A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 30 May 2021 by Revd Richard Carter.
Address for Trinity Sunday.
Once upon a time two fish were swimming through the ocean side by side and the younger fish said to the elder fish:
“What is this thing called water? You’re always talking about it but I really don’t get it” And the older fish replied “Water it’s all around us, it what we move in , live in. Water is above us and below us and around us- and even within us, we could not live without it.”
“I know you’ve told me this before but personally I can’t see it,” said the younger fish as he swam on nonchalantly “I mean where does water end?”
“It never ends,” said the older fish- “as long as you swim there will be water around you. In the smallest drop of water there is the substance of the ocean and the vastness and mystery of the ocean is also present in the smallest drop. And when this ocean of water ends you will have died and fully flowed into the ocean of God.
“You’re such a mystic” said the younger fish. “I’m sorry I find it impossible to believe in something I can’t with my own eyes. This just seems like some kind of delusion you depend on to keep you swimming.”
“Oh it’s not a delusion its real.” Said the older fish. “It’s H2O- hydrogen and oxygen. And without it you would have no life at all.”
“I’m sorry your formulas mean nothing to me, said the younger fish. “I’ll always respect your faith even if I can’t believe it myself, after all it was you who taught me to swim and I love this thing called water if it holds me together with you. Now let’s go for a drink, I’m really thirsty and there’s nothing to drink around here” And the younger fish swam off oblivious, with the older fish who loved him following looking out for the shallows, where without water the fish he loved would die.
Sometimes it feels to me that talking about the Trinity is a bit like those two fish talking about water. Because the Holy Trinity is the God upon whom our whole life depends- in whom we live and move and have our being. The Trinity speaks of a total communion in which God cannot not love us or be with us. We are in God whether we recognise it or not. It took the church 300 years to arrive at the words in the Nicene Creed that tried to describe this mystery of that unity and relationship- and then more than 1700 years for the church to try and explain in words what it tried to define. Sometimes words fail. The only way to know something is not by explaining it but by simply swimming in it.
The conversation between those two fish has something in common with the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus wants to grasp the meaning of God with his head. Jesus invites Nicodemus to be fully immersed in the mystery of it. To be born again of water and spirit. For Nicodemus Jesus is talking in riddles. But Jesus is talking about life, death and resurrection. And there is ultimately no way of knowing that accept by living it. It often seems that religion becomes the very thing that prevents us from living the truth it purports to describe. It binds us to the formulaic, the ritual, the method, the regulations, the fear of failing or disobeying rather than encouraging us to dip more than our toes in the water of faith itself. It sometimes takes as something as overwhelming as a pandemic to force us to let go of the appendages of our religion and the theories of our faith and actually start swimming. Trinity Sunday is not the expression of a divine equation where three becomes one and one becomes three rather it is the expression of a relationship in which we live and move and discover our relationship with one another, with the world and with God- and in so doing discover the meaning of our lives. What could be more important than that? St Bonaventure described the Trinity as a water-wheel of life with three buckets one for ever emptying out its life-giving water so that another can be filled.
So let us enter today’s text together. There was a certain Pharisee, named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. The Gospel introduces the main character of this dramatic interaction with Jesus- Nicodemus is a man of status- a leader of the Jews and yet here is the surprising detail. He comes to see Jesus by night. In John’s Gospel darkness is the sign of unknowing. The place of fear and uncertainty because those who are in that darkness fear what will be brought into the light. This one line suggests that like many of us Nicodemus the teacher- is also one who within is lost and afraid. Unsure of what others would think of him if they really knew him. Afraid of the opinions of others.
Nicodemus begins by showing respect- trying to establish a safe framework for their encounter- they are after all both teachers. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” a title of authority and respect- and acknowledges Jesus’ ministry –he mentions the signs that Jesus has been doing- It reminds me of a conversation with your doctor- establishing the formalities of politeness and acknowledgment of the doctor’s expertise and reason why you are seeking their advice, while plucking up courage to dare to ask for the diagnosis that could reveal that your condition is terminal. And of course in this Nicodemus is like many of us who are drawn to Jesus, wanting to know but unsure, pulled and yet pulling back, wanting to enter an encounter and yet anxious of where it might take us what others might think of us and ultimately fearing that we may be found out or worse judged.
