Trinity B: A Mystery.

Readings:

  • Isaiah 6:1–8
  • Psalm 29
  • Romans 8:12–17
  • John 3:1–17

Sermon

“Today we celebrate the festival of the Holy Trinity, to which we must briefly allude, so that we may not celebrate it in vain. It is indeed true that the name “Trinity” is nowhere to be found in the Holy Scriptures, but has been conceived and invented by man. For this reason it sounds somewhat cold and we had better speak of “God” than of the “Trinity.” This word signifies that there are three persons in God. It is a heavenly mystery which the world cannot understand. I have often told you that this, as well as every other article of faith, must not be based upon reason or comparisons, but must be understood and established by means of passages from the Scriptures, for God has the only perfect knowledge and knows how to speak concerning himself.”[1]

That was how Martin Luther began his sermon on Trinity Sunday in 1522. It is obvious that none of today’s readings lays out in explicit terms the Trinitarian divine structure because the word, as Martin Luther pointed out, is nowhere in the scriptures, but the idea of Trinity gets inferred, a lot. Preaching on Trinity Sunday can be challenging because, as one friend pointed out, this is a Sunday that celebrates a doctrine, which is unusual on its own. There are texts assigned to this day, yet more often than not one must contend with the fact that we have selected a particular day to focus on the Trinity. To make matters even more complicated, our doctrine on the Trinity is an abstraction. And our understanding and descriptions of what the Trinity is and is not is also abstract and vague at best. But the Trinity is vital for the church’s faith: because the relationship between the persons of the Trinity constitutes a crucial way for us to understand not only God, but God’s involvement in the life of the world. Would that we could simply let it be. A well-known theologian of some repute once said that to talk about the Trinity for more than a few minutes, risks a rapid slipping into heresy because one is inevitable probing the depths of God too deeply.

I could take the time, as Luther did in the sermon I quoted earlier, to list the different references to God as Trinitarian throughout scriptures and testify to the reality of the Trinity of God, but it seems to me that this has been done in numerous other sermons and lectures and books, and we are all just as confused as before, if not moreso. But Luther did say that we could cling to the Scriptures, because we believe that they are God inspired and point us to our relationship with God, and in them we find a light to illumine our pathway. In his sermon, Luther suggests that we say simply: “I know very well that in God there are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; but how they can be one I do not know, neither should I know it.”[2] Strangely appealing, and unsatisfying at the same time.

Louis Armstrong was once asked by a reporter to explain what Jazz is. His response? “If ya gotta ask, y’ull never know!”

The Trinity is a mystery. Not a riddle, or a puzzle to be solved. Rather, it is entirely above human comprehension, but that is ultimately known through worship, symbol, faith, and relationship. It is not a notion or an idea that creates some wall to run up against over and over until it yields, but is rather an ocean for us to swim in. And it is that vastness that brings us to Mr. Isaiah in our first reading.

The size of something carries a significant amount of impact and meaning. I would like for you, for a moment, to imagine how big a person would have to be for the entire hem of their robe to fill this worship space. How big would their feet be? How big would the chair that they sit upon be? Would threads of fabric woven into a robe be rather rope-like? Would you feel at all intimidated to happen upon that scene when you entered into this space? Or do you think, like I do, that this is the perfect description of what I imagine God is sometimes like? For whatever the reason, Isaiah finds himself in a vision of immensity. How small Isaiah must have felt. And yet how grand a reading: God sits on a throne attended by these strange creatures. Seraphs, actually, with six wings. Smoke fills the room as to be like a screen, and Isaiah speaks (I imagine with quite the lump in his throat), “Woe is me! I am lost…” Faced with ultimate majesty, Isaiah becomes very aware of what he is lacking. He has “unclean lips,” he is not supposed to stand before the Holy One. The purity codes of the ancients are blinking like neon in his brain. He must be purified, and the purification is not something Isaiah can do for himself. And yet, in this moment, God, though seemingly vast and unrelatable, reaches out and gives Isaiah a firm place to stand, a custom of cleansing and wholeness, which enables Isaiah to hear what it is that God wants. And God provides. And God sends.

