A bit late in the posting:
Here is a recording of my sermon for Trinity Sunday.
Preached at Pine Island Presbyterian Church.
Dispatches from the Borderland of the Mind
A bit late in the posting:
Here is a recording of my sermon for Trinity Sunday.
Preached at Pine Island Presbyterian Church.
Preaching this week at First Presbyterian Church of Paw Paw, MI.
Click here to read the biblical text.
There are two great mysteries that are central to the Christian faith, as it has been handed down to us from the Apostles. As mysteries of the faith, they cannot be proved by philosophical reasoning, but can be experienced directly and expressed through intuition and imagination in the stories and practices of our tradition.
The first is the mystery of the Trinity: we believe in one God who exists co-eternally as three persons, traditionally referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The main thing we learn from the mystery of the Trinity is that God is relational. God exists, not as a monolithic object in space, but as network of relationships between individual persons. It would not be too much to say that God is a relationship. This is how Christians are able to say, in the words of 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”
The second great mystery is the mystery of the Incarnation, which we are gearing up to celebrate during Advent and Christmas. Christians believe, in the words of John 1:14, that God “became flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ. In other words, God is one of us. Jesus Christ, according to the Church, is both fully human and fully divine, at the same time. According to the mystery of the Incarnation, everything Jesus is, God is. Jesus Christ reveals the Divine to us. If we want to understand what God is like, we look at the human person Jesus.
These two mysteries, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are central to the Christian faith. They are also central to understanding today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25.
In this passage of Scripture, Jesus tells us a story of the Final Judgment. At the end of the age, the Son of Man (literally “the Human One”, Jesus’ favorite title for himself) will come to Earth in all his glory and divide the people of the world into two groups. One group, whom he calls “sheep”, and another, called “goats”. The “sheep” will “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” while the “goats” will “depart… into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The basis for this final judgment, contrary to what we tend to hear from popular “evangelists” in the media, is not a test of theological doctrine or church attendance, nor is it a question of whether one has received the Sacraments of the Church or “accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.” The basis of this final judgment, according to Jesus himself in Matthew 25, is how we treated the most vulnerable people among us in this life.
Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
With a look of confusion on their faces, the righteous ask when it was that they did all these things, and Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
What Jesus says here is firmly rooted in the central mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation.
From the mystery of the Incarnation, we learn that God is fully human, so Jesus asks us, “Are you fully human?”
From the mystery of the Trinity, we learn that God is relational, so Jesus asks us, “Are you relational?”
Much of the imagery that Jesus uses in this story comes from chapter 7 in the book of the prophet Daniel, in the Hebrew Scriptures. In that chapter, Daniel has a vision of four empires, which he envisions as vicious monsters that destroy and devour people with their violence. But then, Daniel says, “I saw one like a human being (literally “a Son of Man”…get it?) coming with the clouds of heaven.” And this “Son of Man” will repeal and replace the monstrous empires with the kingdom of heaven-on-earth. And Daniel says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.”
According to Jesus and Daniel, this is God’s ultimate vision for the human species: for a truly human kingdom to replace the monsters and empires that have the power on earth for now.
So, how did we get into this sad state of affairs? What happened?
Well, the Gospel tells us that our Triune, relational God created a relational universe and invited human beings to take our part in harmonious relation to the whole of creation, but we were not satisfied with this gift. We humans wanted to be the center of our own little worlds. We were ambitious to become gods, but became monsters instead. We destroyed and devoured one another in our lust for power, and set up exploitative systems that oppress our fellow creatures in the name of “law and order”.
God kept trying to reach out to us, to show us that there is another way, but we were unwilling to listen. So, God “took on flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ, showing us that to be fully human is to be fully divine. Jesus loved us, bringing healing, wisdom, and forgiveness into our midst.
But we were still unwilling to listen. Clinging to our old delusions of grandeur, we rejected Jesus and turned on him with all the monstrous might of imperial power. We crucified and killed this God-made-flesh in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up.
But Jesus wouldn’t take No for an answer: he rose from the grave on Easter morning, conquering the power of death and hell, and declaring peace and forgiveness to his deniers and betrayers.
