It was a hot summer day, the sun beating down on our shoulders tinged with pink, the heat shimmering up from the pavement to meet us, as I stood before this young woman, who had such a perplexed and incredulous look in her attentive and piercing eyes. She asked me, “Why?” “Why would you do this?” Her question to me was in response to something I had recently done for her, a generous act of kindness. Instantly and without thought, I replied to her penetrating question, “Because I believe in you.” Her eyes softened, her face relaxed, and she repeated her question, “Why?” “What have I ever done to make you say that?” I replied, again without thought, “Because I see the goodness in you.” That revolving door of the questioning focusing on the “Why?” could have gone on for hours, yet all I needed to do was to reach out for her hand, look into her teary eyes, and say aloud, again, “Because I see the goodness in you.” I could have added, “And I trust that to be the goodness of God.” But that wasn’t necessary. All that was important is that someone had finally said the words she longed to hear every day of her young life: “I believe in you.” I didn’t say this because of a huge long list of facts I could recall of what she’d done in her life, or because of how she’d surmounted challenges of all sorts with courage and strength, or how she responded in certain overwhelming situations, or how she held her children in her heart always bursting with love. I proclaimed that I believed in her because the truth within my heart recognized the truth within her heart and we were both changed by that encounter.
In religion, which one might say is a faith-inspiring business, we often speak of the greatest distance in one’s spiritual journey being from one’s head to one’s heart. Anatomically, the distance may cover only 18”, but spiritually there can be a huge chasm between believing that God is a triune God, the doctrine we’re celebrating today, and believing in, or trusting the truth of, or entering into a relationship with the triune God.
I did not rely on my head, the brain that could have recalled an endless list of facts that could have supported my belief in this person. I relied upon my heart, which spoke to me of her truth. Traversing this distance from head to heart, moving from intellectually understanding a belief about someone, or God, is the pilgrimage we begin from the moment of our baptism, as we move into relationship with each other, and as we live and love God, without the intellectual comprehension God. Now this doesn’t mean we aren’t to bring our intellect into our religion. For Episcopalians, reason is an equal leg in our three-legged stool, for studying the context of the scripture makes all the difference in the world in what it meant then and how it relates to our lives now. But we aren’t to stay only in our heads, for God is a mystery which can be entered into only by one’s heart. We can know all we can about God and never know God, and that would be a shame for we would be missing entering into the eternal life mentioned in John’s gospel today.
Those who heard John’s gospel, who were gathered around a dinner table for worship, having sung their songs of praise, broken bread, recited their psalms, and heard the Word of God, would have heard the famous verse from John 3:14: “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”, NOT to be a factual truth they intellectually should get their heads around, or a belief which could be proven, but rather, I imagine their heads turned, their ears perked up, their hearts grew attentive, for here was a life-giving invitation to enter into a relationship with the eternal life, which is here and now, offered to them by Jesus, not a belief IN Jesus, but a relationship WITH Jesus.
Believing in Jesus was not an intellectual exercise for the early Christians, but rather a relational engagement, a giving of one’s heart to someone else, namely Jesus. Belief was not transactional (If I believe this, then …. this must be true), but rather transformational, allowing the one who believed in another and the one believed in to be changed by their engagement of heart.
To these first-century Christians, the act of believing was always directed toward another person. “I believe that” made no sense to them. “I believe in you” made all the sense in the world to them. For anyone of us who have said, “I believe in you” or have heard these own words whispered to us or shouted from the rooftops from anyone else, knows the power when belief is attached to a truth in a relationship. The truth within you speaks to the truth within someone else, and a relationship is formed, which changes both people.. Here’s our first example of the Trinity: two people whose truth is created within each of them by God, engaged in a relationship (by the invitation of the Holy Spirit), and open to change (which is possible only through the Jesus who made change to be all about new possibilities). The doctrine of the Trinity is really as simple as that. A source of love (a belief in someone else’s truth), a recipient of love (someone believed in), and the love between them that changes everything.
You may know from your own life that believing in the truth of someone else, rather than believing something about that person, is much harder and deeper work, and involves vulnerability, because we can’t rely on our brains, only on our hearts for the answers. We don’t necessarily want to go there, because the distance appears great, the road ahead looks littered with risks and trials and tribulations, and because fear of a life-changing relationship can grip our hearts and create an enormous obstacle we can’t get around, can only go through, AND it is the pilgrimage the Holy Spirit set us upon at our baptism.
Nicodemus saw the distance before him. He’s heard the story of this radical Jesus, who claimed his identity and authority by turning over the tables in the temple. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a Sanhedrin, a member of the highest governing body of the Jewish people. He was a teacher of Israel, a keeper of the rituals and practices. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, Rabbinic Judaism was emerging, which would shift the focus of the Jewish people from sacrifice to teaching, and there was great conflict between the Jews who believed in Jesus (those engaged in the truth of Jesus) and those who did not believe, (for many factual reasons,) that Jesus could not be the long-awaited messiah. The Council of Jamnia in the year 80 CE made an official pronouncement that anyone who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, who knew that truth in their hearts, would be excluded from the synagogue.
