jesus’ identity, when some tried to drive a wedge between the shared divinity of the Father and the Son, hinged on a single question: did Jesus fully and truly show us what the hidden God was like or not? Only someone who has lived close to the Father’s heart from the beginning could do this with absolute authority and truth.
Precisely because he is God’s Son, Jesus remains hard to grasp. He is more than a rabbi, prophet or messiah. He is the true vine, the suffering servant, the Son of Man, the One who says and does the extraordinary and unexpected, who dies on a cross, who re-appears and disappears, all out of love for God.
We can’t respond to this haunting dialogue and drama of love between the Father and the Son if it remains something foreign to our nature, something we ought to be more interested in, certain about or deserving of. Something needs to change in us if we’re to enter into the Mystery of love.
That’s why Nicodemus was stopped in his tracks, and this is where the Holy Spirit steps in. From the beginning the Spirit of God has been the One who has united the Father and the Son in love, who has been at the heart of their mutual exchange of gifts and glory.
This Spirit is the one who Christ promises to his followers. His work is essential because through the Spirit we inherit the power to enter into the love shared by the Father and the Son – to be born from above.
So Christian life begins and ends with God; it is a life enfolded and upheld by the Mystery of divine love. Bishop Curry was right in everything he said about love’s power and I wonder whether some of the adverse reaction to his words stemmed not from the style or length of his address but from the wounds we carry from failing in love.
But the love of God in Trinity never fails. It is eternal. It is a love that creates, a love that redeems and a love that’s drawing all things together in unity. Yes, we still have doubts, but the best place to do our doubting and to continue our seeking is within the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And if you doubt it, taste his love for yourself at this table.