The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Every so often one of you comes to me and wants to know how you can live with your religious uncertainties or lack of belief. You like being here, but you just don’t know what to do with the fact that we speak and sing about things that don’t make sense to you: the Virgin birth, the Only Son of God, redemption, heaven, and, of course, God as a Trinity of persons in one being, which we celebrate today.
In responding to you, I often say that it might help you to stop thinking so much. That’s because everything we hear in the Bible, all our theology, the creeds, the hymns - it doesn’t explain anything. It expresses.
Scripture and theology and liturgy are more like poetry than logic. They are stories, metaphor, not instruction manuals for the metaphysical. They’re more like abstract art than a photograph. And the purpose of religious expression, like all poetry, story, and art, is not to put things into neat little packages of understanding, but to lead us into experience.
We can see this distinction at work in the wonderful gospel we just heard. Nicodemus is a teacher, and apparently driven to understand the things of God. So he comes to Jesus, an up-and-coming rabbi, perhaps to do what rabbis often do together, which is to debate the subtleties of the Torah.
But Jesus sees it coming, and before Nicodemus can get into it, he plunges them both into the world of metaphor. Jesus says, in effect, “Get out of your head. Allow yourself to be born anew. Let God blow through you like the wind.” Nicodemus is puzzled, and can only sputter “But how can this be?” Jesus doesn’t unpack it for him. He merely responds “Are you a teacher of Israel, a supposedly religious man, and you don’t experience this? Why, even these fishermen, these children, these women do.”
Let God blow through you? Be born anew? Religion expresses and it leads one into experience; it doesn’t explain. Leave the latter to science. So what do our readings express today, and what experiences do they lead us into, especially as we celebrate God as Holy Trinity?
Anniversaries often cause us to think back to the scene of the crime, and so this last week I’ve been remembering my ordination to the priesthood, which was 30 years ago. One of the strongest memories of that day is of my wife Susanna standing high above us in the cathedral lectern, reading the passage from Isaiah which we heard this morning.
Grace Cathedral was filled with incense that day, as was the temple in Jerusalem, in Isaiah’s vision. Seraphim hovered about the throne of God. The prophet described the temple being shaken to its foundations, and as I heard it, I couldn’t resist looking up at the columns and roof, 200 feet above, sitting on the fault line in San Francisco, imagining it all coming down in the Big One. Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might; heaven and earth are full of your glory! Woe is me, for you are all-seeing, all powerful, and am a small man of unclean lips, and you send me to a people of unclean lips. That’s you, apparently.
This passage, whether read at an ordination or today in our hearing, expresses what it is like to encounter the first person of the Trinity - the Eternal Father, the Great Mother, the Creator, or as the Muslims put it so extravagantly, the Boundless, the Majestic, the Unattainable, the One. And this passage, by contrast, also expresses our relative smallness. All we can do, as Isaiah did, is stand in awe and worship.
Do you ever encounter God like this? Do you experience your life like this sometimes? All it takes is a mountain climb, or a peek through a telescope. Many of us recently put on protective eyewear and watched the moon move into perfect alignment with the sun. In this rare celestial event, we couldn’t help but feel the graceful dance of the heavens, and by contrast, our tiny, fleeting position.
The impulse of all religions to evoke and worship the Boundless, Unattainable One is an effort to lead us into this kind of experience. Why? Because we desperately need to remember the grandeur of it all, so that whatever drama is going on in our life might be put in perspective. We are not just our current feelings and our circumstances. We are a part of something vast, beautiful, and integrated. This awareness can lift us up and set us free. What does it take for you to remember this? And how might you seek it out?
Our readings today express something else about God the Holy Trinity, and about our experience as well - the Son, the Christ, the human and divine in one, and our adoption as holy children of God.
Nicodemus, a person who struggles with his faith, comes to Jesus, a flesh-and-blood person of Nazareth. In the night, these two speak earnestly, urgently. Nicodemus has heard of the miraculous healing, the compassionate mercy Jesus has shown to real people of Galilee, poor people, sick, lost, and suffering. Who are you?, he wants to know. It is an intimate, heart-to-heart moment between two men.
Christianity is a human religion. It is not primarily philosophical or abstract. It is about how we relate to one another, the difficulty of forgiving, the freedom of generosity. We are incarnational; God is found in the untidy, emotional, political realities of this world. Strangely, all of this is not only human and material. It is also filled with the divine. Everywhere. At all times.
And so we Christians peer into friends, enemies, and strangers, straining to see Christ in them. We look at our food and see the Creator’s handiwork. We feel the energy of the divine coursing through our blood, through the synapses of our brain. We wonder how God may be at work in our current struggles. Surely we are flawed, limited, and very human, but we are not only this. We are also a part of God’s vast body, an incarnation.
This, I think, is what Paul was expressing in our second reading today. When we reach for God, he says, it is the Spirit within us bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. And if we are children, then there is no fear; instead, there is goodness and trust.
This, too, is helpful to remember, to reach towards the God who is already here, within and among us. Can you trust this presence in you, this larger sense of self? It is already a part of who you are, divinity mingled with your humanity.
Finally, our readings today express something about the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Jesus speaks of being born of the Spirit in that strange nighttime conversation. Nicodemus is astonished, perplexed, so Jesus uses a simile.
It is like the wind, he says. 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. Did you ever try to see the wind? You can’t, of course. You can feel it on your skin. You can see its effects in the trees. You can taste the grit that it carries through the desert air. But you can’t see the wind itself. And Jesus says, you don’t know where it came from or where it will go next.
We live in a culture that emphasizes personal agency. If we are intentional, set our goals, plan our steps, and discipline our actions, we’ll do great things. Sometimes this is very effective. But there is also another way, the way that religion offers to us, the way of the Spirit.
As you open yourself to God’s Spirit - through baptism, Eucharist, prayer, meditation, or by surrendering your imagined omnipotence - that Spirit manifests a life of its own. It works within you, unseen, in coordination with your efforts, producing a divine/human alchemy that will take you into new territory. And what a relief that is, to know that we do not have to make ourselves new, all on our own.
And so today, on this Feast of the Holy Trinity, we celebrate the God of power and might whose glory fills the universe; the God who takes on human form in Jesus, in you, in this mortal plane; and the God who blows through us like the wind, helping us in our struggle to be born anew.
I have no explanations for you, no neat little three-in-one package. All I have is a handful of metaphor, poetry, and story that express something about the richness of life in God. Hopefully they will help you to move into the experience they promise, and encourage you to trust in it more fully.