Nicodemus was in a tough spot. He was moving from the ongoing intellectual dialogue in his head that Jesus could or could not be the Messiah, to believing in Jesus, engaging in a relationship with Jesus, entering into the truth that was being presented in a new way.
Anatomically, the distance between the head and heart is 18”, but spiritually it can be a distance beyond imagination. But it wasn’t beyond Nicodemus’ imagination. My sense is he felt a pull toward Jesus that he could not deny. And so he went at night, minimizing the risk of others seeing him and excluding him from his respected position as a Pharisee and Sanhedrin. He was hedging his bets for the moment, wanting both worlds, to live out of the identity of who he had been (a respected rabbi) but also to be open to becoming something new, a man whose heart was given to Jesus, whose truth within him spoke to the truth within Jesus, and he would be changed, an encounter with the Trinity. Now Nicodemus actually figures this all out as the story unfolds. He defends Jesus during the trial and most importantly joins Joseph of Arimathea to bring the Jewish ritual of anointing a body before burial, and he kneels before his Messiah, the one who saved him, by inviting him to enter into a transforming love. For Nicodemus, the road to get to that belief in Jesus, not belief that Jesus was his messiah based on factual and visible signs, was convoluted, with twists and turns around a lot of confusion, new concepts, and full of confusion and a bit of indignation expressed by Jesus about his lack of understanding throughout the dialogue. The pilgrimage path along the way is rocky and hard sometimes, there are moments we feel foolish in our ignorance, blessed in our disgrace, and ready to run the other way.
In order to walk this pilgrimage into an encounter with the Trinity, when our truth meets the truth of God and we are willing to be changed by it, we need to know our own truth, and we need the essence of that truth to be recognizable by God, which means enough of our truth needs to know, to be God’s truth, so there can be a relationship between the two. Recently I was asked, as part of the clergy conference, to list the Wisdom truths I know. At first the distance seemed great. I couldn’t imagine I had 10 Wisdom truths within me. But I did. Once I began looking deep within, sorting out what they were, how I learned them, and then how I was living them out, they came spilling out. And I bet they would for you too. We weren’t asked to do this next step, but I think it’s essential. I compared my truths to what I know is true about God to see if they matched up at all, or if there was any resonance between them – and there was, and I was glad for that. For that says to me, the truth within me can speak to the truth within God and I can be changed by that conversation. This is the Trinity: God and I each holding truth and love for the other, the lover and the beloved, and the love which connects and transforms us.
Each time we feel this life-giving, affirming, alive, heart-grabbing connection with others, when we believe in them as they do in us, the Trinity is there. We are in the trinity, a part of the triune God. Each time our hearts reach out for the comfort, peace, and grace of God, and it is given, the Trinity is there. We are in the trinity, a part of the triune God. Each time we refuse to believe only that a person could or should not be or do something based upon the facts before us and invest our hearts in believing in that person, we have traversed a good part of that pilgrimage that we began at our baptism and which draws us into the heart of the Trinity. Each time we examine and recalibrate the truths of ourselves, honestly looking into our hearts and wanting to change, and God meets us there, we are experiencing the trinity: the lover, the beloved, and the love between us, which shows up in a love which refused to leave us where we are, we are experiencing the Trinity.
Our brains can never get around the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s a mystery beyond our comprehension. But we don’t need to see the fact that our heads can’t explain it or prove it to be true as an obstacle to our faith and our love of God. Instead of going around the doctrine, let’s walk right through it instead, into the heart of God.
I imagine you are already much further along in this pilgrimage than you may suppose. Whether it’s been last week or 20 years ago, you walked through our front red doors to find out what God has created here, what truths of God we speak in our language, thoughts, and actions. And you’ve stayed. Then, there is that part of this pilgrimage which draws you to the altar, where you encounter something that met your needs, no questions asked, as simple as that. One can consider this the “Jesus” part of the trinity pilgrimage, the part which reflects the love of God into our hands-on, concrete world. And you’ve stayed. Then, there’s that walk from the church into the Parish Life Center for coffee hour, which can actually be the hardest part of this or other pilgrimages, this one within the life of the church. For there, you enter into community—it’s the full immersion into the Trinity, when our truths speak to each other and we’re drawn into relationship, into believing IN one another, and we create a new truth that shapes each one of us. That’s the movement of the Spirit – the creating a new truth born from our relationships. We are the living manifestation of the Trinity, we who love and believe in each other; we who are beloved, believed in; and we who are drawn together through the power of God’s love. When relationships break, it hurts, because we’ve broken the flow of the trinity among us. But the Spirit who set us upon this path of pilgrimage at our baptism, doesn’t leave us there. She draws us into relationship once again, so our truth can speak to someone else’s truth and there can be love between. We don’t need to understand this, to live it and love it. We need only to stay on the path upon which the Holy Spirit set us at our baptism. Be brave. Believe in someone. And there you will find the triune God.