When I was a teenager I heard a chaplain say that God’s love for us is “unconditional.” On the surface, this sounded fabulous to me because I was a very mixed bag. Actually, I was a mess. And the thought that God actually loves me – me! – unconditionally was something I desperately (though very secretly) needed to know. By that point I was in high school, and it so happens I had trained to be a lifeguard. In actuality, it was like I who was drowning in my own stuff. I needed to be rescued; I needed to be saved from my self-disdain. That’s an adult term, “self-disdain.” As a teenager, I hated myself. So if it were true that God’s love for me, for us, is unconditional, then sign me up.
God’s love for each of us is vast and so personal. Who we are, what we are, however it is we’ve gotten to be where we are, God knows, God lures, God loves. Rather than calling this God’s “unconditional love,” I now think of this as God’s “conditional love.” Because life is inescapably full of conditions and circumstances, changes and chances, and God’s love for us is neither theoretical nor generic. God’s love for us is real and personal, woven into the fabric of our lives from the very beginning. God so loves our own world.
Much anxiety stems from what we don’t know and can’t know, especially what will happen. Fearing uncertainty, we often focus on what knowledge we have as something to grasp.
Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to Jesus sounding confident. “We know who you are. We know what is possible and impossible. No one can do the signs you are doing apart from God, so we know that you are a teacher from God.”
Jesus replies, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “Can one enter the womb again?”
Jesus says, “One must be born of water and spirit, must be born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. Now he clearly doesn’t understand.
Jesus is neither direct nor clear. There are still many ideas for what “of water and spirit” means. Perhaps the language confuses Nicodemus. Perhaps it’s the radical reversal. Nicodemus was born in the established, assumed way, from a Jewish mother. Part of his trouble may be from being an insider. That others can enter God’s family from outside is bewildering.[i]
Nicodemus comes confident in his knowledge, thinks he knows who Jesus is, what is possible, what makes sense, therefore what must be true. Nicodemus comes at night, a sign that he’s in the dark, that he cannot see, that he does not know.
Such certainty traps. Holding so tight to tradition and reason restricts hearing God. The Spirit moves like wind, blowing where it will. We cannot predict nor contain. When we think we’ve grasped God, we are overly confident in our knowledge. God is always more. As religious people we can be too certain about our religious knowledge and not hear the news, good and often disturbing news of Jesus.
What do we not see or know because of containers we’ve constructed? It’s may not be new yet we have forgotten. As descendants of Abraham, we are blessed so that allpeople may be blessed. Reading the Gospel of John, we hear from chapter one Jesus comes expanding God’s family to all people: “To all who received him, who called on his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[ii]No matter lineage or background, all can be born of the Spirit. Everyone is invited to be children of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” We also heard it in the Letter to the Romans: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
To those already inside, this may be disturbing that others will join. To those on the margins, this is especially good news of welcome and belonging. Insiders may not realize their own position, their own need. Everyone is welcome, at home, belonging as God’s children.
As adults, we may be uncomfortable hearing ourselves called children. We still have much to learn. Perhaps “born from above” is Jesus’ invitation to “not knowing,” to taking a childlike perspective.[iii]Countering serious adults who strive for certainty, Jesus invites a childlike playfulness, a way of becoming. Grownups get trapped in reasoning, in quests for certainty, right and wrong, and social acceptance. Like Nicodemus, we think we know. If we’re not sure, we may ask in secret to not be seen by others.
A childlike perspective is playful. Open to questions. Exploring possibilities widely. To play is to gaze in wonder. To do something simply because it delights. Act with freedom and inhibition, unconcerned about what others may think. Get down low and get up close to look. Try it out. Take risks. Be vulnerable.
A playful perspective faces the unknown with courage to discover, with risk to behold. In play, we let down our guard. We need play in our relationships to show up as we are. There is more to relating than behaviors in which we feel familiar and confident. Risking the new takes us further. A childlike playfulness ushers in becoming more.
A childlike prayerfulness opens us to more. Pray as you can, as you already do. And take a risk, try something new. There are endless ways to pray. In the face of anxiety and uncertainty, play with your prayer, going beyond seeming proficiency. Try a medium with which you’re not familiar and discover what unfolds.
I find it helpful returning to crayons or trying pastels or paints or clay—something hands on. Coloring in a way we long haven’t, even doing so down on the floor, helps prompt a childlike perspective. Put color on the page and play. Be simple and gentle with yourself. Rather than seeking to know, just be. Surprisingly, it’s then that we see.
Playfulness goes beyond knowledge, beyond definitions or grasping. A playful perspective is open to mystery. Today we celebrate the Trinity, one God in three persons. The divine nature as a community of persons is not logical, not to be grasped. Rather than knowing, join our brothers and sisters, all the children of the world, playfully praying with God who is mystery.
[i]Frances Taylor Gench (2007) Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p21.
[iii]Jean Vanier (2004) Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. New York: Paulist Press, p75.
Preached at St. Stephen’s Church, Pittsfield MA
Isaiah 6: 1 – 8
Romans 8: 12 – 17
John 3: 1 – 17
Growing up in the Church, as I did, I often found myself, in those moments waiting for the service to begin, exploring the Prayer Book that I held in my hands. I would flip though it, as perhaps you have done, and read the interesting bits. I liked to look at the The Calendar, and wonder who some of these people were: Bede, Dunstan, Dominic, Stephen. Over the years I have stopped wondering who they were, or even their place and role in history. I have come to know them as friends. As our Rule of Life says, in a somewhat different context: we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.
