Transformed by God’s Glory
For the third week in a row, the church celebrates a historic festival of the faith. We began with the Day of Ascension, whence we remember Jesus’ farewell commission and accompanying promise to send to the disciples the Spirit of God, who would empower their mission into the world. From there we moved on to Pentecost, wherein we celebrated the coming of that promised gift of the Spirit, who would be our companion along the way, empowering us and encouraging us as we fulfill our calling to be witnesses of the in breaking of God’s reign on earth as in heaven. Now, we observe Trinity Sunday, the one festival of the church that is focused on a doctrine rather than an event in the ongoing story of the revealing of God’s reign in this world, which God loved enough to send a Son, that those who entrust their lives to this reign might experience fullness of life.
The doctrine of the Trinity has defined the Christian understanding of God for generations, and yet few truly understand it in a way that would make a difference in their understanding of God, themselves, or the world. The very fact that there are so many different perspectives on the Trinity is reflective of this reality. So, whatever we say about the role of the Trinity in defining who God is must be done with humility. We must make our statements about the nature of God using analogy and metaphor, knowing that none of these devices truly captures the reality that is God. And yet, as enter this conversation and experience the complexity of God’s reality, we can experience new life, new birth, new hopes and dreams.
As we come to observe and celebrate Trinity Sunday, we are given the opportunity to reflect on our own understanding of the nature of God. I’m not a creedalist, so I don’t feel bound by the 4th century definitions, though I find them useful. What I do believe, very strongly, is that what we believe about God – how we define or perceive God – makes a difference in the way we live in the world. That is, the way in which we envision God’s character and person influences the way we live and move and have our being.
Being that Christianity is rooted in a monotheistic tradition that affirms that there is but one God, and that we are to keep the name of this one God holy, whatever we say about the nature and character of God must, I would assume, respect that principle. But what does it mean for God to be one? What difference does it make? If we complicate things by using Trinitarian language to define the nature of God, what difference does that make? These are the kinds of questions raised by Trinity Sunday, and that find their way into our conversation about the lectionary texts for the day. What does Isaiah, Paul, or John have to say about God that can contribute to our conversation about the Trinitarian nature of God in the 21st Century?
Isaiah 6 is a powerful statement about the glory that is God. Isaiah has a vision of God seated on a throne in the Temple of God, high and lifted up with the edges of his robe filling the Temple. The description has many anthropomorphic aspects, but it stands as a reminder that there is something different about God. It’s a reminder that we’re not on the same plane as God. There is a difference, and this difference brings out a sense of awe and amazement. With the winged creatures, the Seraphim, we join in the singing of that great hymn:
“Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts!The whole Earth is full of his Glory.”
And as they sing, the door frames of the Temple shake and the house of the Lord is filled with smoke. In response to this display of power and glory, Isaiah, becomes downcast. He recognizes himself to be a person of unclean lips, who lives among people of unclean lips. It’s not that he is a worm, but that he recognizes that in himself, he cannot enter the presence of God. But as he makes the confession, a creature takes a coal from the altar and places it on his lips, cleansing him with God’s refining fire, removing sin and freeing him to embrace the call of God, which comes quickly. Who will go and speak for me, says the Lord? And Isaiah answers – he I am, send me.
What does Isaiah 6 say to us about Trinity? We must be careful about reading later ideas into an earlier text. That said, Isaiah 6 is good starting point for our conversation about the nature of God, and the glory that is God’s presence. Whatever we say about God must recognize the holiness and the transcendence that is God. It also stands as a reminder that God seeks to speak to us, even to a world – as John 3 makes clear – that is experiencing darkness and is often hostile to the things of God. But in the end there is a life that is changed so that one can embrace one’s call.
