Closer : Trinity Sunday, Year B (Readings: Exodus 3:1-6; Psalm 93; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-6)

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1 June 11, 2006 Closer : Trinity Sunday, Year B (Readings: Exodus 3:1-6; Psalm 93; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-6) Earlier this week I was away on a brief retreat. Originally, I was going to this monastery to meet with my spiritual director who was a monk there. Sadly, he died a few weeks ago. But since I had already carved out the time for a 48-hour retreat, I wanted to take advantage of it. I knew that I would need to do some work, like starting to prepare this sermon, but a retreat is a wonderful environment for that kind of work. Arriving at the monastery just in time for supper, I then read and went to sleep early, deciding to skip Compline. Too tired. Awaking in good time for morning prayers I decided to skip those too and go back to sleep until it was time for breakfast. I decided to skip the Eucharist after breakfast as well. (Not sure what excuses I was making for myself by then). Then I started to think that this is not typical behavior for me. What was going on? I realized that I was avoiding the chapel and praying with the community of which my spiritual director had been the Prior. I didn t want to deal with the fact that my spiritual director was actually really no longer around. He had been my director for less than a year, but was so helpful during that time and a really fine anchor point for reflecting on different matters. So to avoid this experience of absence, I could avoid the chapel where he would not be sitting in the prior s seat; I could avoid the fact that I would need to embark on the process of finding another suitable director, which is usually difficult, let alone actually starting over with him or her. I opened up my palm pilot that same morning, saw the appointment I had made for that afternoon with my late spiritual director, deleted the appointment. Then opened up the contacts list, found his name and deleted it. Delete. 1

2 There. All done... Denial. So that was the frame of mind in which I started to reflect once more on the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We tend to bifurcate life experience and abstract doctrine. But I was astonished to find that contemplating the seemingly impractical, purely academic, doctrine of the Trinity helped me to come to terms with the death of my spiritual director. I should not have been astonished. The grace of God is full of surprises, as Nicodemus finds out. Nicodemus goes from We know that (based on Jesus works)...to How can this be? It transpires that Nicodemus book-learning has not made the ways of God transparent to him. Although the Trinity is a mystery, that doesn t mean it is unreal or unexperience-able or completely inaccessible. What we mean when we say that the Trinity is a mystery is that we cannot ever fully understand it but we can stand under it. And as we reflect on our experiences through the prism of the Trinity, and our lives in the context of God s Life, we might discover ways in which the Trinity actually helps us to interpret and understand our experience and makes it more intelligible to us. This is the opposite of how we tend to look at theology and doctrine. We try to quiz the doctrine in the light of what we know. But sometimes it works most fruitfully the other way around. Sometimes with extraordinary clarity we see that our experience makes much more sense if we understand it through doctrine. The theologian Paul Tillich called this the method of correlation. This method assumes that there is a dialectical or dialogical, back-andforth relationship between God s revelation and our perception: that what we learn about God can only be understood in the light of our experience and at the same time our human experience 2

3 is best understood in the light of what we have learned about God. Seeing these connections between doctrine and our experience are what the life of faith is all about: not only assenting to a series of intellectual propositions, as Nicodemus has adeptly and faithfully done his whole religious life. Rather, the journey of faith is perceiving more and more deeply the ways in which the Life of God is closer to our life than we imagined. And so it is with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. One of the aspects of the definition of the Trinity is that it describes not only God in three persons but also three different forms, or ways, in which God is present. God before time - the Creator, whom we call the Father, the Life before all other life. The God who becomes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth - the Son. And then the God who is the Life after the physical life of Jesus of Nazareth, who comes in a new way with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, as we celebrated last Sunday. And who can say which form of God s presence is the most important? Is the church more the Church in the first generation of disciples or now? It s all the church. But in fact, one might argue that the church only really became the church after Pentecost, and so the loss of Jesus physical presence among the disciples actually constituted a liberation because it was the catalyst, the necessary condition for the coming of the Holy Spirit, a new form of God s presence. Jesus after all says: I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn. 16:7). 3

4 As we are made in God s image, it seems that we too have a three-part life. A life before the life we know, before we are made flesh. This is hidden from us, and science can neither prove nor disprove that we are more than physiology nor whether what we call the soul has some kind of existence prior to our enfleshment. I happen to believe it does, and that we exist in some form before we are given the physical life we know. Then we are born into this life, then third we have another form of life about which we are taught in Scripture but which is hidden from us, except through the eyes of faith. And as Jesus left his disciples physically but returned in a new form in the Holy Spirit, who is to say which is the more significant, the more life-giving: the presence of someone like my spiritual director in the flesh or the resonance of his guidance afterwards? My spiritual director s presence and significance is not ended when he is no longer in the flesh as the Prior of his community, nor does the resonance of his words to me and many others end with his physical death. Because we too, in a human way echoing God s life - before time, in time, after time - we too have a threefold life. It is not sufficient to say that the three-fold shape of our life echoes God s life before time, in time and after time. We must also say that God s life suffuses our lives in every part. To trace this theme of God s intimate involvement in all aspects of our lives, we need look no further than today s readings. One could say that the overarching witness of Scripture - which is a record of God s work in time, although the Scriptures point both back before time and forward beyond time - in Scripture the governing dynamic, is the movement of God towards humanity, 4

5 progressively closer. In the reading from the Book of Exodus, we hear the famous encounter of Moses with God in the burning bush. But here, not unusually in the Hebrew Scriptures, God commands Moses to keep his distance: come no closer. And that distance is on both sides. Moses is afraid to look at God. I can understand that. The collect for today boldly prays that we will come to see God, to see God in full splendor and majesty. I am not sure that I am ready for that. ( Do you have any seats in the back? is my question). There are moments of distance in the New Testament too - the fear of the disciples at the Transfiguration; Jesus instructions to Mary: Do not touch [or hold on to] me (Jn.20:17) in the Garden after the Resurrection. But these are moments; the governing posture of God towards humanity in the sequence of Scriptures is towards us, closer and closer. God gives the Law in stone. God writes the Law on peoples hearts. God brings God s people back from exile. God promises a Messiah. God becomes incarnate and walks among us in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus promises to be with us always to the end of the ages. God comes closer still and sends the Holy Spirit to live in us. And so we are suffused with the divine life too. In today s reading from the letter to the Romans, we hear: all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God...you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry Abba! Father! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. We have this intimate image of God s inclusion of us as part of God s family. The Holy Spirit in us even prays for us, according to Paul (in Romans 8:26). How much closer can God get? 5

6 This is an awesome thing to come to terms with. That there is no part of ourselves or our lives and deaths that God does not embrace and inhabit. We may find ourselves ambivalent about this - and perhaps it should give us pause? To use the same illustration as I used on Ascension Day, the gentle but insistent love of God can feel more like a burden than a promise. Perhaps it is not unlike ending a relationship and one person saying: I will always love you. And the other person may want to say: I wish you wouldn t. I wish you would release me from your too-great affection, which I really do not warrant or deserve. It feels like a burden for which I didn t ask. Please don t leave that with me. Please take your love back. This is especially true when we know that we have not treated the other person very well, and yet they love us anyway. It can be hard to be on the receiving end of love like that. Well, too bad! We don t get to put limits around God s activity. And God s approach, God s word within and overarching The Word is: I am coming closer to you. So close that there is no distance between our experience, including even our own death, and God s life. I am going to stop there today, and conclude as last year: As with the life of the Trinity, to be continued... AMEN 6

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