May 31, 2015

Trinity Sunday Year B 

Today is Trinity Sunday on our Christian calendar, always celebrated the Sunday after Pentecost, affirming that our God is one God existing in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our belief in the Trinity shows us what God is really like. The God of power and might is the God who comes among us in great humility in the person of Jesus Christ, the God who bears our burdens, who embraces the consequences of life in our world, who suffers and dies with its victims and rises again to give new life.  

Our God isn’t a remote figure—remote from us by being better and bigger and stronger than us, so that competition and envy become inevitable. Rather, our God is closer than our breath. Nor is our God remote from us in the distant past, back when Jesus walked the earth, so the best we can do is strain on tip-toes for a glimpse of God over the high fence of history. No, Jesus Christ is our contemporary in every generation, alive among us in his Spirit in every Christian gathering and especially in the Eucharist.

Here is a great Christian paradox, that our belief in the incarnation and the Trinity strives to express: the God of power and might, high and lifted up, is at the same time our God, near to us and undergirding us, calling us into relationship—a God above us who is at the same time a God for us. And this paradox of Christian experience is all over our readings today. 

This greatness of God is extolled in our psalm, over all the other contenders for sacred power in antiquity: forests and mountains, seas and storms. Yet this is a God for God’s people, above them in greatness only to embrace them in love…"The Lord will give strength to his people: the Lord will give to his people the blessing of peace". 

Isaiah is stunned with the awe of God’s presence, in our Old Testament reading today, but it’s not an encounter with absolute power that breeds resentment, bitterness and opposition. Rather, the majesty of God feels more like holiness than naked domination, bringing the prophet to himself. God speaks lofty words of intimate mercy to the prophet: ‘your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out’. This is a God whose power and greatness liberate and enlarge us, rather than imprison and diminish us, as we see when the prophet’s encounter with God was at the same time the revealing of the deepest, most fulfilling meaning of his life: ‘Here am I; send me’. 

This is the testimony, too, of our Romans reading today. Sure we can reject God and make our own way in life, we can play by our own rules, but this choice, which the bible calls sin, doesn’t mean freedom. In reality it means being enslaved, being robbed of freedom to be who we most truly are. In our era of free thought and practical atheism we think freedom is self-determination, but in reality we live enslaved to ideologies and economic agendas, to the herd and to its shifting, fickle tastes. But remember once again this paradox of Christian experience: serving God isn’t being dominated by an alien power, but rather it’s finding a new aliveness from within, as we hear it clearly in Romans today: ‘For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear…When we cry ‘Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…’. 

But we mustn’t go too far the other way and think our God is a pushover, a God on whose good will we can presume. The Christ who will draw all people to himself according to our Gospel today is the one who is lifted high over everything, the one who has the most critically profound perspective on everything—Christ who suffers among us and beside us is also exalted by his Father, and his agenda, his version of our best chance in life, is not compatible with every other agenda, every other version of the good life. So today’s Gospel has old Nicodemus wrong footed and uncomprehending, because the way of God in faithfulness to Israel is now taking a turn Nicodemus hasn’t expected. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story, not the religious bureaucracy represented by Nicodemus. In Jesus, God is putting the whole world on notice. 

Now this sort of belief has implications. It means our worship of God will involve elements of nearness and farness, regularly alternated. Hence the rhythm of our Eucharist, with the distance of God evident in the distance between nave and sanctuary, in the dress setting apart the ministers, in the lofty language, yet in the same act of worship the never-failing informality, the friendliness of our peace greeting and the shocking nearness of God in Christ as we receive the blessed sacrament. 

As for our lives, well, there’ll be implications for how we live when you and I are sent out today to love and serve the Lord. It will mean new attitudes toward power, using the power we have by virtue of our positions to give life, not just to impose our own will. It will mean restraining the sovereign ego in favor of a more holistic, a more relational view of the good life, as our communion with the Holy Trinity gives us the taste for a more humane and integrated existence, beyond the lemming-like slavery to the agenda of consumer society. 

So God the Holy Trinity demonstrates what humanizing sovereignty looks like: greatness with humble nearness, close embrace with transcendent purpose. In all of this, the Trinity is a subversive, counter-cultural challenge to our religious imagination. A needed corrective to refocus our attention on the kingdom of God, the reign of God in the hearts and minds and lives of God’s people.