May 27, 2018

Trinity Sunday, Year B

Within Reach

Last week, a film crew shut down my street for two evenings. They were shooting scenes for season 3 of a show called “True Detective.” (If you’ve never seen “True Detective,” it’s on HBO, and viewer discretion is highly advised.)

One of the stars of this new season is a man named Mahershala Ali. He’s been in “Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight,” and “House of Cards.” But if you haven’t seen any of that, just know that he’s an actor, and the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.

I was embarrassingly excited to watch the film crew and actors from my front yard. For much of the time, they filmed a Ford Bronco driving down the street over and over again, until they got the speed and timing exactly right. On the first night of filming, I also caught sight of Mahershala Ali on the steps of the house across the street, filming a scene when he knocks on their front door.

Some people might blame my excitement about all this on my Southern California upbringing, but I blame my excitement on my incarnational theology. I just have some kind of ingrained awe at taking people I might know by a face on a screen, or a name in a headline, and encountering them in the flesh.

I feel this awe even though I don’t even watch much TV aimed at audiences over 6 years old, and I’m lucky if I get to a movie once in a year. But I just can’t help but be star-struck. And even though it was amazing to see a famous person right across the street from me, I wanted to get even closer.

Filming on “True Detective” ended last Tuesday evening, when the director said, “That’s a wrap,” and the whole crew clapped. At that moment, I worked up the courage to make my way to Mahershala Ali in as respectful and non-stalkery a way as I could. I waited until he ended a conversation, and then I said hi, and that I lived across the street, and that I was a fan of his. He smiled, stuck out his hand, and just said in a friendly way, “Mahershala.” I shook his hand, did not take a selfie, and went back to my house soon afterward. It was awesome.

Today’s gospel gives me a touch of relief that I’m not the only person who wants to get up close to a rising celebrity. In the gospel, that person is Nicodemus. By this point in the gospel of John, Jesus has gained some notoriety for turning water into wine, for driving money changers out of the Temple, and for doing other signs during the Passover festival in Jerusalem. One night, Nicodemus heads out to meet Jesus for himself.

The gospel tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. There could be many reasons for this. Nicodemus might not want his fellow Pharisees to know that he’s seeking out Jesus. Or maybe we’re just supposed to recognize that Nicodemus is especially pious, since he’s burning the midnight oil seeking a teacher and learning about God. Or maybe Nicodemus was just waiting for the crowds to thin out so he get some focused face-time with this popular teacher. In any case, even though Nicodemus has seen or heard about all the signs, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark.

Jesus has starred in some powerful scenes around Israel. But Jesus wants Nicodemus to see something more, to get a glimpse of the kingdom of God, and he struggles to help Nicodemus grasp some of the most difficult mysteries of our faith.

To help Nicodemus, Jesus tries to teach him by using analogies. Jesus explains that in order to see the kingdom, we have to be born “from above”—or “born again,” or “born anew,” depending on the translation. Like birth through the flesh, this rebirth in the Spirit will open a new world to us, will bring us out of darkness into light, will welcome us into a new type of family of shared discipleship and love for our neighbors.

Jesus also explains that those who are born of the Spirit are like the wind—free in their movements, and unmistakably present, but unable to be controlled or channeled by strictly human agendas.

The problem for Nicodemus at this point in his relationship with Jesus is that he can’t make leaps of understanding. He can’t analogize birth in the flesh, or the sound of wind, to the rebirth and life in the Spirit that Jesus tries to introduce to him. But what strikes me most about Jesus in today’s gospel is that he tries to teach Nicodemus using simple, fleshly things. It’s as though he’s telling us: If you were born into a human body, and if you can feel the wind on your face, then you can almost grasp the most challenging mysteries of our faith—rebirth in the Spirit, drawing us into the abiding love of the Father and the Son.

Today is Trinity Sunday, and one of the first things I remember learning about Trinitarian theology is that all of our analogies for the Trinity are inadequate. Sometimes these analogies get dismissed as “Sunday school” teachings rather than more advanced reflection. For example, the analogy of the persons of the Trinity being like water, snow, and vapor—but all made of the same substance, H2O—doesn’t capture well enough the distinct natures of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the analogy of the three “persons” of the Trinity being like different roles or masks that the one God wears also fails, for the same reasons.

But reading today’s gospel reminds me that Jesus tried to put the loftiest teachings within reach of anyone who was born of the flesh and who had heard a rushing breeze. It makes me think that if I can nervously approach a famous stranger, and find him kind, humble, and extending his hand, then I might know what it’s like to meet a mystery in the flesh. And if I can take a face I’ve seen play many different roles onscreen, and greet that face in 3-D, then I might be able to grasp someday how three can be one.

Whatever ordinary or unusual things happen to us in the course of a week, it is just possible that the mystery of God is trying to come within reach.