After his resurrection, Jesus gathered his community of followers once again and breathed into their hearts the Holy Spirit, the very presence and power of God. Jesus made the Apostles into little incarnations of the Divine.
These Apostles were sent out to say and do the same things that Jesus said and did: gathering communities of lost and broken people, blessing the little ones, teaching, healing, forgiving; baptizing, confirming, and ordaining, human beings to be the hands and feet of God in the world.
These gathered communities, the Church, gradually spread and grew to the ends of the earth, continuing the Apostles’ mission, right up to this very day in Paw Paw, Michigan, where we have been gathered together by the Holy Spirit as the apostolic people of God in this place and time.
All of us have come here today to hear God’s Word and be fed with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, to give thanks, to pray, to give, and to be sent back out into the world, that we might take our part in the advancing kingdom of heaven on earth, saying and doing the very same things Jesus said and did when he walked among us in the flesh.
We are called upon today to live as citizens of the kingdom of the One who is fully human (and therefore fully divine).
This kingdom of heaven-on-earth is advancing here and now, just as Jesus and Daniel said it would. The kingdom’s advance is not always readily apparent, but it is real. In every age, women and men have risen up to demonstrate to the monstrous empires of this world the truth that there is another way to be human. We call these people “Saints”. But saints are nothing more than further examples of what life in this world could be, if we would but set aside our selfish, ego-driven agendas and pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth.
The marching orders of Jesus, our commander-in-chief, are clear: Feed the hungry, slake thirst, welcome foreigners, care for the sick, and visit incarcerated criminals.
The quality of our spirituality (and our divinity) is measured, not by our religious observance or theology, but by the quality of our relationships with hurting, broken, and vulnerable human beings, without stopping to ask whether they are worthy. This is what it means to live in this world as citizens of the kingdom of the truly human one, the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, which is our clear and present hope.
Jesus asks these things of us, not because they work as effective policy in this world, but because they are right. Jesus asks these things of us because they make real to us the presence and power of our fully human and relational God. As a bonus, this strategy happens to make God real to others, as well.
Jesus asks these things of us because the kingdom of heaven is real and advancing across the broken terrain of this Earth. In every age, the saints of God have taken their place in this kingdom, living on Earth as if they were already in Heaven. Today, we are invited to take our place in this kingdom as well.
Our God is relational, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you relational?”
Our God is fully human, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you fully human?”
To the extent that we can answer Yes to those questions, we can honestly say that we are living in the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, and we are finally fulfilling humanity’s oldest and greatest ambition: To become divine.
I want to toss a couple of sentences your way and see if you can tell me where in the Bible they come from:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void…”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”
“Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”
How did you do?
If you know your stuff, you might have raised an eyebrow at those last two. They’re not actually from the Bible. The first is a line from the third verse of the most famous Christian hymn: Amazing Grace. The second is from the Nicene Creed, the most widely acknowledged statement of Christian faith, written in the early 4th century. Neither of them comes from the Bible itself, but most of us in this room would almost certainly honor these statements as true, maybe even sacred.
We Protestants in the Reformed tradition pride ourselves on having a biblical faith, but the fact of the matter is that the content of our faith goes beyond the Bible itself to include several golden nuggets of sacred tradition that were mined from the mountain of history and refined in the furnace of the Church universal.
This might sound like a shock at first, but it shouldn’t. Jesus told his disciples, quite explicitly, that this would be the case. Christ says, in today’s gospel, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
Jesus seems to have recognized that his Church would still have work to do when it came to hashing out the particulars of Christian doctrine after he was gone. He also recognized that we would need help in this process, which is why he promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide us in the direction of truth.
We Presbyterians, who form part of the Reformed Protestant tradition, believe this is exactly what happened, but we also realize that being led by the Spirit often turns out to be much messier than we expected at first.
Take, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, which we are celebrating today. The Trinity is the Christian’s core concept of God. We believe in one God who exists as three distinct persons (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Each person is divine, yet they are not three Gods, but one. How does that work? We have no idea. We call it a ‘mystery’, which is just a fancy way of saying we don’t know. The Church has decided she would prefer to stand in awe before the open question, rather than answer it with some kind of simplistic formula. We affirm that there is only one God, but this single Deity is also a Community: a Divine Ecosystem.
