Trinity and Jubilee Sunday 2012
Isaiah 6.1-8; John 3.1-17
Inside the window frame of our lovely Butterfield East Window, are some images painted by William Buckeridge and his titanic colleagues, of Nicodemus. Opposite him, as it were, in the right hand inset is Joseph of Arimathea. They are there as sort of saints of the Resurrection, often forgotten. Nicodemus came by night to ask the Roman authorities if they would do the decent thing and let Jesus’ disciples have his body for proper burial. And Joseph provided the tomb – on a short term lease it should be said. He is in a sense a fantastic saint of stewardship – if you give to the Lord, you get back what you put in sooner than you might imagine! All stewardship and tithing should be modelled on the example of Joseph of Arimathea!
But today we are more interested in Nicodemus, because while he is remembered as being the one who cared about proper funeral order, and had the courage to see to it, he is far more important than that. For it is Nicodemus who elicits from Jesus the must famous, most quotable, most significant snippet of Christian theology that comes from Christ’s lips. Known simply as John 3:16 – it is so often quoted, not leastly in the preamble to the Eucharistic prayer in the prayer book. It is the first of the ‘comfortable words’ – words to be read before approaching the awesome table of communion. Words to hold onto as we come face to face with our unworthiness to even approach the throne of grace. Words that might have been on the lips of Isaiah as he approached the heavenly throne, had he but known them.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’
And in today’s gospel we are given the context, and a reason for celebrating Nicodemus, the man whose questions yielded from Jesus the very core of the reconciliatory love that lies at the heart of the Holy Trinity.
But it all seems a bit vague doesn’t it? And all too human. Nicodemus, perhaps like us still today, recognizes that there is something special about Jesus. He has seen the signs and wonders, and he can’t quite get a grip on their significance. ‘What are you up to?’ he asks: “what’s going on?” He doesn’t get it, and Jesus is a little unkind we might feel. Faced with the complexities of the relationship between the Jewish God of creation, covenant and wrath, and this miracle worker from Galilee, he can be excused for asking, even, as Jesus puts it, for being a teacher of Israel and not understanding. We might feel a little sorry for Nicodemus, who, as the Bible makes clear, was a Good Man.
And the confusions about the nature of the relationship between Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit, continue to this day, and this passage, so carefully chosen for today and paired with Isaiah’s trembling in the Temple, helps us… a bit. For Nicodemus is a bit like Isaiah – a second Isaiah who finds himself in the presence of God, but very much out of his depth, in awe of majesty. And Isaiah, and Nicodemus are like us, they represent us in the presence of God: frightened, confused maybe, but all the time wanting answers.
We all want answers, answers to philosophical questions sometimes, and then when life and death kick in, we want answers to the big questions, answers not only to inform our minds, but to comfort our hearts and soothe our souls. And we know from the gospels elsewhere, that when Jesus is asked a question, he often does not respond with a simple answer. Often he responds with another question: think of the woman caught in adultery, or the folk who ask him about paying taxes to Caesar.
And yet, in this passage, the passage that gives Nicodemus his moment of fame, here we do get a direct answer eventually. What’s it all about?, asks Nicodemus. To which Jesus tells him in no uncertain words that it’s all about God loving us so much that in spite of our sinfulness he sent his only son, part of himself, to take the massive risk of inevitable rejection, to bear sins on the Cross and thereby restore the relationship between God and us. It is not an act of condemnation or judgment – that’s what Nicodemus would have expected, but it is an act of love. And save for a few bits buried in the book of Hosea, Nicodemus would not have expected that.
He would have expected to hear about earthly things, about how our behaviour receives direct retribution from a skyward God, throwing down hailstones and thunderbolts, causing other countries to over-run everything he held sacred, and generally being rather cross at his people’s inability to live by the frankly impossible laws laid down by the hero Moses. So no wonder he is discombobulated when Jesus starts talking about heavenly things, and alludes to a very different kind of Cross-ness. For Jesus brings a different kind of Crossness – the Crossness of Christ, who, on the cross, shows the love of God for the world that does not condemn but loves, and in which there is an open eternal invitation to believe and live in a completely new kind of way.
It signals a new relationship, not only with God, but in God. And if we look at the Trinity from this end as it were, it makes so much sense. Trinity is the consequence of the love of God, rather than a prior explanation of it. God - ‘Love’ as George Herbert famously called him, bids us welcome, in that it is love (the Father), who made us – who made everything. It is love who creates, and welcomes and who offers himself, most simply once for all upon the Cross, but continually. The Father loves in creation, the Son loves in giving himself, and the Spirit loves in us.
Three loves in one.
God, the three in one, is triple Love.
God is Love.
Simples… As the Meerkat would say.
But simple as that may - or may not – seem, we don’t just leave it there. Because this nature of God, revealed in a Christ who, as God reaches out to us, and sustains us by his spirit even 2000 years later, this love is nevertheless a two-way process. Christ’s call is a call of love, a call to love the Lord and serve others. A call not unlike the ancient one which Isaiah heard and saw in fear and trembling. A call not unlike the one the Nicodemus came to understand through his encounters with Christ before and after the crucifixion. Legend has it that Nicodemus was martyred in the late first century. Also that he wrote the apocryphal ‘Gospel of Nicodemus’. He didn’t, but it’s a nice thought. But we do know he was a highly respected Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, a member of the ‘powers that be’. And in spite of this – or perhaps because of this he accepted his call to service and love in the Lord Jesus. Like Isaiah before him, he came to say ‘here am I, send me’. And while we tend only to hear about Isaiah’s call at ordination services, his response to a terrifying, life-committing call is a model to us all.
And is a model, I am sure, to the woman whom we cannot fail to mention today. Her Majesty the Queen, whom we know to have accepted a significant ministerial calling just over 60 years ago, perhaps longer. Many have debated whether or if she might retire, abdicate or otherwise hand over the reigns of reigning, but it is clear from various sources that she has no intention of doing this. Anyone who suggests or discusses it is simply showing their lack of understanding as to what vocation is. For Her Majesty sees her Queenship as a lifelong call to service. A call from God, and a call to serve his people on this island and commonwealth.
As she becomes only the second monarch to celebrate 60 years, we not only connect her to Queen Victoria in our restoration project, but we pay tribute to her, and celebrate not so much 60 years of ‘being Queen’, but rather 60 years of continuous devotion to her role and service to her people. And a cursory glance at Victorian history reveals that Elizabeth the Second trumps Victoria hands down. Victoria’s reign was remarkable, especially in its day when life expectancy was so much less than it is now, but to describe Victoria’s reign as one of continuous service would be to overlook extended periods of seclusion and withdrawal in her equally long reign.
So I would say that Queen Elizabeth has set an unparalleled example in history of long reign and service, in response to something which she, and we, should not consider as anything less than a Divine calling. Charles 1st notoriously got it wrong, thinking in terms of a Divine Right of Kings, a view which cost him his head. But Elizabeth, I am sure is much more focused on the call rather than the right. And again, a glance at history reminds us that she was not born to be Queen, but rather the abdication crisis of 1928 made everything take a different turn, and put her on the throne in 1952. Circumstances, luck, fate, providence… call it what you will.
So this weekend we celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, and today we focus on the Trinity of love that is revealed to us in Godhead.And they are not so far removed from each other after all. And as is so often the case, it is love, and service, and sacrifice that hold it all together and gives us inspiration as a nation and as individual Christians.
So may the almighty and eternal God, who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, living and reigning in the perfect unity of love, hold us firm in this faith, that we may know him in all his ways and evermore rejoice in his eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, now and for ever.
The Revd Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 03/06/12