The Scripture appointed for Trinity Sunday is here
Admitting That to Know Would Be Heresy
This year, in my Good Friday sermon, I explored the foretaste of resurrection which I found in the midst of the Passion. From the Gospel of John,
“After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Judeans, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
From this short passage, I spoke of God’s call to transformation, to repentance and reconciliation. And, it was with joy that I proclaimed that the first act of reconciliation following Jesus’ death on the cross is that those who were secret followers of Jesus are the ones who step forward to claim his body.
Joseph of Arimathea who had kept his love of Jesus a secret and Nicodemus who had first come to Jesus by night (ashamed to be seen seeking the son of Man), these are the ones who use their power to make the request. They use financial privilege to purchase the spices for anointing. They take the risk of loving him to the end. And, the power of the cross as an instrument of crucifixion and emblem of all that destroys becomes a symbol of hope.
And, so, as I read today’s Gospel, I was moved once again...because in spite of Nicodemus’ lack of understanding...the seeds of love were planted.
And thus the wonderment of it. Nicodemus’ who has been told about earthly things, and not believed, gains an understanding of heavenly things which he had not believed. Nicodemus, who came for wisdom under the cover of darkness, steps into the light of love as one born of the Spirit.
But, did he ever “understand”?
And, from the question of understanding, we enter the question of the Trinity--a long belabored topic in the church (so much so, that when you ask clergy if they are preaching on Trinity Sunday, some will groan and others will grin as they mention that their “assistant” is preaching that day). Ineffable, invisible, incomprehensible...unimaginable.
But, since we are human beings we try our best to imagine...and out of our imagination...
Because as we dip into the traditional and not so traditional explications of the inexplicable, each symbol falls short of the Trinity’s meaning and magnitude. There is a solid and humorous You-Tube video by Lutheran satirists called “Patrick’s Bad Analogies” that I highly recommend. But, in brief...
Water in three forms, liquid, ice, vapor--modalism, a heresy because it implies that God is expressed in three forms, but the same substance. The clover with its three leaves joined at the center, partialism because it implies three connected parts each a partial of a whole. Or the sun, the sunlight and the warmth generated--arianism, because the sun generates the light and warmth, and the Son and Spirit are not generated by God--but are rather.
The only expression of the Trinity that doesn’t seem to be a heresy is that it is a mystery. The expression of the divine as one God in three persons--that’s beyond our human understanding.
Yet, it is not beyond our knowing.
And, that’s a radical thing to embrace--this idea that we can believe something that we do not understand and understand something we do not know.
Martin Buber, my favorite theologian (if I were to pick a favorite) states “the world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings” (I-Thou)
In short, what we cannot comprehend we can embrace--and in encounter we can know what we can never understand.
(And, just for full disclosure..this is the point in my sermon preparation when I listened to Sarah McLachlan’s song “building a mystery”)
So, back to heresies, and my consideration of what I believe to be the fundamental flaw of each of the symbols offered--clover, sun, water--how do we have a relationship with any of these as objects in a way which allows us to have a relationship with the Trinity? The most famous depiction of the Trinity, by Russian iconographer Andrei Rubev depicts the three person seated at a table. When you look at the icon, you begin to realize that as the observer, you complete the table. The observer sits at the fourth side.
We are in relationship with the Trinity, indeed, we are part of the Trinity. And the Trinity itself is a relationship between three aspects of love, moving, indwelling, each in each—perichoresis is the word for what is quite simply a God engaged in an elaborate dance. It’s literally meaning is to dance around in the same essence of…an elaborate choreography.
Yet, what role are we to play in the dance? How have we been brought into the relationship?
Through Christ’s humanity we become a part of the Trinity--in Christ’s death and the care Nicodemus takes with the body of the man who had become his to care for, we can see Nicodemus literally embrace the incomprehensible.
And, so we too are called to embrace. To embrace the broken. To embrace the forsaken. To embrace each other. And in that knowing of the other--we can then find we know what we had though unknowable.
Nicodemus had yearned for knowledge, for facts, for proof and definitives. But, what he got instead, was the opportunity to embrace the incomprehensible.
And, it was then that he was born of the Spirit.
Theologian Richard Rohr, in an NPR interview in December of 2006, stated that
“People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It's the people who don't know who usually pretend that they do. People who've had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don't know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is — quite sadly — absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion.”
So, here we are standing on the deep end of mystery.
Where an answer of I don’t know, but I love. Or it is uncertain but I am certain. Is what is left beyond the embrace and the promise
that God would give God’s only son...to live and die as one of us. And as one of us, we could begin to know that which was unknowable.