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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Pentecost +1 / Trinity B May 27, 2018


Nicodemus by Henry Tanner, 1899
O God Most High, in the waters of baptism you made us your sons and daughters in Christ, your only-begotten Son.  Hear deep within us the cry of that Spirit, who calls out to you "Abba, Father,"  and grant that, obedient to your savior's commission, we may become heralds of the salvation you offer to all and go forth to make disciples of all nations. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 3:1-17

"All are included, even God's enemies. God did not come to condemn, but to save. As Martin Niemoller once put it, 'It took me a long time to realize that not only did God not hate my enemies, he didn't even hate his enemies.'"

Lectionary Blogging, Trinity B, John Petty, 2012.

"What is crucial in our proclamation is the reality of God's activity in Jesus, God's only Son, sent and given for the sake of the salvation of the world. Only through the awakening of belief through the Spirit can this be known."

Commentary, John 3:1-17, Ginger Barfield,, 2015

"When we become too sure of what we know about Jesus (or indeed the Trinity on this particular Sunday), when we believe that we have grasped him at last, that is when we can perhaps expect to be undone like Nicodemus."

Commentary, John 3:1-17, Meda Stamper,, 2012.

Let me begin by saying how much I love this story and enjoy Nicodemus.  A pharisee, a righteous liver, he comes to Jesus and sits and has a conversation with him.  The early church thought this was about entrapment.  Maybe it was.  Regardless, there is deep wisdom in this passage and important thoughts for the follower of Jesus today.

First, let us begin in the beginning.  Nicodemus says that he believes that Jesus is from God.  He literally says, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God."  But this meaning in English is better understood as "you are a teacher approved by God."  Jesus then corrects him saying, "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Often times we immediately go to the importance of this phrase in light of our one understanding of baptism.  (We will get there.)  But this is really a message to Nicodemus that Jesus is not himself just another prophet approved by God, but is directly from God, of God.

 Nicodemus does not understand and thinks Jesus is speaking about people. So he asks about being born of God.  Jesus answers in the language of the first century which held a mix of understanding that God was in you and/or that God adopted you as an individual. This language is very clear in the Pauline letters; and, I should say very important language in the Christian Faith.  Though theological in nature these notions are not applied to Jesus directly as he is one with the Father.  (Raymond Brown, John, vol 1, 138ff)

Raymond Brown argues that there is also enough language of adoption in the OT that Nicodemus as a righteous pharisee would have been able to understand that Jesus was offering a vision that the gathering at the end of times was at work in the world through Jesus' own ministry. (140)   There is a notion here that the Holy Spirit of God is begetting, if you will, new members of God's family.  In a time when birth had significant meaning to your culture, context, and religion, this is a radical all embracing notion.  Just as today for the righteous it is difficult to wrestle with God's all embracing drawing in of sinners.  This is a beautiful and mysterious thing.  We are not as human beings able to understand and fathom the depths of God fully and so this Holy Spirit begetting is strange.  Jesus says, ‘You must be born from above.’8The 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.” (vs 8, see also Eccles 11.5 "As you do not know how the spirit (wind) comes to the bones in the womb, so you do not know the work of God who does all things.")

This passage also has profound meaning for the Christian community within the context of baptism.  For the first Christians this is about God and the family of God.  It is about being born of water and spirit. It is about the ritual of Christian initiation.  It is important to note that this is completely foreign to the pharisee sitting before Jesus. Nicodemus might have understood baptism as a cleansing or ritual bathing.  Or, he could have understood this baptism or rebirth like the "proselyte" baptism of his own day where a person becoming a Jew went through a ceremony of new birth - literally a rebirthing.  Neither of these are Holy Spirit baptism. (142)  This is a hotly debated topic and can send us off into all kinds of scenarios.  Let me simply say that for the purpose of our reflection, the church has understood this as the necessary form of the sacrament of baptism in order to be reborn and that the stronger pieces of scripture to support this sacrament are found elsewhere and not here.

What is important, what is amazing, is again this notion of grace given by the Holy Spirit.  The idea so very difficult for Nicodemus is that being physically born into the family of Abraham, and following the law as a good pharisee, is not what matters in the end. Rather, the radical notion that the family of Abraham is being increased by the begetting work of the Holy Spirit!  Moreover, that the begetting Holy Spirit is falling on people who do not follow the law like good Nicodemus.  That is trouble for Nicodemus indeed!  For at the end of the day I think Nicodemus like us (when we are honest) is a score keeper. He has a good score.  He is born special and separate, and he has spent a life separating himself even more through his piety.

In the dark night of our souls when we come to Jesus what are we inviting him to bless?  Our score? Our piety? Our actions?  Our work of justice? Our right living?  What are we inviting Jesus to curse?  In the dark night when we sit at Jesus' feet what does he offer us? He offers us freedom from keeping score, keeping score on others; but most importantly keeping score on ourselves. 