Or I would make my with through the Table of Kindred and Affinity, where I would read: A Man may not marry his Mother, his Sister, his Grandmother, his Aunt. As I worked my way through the list, and picture the people I was not allowed to marry, I would wonder, not so much as why I may not marry them, but why on earth I would want to marry my mother, my sister, my grandmother, or my aunt, in the first place!
The other place that gave me endless hours of entertainment was the Creed of Saint Athanasius. I would read and ponder what this riddle that is our Faith, is actually about.
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
All this was pretty heady stuff for a teenager, but now that you know that about my teenaged self, is it any wonder that I ended up where I have in life, as a priest and now a monk?
At one point in the life of the Church, parishioners were expected to plough their way through the Athanasian Creed several times a year, but now it is relegated to the back of the Prayer Bookin the section referred to as Historical Documents of the Church. But while the text itself may be an historical document, the Faith it proclaims is anything but. For the Faith it expounds is nothing less than what Christians over the centuries have come to know to be true about God’s very being.
What Scripture proclaims, what the Creeds declare, and what Christians have affirmed about God over the last two millennia, is not some mathematical riddle the tells us that 3 = 1, but that God is a God who communicates with the creation; that God was revealed to us in the person of Jesus; and that God continues to be known to the people of God, even today.
For us as Christians, God is not some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life. Rather for us, God is known and experienced, not only in history, but in the tiny moments of daily living. We see God in the wonder and beauty of creation, and the awe of worship; we touch God, in the person of Jesus, and the simple elements of bread, wine, water, and oil; we know God, who is closer to us even than our own breath.
We see and touch and know God, not as three gods, but as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is this knowable, loving and sustaining God whom we describe as Trinity of Being, and Unity of Substance. But it is so easy to become lost in the math, and ignore the reality of our experience.
Father Benson, the founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, in a letter dated 10 November, 1875, once said this:
I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. The Church —the Sacraments —Hagilogy, I had almost said Mythology —have filled the minds of devout people, partly for good partly for evil. ‘Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source’ this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.
I think what Father Benson was trying to say is that when people lose sight of their personal experience of God, and cloak God in unmeaning jargon then God simply becomes mumbo jumbo. For many people today, and perhaps even for some of you, all this god-talk is nothing less than meaningless mumbo jumbo.
For the Church to reclaim a vision of God which is not shrouded in mumbo jumbo, we need to feel God as a power, and love God as a reality. I believe that the world is desperate for the witness of the Church to a God who can be known, loved and felt.
We say, again in our Rule, that: our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer we can see that this flows from the triune life of God. If we are true to our calling as a community, our Society will be a revelation of God.
The heart and example of Christian community, whether that be household, parish, or monastery, is the heart and being of God, who is community. Unless we live, and are known to live, in communion and community with one another, our witness to a God who is first and foremost community, will fall on deaf ears.
Our witness to a God who can be known, loved, and felt, stems from the witness of the way in which we live together with one another, not in our ability to decipher mathematical impossibilities.
If we are true to the mission of God, which is our mission, then God will be known, loved and felt, in our midst, not as some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life, but rather as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, who is knowable, loving and sustaining and whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today as we rejoice in God as Trinity, we do so not to confound people with mumbo jumbo, but to proclaim to a world hungry for the good news of the eternal reality that God can indeed be known, that God is indeed loving, and that God is indeed forever present. This is our mission. This is our purpose. This is our call.
SSJE, Rule of Life, Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition, chapter 3, page 6
BCP, Canada, 1962, page 562
Ibid., page 695
BCP, Episcopal Church, 1979, page 864
Ibid, page 864 ff
Benson, Richard Meux, Letters of Richard Meux Benson, page 187
Ibid., page 187
SSJE, Rule,The Witness of Life in Community, chapter 4, page 9
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Though cautiously doing so by night, still, Nicodemus feels compelled to come to Jesus. This elder, a respected leader among the religious authorities, comes to see the mysterious rabbi from Galilee. However, mere curiosity does not motivate Nicodemus’ visit. He seems, rather, to be one of the “many [who] believed in [Jesus’s] name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23) during that first Jerusalem Passover festival at which Jesus appears in John’s gospel.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”(John 3:2) Nicodemus, I would say, exhibits a certain amount of courage and imagination. Courage in approaching Jesus in the wake of his disruptive action in the temple; imagination in that though there is much that Nicodemus already knows of God, he comes to Jesus aware that there is likely still much that he does not know.
Tonight is the second sermon in our five-week Lenten preaching series, “Love Life.” In this series we have been focusing on the Gospel of John and its theme of love. Tonight we consider the “invitation to be loved” which the gospel offers us. We are invited by THE GOD WHO IS LOVE to enter into a loving and intimate relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…. and to extend that love to others, particularly those in the community of Christ’s followers and those who are in need.
In the First Letter of John we learn that “God is love” (I Jn 4:16) and that “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God” (I Jn 4:15). This is the testimony of the believing community, who have come to “know and believe the love that God has for us” (I Jn 4:16) through the testimony of Jesus and the testimony of the Beloved Disciple found in the Fourth Gospel. They have discovered their true identity as beloved children of God and are learning to live – or to abide – in that identity. “See what love the Father has given us,” the author exclaims, “that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are!” (I Jn 3:1)
One of the best movies I’ve seen for a long time is “The King’s Speech” which won several Oscars three years ago. The story is about how the Duke of York unexpectedly and unwillingly becomes King George VI, just on the cusp of the outbreak of World War II. His role is to inspire and give courage and hope to the people of Britain in the face of the terrible march of Hitler through Europe. The main way in which he was to communicate with the people was through the radio – but he had a debilitating stutter and was terrified. It’s a wonderful story of how he overcomes this impediment to give the “King’s Speech.”