Here is the sermon I preached at Hope Lutheran Church in Temecula, California on the Feast of the Holy Trinity.
The gospel lesson was John 3:1-17
“How can these things be?”
Nicodemus poses THE seminal question for this feast of the Holy Trinity.
He’s a man ahead of his time, really. He sounds very contemporary, applying reason and logic and operating in a secular system that dictates behavior and policy.
And everything that Jesus is saying is shaking the foundations of all of that.
How can these things be?
Reason and logic aren’t working right now for Nicodemus. He’s a Pharisee – specifically, a member of the inner circle, the Sanhedrin. Basically a theological rock star of first-century Jerusalem.
“How can these things be?” he asks.
And we ask the same question, don’t we.
Confronted with St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, and the gospel according to John, what else WOULD we ask.
How can this be, that we have received a spirit of adoption?
How can this be, that we would be born from above, of Spirit?
How can this be, that God is three in one AND one in three?
How can these things be? what does this all mean, anyway?
There’s a little bit of Nicodemus in all of us, if we are honest with ourselves.
We all exist in THIS world.
We operate, for the most part, within the structures and the systems that this world has created.
(I discovered the extent of that last week when I lost my debit card and let me tell you, operating in this world without a debit card is quite the challenge!)
We can find ourselves at the point where we are not at all comfortable with the idea of giving up those structures and systems. We’ve put a lot of trust in them.
That’s usually the point where the structures and systems start down the road to idolatry.
But maybe we’ve heard or experienced a shift that makes us stop and say “this Jesus seems to be onto something.”
That is where Nicodemus is in our story. This narrative occurs right after Jesus has turned over the tables in the temple, and I wonder if among the Pharisees, Nicodemus has a more properly calibrated moral compass – so that in the wake of upended tables he has been moved to come and talk with this Jesus. Perhaps he has wanted – but never dared – to do something similarly radical for a long time.
He can’t have a discussion with Jesus in broad daylight, or he’ll likely be out of a job. So he comes at night. But he is still taking a chance.
And that chance is worth taking for Nicodemus. Something has stirred him to seek after the truth which he senses in the person of Jesus. Something in his heart of hearts tells him that all the people and places he’s thought have the answers – might not.
The truth that Jesus proclaims to him in the shadows of night is that his hope and salvation Will. Not. Be. Found. in the things of this world. Nicodemus is challenged to be rooted not in any earthly system or belief – but rooted in God.
How can these things be? asks Nicodemus. And he thinks, because Rome’s not gonna be down with this.
How can these things be? asks Nicodemus. What about all the things that I’ve worked and saved for?
How can these things be? asks Nicodemus.
And Jesus’ answer gets at the gut-level reality of what it means to follow him in this world: The wind blows where it will, and you do not know where it comes from.
In other words: if you want a neat and tidy agenda, Jesus ain’t your man.
If you want to know what’s gonna happen tomorrow – don’t follow Jesus.
If you’ve got OCD, Jesus is gonna mess with that for sure.
The wind blows where it will, and you do not know where it comes from.
And Nicodemus is stunned. He has heard Jesus speak of a relational and experiential God who moves way beyond the limitations of the Sanhedrin, but his way of understanding up to this point has now been COMPLETELY deconstructed.
This is why “understanding the Trinity” is, I think, an exercise in futility. Not because God is some kind of capricious jerk, changing things up on us, but because God is beyond our words, our definitions, our understanding.
But God is not beyond our experience.
Just when we think we’ve got it all nailed down, our experience of the living God pulls out every nail. Our whole concept of God becomes more vast with every story shared between us. And so I wonder if it’s not so much that the Trinity is a way of knowing who God is, so much as it’s a way of discovering those things to which God is committed.
And we seem to discover those things by experience – not by God posting a Facebook event, or sending us an email, but by us being open in our daily lives to the infinite scale and scope of the divine. When we begin to notice the divine present and at work around us, we are drawn into life with God, and we realize that God, in some aspect of the Trinity, is all around us.
The Cappodocian Fathers of the 4th century, who really fine-tuned the theology around the Trinity, used the Greek word perichoresis to describe such a life. Peri means “around” and choresis means “to give way” or “to make room.” It might also be translated “rotation” or “a going-around.” Imagine a Venn diagram – the diagram with intersecting circles – where you have three circles in a perfect multidimensional intersection. Now imagine that same diagram in movement, where the perfection of the intersection points is maintained.
At the center of these three circles is a fourth, unseen circle, which is the divine center of love. That center is the center of all divine action in the world: love. As Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in his sermon at the Royal Wedding last week, “there’s power in love. …We were made by a power of love. And our lives were meant and are meant to be lived in that love.”
And yet. And yet. We might still find ourselves saying “how can these things be?”
How can these things be in this world where sometimes just getting up in the morning causes me to lose hope?
Well, I was reminded of how these things can be in the words of our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, who was the commencement speaker at my seminary’s graduation last week. She began her sermon like this:
In the name of God, the Creator, who fashioned us beautiful;
in the name of Jesus, the Redeemer, who calls us lovable;
and in the name of the Spirit, the Sustainer, who makes us capable. Amen.
Beautiful. Worthy of the dance.
Lovable. Welcomed to the dance.
And capable. Able to join the dance.
The ONLY way that these things can be is in the mystery that is God. We waste valuable time trying to figure out HOW these things can be, instead of simply leaning into the truth that they CAN be and they ARE.
Who you are called and created to be, intersects with a deep need in the world. And that is where you and God will dance. Because choresis, you see, comes from the same root word as choreography – the creation of a dance.
It might look like building a Habitat Home – stocking food pantry shelves – or teaching Sunday School – but that’s where the divine music is playing. It’s as if we’ve met God, Jesus, and Spirit at a Greek festival, and we all yell “OPA!” while throwing back some ouzo, and we all join the circle dance, arms around each other’s shoulders and probably falling over our feet.
But filled with joy. In the dance of Trinity.
When we end this story today, we don’t know where Nicodemus goes. But we do hear about him again in John’s gospel: when he speaks up for Jesus with the Sanhedrin, and again when he secretly joins Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus with an extravagant offering of balm and spices.
It takes Nicodemus a while to move into the dance, but he eventually does. He has heard the words of love on this night, and he has realized they are for HIM.
What have you heard in the stories of Jesus that moves you to the dance?
In what ways have you experienced God that make you want to dance?
Maybe you have not heard or experienced either of these yet. Maybe you are asking “how can these things be?” That’s ok. I have many days like that.
I urge you to join the dance anyway. Because God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, Spirit the Sustainer – they will meet you there. And together, God will show you the steps.
Beautiful. Lovable. Capable. Gifts from the Trinity, with love. Use them, and live in that love.