Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on May 30, 2021

Posted by on Sun, May 30, 2021 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons, Trinity Sunday

The First Sunday after Pentecost:
Trinity Sunday

May 30, 2021

Nicodemus is called The Patron Saint of the Curious; particularly those curious about Jesus. Nicodemus wants to believe and yet struggles. He comes with a mind clear about Jesus coming from God. It’s the sort of clarity that’s only from the neck up though. When Jesus begins to speak with him he’s confused because he takes Jesus literally. Born from above? Born again? How could that be? The distinction between the ‘world’ and ‘above’ is significant, and it’s in the tension between contradictions or opposite poles that John’s gospel often invites us to explore and enrich our faith. Like Nicodemus coming by dark of night to learn from the one who is the Light of the World. John’s use of contrast to make a point continues; the word kosmos or ‘world’ most often means those forces opposed to God, some term it ‘the God-hating world,’ and suggesting that in John’s gospel you can often replace ‘world’ with that phrase. The contrast is between the ‘above’ (heavens) and the ‘God-hating world’ below, and Jesus is trying to redirect Nicodemus’ life long perspective so that he can see the bigger picture with new eyes, to see ‘from above,’ from God’s perspective, not the God-hating world. 

We also just heard those most well known words; “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.” And equally important but at times forgotten; “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.” We hear those strong beautiful lines and may forget their context is this born-from-above conversation. Nicodemus is so relatable that we get swept into his curiosity and questions. 

He began in certainty, “we know you are from God,” and moves into confused uncertainty as Jesus answers his questions. We are right alongside Nicodemus as Jesus explains none can know or see anything with certainty about God’s realm without being born from above. A self-centric worldview is different from being reborn into the whole-picture worldview of God. To be born by the Spirit into truth asks us to be absent from that limited view so comfortable and easy to inhabit. As Jesus repeats words or phrases to Nicodemus they take on increasingly profound and less literal meanings. So by the end of our passage, Jesus speaking repeatedly of birth fits well with the closing words about eternal life. 

We put ‘born from above’ or ‘born again’ in air quotes because it isn’t meant literally, where Nicodemus got stuck in it. The Greek word is ἄνωθεν (anóthen), meaning as John uses it; from above. We hear it in other key places too; Jesus tells Pilate,“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” (19:11), and at his crucifixion “The tunic was woven in one piece from above” or “from the top” (19:23). In Mark and Matthew the word is used when Jesus cries out and breathes his last; “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from above to down below.” (Matt 27:51 alt. trans.) Living from God’s worldview, is called for in baptism, and often occluded by our world. Jesus explains this is from “water and the Spirit” and he will draw these together repeatedly. It isn’t a dualistic vision of body and soul, flesh or spirit, rather that we use both of these perspectives as parts of our whole, a fullness to live from. In it God’s kingdom is visible even to one visiting in fear or dark of night.

We meet Nicodemus three times which is a rarity for one not a disciple or family. Today we see him curious, struggling, trying hard to comprehend what seems incomprehensible. Next we’ll hear from him when Jesus comes before the Pharisees, including Nicodemus himself. He speaks up to remind them that their own law requires they not judge him before giving him a trial. For this his colleagues rebuke him implying he’s among Jesus’ Galileans. Finally he is there after the crucifixion, going with Joseph of Arimathea to collect Jesus’ body, to anoint and bury him. While he isn’t wearing a bold t-shirt that says ‘Pharisees for Jesus!’ he is stepping forth, willing to show his allegiance to Jesus to his own danger and detriment. We see his faith grown from a secret visit with questions, to confusion, to defending Jesus in front of his colleagues, and finally claiming Jesus’ body publicly revealing his truth. Jesus’ repeated interaction with Nicodemus reveals God as patient and relentless in loving us, drawing us in as one might court their beloved, knowing it takes both parties to come together.  

It’s pretty rare for faith in God to hit us like a lightning bolt, or to grow up never questioning it. When that does happen in a life, model tov! I think most of us are more like Nicodemus, coming to his faith step by small step, curious, carrying questions. We find footing for those steps in relationships, in greater perspective, by our receptive availability; the Spirit moves in us to grow. And yes, we will stall or get lost, only to be drawn back by God whose very identity is to love.

If we step back now to consider all of this, we see God alive in creating, redeeming and sustaining us, present in us even when we ignore God. It’s why sometimes our concluding blessing is in the name of God Almighty, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, emphasizing God’s lively active presence in us. It is after all, Trinity Sunday! Now no preacher really wants to sermonizing their way through a complex doctrine of the Trinity, any more than you are anxious to hear one this morning. So lets play with some other approaches.

Your bulletin cover has Robb Mitchell’s trillium photograph taken just before Trinity another spring, and he brought it to us to use for that day. I think God delights to show up in nature!

These are the The Three Hares, originally a larger roundel showing the three in full body running in a circle together (in your bulletin on page 3). It is from Holy Trinity (Anglican) Church in Long Melford, Suffolk, dating back to the 1400s. Later Cromwellian destruction rampaged countless stained glass, sculpture, carvings, organs, music libraries, —even Communion vessels and crosses deemed too ornate or considered idolatrous. People would gather up recognizable pieces, hiding them until another time. The Three Hares is such a piece, and one lost part has been filled in with what appears a fragment from Christ’s halo. BBC’s Peter Sebbage wrote, “In its repair, it illustrates God’s unfailing love in reconciling a fallen world to Him through the sacrifice of Jesus.” For Christians this immediately calls forth the Trinity, three hares, so enjoined as to share their very substance with each other. An Ancient German riddle goes “Three hares sharing three ears, Yet every one of them has two!” The riddle is from a 17th century depiction of the Three Hares in a synagogue in the Ashknaz region of Germany. They are found mostly in religious places, buildings, and caves, from the British Isles, Germany, France, to the Middle East, along the Silk Road, and parts of China. We don’t know why this symbol was so widespread, in some cases appearing even before regular trade routes. Now Christians see the triangle of hares interconnected as trinitarian, although in ancient times the hare was associated with the Virgin Mary (an explanation I’ll be happy to offer outside of the sermon and broadcast). 

What stands out for me is the relationship between them; interconnected here by their being, which well symbolizes the power of loving, trusting, knowing a Trinitarian God. It reveals less about who God is, and more about what God is about, what God is committed to. We see a living relationship between God as Father or Creator with the Son and with the Spirit; it’s what God does, and what we are invited into if we are ‘born from above’ to see God’s view of things and into God’s love for us. The church — as we know better than ever now — is not the buildings, it’s the people. God’s people in relationship are magnificent, and in you one can see God in action. We couldn’t be St. Michael’s otherwise. One’s faith is a way of seeing, acting, a way of life. Some feared these months of quarantine would make us more insular and self-absorbed, cause us to focus more on what we have power and control over than what we give back and how we love. Not true, hallelujah! As Jim Wallis said, “Our faith is personal but never private.” Faith is not only about us and God, we get to be reborn into the bigger perspective ‘from above’ and that there can be no limit to who we call brother or sister or friend. God-self is also ‘personal, but never private,’ never exclusive. God whose very identity is relational, is known in the Trinity and in love for us. God cannot be limited; not to any one sect or faith, nation or race—like those three hares, God turns up everywhere. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.