Straight away Jesus confronts Nicodemus (and us) with that telling: “Very truly, I tell you.” In Greek it is of course the word “Amen, Amen I say to you,” the words that come after the Amen will have special importance and significance: “Amen Amen I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” Jesus cuts to the chase: he cuts through the respectful introduction with a massive and unsettlingly radical challenge. Nicodemus is as confused as we are. There is confusion even in the very interpretation of the words- “born again” or is it “born from above.” What is it that Jesus requires of us? What is this transformation of which he speaks? No one likes change when it threatens our own security. What could be more total than being born again? That’s bigger even than dying. Nicodemus has misinterpreted. He, as so often happens in John’s Gospel, understands the words in human physical terms: “How can anyone,” he asks “be born after having grown old. Can anyone enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus’ literalism is a physical and grotesque -is he mocking what Jesus says or is he simply trapped by the literal, unable to imagine the divine. And before we see ourselves as superior, are we not today still trapped by the same literalism in interpretation so often lacking the faith or the imagination to explore the metaphor of transformation that leads us into the liberation of our bodies and our Spirits? How often religion has become the instrument of containment and fear rather than the path of awakening and rebirth.
But here is a challenge to transformation beyond our human formulas- where the above has broken into the below, where God’s stage and our stage are impacting upon one another like the shift of cosmic plates. It’s not a formula or a means of control it’s a whole new way of being and seeing and living. It’s like our east window- that explosion of light that bends the bars and sets us free and the ripples refracting outwards. It’s that ladder between and earth. It is that cross that can transform our bounderied mortal lives into the eternal boundless ocean of God’s love.
See how Nicodemus is struggling. And Jesus by contrast seems to become even more metaphorical. He talks of being born of water and Spirit and of the wind or breathe that blows in different directions- just as we don’t know where this Spirit is coming from or leading us? “How can these things be?” says Nicodemus as though to echo our own confusion buffeted by the Spirit. Nicodemus is the teacher who glimpses something beyond him but fears that beyond. A teacher called to teach without instructions. Nicodemus has come wanting reinforcement not transformation. And now we have this “amen amen” again. It’s as though the dialogue has now become a soliloquy and Jesus has left the stage of his encounter with Nicodemus behind, to become the one who speaks for all time, both on the human stage, but also on the divine stage. He is talking not just to Nicodemus but to all of us. Those who want to nail the answers down will only see the answer when Jesus himself is nailed down and lifted up. The answer is not words or a code of conduct- it’s his life, his death, his resurrection and his life in us.
Who is speaking now? Is it Jesus, or is it the Gospel writer, or the community of the early church? Now lifted up in his words is the image of the cross. The cross like a ladder bridging both heaven and It’s a vision that’s going to take us our whole lives to try and discover and live. And we too are like Nicodemus, unable to grasp the full mystery- unable to tie down the metaphors, are those who simply sense the poetry of something upon which our whole lives depend. And then these words emerge out of the churning images of the symphony-uniting the diverse themes and strands into this final crescendo:
“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 his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world may be saved through him.”
And there you have it. The Gospel in one sentence. What do these words mean? We must discover. We too must be born again. We must take these words away with us and let them become flesh and spirit within us. Our Christian faith is not a means of control. Its not a formular to preserve us, or a system to separate us from the uncertainties of the world, or explain away our suffering or pain or mortality. No our faith is a baptism- it is entering into the waters of chaos and death- entering fully- and with Christ and through Christ arising filled with his Spirit. The Spirit that says you too are my beloved on whom my favour rests- and the Spirit that leads us into a unity with God- where there is no more dualism, no more us and them, but into that place where the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, and we are all one. We may not understand the Trinity but we live and breath and move and have our being within it.
I want to end with this prayer based on a prayer by the Thomas Merton
O Lord my God, I want to love you
I want to be filled with your breath
And the life of your Son
I want to be one Spirit with you
I want to live in the middle of your Trinity
And swim in the ocean of your grace