The Question is the Answer

Krishna revealing his universal form to Prince Arjuna.
Image found at bhagwangiriji.com

Isaiah’s vision of God’s glory.
Image found at artloversonline.imagekind.com

Listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17

Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday: the holiday in our church calendar when we’re supposed to talk about the Trinity.  Trinity is our name for the traditional Christian idea that we worship one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is three.  God is one.  That’s the textbook Sunday school answer.  Are you confused yet?  Is your head hurting?  Good.

I had lunch this week with my friend, Mother Linda Logan, the priest at Trinity Episcopal Church, and she joked that Trinity Sunday is typically the Sunday when most clergy try to schedule their vacations.  Who can blame them?  The idea of the Trinity is so bizarre and abstract, it’s hard to preach about in a way that feels relevant to everyday life.  Alas, I seem to have miscalculated this year because my vacation doesn’t start until next week.  Don’t worry though, I’ve given it some serious thought this week and I think I’ve found a way to spice it up.

You see, people didn’t always think of the Trinity as an academic theological concept.  There was a time when people would literally start riots in the streets about it.  They said that, during the early 4th century, you couldn’t even ask a baker about the price of bread without getting into an argument about theology.

The debate got so heated that the Roman emperor, Constantine (himself only a recent convert to Christianity), convened a conference of bishops at his lake house in a town called Nicaea.  They argued back and forth ad nauseum until the emperor decided that enough was enough and promptly put his foot down in favor of the position that we now refer to as the Trinity.  Shortly thereafter, the Nicene Creed was adopted as a trophy for those who had won the debate.  Needless to say, it’s not a very noble beginning for this idea that most orthodox theologians now regard as central to the Christian religion.

Obviously, you won’t find the Trinity mentioned anywhere in our scripture readings for today (because it hadn’t been invented yet).  The idea of the Trinity, as such, does not appear anywhere in the Bible.  Nevertheless, most Christians for the last 1,700 years have kept the Trinity as their main idea about who God is and how God works.  Something about the mystery in this incomprehensible puzzle has compelled Christians to hold onto the Trinity for almost two millennia.

Mystery is a troubling word for folks in the modern era.  We’re not so good at mystery.  Modern people much prefer concrete facts and figures.  We like being able to find the answers and solve the problems.  To the modern mind, then, the Trinity is infuriating.  By its very definition, it can’t be figured out.

Ever since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, our species has learned how look farther and deeper into the nature of the universe than our ancestors ever dreamed of.  We have accomplished feats of strength and intelligence that boggle the imagination.  Looking through his telescope at the moons of Jupiter, could Galileo ever have imagined that we would one day send spacecraft to see them up close?  Yet, in spite of all our achievements, human beings have also managed to discover new ways to systematically inflict death and destruction on each other with ruthless efficiency.  Hitler’s holocaust, two world wars, and the nuclear arms race have opened our eyes to that reality. Reason has not purged the animal from our collective being as we had hoped.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the baffling presence of mystery, our species would have given up hope long ago.

Thankfully, there remains something within our subconscious minds that spurs us on toward an encounter with that which is unknown and unknowable.  We get the sense that, in the darkness of ignorance and uncertainty, we are not alone.  Our scripture readings from this morning, while they mention nothing of the Trinity, have quite a bit to tell us about mystery.  In each passage, someone comes face-to-face with the infinite mystery of the divine and is permanently transformed by it.

In the first reading, the Jewish prophet Isaiah has an ecstatic vision of God’s glory.  The prophet tells his readers how his senses were overwhelmed,

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.

I love the dramatic imagery in this story.  It reminds me of a similar passage in a classic Indian poem called the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord”.  In this poem, a prince named Arjuna is having a philosophical chat with his chariot driver named Krishna.  Slowly, it dawns on the prince that there is more to this chariot driver than meets the eye.  Krishna, it turns out, is actually a divine messenger who was sent to teach the prince eternal wisdom.  At one point in the story, Krishna allows Prince Arjuna to see his true form:

with many mouths and eyes, and many visions of marvel, with numerous divine ornaments, and holding divine weapons.  Wearing divine garlands and apparel, anointed with celestial perfumes and ointments, full of all wonders, the limitless God with faces on all sides.  If the splendor of thousands of suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, even that would not resemble the splendor of that exalted being.  Arjuna saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One in the body of Krishna, the God of gods.  Then Arjuna, filled with wonder and his hairs standing on end, bowed his head to the Lord and prayed with folded hands.  (Bhagavad Gita 11.10-14)

