She must have been five years old, my daughter, when she crawled into my lap one day at home. After laying her head on my chest, she took her hand and placed it over my heart. She didn’t say anything, but just held it there. Then, she felt her own heart.
After a few seconds, she put her hand back on my chest and put my hand on hers. I could feel her little heart beating as she looked at me and smiled.
“Feel that daddy! Listen! They’re the same!” It was one of those moments that gets carved into your heart for sure, one of those sacred moments that shapes the way you understand the world, your life…love.
“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus.
“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus replies.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, has travelled under cover of darkness to come see Jesus, to ask him about life, about the experiences and encounters folks have been having. Jesus had been meeting folks for just a while, talking with them, and already life had been shaken, reoriented for anyone who came into contact with him.
So we have this image of Nicodemus sneaking out to find Jesus, at night, so no one would see him.
And he affirms to Jesus that no one could do these things “apart from the presence of God,” as he says.
Jesus, always up for a good teaching it seems, tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
What? Nicodemus’ Pharasiac eyebrows furrow, and we can almost see his legalist little wheels spinning in his head. One might say that Jesus has offered Nicodemus a marvelous koan, an image that won’t settle for the usual, rational ways of thinking.
“Can anyone be born again without entering back into their mother’s womb?” He’s stuck…
And Jesus invites him into this challenging place of realization by saying, “You must be born from above.”
“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks.
“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
Jesus’ words cut to Nicodemus’ heart, because he is showing him that he has become cut off from the deep wisdom of his own tradition. He no longer realizes, or rests in, the deep current of wisdom understanding that sees this dynamic presence of God around and within.
When Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” see…Jesus isn’t talking about something far off. He is pointing to a reality that is here, already present, but not seen…hidden from eyes that cannot perceive it…eyes that must “be born from above,” that must be opened to a new way of envisioning the world.
Isn’t it interesting that this text is assigned for Trinity Sunday? This First Sunday after Pentecost when we focus our attention on the Triune nature of God…that great mystery. It is sometimes known as “curate’s Sunday,” because you always assign it to the newly ordained priest and watch them squirm. And also, “Heresy Sunday,” because you can go into any church on this day and hear such incredibly powerful…heresy. Folks trying to explain the nature of God, folks drawing on images and analogies: for example, “The Trinity is like ice, liquid water, and steam. All are water, all are two atoms of hydrogen one atom of Oxygen…but three forms…”
Sounds wonderful…but it is actually the heresy of “modalism,” that God stops being Father and Spirit when God is Son, in that “mode of being,” and so on…
Interesting mind games I think…and we find ourselves with Nicodemus, scratching our heads and saying “How can these things be?” And maybe Jesus looks at all of us and replies, “Are you a Christian, are you a minister, a teacher, a choir member, a vestry person, etc., and you do not understand these things?”
Here’s a trick for Trinity Sunday: no one ‘understands’ it in that sense, of being able to explain it to someone at a dinner party. When we come at it as needing an explanation, we lose its meaning, its point, as it were.
I remember in my hospice residency, surprisingly, our supervisor gave us The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying as our textbook for an entire semester. This strange collection of meditations and descriptions and images of what happens to “me” after my death…these stages of existence after physical death…this ‘space’ where one’s consciousness ‘is’ called a bardo…and from which reincarnation takes place. For the first month, I was terribly confused about why we needed to read this if we were practicing being chaplains with people who were dying—people who were, of course, mainly Christian and who had no interest in bardos or reincarnation.
But then I found myself on one page where the author, Sogyal Rinpoche, made this comment: “We often assume that simply because we understand something intellectually…we have realized it. This is a great delusion.”
Wow. And I wondered—and still do—how much that we approach our faith as some rational exercise, some problem to be solved, some exercise that has an answer…
When Jesus tries to show Nicodemus that it is a vision to be embodied, a life to be lived… a space of deeper realization and understanding, that we inhabit through “being born from above,” of being lifted, perhaps, out of our old rational frameworks.
The same key to understanding the Trinity is the key to understanding our life in community, and we aren’t going to “get there” just by relying on our own talent for “figuring things out,” or “our own skills,” or “our own clever ideas,” or “the newest and greatest program.”
The way to “get there” or “be taken there,” as the case may be, is to realize the deeper union that we all share.
“God in three persons, blessed Trinity” we sang in our processional hymn this morning. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. And one of my favorites, Love, Beloved, and Lover. These three persons who are at the same time one God. Makes no rational sense, does it. At least not in the way we think of persons.
We think of persons as being individuals, of being separate, of being over and against each other, competitive. The Western world sees people as separate, all in the race to get stuff, to purchase, to compete….to share, yes, but to get first (if we’re honest).
Maybe we struggle to understand the Trinity because we have this warped sense of who we are as persons. We live our lives as individuals, yet God shows us that God is, at the heart of it all, a community of persons. Love, Beloved, and Lover moving together and flowing in and out, this wonderful image of perichoresis, or dancing together.
The Kingdom of God looks like—is—Holy Community, where we understand and realize that our true existence is with each other, not alone, no isolated, no one better than the other or worth more than the other…all joined…all together…just like God.
We’re not going to “get there” on our own. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Indeed…
But, when we open ourselves to this insight, this constant rebirth—this consciousness—we realize who we really are—together.
And that’s when I can really understand what my daughter meant when she took her hand and put it on my chest, and took my hand and put it on hers….and we sat and felt our hearts beat…and she looked at me and smiled…and said, “Listen daddy….listen to our hearts…. They’re the same!”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Trinity Sunday, Year B
St. John 3:1-17
May 31, 2015