One of my all time favorite scenes in a movie occurs in Mel Brooks’ "Blazing Saddles". (No, not that scene.) The one I’m thinking of starts in on a tight shot of Sheriff Bart’s Gucci saddlebag, and then pulls back as we see this black cowboy riding across the desert to the swinging accompaniment of Count Basie and his Orchestra playing their big band rendition of “April in Paris.” Gradually, as the music swells, the camera pulls back further and there, live in person, is Count Basie himself seated at the piano with his entire big band spread out on the desert. As Sheriff Bart rides by he gives the Count a low five. The soundtrack, it seems, has come to life.
Something like this happened to me very early last Sunday morning as I was running along the lakefront in Evanston where I live. I had gotten up very early to run as I was scheduled to be part of the Pentecost services at Holy Spirit in Lake Forest last Sunday, and so as I was running at around 5:30 a.m. I began to hear the sounds of a Gospel choir singing the old Protestant hymn, “Blessed Assurance”. Where, I thought, is this music coming from? And then, as I turned my attention away from the lake, I saw a full choir of about 25 or so African American men and women singing their hearts out into the sunrise.
Now I find nature, unadorned and of itself, extraordinarily intoxicating. But when you add Gospel music to it, the experience is almost impossible to withstand, much less to describe.
Last Sunday was, of course, Pentecost. Today, the First Sunday after Pentecost, is the day we Episcopalians traditionally call “Trinity Sunday.” As a seminary professor I have talked myself blue in the face, advising seminarians and newly ordained clergy to refrain from all attempts to explain the Trinity on this day. Given the communication challenges, we might as well call it “Fermat’s Last Theorem” Sunday or “The Second Law of Thermodynamics Sunday” for all the good our intellectual pulpit explanations do us. Trinity Sunday is the Preacher’s Graveyard. Nevertheless, here I am and here we are. And the Trinity is a reality worthy of celebration. The problem is, even though I believe in it, I’m not sure I understand it myself.
So instead of trying to make sense of a big abstract idea, let’s start with something concrete that Jesus says to us in this morning’s Gospel:
"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." [John 3.3]
This saying does not come to us out of a vacuum. It occurs in response to a visit from Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night and wants to understand more fully who Jesus is. Nicodemus is confused by the tension between what the religious system tells him and the evidence of his senses. The system says that Jesus operates outside the authorized channels God uses to relate to human beings. His eyes and ears tell him that Jesus can perform signs which must be evidence of his connection with God.
Here’s what Nicodemus actually says to Jesus: “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] We might expect that Jesus would respond with some kind of metaphysical, philosophical answer, a kind of first century version of a Trinity Sunday sermon. Instead, he says this: “"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." [John 3.3]
Posed a question about meaning and authority, Jesus responds with an answer about a person’s interior life. His answer reminds me of a debate I once saw between a Fundamentalist minister and a seminary professor on the authority of scripture. The Fundamentalist went first, and he spoke for a half hour about the scientific and philosophical reasons why the Bible must be the literal Word of God. After he sat down, the professor got up and said only this: “I value and trust and believe in the Bible because I have met God through it,” and he sat down.
When it comes to the questions which dog us most—who is God, who am I in relation to God, what is my relationship to others and the world, how am I responsible to God and my fellow creatures—often we approach them with the same attitude shown by that Fundamentalist minister: we delve deeply into intellectual arguments and search for philosophical and scientific reasons why such-and-such must be true. But the spirit that Jesus shows us in this encounter with Nicodemus is more like that of the seminary professor: the proof of my faith is not found in theories or in concepts but in my experience of God.
"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” [John 3.3]
Different kinds of Christians might explain Jesus’s statement differently. To the Catholic “being born from above” would imply the sacrament of Baptism; to the Evangelical it would suggest a born-again conversion experience. Both of these meanings make sense of the text. But what do you think Jesus might have actually meant?
Without trying to be too sentimental or showbiz about it, I would suggest that “being born from above” might mean, for Jesus, having and holding on to some direct interior experience of God, one that you know to be authentic, even if it would make no sense to others. That experience will look various because people are so different and God relates to us in our unique particularity. So for me it might be hearing a Gospel choir as I run along the Lake Michigan shore, while for you it might be sitting in your backyard at the end of the day or serving breakfast to a homeless person. It could be listening to music, making something with your hands, holding your spouse or child or parent close to you. You and I can meet God in as many places as we can imagine, and then some.
We Episcopalians are rule-obeying, orderly Christians, and we tend to be like Nicodemus. We unthinkingly trust that the system will deliver God to us in reliable, predictable ways—say at a certain time on Sunday mornings. But as Jesus says elsewhere in today’s Gospel, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3.8] God is like the wind, coming out of nowhere and going someplace we can’t even see yet. And Jesus’s challenge to us rule-obeying orderly Nicodemus-like Christians is this: he calls us to be “born from above,” to attend to the authentic, unique, personal ways in which God speaks within and to us, and to trust those experiences at least as much as we trust the orderly, formal system we have grown to know and love called the church.
Which is not to say that we don’t need the church. We do need it, because it is only as we come together and share what God is doing in our lives that we can get the full picture of what God is doing in the world. The church needs you so that you can tell it the truth about God that only you have to tell. As an institution, the church is like Nicodemus’s Pharisees, better at telling you the system’s truth than at listening to yours. That is why Jesus challenged that system: to show that an unpredictable and generous God could actually relate to you and me in original and surprising ways.
God is doing something in and through you that God is doing nowhere else in the world. You are unique, and what God is doing in and through you is unique. Your calling, as a follower of Jesus trying to live a meaningful life in the world, is to claim what God is doing in and through you and offer it, through the church and your relationships and your work, to the world.
As I understand it, the Trinity is Christianity’s way of describing how God, Jesus, and you and I are all connected to each other. It is more true to the spirit of Trinity Sunday to tell stories about how we feel God’s presence in our own lives than it is to try to spin out a theoretical diagram of the relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As a Christian, I believe that God is at work in Jesus, in you and me, and in the world. That doesn’t mean that I always hear Count Basie or a Gospel choir as I go about my business, but it does mean that I need to hold on to and nurture those moments in my own interior experience which tell me I’m connected to the One behind it all. And that’s as true for you as it is for me.
We come now to God’s table, the Eucharist, the meal we share together. This is a place where many of us experience that presence which Jesus describes as being “born from above.” For others of us, it’s a powerful reminder or our connection one to another. Whatever this meal means to you, God invites you to it as a way for you to claim and share the unique thing that God is doing only through you. And with or without Gospel or big band music, that’s as good a glimpse into the mysterious gift of the Trinity as there is in this world. Amen.