Next comes the important part of the passage:  "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."  The message here is one of the resurrected Lord.  Jesus will be raised, the Son of Man, will be raised and this will undo the power of the law over us.  Jesus' resurrection and ascension will unify man with God in a new way and in so doing will unplug our score board. He will wipe clean the slate.  In the ascension, in his return to the holy community of God (the Trinity) he does so without any human effort. He does so without having asked our permission. He does so even though he is crucified. He does so purely as a measure of grace for the righteous and the sinner alike.

I believe he offers us grace.  I believe he offers us grace to imagine the family of God as God sees it and to imagine the reality of our personal invitation to participate.  Will we follow this Jesus? This Jesus of grace? This loving Jesus?  Who is raised from the dead and ascends into heaven and unites us into the heavenly community?  Will we follow him when he says:

“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."

Romans 8:12-25

"...the preacher will do well to bring up the fact that there is feminine, indeed maternal, imagery for God in the Bible also (Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; 66:13). That imagery is also used to speak of God in an intimate way, not to define God by gender."

Commentary, Romans 8:12-17, Arland J. Hultgren,, 2015.

"It is interesting that Paul, writing to what was probably a predominantly male audience, would have invoked the imagery of a pain that has never been felt by males."

"Labor Pains," Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2014.

"Even self assurance is not based on fetching the certificate of membership or recalling an even of the the past, but a sense of oneness or otherwise with the being of God the Spirit moving within our lives (8:16)."

"First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages in the Lectionary," Pentecost 6, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.
We continue our reading in Paul's Romans and we continue as he reminds us that our desires are not the desires of God and so we grate against God's pull upon us. We are ego centered creatures. At our worst we have very little room for anyone else.

But the life of the follower of Jesus is not hallmarked by feeding these personal desires and wishes but instead by overcoming our brokenness to work on God's work. We are to press forward dealing with our own sins and thus building up the character of God within us. In other words those things that are in us, which we do but do not wish to do, which are bad for ourselves or others are the very things that build us up into the character of Christ as we work on them. So it is that we groan we suffer we carry our cross - but we are not condemned.

We have hope. We know that while we still labor the final battle is won. We know that while we chose to labor because of God's grace that we do so out of a great sense of wanting to life a life within God's Spirit. Yet we hope. We hope on our good days and we hope on our bad days. 

This hope of God's winning victory is what pulls us forward. Knowing that death and sin have met their match and God has been victorious sealing for us eternal life allows us to continue to live as "children of God." Knowing that we are heirs, that we are given as intimate relationship with God as Jesus had himself - we are able to apply ourselves tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. 

We are freed from hopelessness. We are freed from bondage to sin and death which kept us from hope.

It is here in this reception of grace, forgiveness, and love from God that we discover hope for ourselves, hope for our lives, hope for our relationships, and hope for our church. 

So let us awake! Let us see that God has won the day. Let us see that in the end sin and death are conquered and let us chose to work on ourselves that we might ever more grow into the character of Christ. For we are one with God, we are his children, and his heirs.

Isaiah 6:1-8

"Such spilling of divine secrets amounts to a paradoxical intervention, when straightforward communication has failed, an intervention designed to goad listeners into hearing."

Commentary, Isaiah 6:1-8, Patricia Tull, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"The Isaiah reading anchors our vision of the Trinity with Isaiah's, set on the Lord of hosts and the throne of vast and awesome might."

Commentary, Isaiah 6:1-8, Melinda Quivik, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"We are sent to join God in mission because we have encountered God, because we have been brought face to face with God's holiness and our brokenness, and because we have been made whole by God's grace."

"Worship that Sends," Patrick Johnson, Missional Preaching: Equipping for Witness, 2015.

John's gospel understands that Isaiah is a witness to the divinity of Christ. Isaiah is the voice crying out in the wilderness (John 1.23). Then again in 53.1 and 6.10, John uses Isaiah again to reveal that Jesus is fulfilling prophesy. (Richard Hays, Echoes of the Scripture in the Gospels, 293.)

This is all very important because what Christian biblical theologians argue is that Isaiah, when he has this vision (the one from today's lesson) he is not simply seeing God on the throne, but he is seeing the incarnation, the Christ, on the throne. Hays argues that this is John's view too and this is why it is so important for him to enlist Isaiah as a witness to God in Christ Jesus. (Hays, 289.) This a witness to the triadic nature of God and the eternal presence of the incarnation. (Hays would say Jesus...but I think that is theologically incorrect.)

This is an important reading of scripture because it is both triune and it begins to reveal how the first evangelists and followers of Jesus understood who Jesus was without a New Testament.

One of the real issues on Trinity Sunday is not so much the Trinity, but our lack of good theological and scriptural underpinning.

