Sermon Archives

The Divine Koan ~ John 3:1-17

Who came to church today because it’s Trinity Sunday? Well, stay with me. It sounds like an enigmatic subject, but contemplating the Triune relationship of God can be rich food for our spiritual lives.

Trinity Sunday always follows Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit made her grand entrance through tongues of fire and wind upon the disciples.

Over 2000 years, the church has yet to come up with a really clear explanation of the Trinity. But not for lack of a trying. Theologians from both the Eastern and Western churches argued and eventually split over the matter.

Most of us pay no attention to doctrinal debates regarding the theological conundrum of the three persons of the Godhead. Let the scholars battle it out, while the rest of us try figure out what it even means to call ourselves Christians in an ever-changing and challenging world. That keeps us plenty busy. (There are a few of you out there who are aghast at this suggestion!)

But engaging in debate about the Trinity or avoiding the subject altogether are not our only options. There is a third way.

Our Christian profession of One God in Three persons manifest in Jesus Christ is not an intellectual puzzle to solve or a metaphysical argument to make. The uniqueness of the Trinity provides for us an opportunity to go deeper in our understanding of our relationship with God and our relationship with one another.

Contemporary mystic Carlo Carretto said, “When we try to speak about the triune God we sound like babbling children. Yet,” he points out, “we must still try–being confident that we are children of God doing our best to understand.”

As feminist literary scholar, Bell Hooks said, “Language is a place of struggle.” We all know that when you talk about God, it will usually become a place of struggle.

The Western Church has erred in its understanding the Trinity using reason. The Eastern Church leaned to allowing a great deal of mystery around it. Poetic language, image, story and art affirm and celebrate the ineffable nature of God more fully.

In Japanese Zen Buddhism, the teachers use something called a koan as a teaching method. A koan is a story, question, or succinct paradoxical statement used by the masters to challenge their students to abandon their dependence upon reason. A koan contains qualities that are inaccessible to rational understanding, but they may be accessible by intuition. A famous koan is, “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

You have to stay with it. A koan forces the student to slow down, to go deeper.

Jesus used his own types of koans to teach about the kingdom of God. Jesus’ parables were more often bewildering than instructive. His stories often left his hearers frustrated, or scratching their heads, or as their disciples in Mark always did: asking, “Huh?

In the gospel story today, Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, a super smart religious leader, was a man with a reputation to protect. Therefore, he came to Jesus in the night because he couldn’t risk being seen with this radical young and compelling itinerant preacher. Most of chapter 3 is one conversation between the two teachers.

Nicodemus, intrigued, asked Jesus, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher that has come from God for your signs prove the presence of God.” Jesus answered with an affirmation of the question. “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.”

Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus said because he asked Jesus, “How can anyone go back into their mother’s womb and be born a second time?” You see, he missed the challenge to go deeper. We expect more of him. Jesus was not speaking literally when he said you needed to be born from above. The two seemed to be talking past each other.

Jesus said unless a person is born from water and spirit they will not enter the kingdom of God. It’s a koan.

Understanding matters of the spirit isn’t easily earned. Spiritual rebirth and maturation takes time. As Jesus said, to see the kingdom of God around us, we have to be born from above –be renewed, refreshed, transformed—given new eyes to see the signs of Presence of God. Birthing is far from comfortable!

Over 40 years ago the formulaic question: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal lord and savior?” became identified with the Evangelical movement. A person’s answer to the question, “Have you been born again?” became the litmus test for a true Christian. How many of you have been asked that particular question? If you could give the person the exact date and time of your conversion—your acceptance of Jesus into your heart—all the better. Jimmy Carter said that he was born again back in 1978 and it became a much discussed topic for the press.

It appears Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus words turned into a twentieth century evangelical movement.

Here, Jesus was pushing the teacher of Israel, a man of great knowledge, to abandon his systematic thinking and instead to contemplate the Spirit in new ways. Jesus warned Nicodemus not to assume he knew where the Spirit resided. The wind blows where it wills and we know it by the signs it presents. I want to point out that our Nicodemus shows up again at the end of John’s gospel. Nicodemus joined Joseph of Aramethia in taking Jesus’ body from the cross, anointing the dead body, and laying it in the tomb. Nicodemus clearly discerned the signs of the Spirit and had gone deeper in his relationship with Jesus.

Do we discern the signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence? When we witness acts of love, compassion, justice, generosity and kindness, do we attribute them to the presence of the Spirit?

The Greater Cleveland Congregations’ march to the Mayor’s Office on Tuesday was a sign of the presence of God, if I’ve ever seen one. Six hundred people of differing faiths all together in peaceful demonstration demanding the same thing: criminal justice reform. The way strangers held hands and prayed and helped each other walk in the hot sun gave witness to something greater than each one of us.

On the cover of today’s bulletin is my favorite icon titled The Holy Trinity, by a fourteenth century Russian artist named Andrei Rublev (1360-1430). The term icon means “sign” of God.

Look at the picture. You have three feminine figures around a table. The circle of divine persons is egalitarian, non-hierarchical. All partners have access to the table. No one sits above the other. The image depicts them as similar in form, but distinct in features. They are obviously in fellowship, sharing a meal at the table.

The early church theologians used the Greek word, perichoresis, as a beautiful way to describe the relationship between the three in one.

Perichoresis means “within the Trinity there is interdependence; there is mutuality; there is relationality; there is intermingling; there is koinonia or fellowship.

Perichoresis, in fact, means “circle dance.” The Unity of God seen as three distinct persons moving around and through each other as in a dance. A Divine “Dancing with the Stars,” if you will.

What do both these circle images mean for 21st century Christians to contemplate?

The church should function in a circle, not a hierarchical structure.

All persons are invited into the circle.

The Spirit goes where she desires and pours her love out wherever she wills.

The church does not get to choose where grace will fall.

Jesus said he was not sent to condemn the world, but that the whole world might be saved. The whole world. Not just the people who can answer a formulaic question.

The Trinity is not a puzzle to be solved or a question to answer– just as being a Christian is not merely subscribing to a set of doctrinal proclamations.

The language of the Trinity is about the swirling of Love and trust between God in three persons, and the swirling of love and trust between each of God’s children. It’s a circle dance! We hold hands and affirm that we are in this dance together.

Who knew that Trinity Sunday could be so fun?!