You can relax and sit back because I am not going to talk about Trinitarian theology as it emerged in the 4th – 11th Centuries. Rather I’d like to look at the roots of this theology in the early Christian experience.
As you well know, part of the story of the death of Jesus was that at the time he died, the curtain of the temple was split in two from top to bottom. This curtain was what separated the most inner chamber, the Holy of Holies, from the rest of the temple. It was believed that God dwelt in this room, and even the high priest could only enter that room once a year.
I have come to think of this as the moment that God lept forth into the world – no longer restrained to one place or one “religion.” This is an immanent God, one that is present with us in this world, not a transcendent God who sits on his throne in heaven far removed from our daily grind. Mind you, this God has always been with us, but often we forget.
The resurrection and ascension of Jesus proved that Jesus could not be locked in a tomb, nor locked in death, but lived in spite of being crucified, and not only lived, but returned to the Father. These events cleared the way for the disciples to step into his shoes and continue his work in the world. And they also reminded them of the promise Jesus made to be with them to the end of the age.
At Pentecost, the spirit was turned loose in the world, and it’s power was made evident in the events of that day. This was the promised advocate, the partner who would accompany the disciples on their travels, giving them courage, hope, power, and wisdom.
The message of these events is mighty clear. You can’t keep God in a box. You can’t keep Jesus in the grave. You can’t control the Holy Spirit – it blows where it will.
So why is it that “religion” so often tries to do just that. The Jews were not the only group to try to keep God in a box. Every time we try to define God in any sort of complete or final way, that’s what we’re doing too.
I can remember sermons from my youth that talked about the age of Prophesy, and how it ended after Jesus. Hello? I don’t think so. Are there not prophets in our own day — people who are willing to speak even the most uncomfortable truths? Think about Martin Luther King, Jr. Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero, those indomitable women who led the suffragettes and fought for birth control.
My experiences at General Convention when the election of Gene Robinson to Bishop was considered surely convinced me that the Spirit is alive and well in this day. Like anything having to do with the spirit, it’s hard to describe what I experienced, but the grace and concern with which this was deliberated, the understanding and respect of most participants towards those who voted against it, the atmosphere of the worship where we all broke bread together could not have been possible without the presence of the Holy Spirit.
To think of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all rolled into one does two things: it makes very clear that God incorporates mystery, things we cannot solve or understand by reason alone. It also changes the focus from something totally unknowable to something we can relate to.
We know about fathers and sons, for sure, and hopefully something about spirit as well. These are words that define relationships, ones that we experience in our ordinary lives.
In this century there have been numerous attempts to improve our language about the Trinity to make the relationships clearer or more descriptive. The new prayer book replaced Holy Ghost with Holy Spirit. What we usually hear is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but in other settings I’ve heard the Trinity referred to in other ways:
Creator, lover, guide
Creator, redeemer, sustainer
Creator, teacher, companion
These additional names are meant to expand our understanding of the relationship we have with God and to describe the nature of the God we believe we’re relating to., They help us focus on what God does for us and helps us eliminate the childhood image we may have of God as an old man seated on a throne.
When Nicodemus asks, “How can these thing be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” It’s possible to feel some sympathy for Nicodemus at this point. He is used to the very concrete instructions of the Jewish purity code, and here is Jesus speaking in mystic terms about the Spirit – that like 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.
This is a classic misunderstanding. Jesus is speaking in broad terms, in metaphor, to describe the mystical connection between every person and God, while Nicodemus is still looking for some practical explanation, or better yet, some new rule to follow.
I believe Jesus is talking about the connection between the spirit in us and the spirit in God, and particularly about the need for each of us to recognize and acknowledge that connection. To be born again is to realize that we are a child of God and filled with the Holy Spirit, which can give us strength and purpose to do and to be more than we could have thought possible.
Being born again is clearly what Isaiah’s vision is about in today’s Old Testament lesson. In this powerful vision of God enthroned in the Temple, Isaiah does what most of us would do. He sort of wrings his hands and says, “Woe is me! All is lost – I am unworthy, unable and unclean, and now I’m going to die because I’ve seen God!Isaiah says he has unclean lips, so a seraph puts a coal to his lips and assures him his sins are blotted out. Now when God cries out for a messenger, for an agent to do his will, Isaiah responds, “here am I; send me!”
What a sudden transformation this is! From groveling to self-confidence, from hand wringing to hand raising, and from fear to courage. These are the gifts of the spirit that came to Isaiah in his vision. These are the gifts of the spirit that come to us in all our moments of rebirth, and there may be many of them in a lifetime. These are the gifts that show forth our connection to God the Creator through the power of the Holy Spirit. And these are the gifts that make it possible for us to go forth into the world to help complete the work begun by Jesus.
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, are a community of faith that we join at birth, that we acknowledge in baptism, and that we strengthen in the prayers and the breaking of the bread. We are joined together to bring about the Kingdom of God wherever we are in this world. This partnership, this community of all believers with the Trinity — is this not the ultimate in Total Ministry?
Let us therefore go forth into the world rejoicing in this partnership, knowing that when God calls, we will have the strength and courage to answer, [pause and let them speak] “Here am I. Send me!!.” AMEN