“Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me. Christ to win me. Christ to comfort and restore me.” Amen.
Today is the first Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Trinity Sunday – also known as the most confusing day on the church calendar. Even though every week we affirm our belief in a Trinitarian God, I suspect that very few of us – including me – are able to get our heads around the concept of the Trinity without feeling a migraine come on. But the Trinity is one of the foundations of our church and we affirm our belief in it weekly by reciting the words of the Nicene Creed, which has been the statement of our faith for almost two thousand years. We do this because the creed describes what the church has to say about the nature of God and, more importantly, our relationship with God and one another.
Most of the biblical passages that make up the ideas in the Nicene Creed are found in the New Testament, with the exception of today’s Hebrew Scripture from Isaiah, which some scholars suggest “points” to the idea of the Trinity. This passage also speaks directly to the question of who - or what - God is. When we listen to this passage, we hear that God is both powerful and compassionate - able to judge whole worlds, yet willing to forgive and renew any individual who cries out for it.
It also establishes who we are, and the news isn’t great; we are people of “unclean lips” living among others of “unclean lips.” We are sinners in a sinful world – and yet God still seeks us out and heals us in and through Jesus the Christ. That is what the second part of the Creed is about - what we believe about Jesus- and the primary thing we believe about Jesus is that Jesus is part of God. Just as God can only be understood in relationship to Jesus; Jesus can only be viewed in relationship to God. Specifically, what we say we believe is that Jesus is “begotten” from the Father – begotten but not made. The difference between these two words - “Begotten” and “made” is lost on most of us twenty-first century Christians, but it was important enough to split the Christian church into two parts in the third century. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “We don't use the words begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the [parent] of: to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. .. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. ..That is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man.” Jesus was not made by God as we were. Jesus is something new and different but equal to God and made of the same essence as God. That’s why we say that all things to have been made by both Jesus and God. It is why Jesus can speak for God and act as God, even as he shares our humanity with us. Jesus is the way through which God experiences us and we experience God. It is the way through which God calls us.
The question is, how do we know if we have answered that call? That was what Nicodemus wanted to know. Nicodemus was a “secret” disciple of Jesus, interested in what Jesus was saying, but “who held back from a full and public commitment to him because of his fear of persecution.” Nicodemus’s doubts and questions were not so different from our own: how do we know what is right and, when we are confronted by those who would persecute us for trying to do what is right, how do we endure? That’s where the third part of the Trinity - the Holy Spirit - comes in.
If we think of God as our Creator and parent, and Jesus as God humbled to live as one of us to show us how to live faithfully, then the Holy Spirit is the constant presence of God among us, reminding us that we were created and saved by God - and that we are called to share and live that Good News at all times and in all places. The Nicene Creed reminds us that we believe not only that Jesus will come again, but that he is here now. The same God who created us is the same God who saved us and the same God that is in us always.
As Nicodemus found, this is both a comforting and frightening idea. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be reborn, Nicodemus asks how that is even possible. It is from this passage that the phrase “born again” comes. Interestingly, interpreters tell us that the Greek word that has frequently been translated as “again” is actually more accurately rendered as “above.” Jesus is not talking about rebirth through any human action, but through the will and desire of God. Baptism represents rebirth, but it is only an outward sign of an inward spiritual grace. Like birth itself, experiencing the grace of rebirth can be traumatic.
For one thing, there’s a lot to change - and the first thing that has to go, according to John’s gospel, is our complacency. The truth is that even “nice, normal people [can also be] malicious, arrogant and lazy. We flee from a righteous God while we continue to think of ourselves as religious.” And we are prone to think in terms of what is “enough.” This is dangerous. “Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by...people who think they do not need it…[who think that faith is simply] a matter of the correct observance of particular practices. [But] when these practices become routine, they may actually serve to hinder spiritual sensitivity.” In other words, when our faith becomes rote and being a Christian seems easy, then it is likely the Holy Spirit is absent. We know this because whenever God’s people become complacent, God sends prophets to speak to us - and people have never liked what the prophets had to say- and we still don’t.
But “God’s intention is never to condemn [his children] but to save [us]” - to save us from ourselves if necessary. God does this because God wants to be in relationship with us. Understanding and celebrating the Trinity reminds us that, quite simply, God is all about relationship - relationship within Godself, represented as the Trinity; relationship between God and his beloved creation; and the relationships among the members of that creation. That is why life in Christ is meant to be experienced in community. Whether we rejoice or suffer together, triumph or struggle in doing God’s will, God wants us to do it together. Just as Jesus came to experience our human nature so that he could save us from it, so too we, in relationship, can confront our own baser instincts – our prejudices, self-righteousness and fear -and work through them together. Worship was the setting for the call of Isaiah, and it is through communal worship that we gather the strength not to go home and rest, but to go out and do the work of the Holy Spirit. “The Lord shall give strength to his people” the psalmist says- and that strength comes through community. It comes when all people together demonstrate the Glory of God by doing God’s will. That strength comes through the third part of the Holy Trinity: the Holy Spirit, God among us- Christ in hearts of all that love him, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. AMEN.
Randall C. Zachman (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 44.
Paul L. Hammer, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation],49.