“Who are You?” John 3:1-17 St Albans 27:5:2018 (Trinity Sunday)
Look where it falls in the Christian year.
It follows three major festivals:
Christmas - the festival of the Father who sends the Son
Good Friday and Easter Day – the festival of the Son who dies and rises
And Pentecost – the festival of the Spirit who breaths new life
Actually, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost is just another way of saying Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Only after these three are in place do we come to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Ah yes, the doctrine of the Trinity.
Do you ever wonder if maybe, just maybe, doctrine – doctrine in general, and this doctrine of the Trinity in particular has had it’s day?
Despite all the props: water existing as ice/steam/liquid, the three-leaf clover, the repeated viewings of Rublev’s icon…
Despite all these, I’ve gotta confess… I still struggle to join the dots.
And I suspect I’m not alone.
So is the doctrine of the Trinity on the ropes?
Not because we can’t get a hold of it…
…but because it doesn’t seem to able to get a hold of us.
Too much like a puzzle to be solved.
Not enough like a reality to be encountered.
Having drawn the preaching short-straw this Sunday, I’m sure you’d forgive me if I’d gone off in a different direction…
Side-stepped the lectionary and given a belated Mother’s Day message instead!
But two weeks ago I think the Holy Spirit gave me just the nudge I needed.
Here at St Albans we had a retreat, and Fth. Michael gave us a series of exercises.
And you know something Father?
My eyes locked in on Sheet #1, Question #1
For you see, Sheet #1, Question #1 asks:
“How do you respond to the question, ‘Who are you?’ ”.
That question jogged my memory.
My friend Brian tells a story.
He was attending one of those Gestalt-type retreats that were all the rage a couple of decades back.
Everyone sat in a circle. And you know the drill.
Things begin with a round – not drinks, but introductions.
“Hi my name’s Janet and I’m a lawyer”.
“I’m John and I work in construction”.
So on and so forth…
Soon it’s Brian’s turn…
Now, he’s not one to break rank – he took his lead from those who’d gone before.
“Hi - I’m Brian and I’m a teacher”.
And at that point for some unfathomable reason, a bloke opposite him, a big burly fella with a fierce bushy beard, stood up, walked over and crouched right in front of Brian…
He then pressed his nose in close to Brian’s, and eyeballing him, shouted… “But who-is-Brian?!!!”
Brian doesn’t remember much else about that particular session, but he never forgot the question…
He says he found himself groping around on the inside… struggling to find a fitting answer.
“Who-is-Brian?” - It got him to thinking.
Who are you? …and you? …and you?
That’s a question I want to pose this morning.
I hope it will get us to thinking… exercise our imagination.
Particularly in relation to this matter of the Holy Trinity.
But first, I need to let you in on a trade secret.
When we preachers, are called upon to preach the Trinity, we often hone in on the theme of relationship.
(And - spoiler alert - that’s also my intension today.)
The idea is that God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is in relationship… just like you and me are in relationship.
Sermon sorted. No problem!
Well, unfortunately there is a problem. Quite a big problem.
For you see - yes, God is in relationship, but precisely not in the way you and I are in relationship.
Take today’s Gospel…
We’re introduced to Nicodemus, presumably an enlightened, spiritually informed bloke, he’s certainly made good progress climbing the ecclesiastical ladder.
One night he slips out for a clandestine meet-up with Jesus.
He’s literally “in the dark” when it comes to this itinerant preacher.
“We know” he begins “you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him”.
In other words, he’s affirming that Jesus is no Elmer Gantry… he’s the real thing… the genuine article.
But I get the feeling that Nicodemus is also hanging out for a little bit more…
“We know you’re the real McCoy Mr. Jesus, but there’s still a few gaps in the jig-saw that I need to be able to put in place”.
I can picture him – fierce bushy beard and all, walking over to Jesus, pressing his nose in close, eyeballing him and shouting… “But who-is Jesus?!!”
That’s what’s behind his visit… trying to figure-out who Jesus is.
Problem is, as Nicodemus discovers, Jesus can be infuriatingly slippery.
He goes off-roading… takes a detour… starts talking about wind, water, rebirth, spirit.
Ya can’t get a straight answer out of him!
He won’t be pinned down… he slips the noose.
It’s as if there are two entirely different conversations going on here. And there are!
Jesus uses words with double meanings.
Nicodemus hears only literal, bare, unvarnished meanings… ends up asking (with some sense of frustration no doubt) “How can these things be?”
Poor Nicodemus. But let’s not be too hard on him.
My guess is that if it had been us, we wouldn’t have been any the wiser.
That’s because in Nicodemus’ world, and our world too, most things are straight-forward… (what is it we say?) - black and white.
We live, move, and have our being in what the sociologists call binaries, - polarised relationships between one thing and another.
In/out, square/circle, up/down, yes/no, hot/cold.
It’s just the way it is… hard wired into our brains.
And binary’s OK - for describing contrasts and opposites.
But when it comes to relationships, binary has real limitations.
That’s because binary defines relationships in the same way it defines everything else – over, against, and more often than not opposed to the other.
Saved vs. unsaved…
Right winger vs. leftie…
Christian vs. Muslim…
Pakeha vs Maori…
Straight vs. gay…
High church vs. evangelical…
I could continue, but you get the point.
Whenever we define ourselves in binary ways, it leaves
some right and others wrong…
some in and others out…
some winners and others losers.
But – (and here’s the take home pack) - the Trinity is a trinity, not a binary.
the Trinity is a trinity, not a binary.
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not – cannot - define themselves over and against each other, but only in, through and by their relationship with each other.
The Father isn’t known as the one who is not the Son and not the Spirit. No!
We know the Father through the Son and by the Spirit.
There’s a mutual, free, and shared dance going on here, interactions entirely different to the rigid binary fixations that so often govern our relations.
And here’s the thing!
We’ve all be sent invitations to join this trinitarian dance!
All are called to participate -with, in, and through the Trinity in all our dealings.
Trinity is not a closed shop.
And all this brings me back to my friend Brian.
After some pondering, here’s his conclusion…
It wasn’t the fact that he might be (or might not be) a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker that gave him his identity…
Not the size of his wallet, waistline, or wardrobe that defined him.
Rather, he discovered he was no more and no less than his relationships.
It was the quality, character, and interdependence of his relationships that made him who he was.
His wife, children, grand-children… and by extension, the members of his church family, the students he taught, the person who mowed his lawns – these are what define him.
Brian’s still finds he has to introduce himself.
But he’s found a more authentic, credible, and true approach…
A more trinitarian-style approach.
These days, he responds something like this…
“Hi, I’m Brian, the husband of Shirley.
Father of Karen, Mark, and Jeffery.
And the Grandfather of Roseanne, Christopher, Timothy, Jeremy, Matthew, Natashia, and Joshua.”
And when appropriate, he might add, “And a child of God”.
Brian’s conclusion? “You don’t know who you are until you know whose you are.”
For you see, it’s out of the warp of our exchanges, and the weave of our connections, that the tapestry of our identity emerges.
Who are you? Who am I?
It boils down to this… the sum of our relationships…
Relationships… with one another, and of course,
with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.