May 31, 2015
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
I can remember as a small child hanging Christmas ornaments on the tree at our house. The one I was hanging was one made out of a small roll of lifesavers. It had red yarn attached to it so that the yarn became the head and arms and legs, and this multicolored roll of lifesavers was the body. And I was standing on a dining room chair because I was too short to get to very much of the tree. And I was praying. I do not remember why I was praying, but I was. Maybe not to fall off the chair. Maybe that I could eat the lifesavers. It was a long time ago.
What strikes me about this memory was that I got confused in my prayer. Was I supposed to pray to God first, or to Jesus, or to the Holy Spirit. I was old enough that I had been introduced to the concept of the Trinity, but I did not understand it very well at all. But being the youngest of two, I understood jealousy, and we had been told that God is a jealous God, so I wanted to make sure I got it right, so that God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit would not get jealous.
In hindsight, that may have been the first clue that ministry was in my future.
Although I still have not fully figured out the Trinity. I have a much more refined understanding that when I was four years old. But the Trinity, the Triune nature of God, is still a mystery to me. I understand that part of it came when the nature of Jesus Christ was being argued by the church.
Was he 100% human? If so, how did God do what God did through him? How is just another human death graced with saving power? Was he 100% divine? If so, then his “life” and his “death” were not really sharing our common lot. Was he some combination of human and divine? Maybe 50/50? Maybe 60/40?
Can you imagine the church fights as we try and figure out which sayings were the human Jesus and need not be acknowledged and which were the divine Christ and are therefore commandments?
The church finally settled these arguments by saying that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, thereby ending one confusion and beginning another one.
The nature of God as three-in-one becomes even more mysterious when we remember Jesus on the cross, crying out the first words of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
This draws us to our reading in Romans this morning, where Paul talks about putting away the life of the flesh. Rather than try and get all metaphysical or moralistic about this, we need to understand that the flesh in this sense is also reasonably translated as selfishness, concern only for one’s own self, neighbor be damned, sometimes said literally.
If we live only caring about our self and our own needs, wants and desires, then the life we have will not be one worth living. If instead we live by the spirit, whose fruits are goodness, kindness, patience, gentleness, self-control, faithfulness, peace, joy, and love, then we will truly live.
On the cross, Jesus took upon himself not only our sins, plural, meaning all the wrongs we have thought or said or done; but also our sin, singular, our separation from God, our care only about ourselves. And in that moment, when all of that concern only for our own needs, wants, and desires, came upon Jesus, perhaps that is why he cried out those words of abandonment, pain, and loneliness.
The nature of God is that the love of God stretches from the highest of heavens to the places most removed from God. The nature of God is to be present to those who seem furthest from the center: the brickyards of Pharaoh, the wilderness, exile, the hospital, the deathbed, the graveyard, the poor and the poor in spirit, the unlovely and the unloving.
If all of this still seems confusing, you are not alone. Poor Nicodemus could not understand that there might still be spiritual growth to take place. He understood the Torah. He was a fine upstanding member of the Jewish community. And yet Jesus’ words confounded him.
And this is what happens when we encounter the Gospels and read them as though they were true. This is what happens in those Christlike moments of our lives. This is what happens when the Holy Spirit blows fresh life into our lives.
Things change. We enter unfamiliar territory. Things are made new. One difficulty we have is that this is just as true when we encounter Jesus for the first time as when we encounter Jesus having grown up in the church, worked hard on our faith, and come to deeper understandings.
Some have said that Jesus is the question to all our answers.
Others have claimed that Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Like Nicodemus, we do not like having our understandings challenged. We do not like having our comfort afflicted.
But if we read to the end of John, we find Nicodemus bringing spices to help Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. It may take the whole of the Gospel to change Nicodemus. It may take all four Gospels to change us.
But God has not given up on us.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not
perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world, but in order that the world
might be saved through him.
And God’s love stretches from the highest heaven to where we are, however we are, whomever we are, whatever condition we are in.
For our triune God is one. And God is love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.