A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 3, 2012 (Trinity Sunday, Year B)
Whenever I had trouble waking up on school mornings my father used to tell me about Beethoven’s dad. It seems the young composer couldn’t stand music without resolution. In other words music where there’s a moment of dissonance before moving to a very satisfying consonance. So after attempting to roust him several times his father would resort to the fail-safe method. He would go downstairs to the family piano or harpsichord or whatever it was and play the first seven notes of an eight-note descending scale. Beethoven’s ear simply couldn’t leave the scale hanging without its concluding note and would bound out of bed and pound that one note to complete the octave.
“That’s a great story,” I’d tell my dad before rolling over to eke out another 30 seconds of blessed rest. This little anecdote popped into my head this week as I was thinking about the Trinity. You can go crazy trying to describe the indescribable or explain the unexplainable: the one in three and three in one. But the essence of the Trinity is that it is the fullness of God; it is the unity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; it is divine wholeness. And isn’t that what Beethoven was really seeking in completing the scale? Wholeness. Beethoven sought it musically yet wholeness is something we all yearn for in our lives whether consciously or not.
Nicodemus certainly did. This man we hear about in today’s passage from John’s gospel was not your typical follower of Jesus. He was neither a fisherman nor a tax collector nor a marginalized member of society but one of the religious elite, a Pharisee, part of the spiritual establishment in Ancient Palestine. For years he thought he had all the answers when it came to questions of faith; after all, Jews came to people like Nicodemus for direction. He was someone they looked to for spiritual guidance; he was a major player among the religious leadership. He, along with his fellow Pharisees, was the one who had all the answers, not the one with all the questions. And yet he wasn’t feeling complete. He wasn’t feeling whole. Something was missing.
Perhaps this was the motivation that brought him to seek out Jesus under cover of darkness. After all, he didn’t want to be seen getting advice from this rogue religious leader who was officially condemned by Nicodemus’ own circle. But it was also an admission that he didn’t actually have all the answers; that he wasn’t, in fact, whole.
Much has been made over the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. In John’s gospel, darkness is synonymous with spiritual blindness while light represents spiritual enlightenment. You know the words from John’s prologue “The light shined in the darkness but the darkness did not overcome it.” And John’s Jesus is always exhorting his followers to become “children of the light” just as he is proclaimed as the Light of the World. Nicodemus actually makes several appearances in John’s gospel – this first one that Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina likes to call “Nic at Night” and then Nicodemus comes during daylight to prepare Jesus’ body for burial along with Joseph of Arimathea. The strong implication being that, along the way, Nicodemus has “seen the light” and become one of Jesus’ disciples. In other words he has finally been made whole.
I think many of us can identify with Nicodemus’ tentative steps toward Jesus. Sometimes we want to sneak in the proverbial back door. We’re unsure of our faith so we move haltingly toward Jesus. But if Jesus’ ministry tells us anything, it’s that he not only wants us to enter into relationship with him but he also wants to be the one to hold the door wide open to allow us safe passage.
Here’s the amazing thing about our faith: Jesus takes what isn’t whole – the fragility of the human condition, our own brokenness, and transforms it into wholeness. By our very nature we are broken vessels yet Jesus loves us into wholeness. He embraces our hurts and wounds and disappointments and grief and makes us whole. All we have to do is place our lives into his hands. Sometimes we rush toward him with hearts open wide; at others we limp toward him. But what we fail to realize is that we can just stand still and let Jesus come to us. If we’re unable, we don’t have to unduly exert ourselves to find wholeness in Jesus, ours is to simply accept the embrace that is already offered. To be still and know that the fullness of God’s presence enfolds us wherever and whomever we are.
But to seek wholeness we must first acknowledge our brokenness. What is it that needs mending in your own life? What keeps you from feeling whole? What deep-seated insecurities are holding you back from being the person God created you to become? These are tough questions, ones that demand introspection and probing into areas we might rather avoid; parts of our lives that may be painful. But until we bring these hurts to Jesus and lay them at his feet, we won’t live into that true wholeness that God so desires for each one of us.
All of which brings us back to the doctrine of the Trinity which we mark today. We don’t have all the answers about God; no human formula, no matter how complex, no matter how many volumes have been written about it, can communicate the essence of God the Creator, God the Sanctifier, and God the Redeemer. Nicodemus didn’t have all the answers and neither do we. Until all is revealed in the age to come, we never will. And when we assume we do have all the answers or proclaim that we do, we get into trouble. There’s no clearer sign that someone has no clue about God than when they claim to know the mind of God. A divine know-it-all is a dangerous thing.
Thus, we worship the God that has been revealed to us through faith and tradition even as we remain open to new revelations. We proclaim the fullness of God in the Trinity even as we know we can never fully describe in human terms that which is divine mystery. It’s a creative tension but one that must recognize the great divide between the human and divine perspectives. There are things we will never understand in this life. And acknowledging this fact goes a long way to drawing us closer to the one, true, and living God.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2012