I love how similar these visionary experiences are, even though they come from very different cultures and religions.  In both stories, human beings are left standing in awe before the eternal mystery.  In Isaiah’s story, the one that Christians are more familiar with, even the angels cover their eyes and sing, “Holy, holy, holy”.  That word, holy, is one that we use in church a lot.  People use it outside of church too, sometimes combined with an expletive, in order to express amazement.  No one is more famous for doing this than Burt Ward, who played Batman’s sidekick Robin in the 1960s TV series.  Robin had all kinds of unique exclamations: “Holy Hallelujah, Batman!  Holy Fruit Salad, Batman!  Holy Uncanny Photographic Mental Processes!”  Holy was Robin’s catchphrase.  Given the startling nature of what Isaiah and Arjuna were experiencing in their respective visions, I can just imagine Robin standing beside them, shouting, “Holy, holy, holy, Batman!”  But, in Isaiah’s case, it was the angels who were saying it.

The word holy, as we tend to use it, typically means sacred or blessed.  However, on a more general level, it literally means special or different.  Something is holy when it is other than what one would expect.  Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Robin to use it as an exclamation when he is caught off guard (which seems to happen a lot).  In the Isaiah passage, it seems that even the angels are amazed at the appearance of God’s glory in the temple.  They repeat “holy” three times as a way of communicating ultimate emphasis: it’s not just holy, it’s not just holy holy, it’s holy holy holy!  Special, special, special!  Different, different, different!  Amazing, amazing, amazing!  If we’re not caught off-guard by God’s presence like Isaiah, if we aren’t filled with wonder with our hairs standing on end like Arjuna’s, then we’re not really paying attention.

In our New Testament reading this morning, Jesus intentionally confuses a religious scholar named Nicodemus.  The latter comes to Jesus in private with an honest question: “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.”  And what does Jesus do?  Does he take this opportunity to clarify himself and maybe even start a theology class?  No, he alienates Nicodemus and leaves him with even more questions than he started with.  Beginning with a cryptic statement, “You must be born from above” (or “born again” as some translations say), Jesus finishes with an outright insult: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  The philosopher in me feels indignant on Nicodemus’ behalf!  Can’t Jesus see that this is an honest and intelligent person who is simply trying to make sense of things in his own mind?  But rational understanding is not what Jesus is after in his conversation with Nicodemus.

Instead, Jesus seems to be giving Nicodemus a koan.  For those who are unfamiliar with that term, a koan is a Zen Buddhist riddle that cannot be solved by rational thinking.  Zen masters will often give their students a koan to fuel the students’ meditation and spur them toward enlightenment.  The most famous Zen koan is one we’ve probably all heard before: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  If you immediately started thinking about your hand just now, then you don’t get it.  When it comes to the koan, if you can answer the question, then you haven’t answered the question.  Why?  Because the question is the answer.  The question itself is the point of the exercise.  Let it take you beyond the realm of what you think of as normal reason.  Sit with it a while.  Let it free your mind and expand your consciousness.  Only then will you be able to appreciate the mystery.

Neither Isaiah nor Nicodemus knew anything of the Trinity.  That wasn’t yet part of their culture or religion.  The Trinity is a human idea that tries to express the mystery of God as we have experienced it.  Like a Zen koan, the Trinity is a riddle that cannot be solved by rational thinking.  But if we sit with it and meditate on the mystery, we might just find ourselves in the state of holy confusion that some might call enlightened.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna, “You are not able to see Me with your physical eye; therefore, I give you the divine eye to see My majestic power and glory.”  With that “divine eye”, it says that the prince “saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One in the body of Krishna, the God of gods.”  This is not all that far off from Isaiah’s vision, wherein the prophet realized that “the whole earth is full of [God’s] glory.”

If you’re confused about the Trinity, that’s a good thing.  It means that you’re paying attention.  Confusion is the first step on the path toward a free and enlightened mind.

I see confusion as a virtue at this point in the modern age where absolute certainty has become an idol.  We find ourselves these days surrounded by the cacophonous voices of politicians and advertisers, all of whom claim to possess the secret that will bring peace, security, and a successful end to our “pursuit of happiness”.  Vote for this candidate!  Buy that product!  That’s the key to lasting joy!

