In the name of God. The Lover, the Beloved, and Love itself.
We’ve packed a great deal into this Sunday. I know. You probably picked up that bulletin and it felt a bit hefty today. 16 pages Angela, our church administrator assures me, 16 pages is more pages than usual. Baptisms. Thanksgivings for Ministry. Great music from the choir as we celebrate their last Sunday until September. There’s a lot going on today.
This Sunday is also Trinity Sunday, and usually the rector doesn’t preach. A seminarian, assistant rector, or passerby is thrust into the pulpit with the task of explaining one of Christianity’s most complex and confounding doctrines. We have a lot going on today, so in eight and a half minutes let me explain to you the mystery of the Trinity.
Here’s a hint where it comes to religion, not that you asked for one, but regardless, here’s a hint: If a religious teacher claims to be able to explain God, RUN. I mean that. If I get into a very self-assured moment and try to explain the fullness of God, stop me. The Trinity assures us, we don’t have God figured out. God is mystery.
And Nicodemus finds himself deep in mystery with Jesus. The teacher of Israel comes to Jesus by night, under the cover of darkness. Hoping to hear some explanation. Instead, Jesus leaves him holding a lot of mystery. All of this language of “being born from above,” Nicodemus isn’t sure how to make head or tails of it. Sometimes after Jesus teaches a parable, you get a little aside afterward where Jesus explains things to his disciples: The seed that fell on the road is this, the seed that fell in the good soil is that. We don’t get such an explanation of Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus.
So what do we make of all of this mysterious language from Jesus? A lot of the language here in third chapter of John’s Gospel finds itself into our language about Baptism. Born again. Born by water and the Spirit. It’s there in the Baptismal liturgy.
We’re about to baptize Jack and Arden into the Church. What do we mean by “born again” and “born from above?” Why do we mean by “water and the Spirit?” What is this baptized life we’re describing? The short answer: it’s a mystery.
But we have to approach mystery, like Nicodemus, so let me give you my best approximation of Baptism, Water, Spirit, Trinity, and Christian life? Sometimes it helps to start at the end.
Have you ever thought about what your friends and family will say at your funeral? Who will write your eulogy? What will they say?
As someone who has preached at a few funerals, I can tell you, listing someone’s resume usually doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to name the value and blessing of a life. When you’re talking about what a human life meant, listing accomplishments, degrees, and awards rarely means much. Eulogists don’t use descriptors like “effective” or “successful.” The last thing you want to hear a minister say at your funeral is, “Sarah was punctual.”
No, funeral virtues are different. The quality of a human life, measured at its end, is deeper. When we mark the passing of a human life well-lived, we hear adjectives like loving, caring, funny, engaging, and creative. We hear stories of good listening, of daring ventures, and of deep loves.
In the end, we measure life less by material accomplishments than by inner depth. How giving, loving, loyal, and adventurous was this person? That’s what we really care about. I think that’s what Jesus cares about as well, and I believe that’s what he’s saying to Nicodemus.
You see, even in the time of Jesus, the world’s narrative of life was pretty stuck on material success. If you won battles. If you earned money. If you held power, you were thought to be blessed. We know that narrative well. It’s the narrative of our world as well. From birth to death: work hard to accumulate wealth. Fill up that retirement account. Work to earn the highest position. Get the best grades. Get into the right college. Marry the right spouse. Work for the right firm. Get the title “director” or “manager.” Add another zero to your paycheck. Unchecked, our world has a strong narrative for us, from birth to death.
I think that’s why Jesus was big into being “born again.” Check that narrative, he’s saying. You’re not born just to accumulate. In the sys of God, human life is not about power and wealth. At their funerals, I’ve heard the very rich and the very poor described as generous, loving, and kind. Wealth and power aren’t the point. Money makes certain things easier, true. But I think that with all of this “being born from above” stuff Jesus is saying, check the world’s narrative. You’re born for something deeper.
How do we get there? How do we access this mysterious life of Jesus? The mysterious life of God? I’m glad you asked.
This morning, as we celebrate the holy mystery of Baptism, we will make a series of promises. We’ll promise to continue in the apostles teaching, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. We’ll promise to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons. We’ll promise to resist evil. We’ll promise to proclaim the Gospel. We’ll promise to work for justice and peace. All of those practices, all of them, help us to go deeper. But they describe the deep life more than how to get there.
There’s a promise we’ll make at the beginning of the service that matters a great deal, especially if we’re serious about “being born from above.” After Jack and Arden have been presented by their parents and Godparents, I’ll turn to the whole congregation and ask of you: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” The appropriate response is “We will!” The appropriate volume is loud. Let’s practice that.
Here’s why I think that promise is so important. I believe we only work on the deeper virtues, we only come into the hard work of growing up as moral beings. We only become more caring, more loving, more kind, in relationship. Relationships are at the heart of it all. In his new book, *The Road to Character*, the journalist David Brooks writes, “Moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed, when we come into contact with people we admire and love and we consciously and unconsciously bend our lives to mimic theirs.”
Godparents, you have your work cut out for you. We promise to live lives worthy of Jack and Arden, worthy of their admiration. In Christian community, we understand that we grow up, we grow as human beings, we grow more loving, more faithful, more wise, only in relationship to others who are already loving, faithful, and wise. I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he tells Nicodemus to be “born from above.” In faithful community we learn to look up to people who are living life, and have lived life well. We learn about generosity and love.
And, in the end, that sense of community may be one of the best approaches to the Trinity you can find. Through all of the high theology, the questions of people and substance, and co-existence, the real teaching is this: God is all about relationship. Mister Eckhart the Christian mystic once explained the Trinity poetically this way, and please excuse the gendered pronouns. Eckhart lived a long time ago: “The Father of laughed, and the Son was born. The Father and Son then laughed together, and the Spirit was born. The three then started laughing and humanity was born.”
I love that explanation of God’s life because Eckhart gets the joy and the complexity of God. God is not some static principle, but as they say in Spanish “es una dynamica.” God is dynamic. In Spanish “dynamica” calls to mind the beauties and the difficulties of relationship. It works in English as well. Don’t we talk about “family dynamics?”
Relationships are difficult. I am always surprised when people tell me they don’t believe in God anymore because something happened that caused them to doubt. I want to say, “have you never been in a relationship?” Or “have you never had a deep friendship.” Like any relationship, the relationship God invites us into is not easy. I suspect there are quite of few of us, who, if asked to specify our relationship with God on Facebook, would select the option “it’s complicated.”
That’s okay, even among the baptized. I believe “complication” is what God wants. After all, God is a mystery. And if the mystery of the Trinity teaches us anything, it is this: God desires relationship with us, with all of its dynamics. Because in relationship we grow up. In relationship we learn how to be people with depth. That’s what we’re celebrating on this packed Sunday: all of the complexity and vitality of our lives together. In all of life’s complexities, through relationship with God and with one another, we learn to live deeply. We learn to be born from above.