June 3 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Trinity Sunday
Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Theme: It's Trinity Sunday, so "The Holy Trinity" would seem the most appropriate. I'm tempted to suggest "Pause, Touch, Engage!" as an alternative (think about it before you snort in derision); but for those who do not follow rugby that may not be helpful.
Introduction. Trinity Sunday completes the first half of the liturgical year, when the emphasis has been on the great revelatory events of the life cycle of Christ. Now we draw breath, and attempt to make some sense of it all, to fit the pieces together into some sort of coherent whole. "What does it all mean?" (as the crowds asked Peter on the Day of Pentecost, last week); or, "How can this be?" as Nicodemus asks this week as he struggles to understand. Today we have three specific pieces of the puzzle before us. First, the classic spiritual experience of Isaiah's encounter with God in the Temple. Then Nicodemus' encounter with the Incarnate God under cover of darkness. [Interestingly we would not usually classify that encounter as a religious/spiritual experience in the classic sense, and yet it clearly is.] And we have a short extract from Paul's theological masterpiece, known to us as the Letter to the Romans, as he emphasises the union between human beings and God through the bond of Christ/Spirit.
Background. Critics in and outside the Church love to get their togas in a twist over this whole doctrine of the Trinity. It is, of course, at the very heart of our Creeds, and those same critics believe that we should scrap all those creeds, seemingly on the somewhat specious ground that they are very old. [At the same time we should be deeply respectful of the revival of interest in pagan ritual, Wicca, etc, on precisely that ground.] But let's immediately be clear on what our Creeds are, and why we have them. They are our best attempts at summarising what we believe the events of Christ's life, taken together, reveal about God. We do not have a concept of the Holy Trinity because a few highly intelligent scholarly bishops got together one day and played word games. We have our main Creed because, over 400 years of struggling to comprehend God's self-revelation, this is what the Church leaders of the time came up with. And, for me and countless other believers over the intervening centuries, it still provides a summary of what we believe to be the case: that God is Triune, Three Persons in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You got a problem with that?!
One of the reasons why I find the history of science so fascinating is that we can see the same pattern repeating itself every time there is a major new breakthrough ("for breakthrough" read "revelation") in any particular branch of science as we have in our own faith history. The Dawkins of the world love to remind us of the occasions on which the Church made an idiot of itself in opposing the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin, to pick three obvious ones. What such critics never tell us is that most of the criticism on those and other occasions came from with the contemporaneous scientific establishment. Think about Fred Hoyle, one of the great British astronomers of the twentieth century, who went to his grave insisting that there was no Big Bang, whatever Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, or anybody else might say.
Staying with the same area, there was widespread bewilderment in that particular branch of science when data was collected that showed the universe was still expanding, and, even more shocking, the speed of its expansion was increasing. It had been assumed that, if everything began with a Big Bang, hurling 'stuff' outwards (so to speak), then sooner or later the outward force would lose momentum, pause, and then go into reverse. But with the new revelation, a complete re-think was necessary. The 'believing community' (astrophysicists and their kind) had to pause, touch, and engage with the new data. Out of that process gradually emerged a new consensus, and if they were to write down a summary of that it would be their version of a creed. "We believe that all things, seen and unseen, came into being with a Big Bang..." So with Darwin, and so with all major scientific discoveries.
And so with our faith. For centuries the tribes of Israel believed in the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and accepted that other people had their own gods. Then around 800-600B.C. they discovered (it was revealed to them through the prophets) that there was only one God, who was therefore God of all peoples and nations on earth. Where did that leave their relationship with God – was Israel just one people of no greater concern to God than any other? No, for Israel had been specially chosen and called by God for a particular mission – to be a light to the Gentiles – and that became the new understanding.
Then came Jesus. We have only to watch and listen to the crowds to see what was happening. Listen to their questions and comments, those of the in-crowd (the disciples) and the general public. Who is this man, that even the wind and sea obey him? We have never seen anything like this before! They were amazed and bewildered frequently; and that was before his death and resurrection! And last week we saw this pattern all over again. What on earth had come over these people that they are able to preach to us in our own languages? What does this mean? And so Peter addressed that very question, in the form that could easily be described as a proto-creed.