In this environment, even religion and spirituality themselves become products for consumption.  Fundamentalist preachers and cult leaders assure us that, if you simply sign on their dotted line and accept their dogmas without question, you too can secure your place in heaven for eternity.  In spite of their claims to possess “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” as revealed in ancient times, the fundamentalist commitments to absolute certainty and biblical literalism are very recent and modern ideas.  They only came about during the last one hundred years or so as a reaction to developments in science and philosophy that led some to question and/or reinterpret parts of their faith.  Their fear is understandable, but we don’t have to look hard to find the dark side of that kind of religion.  The September 11th attacks and the Jonestown massacre, where almost a thousand people died after willingly drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at their pastor’s insistence, demonstrate what can happen when religious fanaticism goes unquestioned.

Under circumstances such as these, confusion is a virtue that provides us with humility and reverence for the mystery of it all.  The spiritually enlightened mind is one that can comfortably say, “I don’t know!”  Zen masters call this “beginner’s mind”.  Taoist sages call it “the uncarved block”.  Jesus called it “faith like a child”.

When it comes to the koan of the Trinity, there is no answer because the question is the answer.  The question leads us to confusion, confusion leads us to humility, humility leads us to reverence, and reverence leads us into a deeper experience of that great eternal mystery wherein we begin to see “the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One” and “the whole earth… full of [God’s] glory.”  Only then can we truly join with prophets, angels, and saints from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation under heaven who forever sing: Holy, holy, holy!  Amazing, amazing, amazing!

Born Again… and Again… and…

Nicodemus?
Nicodemus?!

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  The text is John 3:1-17.

There’s a guy with whom my wife went to high school named John.  In many ways, John was a stereotypical rebellious teenager.  He was really into parties and some drugs.  He questioned authority on everything. He walked around with enough chips on his shoulder to fill a Dorito bag.  But there was one way in which John did not fit the stereotype: he went to church every week.

Let me be clear about a few details: First, his parents didn’t make him go to church.  He decided to go on his own.  Second, John didn’t put on a pious façade for his church family.  He didn’t pretend to be one person on Saturday night and another on Sunday morning.  In fact, John was just as bitter and cynical at church as he was at home or school.  When people asked him why he bothered to go to church at all, he openly told them, “I don’t practice Christianity.  I don’t believe it.  I don’t get it at all, but I keep thinking that someday I might, and I want to be here when that happens.”

In a lot of ways, John reminds me of Nicodemus in today’s gospel reading.  He doesn’t “get it” either.  Jesus talks to him about being “born again” (or “born from above”) and “the wind blowing where it chooses” but it all goes straight over his head.  If anything, Nicodemus walks away from Jesus with more questions than answers.

At the beginning of the passage, it says that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night”.  Most biblical scholars agree that this isn’t just talking about the time of day.  Rather, the author is trying to tell us something about Nicodemus himself.

A little background information might help that make sense:

The author of John’s gospel has a lot to say about Jesus being “the light of the world”.  Light-imagery comes up again and again in John.  Jesus is the light, while the rest of the world, by contrast, is dark.  So, when John says that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night”, it means that Nicodemus exists in a state of spiritual darkness.

That being said, Nicodemus doesn’t seem to be such a bad guy.  First of all, he addresses Jesus with an unusually high degree of respect.  He uses the title “Rabbi”.  This is not what one would expect.  Nicodemus was a socially prominent, educated, and pious Jew.  Jesus, on the other hand, was without formal education and hailed from Nazareth, a place not known for producing prodigies.  In today’s terms, it would be like a Harvard professor walking up to a country bumpkin and calling him “Doctor” or “Reverend”.  Listen to what he says to Jesus: “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.”

We meet Nicodemus again in John 7, when he defends Jesus against the attacks of the religious leaders.  Finally, he shows up in John 19, where he helps to bury Jesus and honors him with an expensive funeral fit for a king.  Nicodemus never has a distinct “born again” moment of conversion.  In fact, it’s unclear if he ever actually became a Christian.  Ancient legends indicate that he did eventually join the Church, but the scriptures themselves don’t state that explicitly.  Based on what we do know of him in John 3, 7, and 19, it seems like Nicodemus was on a slow and gradual journey of spiritual growth.

