Texts: John 3:1-17;
THE HOLY TRINITY: BEING SWEPT UP IN GOD’S LOVE STORY
I am truly an honored and privileged and humbled to be here this morning as a candidate to be your Pastor at Prince of Peace. The Call Committee and leadership have been incredibly gracious to our family. And in our many conversations I’ve become very excited about helping to lead this congregation. There’s mission to be done in Christ’s name!
I must admit, though, that I was a bit hesitant about the timing of coming here today. When Sue Stapleton and I arranged to come here and preach today, I quickly checked my church calendar. “Oh great,” I thought, “Trinity Sunday. That’s a topic sure to leave them in the aisles, snoozing. Or perhaps cross-eyed from thinking so hard.” But I recovered rather quickly from these feeling of dread, because in recent years I have had a renewed experience of the Trinity — one I’d like to share with you this morning that moves away from that doctrinal stuff that either puts us to sleep or makes our brains short-circuit.
Here it is in a nutshell: The Trinity is not a logical puzzle for us to solve. The Trinity is God’s Love Story for us to be swept up in. In the past I’ve done children’s sermons on Trinity Sunday to try to help them understand the puzzle of three persons in one God. I’ve used an apple [holding one up], for example, cut in half and showed them the seeds, the fruit, and the skin — three parts to one apple. Or better is to talk about water. We know water in its liquid form, but also as a solid, as ice, or a gas, as steam. It’s all water, but we know it in three ways. The problem is that, while the kids may learn a bit more about apples and water, does it really help them understand who God is?
Perhaps the best example of what I mean by the “logical puzzle” approach to the Trinity is the Athanasian Creed. It’s actually in our green hymnals, (1) and I’d like to ask you to take a quick look at it. Turn to page 54 and begin to scan it. As you glance down the page, the element of story is almost completely lost. Think about Apostle’s Creed, by contrast, which we read for Carly’s baptism. It at least sketches of the Christian story: “I believe in Jesus Christ. . . . He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” I emphasize crucified, because look at the top of the second column on page 55. After all these statements of logical puzzle, we finally get to the barest bones story of Jesus: “He suffered death for our salvation.” Do you see? It even leaves out the fact that he was crucified. Killed at the hands of fellow human beings. “Suffered death” could mean that he died of cancer at age eighty-eight.
The Trinity is not a logical puzzle for us to solve. The Trinity is God’s Love Story for us to be swept up in. And I want to get to the love story part, but there’s one more thing to do first: to glimpse where the human story went off course from God’s love story. If we take that quick detour, I think it helps to get to a place of letting ourselves be swept up in that love through Jesus Christ that sets us back on course.
The opening chapters of the Bible, in Genesis, are still the best place to glimpse the story of our human sidetrack into sin. It begins with God’s love story of creating this world “good.” It’s followed by the familiar story of the first man and woman in the garden. Since they are creatures and not the Creator, it is reasonable for them to have some limits, represented by a piece of fruit like this one [holding up apple once more]. Genesis three says that the woman saw that this fruit was desirable, and we know the rest of the story. Or do we? Do we understand how the shape human desire is the key?
Desire was not somehow in the fruit. The woman didn’t just look at the apple and feel compelled by its desirability. And the desire didn’t just suddenly pop up within the woman one day, either. Even if she was hungry, there were plenty of other fruit trees to choose from. No, here’s the key: a trinity of relationships existed: enter the serpent into the triangle with the woman and the forbidden fruit. The woman found the apple desirable because the serpent suggested it to her. Even though God had suggested to her not to find the apple desirable, the serpent convinced the woman that God was her rival for the knowledge that the apple would bring her. She fell for it, and then she convinced her husband, too. She triangled her husband into that same desire that brought them into rivalry with God’s desire. And then the rest was history. We were created to be of one desire, of one mind and one heart with God’s love for the good creation. But we triangle with each other’s desires instead of with God’s desire, and so we trip up and fall into all kinds of petty rivalries and broken relationships.
And that isn’t all. The first man and woman aren’t one flesh, one desire; and their brokenness with God and each other gets passed on to their children. Cain and Abel become rivals and brother kills brother. But that’s not even quite the end of it. Cain’s immediate remorse with God includes anxiety that others will seek vengeance. God puts his mark on Cain to stem the violence. The human story is one of catching desires from one another such that we become rivals, which so often leads to a downward spiral of violence and vengeance.
But into that story steps the Son of God. God so loves that world that he sent the Son to save it — by having the Spirit sweep us up into the love story between the Son and the Father, who are of one desire of saving the world and bringing creation to fulfillment. And it meets us particularly at the bottom of the spiral, meeting vengeance with forgiveness.
Author Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of being invited to hear a well-known rabbi speak about forgiveness at a Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when Jews everywhere reflect on the year just past, repent their shortcomings and unkindness, and hope for the forgiveness of God. But the rabbi did not speak directly about God’s forgiveness.
Instead, he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and, carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the . . . podium. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father’s arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted. Turning toward her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and with his customary dignity began a rather traditional Yom Kippur sermon, talking about the meaning of the holiday.
The baby girl, feeling his attention shift away from her, reached forward and grabbed his nose. Gently he freed himself and continued the sermon. After a few minutes, she took his tie and put it in her mouth. Everyone chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie and smiled at his child. . . . Looking at us over the top of her head, he said, “Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?” . . . Just then, she reached up and grabbed his eyeglasses. Everyone laughed out loud.
Retrieving his eyeglasses and settling them on his nose, the rabbi laughed as well. Still smiling, he waited for silence. When it came, he asked, “And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?” (2)
Jesus tells Nicodemus, and us, that we need to be born from above. What does that mean other than being able to answer that rabbi’s question, that, “Yes, being adopted as God’s child, being born from above, means that every person on this earth is our brother and sister.”
Little Carly was born from above this morning in her baptism. I dare say each of us here this morning has been born from above in our baptisms. That means we are family. But it’s even much bigger than that, don’t you see?! This baptism thing means for us to get swept up into the story of God’s love for the whole world, a love which came to earth in the Son, and now offers us the Spirit, whose wind and fire gets us caught up in the current of that same love which gives itself away for the sake of others, for the sake of the earth. And this love is able to do so, to constantly give itself away, because God the creator is also the endless source of the power of life. You and I, in the Spirit, are able to daily tap into the source of eternal life, that we might bring God’s healing, forgiving, self-giving love to the world. Baptism, in short, daily re-births our whole sense of family, so that each person we meet — whether it is in the workplace, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, or in this global village we now live in — each and every person is met as a child of God along with us. And so we daily learn how to treat others not just as our family, but as members of God’s family. We are, all of us, children of the same Father who sent the Son and who sends the Spirit.
The Trinity is God’s love story for us to be swept up in. Let yourself go! Take the plunge into those daily waters of baptism. Get swept away in the buoyant, joyful, healing flow of God’s love. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, June 11, 2006
1. Lutheran Book of Worship, [Augsburg Fortress, 1978]. This was the primary hymnal resource for the ELCA (and its predecessor church bodies that formed the merger in 1989). The Athanasian Creed is pages 54-55. It is interesting that the next primary hymnal resource for the ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Worship — copyrighted in 2006 and coming out shortly after this sermon — does not contain the Athanasian Creed.
2. Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., My Grandfather’s Blessings [New York: Riverhead Books, 2000], “All in the Family,” pages 99-100.