Wednesday, May 23, 2018

East Meets West

On Trinity Sunday, the lectionary authors look for biblical references to Father, Son, and Spirit, knowing ahead of time that there is no real, clear evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity in scripture. There are appeals to all three in baptism or in the closing of Paul's letters. There are hints of all three in the creation story or in some of the theophanies from Jesus' ministry. But no where in the Bible does it say that God exists in three persons. Sometimes the passages they pick are obviously connected to the Trinity, but others, like Sunday's gospel lesson (John 3:1-17), take a little more teasing out.

Because I am reading it with an eye for Trinitarian doctrine, I hear in the nighttime encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus a tension between eastern and western thought. At each turn, Jesus invites Nicodemus to see something he can't see but not because of lack of trying. It's as if Jesus and Nicodemus are staring at one of the 3D Art posters, but Nicodemus can't adjust his sight to apprehend what is clear to Jesus.

Nicodemus wants to make a linear connection between Jesus' miracles and his identity: "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 doesn't disagree but responds by inviting Nicodemus to perceive those signs on a different plane of significance: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus, however, doesn't get it: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?" But Jesus won't let him off the hook: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit...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." It's enough to drive Nicodemus (and us) crazy: "How can these things be?"

The problem with the doctrine of the Trinity is that westerners like us want to explain everything. As Seth Olson suggested earlier this week, go read the Athanasian Creed: "And the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance." It's dizzying in its attempt to dissect a mystery. Athanasius was an eastern thinker, but he didn't write the creed that bears his name. He was a staunch defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and a later, Latin author attached his name to the creedal statement to give it, well, credence.

Toward the end of the encounter, Jesus makes it clear that they are thinking on two different planes: "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." Only those who have been in the presence of God can testify to God's nature. Jesus is just telling it like it is--heavenly things--but the earthly manifestation of those things (i.e. Jesus' signs and teachings) can't be grasped purely in earthly terms. To see God and God's kingdom, one must be born again of water and spirit--born into the new heavenly life. If one cannot understand earthly things, how is it possible for one to understand heavenly things?

Thankfully, however, Jesus offers a synthesis: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." Even if one cannot comprehend it, one can believe that this is God's great gift of love. When quoting John 3:16, people often forget the "for" that starts the sentence. Mostly a throwaway word in Greek, the conjunction "for" links that sentence with what came before. Jesus' invitation to Nicodemus to ascend to the heavenly places and understand the mystery of God is given a purpose in that verse. Why be born again? Why learn these heavenly things? Why bother pursuing that which is difficult to comprehend? Because God loves the world enough to send his Son so that all who believe in him would have everlasting life. This isn't purely a mental exercise. It's a quest for life. And behind that quest is God's gift of love. If there's anything worth hearing on Sunday, it's that.

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