Trinity Sunday (RCL Cycle B)/30 May 2021
Today is Trinity Sunday and it marks a transition from our past six months considering the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus the Christ to the long green season of Ordinary Time. This six-month long season goes by several names – the Season after Pentecost, the Season after Trinity, as well as Ordinary Time. This first Sunday is always given over to a consideration of the Holy Trinity – that core doctrine of the Christian faith. It is a Sunday that will see preachers through-out the Church struggle to describe a mystery that will never be solved. A majority of sermons preached today will skate on the edge of heresy, and more than a few will fall off into the abyss.
Allow me from the outset state that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a mystery, and we will NEVER be able to wrap our minds around it. I know that even after forty years of ordained ministry have been able to wrap my mind around it.
This Trinity Sunday I would like to invite us to think of the Holy Trinity as an on-going, eternal conversation between the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier. This is a three-way conversation that invites us to first stand silent before the Holy and second to enter into that conversation as beloved children. Since human speech is inadequate to describe the mystery of the manifold aspects of the infinite God; one of the ways we get a glimpse of the glory and majesty of the Divine is through the visions of prophets and mystics, as seen in the call of the Prophet Isaiah.
Our first reading describes Isaiah’s call to prophetic ministry in terms of a vision of the Holy One in the Temple. Isaiah sets the beginning of his ministry in “the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), probably around 736 B. C. E. (Before the Common Era) His vision unites heaven and earth, as Isaiah describes the heavenly court where the Lord is enthroned in a vast temple attended by six-winged seraphs singing the familiar threefold hymn “Holy, holy, holy …” (v. 3) that anticipates praise of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As Isaiah views this splendor, he feels unworthy, declaring himself “a man of unclean lips” (v. 5) from a sinful nation. However, his sin is purged as his lips are cleansed by a live coal brought by a seraph from the heavenly altar (vv. 6-7). Thus, when he hears the Lord call for someone to send as the bearer of the Word, Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8).
This passage reflects the profound sense of awe and wonder at the glory of God, as well as the transforming power of God’s presence that enables a positive response to God’s call. Here we see that prophetic speech is not derived from human insight and intelligence but is a gift — indeed a demand — from God.
The Gospel reading gives us another example of Divine revelation and invitation to spiritual transformation through the story of Nicodemus, a truth-seeker and a leader of Israel’s religious establishment who recognizes a unique spiritual power in Jesus. But the circles in which Nicodemus moves do not consider Jesus respectable; thus, he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
Nicodemus addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,” thereby honoring him with the title reserved for those learned in Torah and masterful in teaching (Jn. 3:2). Further signifying his respect, Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus has come from God, because of the signs and good works he performs.
Jesus then proceeds to tell Nicodemus what is most necessary for salvation: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (v. 3). This is a transformation from the inside out, a reorientation of the self, not toward the world, but directly toward God.
However, Nicodemus cannot move beyond a literal understanding of the words of Jesus. When one has reached full maturity, the thought of a genuinely fresh start is as difficult to imagine as reentering the womb. But the rebirth of which Jesus speaks is a spiritual rather than a physical birth.
Jesus continues by saying that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (v. 5). That is to say, everyone who would enter must be sealed with water upon profession of belief and repentance as required in John’s baptism. Fully renouncing the values that separate one from God is accomplished by receiving the Holy Spirit, whom John said Jesus would bring (Jn. 1:33).
Birth from above by the Spirit is a gift of faith that enables one to believe. Birth from flesh, the acceptance of personal identity on a purely earthly level, cannot bring anyone into this experience. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). Thus, spiritual transformation derives from Divine, not human, authority and power.
Jesus then compares the Spirit to the mystery of the wind: one can observe the effects of the wind, but no one can control it. In the same manner, the activity of the Holy Spirit is manifested in the transformed lives of those who accept the Spirit. Like the wind, God’s Spirit cannot be predicted or fit into any human categories (v. 8).
But Nicodemus still remains confused and cannot move beyond his literal understanding and into the world of the Spirit. When he asks, “How can these things be?” (v. 9), Jesus chides him by asking how one who is a “teacher of Israel” (v. 10) cannot comprehend what Jesus is telling him. If Nicodemus is not able to believe the evidence of “earthly things” Jesus has told him, how can he even begin to imagine “heavenly things” (v. 12)?
Jesus declares in verse 13 that he can speak of these heavenly things because, as the Son of Man — the link between heaven and earth — he is the one who has “descended from heaven” to bring eternal life. The “lifting up” in verse 14 refers to the crucifixion, but also recalls Moses setting a serpent on a pole so that those bitten by snakes could look up and be healed — a symbol of salvation (Num. 21:8-9).
The Johannine connection between belief in Christ and eternal life is fully stated in the familiar words of verse 16. Through the selfless giving of the Son, the way to eternal life is opened for those who believe in his name. We have the promise that the Son comes not to condemn the world, but to offer salvation for the whole world.
Thus, through this dialogue with Nicodemus we learn that God, as Father, offers us boundless love.
God the Son is the one who came down from heaven; through him we have eternal life.
And finally, God the Holy Spirit infuses our lives in mysterious and surprising ways.
Another way to illustrate this idea of the eternal conversation between the members of the Godhead is in the icon of the “Old Testament Trinity” painted by Andrei Rublev in Russia during the 15th century. A copy is in your Order of Worship. It is a depiction of the three angelic beings who visit Abraham in the Book of Genesis. They are seated around a table. The being on the right extends his hand toward an empty place at the table. Notice the square on the table’s pedestal. It is thought that the icon originally had a mirror placed there so that the one looking at the icon would see his/her reflection. The extended hand seems to be an invitation to the one looking at the icon to take a seat at the table and join the conversation.
Theologian Miroslav Volf puts it this way
Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. … Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. [i]
On this Trinity Sunday, once again, we are invited into a divine conversation that will transform us and renew us.