June 11, 2015

The Impact of Images


The lessons for this Sunday may be found at this link.

This is a strange Sunday. Usually, the feast days of the Church celebrate an event or a person. We have days set apart for Jesus’s birth, resurrection, and ascension. Last week, we celebrated Pentecost, the birthday of the church. On other days, we remember holy women and men throughout our history—for example, we celebrate the feast of St. John in late December. Today, Trinity Sunday, is different. Today, we celebrate not an event or a person, but an idea.

As we join together in worship this morning, we might ask: why? Why did our ancestors in faith set aside a Sunday for an idea? And why this idea?

Some of you might know that I used to work at a local homeless shelter. As part of my ministry there, every Wednesday, I would sit down in the lounge area with a pot of coffee, a reading from scripture, and a piece of art for conversation. Gathering a small community around art worked well because we found it was much less threatening to talk about art than about deeply-held beliefs. At the same time, while talking about a piece of art, we often ended up discussing love, community, grace, and redemption in ways that surprised and moved us.

One day, a regular member of the group pointed out that sacred art almost always depicts Jesus as deeply serious. So for our next meeting, I made it my mission to find a painting of Jesus smiling. It was harder than I expected, but I found something—a contemporary painting of a smiling Jesus on the fishing docks. It wasn’t a brilliant painting. It was even a bit cheesy. Members of my group, however, immediately grinned when they saw it. One of them said, “Now this is the Jesus I would drop everything for.” Several days later, another guest approached me and thanked me for sharing the picture. She said, “Lately, I’ve been having trouble praying, because I always imagine God to be frowning at me or condemning me for all the mistakes I’ve made. The other day, I pictured Jesus smiling and inviting me. I felt like I was returning home.” Her idea of who God was became a stumbling block for perceiving and trusting God’s work in her life. By remembering the joy and love of God, she found it easier to recognize God’s presence.

By focusing on an idea today, we recognize that our ideas about God matter. They’re not just inconsequential speculations. They often have a direct impact on how we know and serve God. Ideas about God can lead us to cooperate with God’s grace by extending love to our neighbors… or they can lead us astray, helping us to justify acts of hatred or indifference that ignore God’s true voice in our hearts. We can judge our ideas by whether they help us become better disciples. We know that theological ideas are true when they guide us in becoming agents of God’s truth.

Today, we give ourselves the chance to contemplate our ideas about God. But we don’t choose just any theological idea—we choose the most difficult, paradoxical, perplexing article of our faith: the Trinity, the understanding that God is both one reality and three persons at the same time.

This idea invites us to think differently than we’re accustomed to. It isn’t an idea that’s going to impress the highly cultured thinker or the rigorous philosopher. Like so many ideas of our faith, it speaks to a reality that we experience in the deepest corners of our hearts. Certainly, we must bring reason and critical thinking to our faith, but that's not where it starts. As Anselm of Canterbury wrote, theological thinking is “faith seeking understanding.” Thinking alone can't bring us faith, but it can help us understand our experiences of God better and cultivate the grace that is already there.

Today’s Gospel reading shows us an example of how the ideas of our faith work. Nicodemus meets with Jesus in the dark of night to try to clarify what he has been teaching. The well-educated religious leader is perplexed by Jesus’s answers because they don’t make sense with reason alone. Jesus tells him that he needs to be born from above. An experience of God comes first. Nicodemus wonders how rebirth is possible. Jesus responds that he is speaking of a different sort of spiritual birth, but Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. Throughout the reading, Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus how to think about spiritual things.

Why are Jesus’s teachings so cryptic to Nicodemus? Why are the articles of our faith so paradoxical? What good does such confusion do in a society that demands clarity and expects that truths be communicated in bullet points?

The answer is that the most enduring ideas of our faith have more to do with our experience of God’s grace and love than with our personal or cultural expectations. We can’t verify them in the same way that we can verify scientific ideas. Rather, we arrive at them and confirm them based the movement of God in our lives and based on how well they help us cooperate with this movement. Our understanding of the Trinity comes not from precise calculations, but from God’s communication to us and our experiences of God’s grace.

The amazing thing about spiritual truths like this is that they resist our attempts to reduce them to our own agendas. We naturally try to interpret our faith in ways that are beneficial to us. For example, we’re tempted, especially in our culture of individualism, to think that we can know God by ourselves. While reflecting upon this sermon, I did a Google search for images having to do with “spirituality.” I encourage you to do the same, because the results are an interesting reflection of how our culture views faith. The vast majority of the images include just one person, alone, in nature. I had a difficult time finding any images of people in community. Certainly, moments of solitude can play an important role in the spiritual life, but we have a tendency to overemphasize our private experiences. The idea of the Trinity teaches us that God, ultimate reality itself, is made up not of one lonely person, but three persons living in loving community. It is therefore in community where we find God.

At other times, we’re tempted to try to grab hold of the idea of God to further our ideologies or our personal goals. We might reduce God to nature, or personal energy, or community by itself. Today’s scriptures show us that God is present in and beyond all of these things. Isaiah describes the creator on a throne, ruling the universe. Paul describes God being present in our own prayer through the working of the Holy Spirit. John shows us Jesus, the son of the Father, walking among us as a fellow human being and inviting us into relationship.

Rather than expecting our faith to offer step-by-step instructions or easy answers, we can live into the realities of mystery. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, “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.”

As Christians, we embrace an idea of God that is challenging because we have experienced God calling us and transforming us in distinct ways. God isn’t just a principle or an idea; God is a living reality who reaches out to us in different forms. Today gives us a chance to step back and think about whether our ideas about God are making us better disciples. Any ideas we have about God must serve the living reality of God’s love in the Church and in our lives. We follow God not because we can definitively prove God’s existence or fully understand how God works. We fellow God because we continue to be transformed by our relationship with our one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.