A sermon preached by Graham Low at the evening Eucharist on 30.5.21.
For various reasons many people are hesitant to preach on Trinity Sunday. Some feel compelled to find yet one more three-fold image on which to hang their understanding of the Trinity, knowing that people love them. Instead of that I will look first at today’s readings, before offering an image at the end.
The wonderful passage from Isaiah is always read at the ordination service for deacons. It speaks of deep mystery, the hem of the Lord, smoke, seraphs with coals removing guilt and blotting out sin. The Lord asks the author: who shall I send for my work? He replies: here am I; send me. Like most people to be ordained a few minutes later I certainly found these are shaking words. Doubt or incredulity flood the mind. This is just before the moment in the service when we state that we believe that God has called us to commit ourselves to follow Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit. We acknowledge Isiah’s words: Here am I; send me. It is frightening and yet exciting call, but it is trinitarian too.
The words “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” are found both in this passage and also in the Eucharistic prayer. Holiness is about being set apart, about transcendence, a quality of God. In worship we are invited by God to receive the gift of holiness and to grow into God’s holy being. Having been reminded of aspects of Jesus’ life, we say or sing Holy, holy, holy Lord. Then we ask God to change, to make holy our gifts of bread and wine. We ask that the holy spirit makes this change for us all. We hear Jesus’ words this is my body…this is my blood, words of transformation, words of holiness.
A few days ago we remembered Saint Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He understood the Eucharist to be a celebration of God’s call to us to change, to be transformed, to become part of the body of Christ. When he wrote about receiving communion he said that when we hear the words “The body of Christ” we reply “Amen”. This is the moment to rejoice that we are members of that body, and so let us make that “Amen” clear today.
Let us now turn to thinking about Nicodemus who comes to Jesus in the night: spiritually he is still in the darkness. He is courteous, and seems to imply that he is on the same side as Jesus. But Jesus intervenes to say we can only be together if you are born from above, or born again – there is deliberate ambiguity here. The primary meaning is to be born from above, to become part of a new order in which selfishness is transformed into love. Only then can people see the kingdom of God, which sets us free to love one another through the life of the Spirit. Nicodemus has yet to make this transition. He speaks about being physically born again. Jesus answers by saying that he needs to be born of water and the Spirit before entering the kingdom of God. Water, the raw material of human nature, the self, and the Spirit of God must come together. The Spirit must enter the water, becoming alive with the Spirit, to form a new order, a new earth, and a new heaven – the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. This process involves letting go of our selfishness, which is a kind of death. To do this means a complete reorientation of our lives.
John’s account of this exchange is in part mysterious. However, I think that we can see that Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that he cannot continue to lead his life by directing people to live according to religious laws. Nor can he trust in his own righteousness. Now by setting the self aside he will be transformed: no longer will he seek always to be in control, like an arrogant bureaucrat. Now the self will be married to the Spirit, its mysterious and unpredictable partner. And thus The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
Malcolm Guite tells us that when we are born of the Spirit, we are called out of darkness, chaos, chance, to improvise a music of our own, to sing the chord that calls us to the dance, three notes resounding from a single tone, to sing the end in whom we all begin: our God beyond, beside us and within.*
*Sounding the Seasons (2012) p.48