Thursday, May 28, 2015

Reborn into Trinitarian Understanding

As I prepare to preach on Sunday, I find myself drawn in two distinct but complimentary directions. First, I feel a desire to preach a usual, regular, typical sermon, which, for me, means allowing all of the lessons to inform my preaching but focusing on one of the texts in the sermon itself. Although a second lesson occasionally gets a mention in my sermon, I rarely—if ever—attempt to preach on two of the texts. That usually leads to two sermons instead of one, and, as any parishioner can tell you, two half-baked sermons do not add up to one.

The second direction in which I feel pulled is to embrace the spirit of the Sunday. It’s Trinity Sunday, and, like other big liturgical moments such as Christmas or Easter or Pentecost or All Saints’, sometimes the focus of the day isn’t restricted to the lectionary choices but instead resides in the occasion itself. For example, one can easily preach a focused, Spirit-led Christmas Eve sermon without spending much (if any) time delivering exegesis of Luke 2. I sense that this week is bigger than Isaiah 6, Romans 8, or John 3—even though all of those are HUGE scriptural passages. And maybe that should be my clue: instead of one dominant lesson with two supporting players, this Sunday brings three center-stage-grabbing texts.

So how do you preach on Trinity Sunday? How do you navigate these three texts—each of which deserves a full sermon—without preaching three sermons that don’t really stitch together? I’m sticking with John 3—the story of Nicodemus’ nighttime encounter with Jesus—because that story seems to be an archetype for understanding the doctrine of the Trinity.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night because he is fascinated by Jesus’ signs of wonder—his ability to do things that no one could do unless God had sent him. But that’s where Nicodemus’ understand reaches its limit. Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ inquiry by inviting him to embrace a new birth—a spiritual reordering of his life—but the Jewish leader is stuck in the literal and wants to know how it is possible for an individual to be born a second time. In the back and forth that ensues, we see that Nicodemus is eager to understand but just can’t quite get past the limitations of the physical, material world he inhabits. Jesus is asking him to reach beyond what makes sense to him—“You must be born from above”—but Nicodemus can’t get there—“How can these things be?”

For Nicodemus, the answer comes not through study or reason but experience. Just as Jesus asks him to experience rebirth, Nicodemus’ ability to embrace Jesus’ teaching requires him to walk the road. In John 7, Nicodemus is seen defending Jesus in front of the Pharisees, and, by the end of the gospel account, Nicodemus is the one who cares for the body of Jesus when it is taken down from the cross. What got him there? It wasn’t spending time sitting in his room reading the scriptures and meditating on Jesus’ words. It was the transformation that happens through discipleship—the change in life and perspective that comes from having a relationship with Jesus.

We are asked to believe in one God who exists eternally in three persons. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate something we cannot understand in our minds but can experience through our worship. In the end, I’m not going to say a lot about the Trinity—not because I’m trying to avoid it. If there’s any preacher out there who would enjoy a 45-minute lecture on Trinitarian doctrine, it’s me. But I know that won’t be helpful for our congregation. (You’re welcome.) Instead, I’m going to talk about a man who tried his best to understand what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom but couldn’t get there on his own. He needed rebirth—a total reboot—to get it. That’s the message for us on Trinity Sunday. We are drawn into the divine life not through intellectual pursuits or rationalizations but only when we are remade by God himself.

Just take a look at Sunday’s collect. You may want to read it twice to let it sink in.

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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