I know someone who’s a lifelong Episcopalian – faithful churchgoer, warden, substantial pledger – but when the subject of church comes up in conversation, he just says, It’s a nice quiet place. This is his way of ending the discussion. I understand why he does this – he wants to keep it personal, and he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed – but I think it also has the unfortunate effect of pigeonholing God, compartmentalizing God; and that’s a tragic mistake
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in the book of Ezekiel (of all places), at the end of the first chapter. In that chapter Ezekiel describes “visions of God” he received by the banks of the river Chebar, in Babylonia (it’s during the Babylonian exile, the great spiritual crisis in the life of the nation of Israel, when they were asking themselves, Where is God? The God we thought we knew wouldn’t have allowed this to happen.). It’s a doozy of a vision – human-like creatures but with wings, and faces of lions and eagles and oxen, wheels full of eyes spinning around them, a crystal dome overhead, a sapphire throne over the dome, on and on, takes the whole chapter. And at the end, Ezekiel sums up the whole thing by saying: “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” Let me say that again slowly: “This was the appearance…of the likeness…of the glory…of the Lord”: four big jumps away from the reality of who God is. It’s one of my favorite verses because it’s actually a very careful statement of the truth that when we talk about God, on some level we’re always going to be out of our depth, folks: this is the Creator of the Universe, eternal and unknowable.
But then later on in the book, Ezekiel has another vision, the famous one of the valley of dry bones. The Spirit of God takes Ezekiel to this valley and tells him to say to the people of Israel – in exile in Babylonia – “…say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel….I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” So this same God – the Creator, eternal and unknowable - somehow cares about us; gets involved in our lives; is for us.
There are many things you can say about all this, but one of them is certainly that God works in ways that we don’t expect; that we can’t possibly expect. And if we’re really going to be open to the presence of God in our lives, we have to be ready to be completely astonished, at any moment. And that’s not always going to be a comfortable experience at first.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the day on which we lift up our Christian experience of who God is: which experience is not logical. The church decided a long time ago how to talk about this experience. It took several hundred years of a lot of very smart and faithful people thinking and talking about it, and it cost a lot of people their lives in the process; and we should remember this when we recite the Nicene Creed as we do every week, because the words of that creed are essentially what those people ended up agreeing on: that there is one God, in three Persons, but of one Substance.
This belief – that whole discussion - arose out of the life of Jesus Christ. There was this man who lived two thousand years ago who spoke about God – who God is and what God does – as though he had direct, first-person knowledge of it, and the people who actually heard him could feel that that was absolutely genuine, that he was speaking truthfully. This was dumbfounding to them: no one had ever seen or heard anything remotely like this before. And we get that same feeling from the gospels, it comes through loud and clear.
But when we talk about one God in three Persons it can be problematic: it sounds as though we’re talking about three separate people. We’re not. We’re talking about three distinct ways in which we are aware of God’s presence, God’s activity in our real lives. Christians have traditionally spoken of the three Persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This can reinforce the misunderstanding.
We can translate the traditional formulation this way: God the Father is God who is for us: God who loves us, God who created us and the world which we live in and are part of: God the Father, God for us; God the Son, Jesus Christ, is God who is with us, God alongside us, God who rejoices and celebrates with us, God who suffers and grieves with us: God the Son, God with us; and God the Holy Spirit, God who is in us, working in us as we think and act and feel, as we grow in knowledge and love, as we make choices about our lives, as we try to do God’s will: God the Holy Spirit, God in us. We Christians say that God, the one God, is real, and alive, in each of these three persons, these three ways of being. And we cannot foresee how God is going to show up in our lives.
This is what Jesus is trying to help Nicodemus see, in the famous encounter from chapter 3 of John’s gospel that we heard today: Nicodemus a leader of the Jews, who comes to Jesus at night, because he doesn’t want to be seen consorting with someone his peers have identified as a serious troublemaker.
And right off the bat at this meeting, Nicodemus makes a flat statement: he says, 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. Nicodemus thinks he’s being polite and respectful and receptive to Jesus (and he is); but as soon as he says “We know…”, Jesus sees where the work is to be done with this guy. This is not Ezekiel saying, This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. Nicodemus is claiming to have a handle on how God works: We know that you come from God; no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God. That kind of blanket certainty is a reflex Jesus knows he’s got to address: it’s one of the chief ways we blind ourselves to the works of God that are going on around us all the time. It’s like saying that church is a nice quiet place.
This is why he answers as he does: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Coming right after what Nicodemus has just said, these words sound as though they come out of left field, but in fact they’re a very direct response to what he’s really saying. Jesus is saying that the truth is, we are born anew into every moment of our lives, because God is always creating; and the more we understand that and live that way, the more we open ourselves to the real richness of life.
Nicodemus doesn’t understand Jesus, takes him literally: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” And Jesus takes him further down the path with one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible – beautiful because it’s so piercingly truthful: “…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.” What it all finally comes down to is trusting God. The Christian life is one in which we prepare ourselves to be astonished by God. And we can trust God; because God is for us, God is with us, and God is in us. Thanks be to God.