God’s address to Isaiah did not end with verse eight. Reading on into verses 9-10 provides something of the content of the call of God. And, unless we hear what it is God asks of Isaiah in some detail, we run the risk of imagining that God’s call is only ever generic and lacking specificity, or that only the heroic can step into a call from God:

And God said, “Go and say to this people:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
Keep looking, but do not understand.
Make the mind of this people dull,
And stop their ears,
And shut their eyes.
So that they may not look with their eyes,
And listen with their ears,
And comprehend with their minds,
And turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

I don’t know about you but this command crushes me! The prophet is demanded by his God to speak in such a way that no one will finally understand what it is he is saying. Their eyes and ears will be useless, so dull and sightless that their minds will be clouded with confusion. As a result, their healing will be delayed. What the prophet is called to speak will not make their lives easier, their road smoother, or their responsibilities plainer. Everything will be more confusing and less certain. It will be more difficult to perceive just what it is that God wants from the people. But, to follow God rightly does not always lead to great congregations, vast religious campuses, and budgets that rival those of small nations. What we may want and what God wants for us may not be the same thing. And this leads us to Romans.

Luther says this about the book of Romans: “To begin with, we have to become familiar with the vocabulary of the letter and know what St. Paul means by the words law, sin, grace, faith, justice, flesh, spirit, etc. Otherwise there is no use in reading it.”[3] Strong words. So please bear with me a moment. Flesh is the whole human being: with body and soul, reason and senses, everything in them tending toward the flesh. Martin Luther calls a person “fleshly” who, without grace, fabricates, teaches, and chatters about high spiritual matters. Through the flesh, the law is weakened.[4] Paul says this, not just of rampant hormonal actions, but of all the deeds of the boy, or all the sins, most of all of unbelief. Luther then defines a spiritual person as someone who is occupied with the most outward of works, as was Christ, when he washed the feet of the disciples, and Peter, when he steered his boat and fished.[5] So, then, a person is “flesh” who, inwardly and outwardly, lives only to do those things that are of use to the flesh and to temporal existence, or all things rather self-centred.

A person is “spirit,” who, inwardly and outwardly, lives only to do those things that are of use to the spirit and to the life to come, or all things rather relational with regard to the other. Spirit, Luther says, comes from Christ, who has given us the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit makes us spiritual and restrains the flesh.[6] Paul tells the Romans that the Holy Spirit assures us that we are God’s children no matter how furiously sin may rage within us: “all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” (Romans 8:14) A Trinitarian experience of the human relationship with God, and the nitty gritty realities of life. To follow God rightly means that we, in fact, suffer with Christ as joint heirs, so that we are also glorified with him. Our human relationship with God draws us in, gives us a common and firm place to stand, customs of cleansing and wholeness, and prevents us from falling back on ways of the flesh – or was of self-centredness. We are sent out as children of God, tethered to the Holy Spirit, tethered to God. And yet this is still so confusing. Which brings us to the Gospel reading, wherein one colleague said after reading this passage aloud: “And Nicodemus went home scratching his head.”

No one can see anything clearly about God and God’s kingdom without the proper lens. The difficult part about understanding what Jesus is talking about in this passage is that the lens by which we see God is in fact God. That is to say: the way we best see and understand God is through the life and actions and death and actions of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. God’s self. I don’t think it can really get any more mysterious than that, do you?