How did we come up with this idea? It is never explicitly laid out this way in the Bible. Nor was there ever an angel who floated down from heaven with the word ‘Trinity’ engraved on a stone tablet. We got this idea from the bishops of the early Church, who met together in community and debated the issue over a very long period of time (several hundred years, in fact).
It all came to a head in the 4th century at a meeting called the Council of Nicaea, presided over by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. The debate was fierce. On one side was Bishop Nicholas from the town of Myra, who supported the doctrine of the Trinity: that Christ was fully divine and co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. Later history would call him “St. Nicholas” and develop all kinds of legends that connect him to the holiday of Christmas. He didn’t actually live at the North Pole or fly around with reindeer, but he was based on a real person: St. Nicholas of Myra, who took part in the Council of Nicaea.
On the other side was the very popular priest Arius, who believed that Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creations, existing even before the universe itself, but not entirely equal with God.
When Nicholas decided he had heard enough of his opponent’s arguments, he walked right up to Arius and slapped him clear across the face. When the other bishops immediately confronted Nicholas about this outburst, he replied that he saw the devil sitting on Arius’ shoulder and was simply trying to shoo him off. Unfortunately, they didn’t buy his excuse and Nicholas was ejected from the meeting.
Now, I’ve sat through some really tense church meetings, but I’ve never seen anything so bad as somebody getting cold-cocked by Santa Claus!
Most Christians today forget that there was a time when beliefs about the Trinity were divisive and controversial. They were unsure of what to believe. The heated arguments of bishops threatened to tear the Church apart. What kind of a future would there be for the Church if they couldn’t reach a conclusion about their most central beliefs? People were justifiably frightened.
But you know what? The Council of Nicaea eventually came to a resolution on that contentious issue. They produced a document outlining their position. As a result, we now have the doctrine of the Trinity permanently enshrined in the Nicene Creed, which we will recite later in this service. The Trinity has become so central to our faith, most Christians take it for granted.
Jesus was right: the Holy Spirit spoke through the Council of Nicaea and guided the Church “into all the truth,” but it wasn’t pretty. It was messy. It got ugly. It was difficult. But God still worked with it.
People tend to have this romanticized idea of divine guidance being like a light that shines down from heaven while choirs of angels sing, but most of the time, it’s not like that at all. Most of the time, people don’t know what God’s will is for sure until after the fact (sometimes centuries after). We get to look back and see how God led our ancestors in the faith. It all looks so clear and obvious for us, but we forget that it wasn’t so clear for them. These imperfect Christians had to do the best they could with what they had at the time. They thought about it. They prayed about it. They disagreed with each other. They fought about it. And in the end, they made a decision and took a step together, hoping it was the right decision and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide their feet while they ran this race. And today we call them saints.
The life of faith is no different for us today from what it was for those who lived long ago. We have no guiding light or heavenly voices to make life’s decisions easy for us. We do the best we can with what we have. We think. We pray. We argue. We act. Repeat.
Over the past year, this congregation has faced a series of difficult problems, for which there are no easy answers. We engaged in the New Beginnings assessment process that led us to face some uncomfortable facts about our congregation’s financial state. We reflected on our deepest beliefs about what we believe church is at its heart: that the Church is a community with a mission before it is a building. We made the bold decision to relocate in light of those deep beliefs, held up next to the facts of our current situation. And now, the time is approaching for us to act on this decision that was made by our members who participated in New Beginnings.
Over the next few weeks, leading up to our 152nd anniversary Sunday on June 12, we will be breaking camp here at 603 N Burdick Street and pitching our tent a few blocks away from here in the chapel of First Congregational Church on Bronson Park.
The session decided to pursue this space-sharing relationship with this congregation after a careful consideration of three potential sites in the North Side and Downtown neighborhoods. First Congregational Church seemed to us to be the best available option for partnership, based on practical concerns for space and money, but more importantly because it is a community that practices its ministry with a set of values that is remarkably similar to our own. Moreover, the people of First Congregational Church have treated the people of North Presbyterian Church with the utmost respect, as equal partners in ministry, throughout this process.
