Sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015, on Isaiah 6:1-8 and John 3:1-17
In the year that King Uzziah died, 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.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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 answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 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. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts 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.”
I do not know how to feel about the recent news from Spain. They just found the 430,000 year old skull of an ancient human in a cave, presumably a burial site, where the remains of 27 other individuals were also present. This particular skull shows clear evidence of having been struck hard, twice, with the same object. It may be the first recorded murder in human history of which we have evidence.
It is sad to realize that violence, even murder, goes back so far in evolution. But I suppose that is what the biblical story of Cain and Able is about, so it should not surprise us.
But along with evidence of violence, the curious fact that all of these individuals were found together could well indicate intentional burial. Most animals have only a passing interest in their dead, so burial represents a significant change in behavior. Specifically, burial indicates concern for existence of some kind after death, in other words, the roots of religion.
The quest to know God and how we relate to God is ancient. We have no idea what those early humans in Spain thought about life after death; they were not yet writing down anything. These were pre-Neanderthals.
As humans evolved and spread over the globe we developed innumerable ways of thinking of God or the gods, or some divine realm. The variety is so vast it is hard to say much about what all the different religions share in common, but a sense that we are related to a world beyond this one, some kind of transcendence beyond this life, seems to be ubiquitous.
This is, for us, Trinity Sunday. We Christians have come to understand God as One, not many, so we are monotheists, not polytheists. That much we share along with Jews and Muslims. But unlike them, Christians describe this one God as existing also as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How does that work out? Honestly, for me, this is where theology can go off the rails. Historically, church councils were called, and, using a combination of bible verses and neo-Platonic (Greek) philosophical categories, they defined the Trinity. They then summarized it all in creeds that have become ossified orthodoxy: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed, and their descendants. It is as if they really believed that if you used philosophical words like substance, essence, and nature, and said phrases like “begotten, not made” and “hypostatic union,” you could make the idea of three being one and one being three less than what it is: a complete mystery. But it remains a mystery.
Far better, I think, is to do theology the way the bible itself does it, as a story. The story of the experience of God. We are going to look at these biblical stories, and then ask the question: how do you and I experience God? And how can our experience of God be richer, life-giving, even healing and transformative for us?
Isaiah’s Throne Room Vision
First let us look at Isaiah’s famous story of his vision of God. It is throne room vision. He says,
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”
When the human king died, Isaiah saw another king sitting on a royal throne, exalted, and magnificent. What does he see? Being a mortal human he sees very little; the Divine king is so enormous that the very hem of his robe filled the entire temple.
So the only thing left to describe are the semi-divine angelic beings, the flaming ones, and the smoke-filled, shaking temple they inhabit.
This mystical vision of God on a throne, and Ezekiel’s too, of God on a moving throne with wheels within wheels, gave rise to a form of Jewish mysticism called Throne mysticism. Some (e.g. J. S. Spong) say that the writer of the gospel of John bears affinities with this mystical and spiritual approach to God. It is in John’s mystical gospel that we hear Jesus tell the woman at the well,
“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24)
As Spirit, God is overwhelming to us humans. So, we feel a sense of awe, even fear; we are encounter the three-times-Holy presence. Isaiah reacts to the vision, saying,
“Woe is me!”
And yet he stays with the vision. He is fascinated as well as afraid at the mystery he experiences. And as the mystical vision continues, he hears the voice of God addressing him. This is where he experiences his calling to be a prophet. God may be terrifying because God is so holy, so divine, but God is not out to hurt Isaiah. Instead, God tells him to go out and prophesy so that the people might repent of their injustice and infidelity to God. Isaiah hears the call and responds,
“Here am I; send me!”
So the experience we read about in this biblical story is an experience of a powerful, overwhelming divine presence that is oriented positively, not negatively to people, even in our human fallible condition.
Isaiah sensed his unworthiness to be in God’s presence. He described himself as a man of “unclean lips” not unlike his people. This too is our experience of God: we sense a separation. Even in moments of awe, we long for the gap between us and God to be closed. We long for union, almost like a feeling of home-sickness, as if our separateness were fundamentally, somehow, unnatural. We long for re-connection; for reunion.
The word “religion” actually comes from re + ligament: to re-attach, to reconnect, so that what was separate becomes one. That is not unlike the root definition of Yoga which means to unite, to attach.