A leader of the Jews, a scholar, a Pharisee, Nicodemus, comes to Jesus in the night. Despite the gospel author’s tendency toward light/dark comparisons throughout the book of John, there is another reason Nicodemus comes to find Jesus at night. Ancient Rabbinic tradition had taught that the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided. Nicodemus is using his precious study time to expand his search beyond the standard texts, and he is seeking the wisdom of another Rabbi. But, besides being cryptic to the point of obtuseness, Jesus goes into full debate mode, adding in some naked shame for good measure. When poor Nicodemus finally concedes defeat and admits he’s in over his head, Jesus piles it on all the more: “Aren’t you a teacher of Israel? How can you not understand these things?” I don’t know about you, but there have been many times I have poured over these words trying to understand what it is that Jesus is trying to teach. We have the luxury of the knowledge of the entirety of Christ’s life and resurrection. Nicodemus didn’t. And to this day we still don’t know all that the Word of God intends in the world.

The lens by which we seek to understand who God is, is God. The Father sends the Son, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit, entwined in our flesh and sinew of dry bones made new through baptism points us towards God, helps us to trust in God’s promise, and helps us see clearly. To see clearly is not the same as understand completely. We are drawn up, set on firm places, and called into action and asked if we would go. And what we are called to say to our world is that the last are first, the least are greatest, and the greatest among us is a servant. Such two thousand year old words have regularly been met by dull ears, sightless eyes, and clouded minds; all of which have led again and again to wasted cities and empty lands, ravaged by wars and famines and hopelessness. But the action of light in the world has already been done. The light has already come into the world.

Our call is maybe not to one of riches and fame and a life of ease. In the midst of the mysterious Three-in-One we all stand small, naked, and insignificant to the One whose voice breaks the cedars, splits the flames of fire, shakes the wilderness. But by the Light that is already in the world we discover that it is always God who provides us with a place in the world; the very same God who loves all of creation and seeks to build a relationship with each living thing. When those who do what is true come to the light, it can be clearly seen that it is because of God that what is true has been done. This is appealing and confusing; it remains ever a mystery.

In the midst of trying to understand the Trinity, we stumble over how best to explain what it is that we have seen and heard. The inference of who and what the Trinity is in our readings today might give a person more reason for pause than for eagerness to proclaim what exactly it is that they believe. But I would still encourage you to listen for God’s voice, think about what it is that God is calling you to, and respond. And know that God is always sending. God is always one step ahead of us, enabling us to think and live outside of the walls of comfortable understanding because the Triune God is already there ahead of us. The God who sent Jesus to die for us, the Jesus who sent the Holy Spirit to enliven us, and the Holy Spirit through whom we are able to proclaim that we believe. And be careful to know that the call is never easy, never simple to grasp, never designed for ready comfort and success. God knows that. And God has prepared us for it. We are all children of God. A Triune God, who comes continually to humanity in different expressions to build relationship and community. A Triune God, whose will it is to forgive Sin so that we are all prepared for the service of the one God.

The Trinity is a mystery: entirely above human comprehension, but that is ultimately known through worship, symbol, faith, and relationship. I fall again to Luther’s words: “I know very well that in God there are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; but how they can be one I do not know, neither should I know it.”[7] Mysterious, appealing, and compelling. Amen.

[1] Martin Luther. “Sermon for Trinity Sunday, John 3:1-15: A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil, 1522,” Lectionary Central (http://www.lectionarycentral.com/trinity/LutherGospel.html), Accessed May 25, 2015.

[2] Martin Luther. “Sermon for Trinity Sunday…”

[3] Martin Luther. “Romans 8: Martin Luther’s Bible Commentary,” Translated by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB”Vorrede auff die Epistel S. Paul: an die Romer.” in D. Martin Luther: Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch 1545 aufs new zurericht, ed. Hans Volz and Heinz Blanke. Munich: Roger & Bernhard. 1972, vol. 2, pp. 2254-2268. ewordtoday.com, (https://www.ewordtoday.com/comments//romans/luther/romans8.htm), Accessed May 26, 2015.

[4] Martin Luther. “Romans 8…”

[5] Martin Luther. “Romans 8…”

[6] Martin Luther. “Romans 8…”

[7] Martin Luther. “Sermon for Trinity Sunday…”

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