What I am saying here is quite important, at least to my theology and understanding of the creation. People often suggest that the Trinity is a mere mystery planted into theology because of early Christian infighting over the idea of who Jesus was and the deep desire to not appear anything other than monotheist. Secondly, we err on the side of believing that the incarnation begins with Jesus' birth - which it decidedly does not...if you are a true Trinitarian that is. And, lastly we make the mistake of believing that the only reason that Jesus comes into the world is because of sin. That is hogwash too. You see most people get a good understanding of Augustine trinitarian doctrine and don't go any further. Without doing so what we get is the heresy of modalism...another Augustine says himself: the trinity is really about describing three somethings. (Augustine, De Trinitate 7.9 (CCSL, 50A:259).

The Trinity's work is part of the very creation of the cosmos. It is present before the birth of Jesus and after. The 1 in 3 and 3 in 1 God is fully active prior to our imagining and will be long after our ingathering. There is one will causing all actions and one substance.

I think that Robert Farrar Capon puts a fun and quite theologically brilliant spin on all of this as he reminds us of the contribution of the early Scotists and Franciscan theologians - good trinitarians all. I offer you this quote from his book The Third Peacock...well worth the read. Enjoy:

In the Christian scheme of things, the ultimate act by which God runs and rescues creation is the Incarnation. Sent by the Father and conceived by the Spirit, the eternal Word is born of the Virgin Mary and, in the mystery of the indwelling, lives, dies, rises, and reigns. Unfortunately, however, we tend to look on the mystery mechanically. We view it as a fairly straight piece of repairwork which became necessary because of sin. Synopsis: The world gets out of whack; perverse and foolish oft it strays until there is none good, no, not one. Enter therefore God with incarnational tool kit. He fixes up a new Adam in Jesus and then proposes, through the mystery of baptism, to pick up all the fallen members of the old Adam and graft them into Christ. Real twister of an ending: As a result of sin, man ends up higher by redemption than he would have by creation alone.

However venerable that interpretation is, though, it is not the only one. As long ago as the Middle Ages, the Scotist school of Franciscan theologians suggested another. They raised the question of whether the Incarnation would have occurred apart from sen; and they answered it, Yes. In other words, they saw the action of God in Christ, not as an incidental patching of the fabric of creation, but as part of its very texture. For our purposes—in this context of a world run by desire for God—that opens up the possibility that the Word in Jesus was not so much doing bits of busy work to jimmy things into line as he was being his own fetching self right there in the midst of creation.
And there you have the bridge from a mechanical to a personal analogy to the divine help. When we say that a friend “helped” us, two meanings are possible. In the case where our need was for a Band-Aid, a gallon of gas or a push on a cold morning, we have in mind mechanical help; help for times when help was at least possible. But when nothing can be helped, when the dead are irretrievably dead and the beloved lost for good, what do we mean by telling Harry how much help he was to us in our need? He did nothing; he rescued no one from the pit, he brought no one back from the ends of the earth. Still, we are glad of him; we protest that without him we would never have made it. Yet we know perfectly well we could have gotten through it just by breathing in and out. That means, therefore, that what we thank him for is precisely personal help. It was his presence, not the things that he did, that made the difference.

So with God, perhaps. Might not Incarnation be his response, not to the incidental irregularity of sin, but to the unhelpable presence of badness in creation? Perhaps in a world where, for admittedly inscrutable reasons, victimization is the reverse of the coin of being, his help consists of his presence in all victims. At any rate, when he finally does show up in Jesus, that is how it seems to work. His much-heralded coming to put all things to rights ends badly. When the invisible hand that holds the stars finally does its triumphant restoring thing, it does nothing at all but hang there and bleed. That may well be help; but it is not the Band-Aid creation expected on the basis of mechanical analogies. The only way it makes any sense is when it is seen as personal: When we are helpless, there he is. He doesn’t start your stalled car for you; he comes and sits with you in the snowbank. You can object that he should have made a world in which cars don’t stall; but you can’t complain he doesn’t stick by his customers.
So, back to Isaiah. Now, did Isaiah catch a glimpse of God in Christ, the Incarnation, sitting upon the thrown? A man with arms and legs? A pre-Jesus. I doubt it but I do not know. But I believe that Isaiah understood clearly that the God who gave him the sight of such a vision was the God who had created the cosmos and would in the end gather us in. It is God, the Lord, who is present at our coming in and our going out. It is this God who, in the wreck of Israel and the end of King Uzziah's rule, is present. Everything can be in the dumps but the Lord sits upon his throne and sits by our side. 

And, it is this certainty of presence that Isaiah bears witness to, that the first disciples experienced both before and after the resurrection, and it is this certainty of presence that John the evangelist records in his Gospel.

Sermons Preached on this Passage

Everyone Needs a Place, May 27, 2018- Trinity Sunday, Trinity, Galveston

The first Sunday after Pentecost, Year BHappy Days #77: The Book of Records

Jun 5, 2012, Sermon preached at St. Stephens and Hope Houston, Trinity Sunday, Year B, 2012; with a shout out to my Mom and her new phone!

Living the Divine Trinity is Living Ministry

Jun 9, 2015, Sermon preached at St. Thomas Houston, Trinity Sunday, 2015

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