This is our quest. To become re-connected with our sacred Source; to be one with God. This story from Isaiah shows us that this is possible, and in fact, this is what God wants for us; to respond to his call; to lean back and trust that God is good, that God is for us, that God wills what is healing and restorative for us, and to simply say in response to God’s call,
“Here am I”
I wonder if you are reminded of the way the virgin Mary echoes this response at her calling saying,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
John’s Mystical Gospel
So we turn from Isaiah’s mystical throne vision to John’s mystical gospel. We read a story in which a character named Nicodemus engages Jesus in a conversation about God and humans and how we relate to each other. The story opens in the darkness of night.
The scene follows a pattern that John uses throughout his version of the Jesus-story. Jesus says something, people take him to mean something literal, so Jesus corrects them with a spiritual meaning; an enlightenment. The Samaritan woman at the well, for example, thinks Jesus is talking about literal water, and notices he has no bucket. But he helps her to think spiritually – he is the source of living water, spiritually quenching a spiritual thirst.
Similarly, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the kingdom of God that no one can enter without being born again. The word “again” is a pun. It also means “from above.” Nicodemus, still in the dark, takes Jesus literally and asks about a grown man being born as babies are born – a ridiculous thing to consider for all kinds of reasons. But Jesus corrects him using the pun: he means, not “born again,” like a baby, but born “from above;” born spiritually. Jesus says,
God is Spirit, and re-connecting with God requires a spiritual life, not just a physical life. This is the enlightenment Nicodemus needs.
And just like Isaiah discovered, so Jesus makes it clear that God’s motivation is goodness and love, not condemnation and wrath.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Now I know that is nearly impossible to hear the words “eternal life” without thinking of heaven, sitting up there on a cloud somewhere with the angels, but let us allow John to mean what he means.
In John we hear Jesus pray for his disciples. In his prayer, we hear him define what “eternal life” means for him. He says to God the Father,
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
So “eternal life” begins now. Life reconnected with God; knowing God. It is life as it was meant to be lived.
And how do we know God? As Christians, we know God through Jesus. Jesus shows us a life in which God’s life is fully integrated. Every moment he lives in the presence of the Spirit of God. He lives a life of trust, which is life-giving and healing for those he meets. He so trusts God that he is even willing to endure pain and suffering, knowing that he is in God’s good and loving hands. His trust gives him an open-hearted, welcoming compassion for everyone he encounters.
The Trinity Through Stories
So there we have it all, without the need of Greek philosophical categories. We have, right in this story, the entire Trinity. God the Father sends Jesus the Son to give us life from above, spiritual life through the Spirit.
How do you experience God? These stories work for me. I sometimes experience God, the one who is awesome, just as Isaiah experienced the King on the throne. And sometimes I experience God as spiritually present in moments in which I am open to the Spirit, and mindfully present in the moment. I experience God spiritually in daily silent meditation in which I try to turn off my own flow of mental words and simply attend to the present moment in which God is present by the Spirit.
I experience God when this community gathers in worship and in the sacrament. I experience the presence of Christ in the broken bread and in the cup that we share together as one, in communion.
And I experience God in the living Jesus whose life is still present to me in compelling and life-giving ways. I try to say, with Isaiah and with Mary,
“here am I; let it be with me according to your words” or the short form; “I am here in this moment, let it be.”
So what does it mean that we experience God as Spirit, whom we know through the living presence of Christ? It means that we see the world with Christ-like compassion.
So we grieve for our violent history – for the fact that you can dig up evidence of a murder that was committed 430,000 years ago. It means we grieve for every case of human evil and the suffering it causes.
We grieve when people discriminate against each other and when they shoot each other.
We feel compassion for people who have taken to the sea to escape suffering and persecution, only to be abandoned by their traffickers, left without food or water.
Our compassion compels us to act with whatever means we can. When people are shooting each other out of racism, compassion compels us to work for a more just society, to demand reforms, and to hold people accountable. We support laws that bring equal treatment to every person without discrimination.
The spiritual becomes political, because compassion without justice is simply sentimentality (as Ammon Hennacy has said).
We are not called to sentimentality. We are called to live as people who have been born from above, born again, by the Spirit of God. And like Isaiah and like Mary, even perhaps like Nicodemus, we are called to bring our Trinitarian spirituality into the world as it is, the world of pain and suffering, with the hope of eternal life – life knowing the God who loves us and who redeems us through Jesus.
Trinitarian spirituality is a mystery we will not solve with a non-contemplative mind. But it is a spirituality that we can live, compassionately, every day.