He feels genuinely drawn to Jesus, but he still struggles.  He’s curious enough to ask questions, but he’s not yet ready to make a leap of faith.  He wants to believe, but something inside is holding him back.  Does any of this sound familiar to you?  It does to me.

Like Nicodemus, I don’t have a distinct “born again” moment in my life.  I too have been on a slow and gradual journey of spiritual growth.  I’ve often been challenged with new ideas that go straight over my head at first.  I’ve had to go back to the beginning to reread and reinterpret my Bible so drastically that I felt like a kid in Sunday school all over again.  In that sense, you could say I was “born again… and again… and again.”

The NRSV translates “born again” as “born from above”.  When it says “from above”, it’s kind of like when a jazz musician says to the band, “Let’s take it from the top.”  It means, “Let’s start all over again.”

So, what causes this kind of “starting over” to happen?  We know straight away that it’s not the direct result of intellectual argument.  Throughout this passage, Nicodemus is trying to have a philosophical discussion with Jesus, but Jesus isn’t playing along.  Nicodemus keeps asking, “How can this be?”  And Jesus keeps throwing out these images that seem to make no sense.

In this way, Jesus is acting like a Zen master who is trying to expand his student’s consciousness.  Zen masters do this by presenting their students with something called a koan.  A koan is a kind of riddle that can’t be solved with rational thought.  The point is for the student to meditate on the riddle until she learns to break out of old habits of thinking.  For westerners, the most well-known koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  Jesus’s words about being “born from above” and “the wind blowing where it will” are kind of like a Christian koan.  He’s trying to help Nicodemus expand his thinking to a spiritual level.

The realm of the spirit is far bigger than the realm of the mind.  On a spiritual level, people are able to grasp certain truths that defy rational explanation.  For example: Christians believe that God is both three and one; Jesus is fully divine and fully human; the bread and wine are also the body and blood of Christ.  These ideas are contradictions when we try to understand them rationally, but they make sense as spiritual truths.

Presbyterian and Reformed Christians have often emphasized this “more than rational” quality of faith and spirituality.  For us, “faith” is more than a list of doctrines to which we give intellectual assent.  We believe that faith is a gift.  Faith doesn’t come about from sophisticated intellectual arguments.   It grows in us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is God at work within us and around us.  The Spirit leads us in the direction of faith, goodness, and wholeness.  This is taking place, even before we profess our faith in Christ.  Look at Nicodemus: the text tells us that he was still in “darkness”, but something was attracting him toward Jesus, the light of the world.

There’s a particular image in this text that really stood out to me this week.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be “born of water and the Spirit” in order to enter the kingdom of God.  What does that mean?  Some scholars think that this is a reference to the sacrament of baptism, and they may well be right about that.  Other scholars think that Jesus is comparing two different kinds of birth: natural and spiritual birth.  We know that when a baby is born into this world, a lot of water is involved.  For the first nine months of its existence, a baby lives in the darkness of the womb, surrounded by this amniotic fluid.  The fluid (this “water”) protects the baby and feeds it with vital nutrients until it’s ready to be born “into the light” of this world.

In the same way, Nicodemus is kind of like an embryo in this passage.  He’s not ready to be born.  He still lives in “darkness”.  But the Holy Spirit is kind of like the amniotic fluid of a mother’s womb.  The Spirit surrounds him and feeds him with nutrients until he’s ready to be born (again and again).

This image gives me hope for myself and other people like Nicodemus and John, my wife’s friend from high school.  None of us totally “gets it” when it comes to Christian faith.  We’re struggling, we’re doubting, but we’re also growing.  Nicodemus is repeatedly drawn to Jesus.  John was inexplicably drawn to church.  I am continually drawn back to the scriptures, trusting that God has yet more light to shed on my understanding.  It’s comforting for me to know that none of us is alone in this journey.  You may feel like you’re constantly starting over.  You may feel like you’ve got more questions than answers.  You may feel like you’re just wandering aimlessly.  But let me give you some hope this morning: you are being nurtured by the Holy Spirit and led from darkness into light.

If you sense that attraction at all, I encourage you to follow it.  Keep coming back to church.  Keep searching the scriptures, even if you don’t understand them.  Keep on reaching out to God in prayer.  Keep on coming back to be fed by the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.  I encourage you to follow this attraction and see where it leads you.  It might not happen all at once, but I have faith that eventually, you will “get it”.  We all will.  Thanks be to God.