Many of you have asked me whether we will be accepted and treated kindly by this new host community. I can tell you now, with a very high degree of confidence, based on our interactions with them so far, that we will.
After much questioning, deliberation, prayer, listening to the members of this church, and consideration of available options, we, the members of session, are unanimous in our belief that this relocation to First Congregational Church is the call of the Holy Spirit for North Presbyterian Church at this time.
This has been a difficult decision for all of us. I dare not tell you that I know exactly how you feel, especially those of you who have worshiped in this space for many decades. Obviously, I do not feel that pain in the same way or to the same degree that you do. But as your pastor, I do feel it. I feel it because I care about you and your well-being matters to me. I have seen the pain in your eyes and heard it in your voices.
I have felt the pain of this transition in my own way as the work I am doing with you now has become very different from the work you called me here to do two and a half years ago. In addition to orchestrating this relocation and caring for grieving people in the midst of congregational redevelopment, I have also taken on responsibility for coordinating the Togetherness Group since late last fall. And, beginning last month, these increased responsibilities have come with a significant reduction in my work hours and salary.
I tell you this, not to arouse your pity, but to show you how I am feeling the pain of this transition with you, in my own way. My family and I are choosing to sacrifice for North Church because we believe the ministry we get to do here is worthwhile. We believe in you and this church, but even more, we believe in the Holy Spirit, who has called us to minister together in this place at this time.
I know that we will have much grieving and healing to do in the coming season; I plan to be here so that we can do that work together. I won’t give up on you and I pray you won’t give up on me either. I implore you not to give up on one another. And I charge you not to give up on the Holy Spirit, who “draws straight with crooked lines” and “guides you into all the truth.”
Our ancestors in the faith had no idea where or how the Spirit was leading them in their lives, just as we have no idea where or how the Spirit is leading us today. But we can look back and see how God was faithful to them then, so we can trust that God will be faithful to us now.
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
to guide the future surely as the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.
I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Do you believe that today? If so, that’s a good start.
Let’s see where it goes from here.
I hear a lot of folks talking lately about how the world isn’t what it used to be. They’re worried about the decline of human society, the decay of public morals and values, and the emptying of mainline Protestant churches. For many of these folks, these three series of events are related. They say, “People just aren’t coming to church anymore, so society is going to pieces.”
A lot of people wonder why this is the case. There are a lot of theories. Some say it’s because of the cultural changes that happened during the 60s. Some say that our country’s tolerance of religious diversity has left people in a state of moral and spiritual confusion. Others say that our society’s addiction to busy-ness and constant entertainment has distracted people to the point where they just don’t even have time to think about church anymore.
Personally, I think some of these theories have valid points. And I think the whole truth about the matter is probably bigger and more complex than any single theory can fully explain. But there’s one theory that stands out to me more than the rest, if only because it’s the one I hear most often from people who don’t come to church. And here it is (the number one reason most people give for not coming to church): “It’s hypocrisy of Christians who claim to believe that God is love but do not extend that love to other people.”
Isn’t that interesting? When you actually go and ask people why they don’t come to church, they tell you: it’s not because of diversity, and it’s not because they’re too busy, and it’s not because of the 60s. It’s because of Christians. The author Brennan Manning once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
As Christians, it seems that we don’t take our theology seriously enough. We think we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving our neighbors as ourselves, but Jesus calls FOUL on that play. He says you can’t have one without the other. If you try to separate them, you end up with something other than the God revealed in Jesus.
Central to our Christian faith is the belief that God is love. Did you get that? God is love. Most people breeze right by it without thinking and end up with the wrong idea about who God is and how God works in the world. What they tend to hear is “God is loving” (i.e. “God is basically a nice person”). In other words, they think that the Old Man in the Sky (who made the world and controls everything that happens) is a nice guy. But that’s not what the text says. The text is taken from 1 John 4:16 and it says, “God is love.”