If Isaiah calls on us to reflect on the holiness of God, so that we might be transformed, in Romans 8 Paul follows this up by speaking of our relationships with God and with one another. Again recognizing the context of the moment – Trinity Sunday – we must ask ourselves how this passage reveals the Trinitarian presence of God. Again, noting that there is no fully developed Trinitarian theology in the New Testament, all that we can truly find here are reflections and expressions of God’s presence that reveal something of God’s Triune nature. A simple accounting of references to Father (Abba), to Christ, and to Spirit, will demonstrate that all three are present, without defining in an unambiguous way the nature of their relationship. But, if we understand that the triune nature of God is reflective of a community of persons, a social Trinity, where the unity is the community, we find that there is a clear witness to relationships and community. Most specifically, there is reference to familial relationships. By the Spirit’s empowerment, we can cry out to God “abba Father.” First we hear the Aramaic and then the Greek, signaling the importance of this familial relationship that we are invited to share in through the Spirit. Thus, we become children of God – not by blood of course – but we are children nonetheless, and therefore heirs with Christ of God’s glory, though our opportunity to share in this glory requires that we suffer with him.
But what is the nature of this relationship? What is its outcome? Is it not a transformed view of our relationships with each other? As children of God who cry out “abba father” we are no longer slaves to fear. There is abundance in our status as heirs with Christ of God’s glory. As there is no fear, and recognizing this abundance that is God’s we can let go of our need to hoard and to control. There is, therefore, no need to live our lives according to the principle of selfishness. This is an important word for our day, especially for those who live in the United States, where in recent years the message is one of selfishness. Indeed, according to Ayn Rand, whose writings are all the rage, selfishness is a virtue. But such is not the case for those who, like Paul, are followers of Christ. Selfishness leads only to death, not life in its abundance. But the choice is ours? Will we share in the bounty that is God’s or will we follow Ayn Rand into the death producing principles of selfishness?
We now come to the Gospel of John, where we encounter Nicodemus, the religious leader who comes to Jesus in the night, seeking wisdom, but also living in great confusion and doubt. Nicodemus recognizes Jesus to be a teacher of truth, but this truth does not fit well with received tradition. Nicodemus can make this claim because he has seen the miracles – signs that Jesus has come from God, but he’s not sure how this all works – how does Jesus reveal to humanity the reality that is God? Yes, there is confusion and doubt – a state of being that is underlined by his coming to Jesus in the night, which symbolizes just such a state. We stumble around in the dark, unable to find our way, but there is light that can be shed on our path through the power of the Spirit.
Again, the Trinity is present in the text, though more implicitly than explicitly. We must connect the dots from the God who sends the Son as a sign of divine love and who transforms those who respond to this love through the Spirit, for we must be born not only physically (through water) but also in the Spirit, which blows wherever it wishes.
To Nicodemus, Jesus offers an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, but that requires a complete transformation of his identity and being. He has to be “born again” or perhaps better “born from above.” Then, Nicodemus would understand. Unfortunately, at this point at least, Nicodemus, like so many of us, gets caught up in the literal – how can a person return to one’s mother’s womb – and misses the point. To catch the vision, Nicodemus has to move beyond such a narrow view, to start seeing things from a spiritual vantage point. Nicodemus’s basic problem is that he’s confused about the nature of God.
David Lose suggests that Nicodemus failed to understand two basic premises about God. First, he failed understand the freedom of God, who like the wind blows wherever God desires. Nicodemus, like many, wishes to keep God in a box, but “God is dynamic and God’s activity is therefore not always as predictable as we might like to imagine.” Nicodemus also fails to understand the nature of God’s love. As Jesus declares here, God loves the kosmos (world), and as Lose notes -- elsewhere in John, the kosmos is described as being hostile to God. Yes, God loves a hostile world and does so through Jesus and through the ongoing presence of the Spirit – the wind of God – and as a result the world is transformed by the glory of God.
The desire of God is not judgment – though that which is hostile to the purposes of God will face judgment – but rather the salvation of that world, a renewing of the covenant so that the love God might reign over all.
As we observe this Trinity Sunday, may we be aware of this reality, that the God, who comes to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a God who is both free and loving. We encounter this God in and through God’s works, which we experience in the Spirit, in whom we are reborn so that we might live without fear and carry the message of God’s glory to the ends of the earth.