“Three is a Magic Number”
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17, Romans 8:12-17
June 11, 2006 (Trinity Sunday)
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, MN
That one little word, sends fear into the hearts of many an adult, when a child asks it. I remember when I was about seven or so and I was playing with my friend Quentin. We had to come in for a moment, while his mother gave him some medicine for his asthma. I was curious about this so I asked why he had to take the medicine. I had asthma too, so I wanted to know. She answered my question and then I asked another one which I can't remember. After a while, Quentin and I went back to playing around and I forgot all about my questions.
A few days later, my mother told me about the incident. Unbeknownst to me, Quentin's mother had contacted my mother about what I did. My mother, told me that it was wrong to ask questions. Of course I responded by saying, why? I can't remember Mom's response, but it was basically a kind of “because-I-said-so” kind of answer.
Most parents are exasperated by such questions by kids. I sometimes wonder why questions upset adults. Having now been on the other side trying to answer the questions of others, including grown adults, I tend to think we don't want to come up short. We are afraid that someone might find out that we don't know everything, so it's best to not allow questions.
During my college years, I was involved with a college church group. What was interesting was that we learned to present the Gospel in a clear way that never really allowed for questions. I specifically remember another member of the group talking about their experience sharing the gospel with a friend who asked question after question after question. I remember the campus pastor saying that these questions were basically excuses to not accepting the gospel. Interesting, I thought.
I think it's a sad development that people who are religious tend to be so resistant to questions. It doesn't matter what end of the spectrum, be they liberal or conservative, there are people who seem to have all the answers and seem confident in themselves. Their faith is less a mystery to enter into than it is something that shores up what they already believe.
Today, this first Sunday after Pentecost, is considered Trinity Sunday. It is the Sunday of the year that we devote ourselves to a teaching of the church that dates back from it's beginnings: the Triune God-God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Now if there is a day when going to church brings up questions, it has to be this day. Every since I was little, I could not figure the Trinity out. Three persons, one God? What does that mean? And you know what? Four years of seminary didn't even come close to answering the question. My professors seemed to think this was just something to be accepted and lived instead of solved. Well, thanks a lot. I'm putting myself in hock for this?
I think I can understand how Nicodemus felt during and after his visit with Jesus. Being born again? What the heck does that mean? Born of water and Spirit? I would feel just a silly as Nicodemus: all this education and I don't understand what Jesus is talking about.
I have to say that I like dear old Nick. This religious leader sometimes gets ridiculed because of his background, but Nicodemus is a true seeker. He was questions and he wants answers. When he hears Jesus talk about being born again, he confuses the Greek word anothen. The word is a synonymn, and it can mean born from above or born again. When our friend, Nick heard it, he started thinking of a grown man trying to get back into his mother's womb.
But that wasn't what Jesus was talking about. Nor was it as some would believe about a specific event when we were saved. What Jesus is talking about is to see things with different eyes: to enter into the life of the Spirit.
When Jesus talks about the flesh, he isn't saying that the flesh is bad, but you can't understand the things of the Spirit only with the flesh. Let me put this in English: faith can't be understood with only the mind. It isn't a rational exercise. It is only when we enter the life of the Spirit that we are able to understand and the Spirit is any but logical. Jesus likens it to the wind, that blows where it blows. The Spirit carries you to places you wouldn't expect.
It's a lot like playing in the ocean. Back in the mid 90s, I lived in Washington, DC and sometimes would take trips to the Maryland or Delaware shore. I would have fun swimming in the Atlantic. I remember one time just playing around and when I realized it, I was far away from the beach. The ocean currents had slowly moved me father and farther away from the shore.
That's what the Spirit is like. It moves us like the wind, or a strong current. If you want an example of what it means to live in the Spirit, simply look at Jesus' life. He was led to different places and events not of his choosing.
Nicodemus wanted an answer to his questions. Jesus gave them, but they were answers that had to be lived, not simply heard. Jesus wasn't giving an answer that would satisfy the mind; he was offering Nicodemus the chance to enter another reality, a new way of thinking and seeing.
This leads us back to all my questions about the Trinity. Now the word “trinity” doesn't occur in the Bible. But I do believe that the concept of the Trinity is there, even if there isn't a word that denotes it. In John 3 Jesus talks about God sending God's Son to save the world and we hear about the Spirit as water and as wind. Even after all this time I still can't figure out the Trinity but I can understand it. I don't have a perfectly logical answer, but I have one that I can live into.
The Trinity helps us to explain who God is. In our verses today, we see God as one that purifies us for mission, as God did to Isaiah. God is the One that loves creation so much that he wants to redeem us and so he came in the form of a human to live with us. And the Spirit is there to bring us more and more into the likeness of God, sanctifying us and helping us to see what God wants of us.
I can't understand the whole 1+1+1=1 equation, but I can understand that the Trinity shows us a God that passionately loves us. That's an answer I can live with, it doesn't explain a thing and yet it explains everything.
Is God limited to three ways of understanding? Of course not. Does it give an adaquate understanding of the totality of God? No, because God is bigger than we can imagine. The Bible is filled with mulitudes of images that show God. But the Trinity reminds us that this God we encounter loves us passionately, from the creation or the world until today. God is not a distant being, not a clockmaker God who made the world and then walked away, but a God that deeply loved us and never stopped loving us.
Earlier this year, Jim our moderator and I started a class going over the basics of the Bible. I have to hand it to Jim, he had a lot of questions. A lot. Many. I look back at those studies and I can remember being so nervous. Was I giving the best answers? I surely hope I was. But I think what I learned from the experience was not to give the perfect answer. From what I could tell, Jim, you didn't need a perfect answer. I could see the joy in your eyes from just being illuminated. I think that is what it means to live in the Spirit. You hear God in a song, or in a sermon, or in the smile on a friend and you want more.
Can we be born again? In the last few months, I've been rather down about church. I was seeing Community of Grace through human eyes: worried about numbers and wanting to be a “proper church.” Last Sunday, I saw things differently. We were still small in number, but I felt that things were different. I was seeing things through different eyes: I was born again: seeing things through the Spirit's eyes.
The answer is yes: we can be born again and again and again. Let us see life through the eyes of the one we call the Comforter and the Advocate. May it take us places we never expected. And may we never be the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.