There’s a big difference between being loving and being love. God is love itself. God can be found in the dynamic interchange of energy between people who care about each other: family, friends, lovers, even enemies. Wherever there is love, there is God. In fact the full text of 1 John 4:16 reads, “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.” The Creator of the universe is not separate from it. God is not “out there,” floating on a cloud or in some alternate dimension. No, God is right here. As the apostle Paul says in Acts 17, “In [God] we live, and move, and have our being.” God is within us and all around us, wherever love is found. God is love. God is a relationship.
Our ancestors in the early Christian church came up with an interesting way of expressing this truth. They left us with a kind of puzzle that could never be solved. And they called it the Trinity. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, we Christians believe in only one God who eternally exists as three persons: traditionally called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is both three and one, one and three. Each person in the God-head is co-equal and co-eternal with the others. There is no hierarchy or pecking order among them.
The doctrine of the Trinity has always been controversial. In ancient times, Jews and Muslims accused Christians of being polytheists. In more recent years, people have identified the sexism inherent in using exclusively male terms to describe the Father and the Son. In any age, the Trinity comes across as confusing. Many have tried to solve the puzzle, but all have failed. So, this morning, I won’t even try to offer an answer to its question. We’re going to let the mystery stand and focus instead on the implications of that mystery for our lives as Christians.
And just what are those implications? Well, according to the mystery of the Trinity, our one God exists in a state of relationship between three persons. In other words, God is a relationship. God exists, not as an individual entity, but as the dynamic exchange of perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because of this, it suddenly makes sense to say that “God is love.” God is love because God is a relationship. Wherever love and compassion are established on earth, God is present. “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.” That is the practical application of the theological doctrine of the Trinity. That is where we begin to live what we believe and show ourselves to be either followers of Jesus or just another group of hypocrites.
The only way to faithfully testify to the presence of the Triune God in the world is through acts of love, not supposedly infallible announcements of dogma. If God is a relationship, then we usher and invite people into greater spiritual awareness by being in relationship with them, regardless of whether or not they ever darken the door of our church. Moreover, if God is a relationship, then we come close to God, not through dogma and rituals, but by intentionally engaging in relationships with the people and planet around us.
Jesus spoke about this very clearly in Matthew 25 when he said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Offering food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless, friendship to the lonely, and justice to the oppressed are not simply good deeds that improve the reputation of the church in the community, they are our best way to participate in relationship with the Triune God. God is a relationship, so relationships are the places where God is most fully known and experienced.
There is no one I can think of in the last one hundred years who lived this Trinitarian theology more fully than Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist who opened homeless shelters and soup kitchens for the unemployed workers of New York City during the Great Depression. So remarkable was this woman, she was not content to simply found and fund a charitable agency for the poor, she moved into the shelter and ate the donated food with her clients, who she simply regarded as friends. In them, Dorothy Day was seeking and serving the Triune God.
She wrote in 1937:
Every morning about four hundred men come to Mott Street to be fed. The radio is cheerful, the smell of coffee is a good smell, the air of the morning is fresh and not too cold, but my heart bleeds as I pass the lines of men in front of the store which is our headquarters. The place is packed–not another man can get in–so they have to form in line. Always we have hated lines and now the breakfast which we serve, of cottage cheese and rye bread and coffee has brought about a line…
The [Pope] says that the masses are lost to the Church. We must reach them, we must speak to them and bring them to the love of God. The disciples didn’t know our Lord on that weary walk to Emmaus until He sat down and ate with them. ‘They knew Him in the breaking of bread.’ And how many loaves of bread are we breaking with our hungry fellows these days–‘ 3,500 or so this last month. Help us to do this work, help us to know each other in the breaking of bread! In knowing each other, in knowing the least of His children, we are knowing Him.
This morning, I want to urge you toward similar action in your own life. I invite you to participate in the life of the Trinity, to get caught up in the infinite whirlwind of perfect love that flows between the persons. In that Great Love, incarnated in the myriad little loves that surround us every day, may you find God: not the monolithic “Old Man in the Sky” but the dynamic energy of love that pulses through all creation. And, through you, may others come to believe in the God who is love. May they find that God here in our church as they enter into relationship with a community of Christians who really do live as if they believed that “God is love, and all who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.” May it be so.
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!