A Sermon for Trinity Sunday: the First Sunday after Pentecost
by Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
I love National Geographic magazine. My family is one of those families that had bookcases filled with National Geographic’s that went back practically to when my parents were children. The first time that I visited my husband’s family, I noticed that they, too, had kept years’ worth of National Geographic – yet another sign that Buck and I were meant to be together.
We still get National Geographic, and I still love poring over it. And, after all these years, one thing hasn’t changed: I look at National Geographic. I hardly ever read it. Well, sometimes I read the captions to the pictures, but mostly, I just love to look at the pictures. I’ve learned a lot from those pictures over the years, but God only knows how much more I might’ve understood if I’d actually delved into more of those articles!
Recently, however, there was a cover article that I simply couldn’t resist reading. “The War on Science,” it proclaimed, and the article inside was entitled “The Age of Disbelief.” The gist of it was that, no matter how sound and thorough the scientific method that leads to a scientific consensus on, say, evolution or the efficacy of vaccinations, many of us find it hard to believe what doesn’t easily or intuitively make sense.
For example, the scientific consensus that the earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun has been established long enough that most of us accept the idea without question. But, day to day, it doesn’t feel like we’re spinning around in circles. And if you watch the sun from sun up to sun down, it looks like it’s revolving around the earth. And if you realize that the moon does indeed revolve around the earth – just like it appears to do – you can get really jumbled. We shouldn’t be surprised that Galileo, one of the greatest scientists of all time, was put on trial and forced to recant his 17th century claim that the earth spins on an axis and revolves around the sun. Since then, however, obviously, his claims have withstood the rigors of further experiments and observations.
At least in the case of the earth’s revolution around the sun, we now know that truth is not always what it appears to be. The National Geographic article makes the point that science is “not a body of facts, [but]…a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” And what withstands scientific scrutiny can sometimes blow our minds.
Ironically, today’s gospel made me think of that National Geographic article. [Who says science and religion don’t mix?] Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews and likely a man of at least some education, is drawn irresistibly to Jesus. Because of the signs that Jesus does and the people whom Jesus attracts, it makes sense to Nicodemus that Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God.” But Nicodemus runs quickly into the roadblock of disbelief when Jesus tells him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without having been born from above.” Nicodemus knows how babies are born; he can’t imagine that being born happens any other way than that way, so trying to make sense of an adult reentering his mother’s womb in order to be born again is ludicrous…not to mention a bit icky. Imagine Nicodemus’s reaction if Jesus had told him that they were both descended from the same ancestor as whales and apes!
But Jesus sticks to his main point, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit…‘You must be born from above.’” Nicodemus simply can’t bring himself to accept what Jesus is telling him: it isn’t part of his received religious tradition – the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments – and he can’t perceive it otherwise. He can’t see it, or smell it, or taste it, or hear it, or touch it. How can it be true? But Jesus insists, and he urges Nicodemus to believe what Jesus is telling him about earthly things so that Nicodemus can begin to fathom heavenly things.
Jesus invites Nicodemus – and us – to believe in more than he could simply comprehend by observation or reason. Essentially, Jesus urges Nicodemus – and us – to do more than simply look at the pictures. Nicodemus had been there to witness the signs, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for him as a devout Jew to believe that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God. But to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, sent by God, to invite us into a way of life that is not intuitive (blessed are the poor, love your enemies, forgive seventy times seven, for starters), and promises eternal life starting now – that’s a stretch…for Nicodemus and, I daresay, for most of us. Yet, despite our reluctance, the invitation persists.
Trinity Sunday – today – is a celebration of that invitation. As you probably know, it’s one of the seven major feasts in the church, right up there with Christmas and Easter, as well as Epiphany, Ascension, Pentecost, and All Saints, which gives you some idea of its importance. It’s also mind-boggling. It invites us to believe, to trust, to live into the idea that God is three co-equal persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in one eternal being. The Outline of the Faith in our Prayer Book, also known as the Catechism, puts it even more succinctly: “The Trinity is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” One being consisting of three persons, all equal, all eternal. Three in one. I don’t know about you, but that is not a concept that creates an immediate “aha” moment for me.
But, as Jesus tries to convince Nicodemus, it is an invitation into far more than we observe by our own senses; it is an invitation from God to live into the One whose very essence is defined by the loving relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, the source of all creation, never stops seeking to pull us into that loving relationship, into communion with God and each other, into the assurance that God is the source of all salvation. God’s invitation is to dive in deep, to experience the underlying unity of all creation, to live into the promise of the kingdom of God now.
The Trinity also reminds us that the fulfillment of our relationship to and with and in God asks us for prayer, for contemplation, for commitment. We can’t just look at the pictures; we have to delve into the article. And, sometimes, it still won’t seem to make sense. It can even turn our world upside down. But we stake our faith on the belief that it’s worth it.
It’s sort of like looking at a kaleidoscope. The more we peer into it, the more beautiful and dynamic it becomes, but it never stays in focus long. What seems clear one moment is blurry the next. But then what is dark becomes light. And what seems ended begins again. The invitation is to keep watching, keep turning, keep living into more than what seems to be right in front of us. The invitation is to do more than just look at the pictures.
 Marcia McNutt, as quoted in Achenbach, 40.