The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s112g09 Trinity Sunday 7/6/2009
'you must be born from above' John 3.7
I spoke last week about listening to and encouraging our young people as fundamental to Christianity, and of course this week, when we celebrate the Holy Trinity we have the encounter with 'the' teacher of Israel, Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night. And if the words about being born again mean anything, they surely mean leaving old and destructive ways, and seeing the world with wonder and possibility as the young person does. This means being open about our questions, not seeking answers surreptitiously and furtively by night. They are about wanting a better world for all people rather than cementing our place of authority in what exists in our little domain.
I wonder if I am right to detect a note of wistfulness in the words of Nicodemus. Like most of us, perhaps he would have liked to have his time all over again, knowing what he did as an older person. But the most we can do is to encourage our daughters and our sons to become fully the people they were born to be.
But I am not thinking about the stupid things that we have done that have only hurt ourselves and probably someone else we loved me as much as anyone else. Often those hurts are too difficult to repair, and while we are bidden to forgive, there is most often a gap that cannot and should not be breached lest we expose ourselves to further abuse. But it is never too late to reach out across the religious divides, as both St Peter and St Paul found out. Neither St Peter's conversion in the house of Cornelius nor St Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus were about Peter or Paul's personal failings in the past, they were all about changing them from an exclusive religion which marginalised or persecuted others, into an inclusive one.
And I note that Jesus is here speaking to a religious person, Nicodemus, 'the' teacher of Israel, not someone unfamiliar with God. Presumably Nicodemus would have known the two great commandments about loving God and neighbour. 'Being born from above' does not mean becoming religious, he was already religious and devout, but it means orientating one's faith to include others. Neither could Peter or Paul be described as irreligious before their conversions. Peter had been with Jesus as long as anyone, Paul was a devout Pharisee. But they still needed to be open to the faith of others they, like Nicodemus, still needed to be born again!
In this sense, being born from above is not only possible but necessary for us all. If it is good enough for St Peter and St Paul to go through it, so can we. And we don't have to wait to be led like Peter did, or for blinding lights from heaven. God puts people all around us, people to appreciate for what they do, not to criticise for how they don't measure up.
The evidence is all there. I spoke last week of the level of charity in the general community and the dreams of young people for a more peaceful world. These, if we have the eyes to see, are there for us to take notice of. In fact it requires an effort on our part to avoid the obvious conclusion that God is actually leading people other than us. But we can indeed blind ourselves to what is happening around us.
And it is interesting to me that this is how my sermon for Trinity Sunday turns out. The Sunday most liable to bore us to tears with theological abstractions and how we are 'saved' because we understand and accept the most obtuse of doctrines, when we are being told to be born again to recover the freshness of a faith in a loving God who accepts all and bids us to accept others as well. This is the sum total of the gospel, yet **we** make our faith into an intellectual assent either entirely unrelated to anyone else or positively antagonistic to any other expression of faith.
Our old and stale faith blinds us to the freshness of the gospel. It is a systemic thing, not a personal failure on any particular person's part. It is a product of our upbringing, but this does not excuse us from the imperative, for the peace of the world is at stake. Jesus says: 'Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.' Luke 14.26. Even the mafia love the members of their family, but they will not bring peace to this world.
Before their being 'born again' both Peter and Paul thought they were doing what God wanted when they marginalized and alienated others they had all the biblical and traditional justifications behind them. Indeed many of their peers would have been entirely supportive of their actions. Paul says of himself: 'I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.' (Galatians 1.14) But he and Peter, the **usual** interpretation of scripture and the tradition all were **wrong**. They had to be born again into a world where all people are loved for themselves, not for whom they were related, not for how they may or may not measure up.
For just as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity can be viewed as a mystical teaching that elevates the believer into some saved existence denied to others, so too those who claim to be 'born again' can imply that this rebirth has elevated them into some saved existence denied to others. Being 'born again', if we take the example of both Peter and Paul, leads us to accept others, all others, rather than continuing to marginalize and alienate, on theological grounds, others who are different.
Being very naughty, there are those who believe in the Holy Trinity and so think that they are elevated above those who are 'born again' - and vise versa :-)! We positively use religion to separate ourselves from others, all the while claiming God's leading! Well we are, like Peter and Paul before they were converted, just plain **wrong**.
We as Christians are only unique as we become incarnated into this world. Speaking in Buddhist terms: 'Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean, is the moment the wave realises it is water.' (Thich Nhat Hanh) We cease to be Christian as soon as we see ourselves as apart from others, better than others, saved when others aren't.
So baptism is that rite that saves us from sectarianism of all sorts and brings us into communion with humanity. And of course Holy Communion is only holy when it is communion with the world and not just those who are related to us, think like us, believe like us, live the sort of lifestyle we do and measure up to **our** expectations.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity teaches us that diversity is fundamental and eternal to the godhead. It is a fundamental diversity there could be nothing more different as the differences between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet they exist, not in a continual competition as to who is the more important, or who is the most kosher god, but in an essential creative unity. True creativity comes from the diversity prepared to live with and relate to that very diversity. So too in the church we need to live with diversity for from this comes creativity, which is both joyful and agonizing.
We can escape the joy and the agony by trying to impose uniformity, but the world would indeed be a less human and less divine place in which to live. Those who had Jesus killed did so to impose conformity to their authority and teaching - but that failed. The diversity within the Holy Trinity is eternal, creativity will never cease, with its attendant joys and agonies and thanks be to the Gods that this is so :-)!
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