Special thanks to guest blogger Don Carlson, assistant to the bishop, who wrote this post:
Trinity – June 3, 2012
Isaiah 6:1-8 – Call of Isaiah. Six-winged seraph. Holy, holy, holy.
Psalm 29 – Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. (Ps. 29:2)
Romans 8:12-17 – Life in the Spirit. Present suffering incomparable to the glory to be revealed. Creation eagerly waits.
John 3:1-17 – Nicodemus. Being born of the Spirit, which blows where it wills.
Holy Trinity is the only Sunday of the church year that celebrates a theological concept rather than a historical event. A full discussion of its roots can be found on Wikipedia under Trinity.There is lots of interesting information there, but it isn’t going to preach very well! In fact, when I was in the parish I found Holy Trinity Sunday one of the more difficult Sunday’s on which to preach – and hold people’s attention.
It could be a Sunday to rehearse Luther’s Small Catechism on the Apostle’s Creed. It’s always helpful to revisit the catechism, but doing it from the pulpit can be tricky. I think that one has to focus on the “Good News” found in Luther’s words and what it means for us to “trust” in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; “believe” has become too cerebral.
It could also be a chance to lift up the great mystery of the Trinity. I have often used artwork to do this as words fall short. And, of course, there are hymns that also express the mystery. I especially like “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity,” 412 ELW, and “Holy God, We Praise Your Name,” 414 ELW. I’m not sure of any “contemporary Christian” music that deals adequately with the Trinity, but there is a video on You Tube that might make for a meaningful prelude/gathering or contemplative piece during the service. It is a “Ken Burns effect” on Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity set to the opening of Tchaikovsky’s “Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.” The Russian Orthodox chant captures a sense of mystery.
I found it helpful to move Confirmation to Holy Trinity Sunday. The Affirmation of Baptism fits well with the Trinitarian focus. However, it’s probably a little late to do that this year!
I would not drag out the Athanasian Creed on this day; been there, done that. I think it was dropped from the ELW. It is one the Ecumenical Creeds and part of the Lutheran Confessions, but it is not very user friendly. It nails the coffin lid on Arianism and Adoptionism, but also nails the lid on interest about halfway through; and the anathemas smack of Christendom.
Jesus and Nicodemus
To preach the day or preach the text? That is the question. I doubt that the writer of John had Trinitarian formulations in mind in this pericope.
Based on the work of Dr. Ray Pickett (LSTC), I have developed a lens through which I view each Gospel. This view is not exhaustive as the Gospels are richly textured and multifaceted; but it has been helpful to me.
I begin with the premise that first century “Christianity” largely existed as a sect within Judaism. That is, Jews that believed that Jesus was the Messiah continued to live and “synagogue” with Jews that did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. (1st century Judaism was certainly not monolithic.) And what this means is that the Gospels – all late first century documents – are intra-Jewish arguments/apologies. In brief, these arguments might be characterized as follows:
MARK: With the temple in ruins and death all around following Titus’ sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE, “In the midst of crucifixions, how do we follow a crucified Messiah?”
LUKE: With the Diaspora underway and Jewish communities rubbing shoulders with all sorts of people, “If Jesus is Messiah, then what about these Gentiles?”
MATTHEW: With the temple and sacrificial system gone, all that held the dispersed community together was the Torah, “If Jesus is Messiah, then what about the law?“
JOHN: With “Christians” – the followers of Messiah Jesus – finally being driven out of or leaving the synagogues, “Can we exist apart from our roots? Is Jesus as Messiah enough?
And so, in John there is a lot of Jesus “fulfilling” (filling to the fullest) the Jewish tradition. A few examples: the best wine has been saved until now; Jesus is the living water vis-à-vis Meribah; the living bread vis-à-vis manna; the vine vis-à-vis the vineyard of Israel; the Good Shepherd vis-à-vis all that have come before. It is those that see Jesus as Messiah that truly see; John 9. And, to jump to the end, John even rearranges the Passion Week timetable so that Jesus can become the true Passover lamb; crucified on the Day of Preparation. Point made! Jesus is enough.
It is insightful to read John’s Gospel while hearing this argument – this spiritually existential crisis – going on in the background.
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”
What I hear is, “Don’t worry. Your first birth – being biological children of Abraham – isn’t what really matters.” (They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.‘ – John 8)
(And it’s also important to note that it’s “born from above.” “Born again” language is unbiblical.)
Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’
I hear more than a gentle reprimand of just Nicodemus. “Don’t worry. It is the rabbis of Israel that do not understand.”
‘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.‘
What I hear is, “Don’t worry. God is saving – eternal lifing – the whole world (kosmon) through Messiah Jesus.” Reread the prologue – John 1:1-18 – with intra-Jewish argument/apology ears on and see how it sounds.
The task is always – insofar as possible – to try to hear the text with the ears of the original community; or at least to rummage around a bit in that enterprise. And this may be especially difficult with this text because “everybody knows John 3:16.” The verse has become a Hallmark card.
What to preach? As with the author of John at the end of the 1st century, the answer to that question depends upon what your ministry context needs to hear on June 3, 2012.
We minister and people live in a time when all sorts of familiarities, identities, and emotional moorings seem to be fading. How can we exist without…? Who are we apart from…? Is gathering around Messiah Jesus enough?
And what does it mean to be “saved?” Can we explore that without superimposing on it Anselm’s 11th century theory of substitutionary atonement? Can we think about it without dragging in all the “personal Lord and Savior” baggage. I think “eternal life” is as much about life before death as it is life after death; perhaps even more. What does “eternal life” look like as we live together following this Messiah Jesus who has been lifted up and drawn us – and all people – unto himself?
Be at peace with God and one another,
Don Carlson, Assistant to the Bishop