What would be the alternative way of dealing with such a question? To say that we have no idea what it means? "It's all mystery"? Should we just ignore all such questions- just get on with social outreach and being 'good people'? That it doesn't matter what we believe so long as we're kind to our neighbours? We are human beings: we seek to make sense of things. We construct patterns of understanding from given data. Yes, many of us are content to admire the sunset, but it's also very human to try to understand what it means to say that the sun 'sets'.
To sum up, then, on this Trinity Sunday, which I have often described as "Summing Up Sunday No. 1 (the other one is the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday before Advent). The Church pondered all this new data, especially around the issue of the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth. How was he able to do the things only God could do? How was it that he was raised from the dead? What did the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on believers actually mean? And so followed literally centuries of struggling to understand, struggling with these and related questions, struggling to construct a new "picture" of God. Yes, all sorts of political power games took place, as emperors, popes, and other all-too-human beings fought it out. But through it all, the Holy Spirit (we believe) somehow managed to fulfil Jesus' promise to lead us into all truth. And at the heart of all truth we find the Trinity of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That's why we have a Creed, to summarise the Truth that has been revealed to us by the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. You got a problem with that?!
Isaiah. Here is one of my very favourite accounts of a religious experience: Isaiah encounters God in all his majestic glory. He sees and hears: it is a classic example of a vision with soundtrack. The effect on Isaiah is to make him experience his own sinfulness (unworthiness to stand, or even exist, in the presence of the Holy God). But he is purged of this state, and freed to offer himself to God. He even utters the Divine Name "I am". The classic three-stage spiritual journey is all here, albeit in a slightly unusual order: illuminative, purgative and unitive.
Taking It Personally.
· Have you ever had a vision of God?
· Notice that this vision takes place in the Temple. Do you feel closer to God in your local church?
· Next time you hear a priest pronounce absolution, call to mind the cleansing of Isaiah's lips by the seraph. How might you keep your lips clean in the following weeks?
· In your prayers stand with Isaiah and offer yourself to God with his words: "Here I am; send me."
Romans. At the centre of the new thing that God is doing is the sending of the Spirit on all believers, instead of individuals of great spiritual standing such as the Patriarchs and the Prophets. And the other difference is that the Spirit comes and STAYS: remember those words from Jesus' baptism, "the Spirit descended in the form of a dove and rested (remained) on him. So Paul is telling us that we have a dual nature: we are both flesh and spirit. And through our spirit the Holy Spirit brings us into an ever closer relationship with God. On this Trinity Sunday it is timely to reflect that many spiritual writers say that we are drawn into the life of the Trinity; Peter says we are partakers in the Divine nature. Wow!
Taking It Personally.
· Definitely a day for the bathroom mirror. Look deeply into your eyes. Read this passage slowly to yourself. Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you into this part of the Truth.
· In your prayers address God as Abba. How do you feel at this point?
· "See" Jesus, your co-heir, praying with you.
John. Here we have a classic example of the sort of thing I was talking about above. Nicodemus embodies the present consensus. Assuming he is being sincere, then he recognises Jesus as a Rabbi (Teacher) from God (perhaps even a prophet). But before he can go to his "So, we were wondering" type of question Jesus tries to take him to a whole new level of understanding. This is typical of a number of encounters recorded in this particular gospel: think Samaritan woman at the well as another example. The new revelation is hard to accept because it contradicts everything Nicodemus thought he knew up to that point. He worships God but he has not received the Holy Spirit and so cannot enter into that close and loving relationship that is available through the Spirit. That is pure gift: we cannot command it – that is, we cannot comprehend spiritual truths until we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead us into that truth.
Taking It Personally.
· This whole passage is worth pondering verse by verse over the next week. Try to enter into Nicodemus' bewilderment – see him as a genuine seeker after truth. What can you learn from him?
· Focus especially on verses 16 and 17. Jesus has come to save, not condemn. Is that the message you hear from the Church, or do we sometimes sound condemnatory of those who do not believe?
· Pray for someone whom you know to be a genuine seeker. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide that person into all Truth. And while you're at it, ask the Holy Spirit to lead you further along that path as well.