So, since I always listen to both the Archbishops of Canterbury and David Lose, I’d like to share just a few brief thoughts in reflection on the Trinity, and then do some thinking about the character we meet in our gospel passage this morning, Nicodemus.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity expresses the conviction that while we experience God in three forms – namely, as our source and creator, in Jesus Christ who has redeemed us, and in the enlivening and guiding presence that fills and surrounds us – God is one God.
I think the important thing to take away about the Trinity that God is more than we are ever going to know or understand in this life.
The late Robert Capon, the Episcopal priest and writer whose work was much loved in the latter part of the last century, has a parable about the enterprise of theology, and it is pertinent to consider as we aspire to think about the Trinity. (The parable is too long to include here, but you can easily find it if you google it.)
In the parable, an oyster lying on the sea bottom next to a rock becomes boastful about its superiority to the rock. When reminded by the rock of its vulnerability to the starfish that lives in the neighborhood, the oyster becomes petulant and eventually cries out at life’s unfairness. To its surprise, the oyster’s cry is answered – you can perhaps detect a parallel to the story of Job – and the voice that answers tells him:
“It’s all true. There are things you never even dreamed of. All kinds of stuff. And with moves you couldn’t imagine if you tried. As a matter of fact, that’s your problem. There you sit with a rock on one side and a starfish on the other. My apologies.”
The voice goes on to describe to the oyster the glories and beauty of basketball, and of squirrels jumping from one tree to another, and then, the pinnacle of perfection – ballerinas.
The voice, in its response to the oyster, then concludes:
“Think very carefully. Remember that all this stuff really is, but it can’t possibly be the way you think. Or, to turn it around: The way you think about things will never be exactly the same as the way they are.”*
In considering the Trinity, despite the good intentions of Thomas Becket, we are oysters contemplating ballerinas.
So on to Nicodemus. He is a pretty interesting fellow. He appears only in the Gospel of John, not in the more plot-rich gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. And he appears three times in John, which is extremely unusual for a secondary character, someone who is not one of the disciples who travel with Jesus. Nicodemus was important to John.
Nicodemus has been called “the secret disciple”. We could also call him “a reluctant disciple”. He’s a Pharisee, the sect whom we know had grave reservations about the Rabbi Jesus, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the board of governing elders in the Jewish community.
What is fascinating is Nicodemus’ quiet pattern of reappearing over and over again in Jesus’ story. In today’s passage, Nicodemus’ first appearance, he arrives under cover of darkness to ask Jesus to explain himself and his teachings, which have been riling up the community. Nicodemus is unable to write Jesus off, apparently, as many of his Pharisaic peers have done, but neither is he able to quite wrap his head around the idea of spiritual rebirth that he and Jesus discuss.
We next hear from Nicodemus when Jesus’ opponents on the Sanhedrin, “the chief priests and Pharisees”, are discussing what to do about him after an incident in which Jesus’ teachings have upset the Temple security guards. Nicodemus speaks up – again quietly, and taking a position that falls short of affirming faith in Jesus – to remind his colleagues that Jewish Law prohibits judgement before an accused is given a fair hearing.
Nicodemus’ final appearance is quite poignant: it is he who accompanies Joseph of Arimathea in anointing and preparing Jesus body for burial after his crucifixion. John tells us that it was Nicodemus who brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes for the anointing process. Again, not quite an open declaration of faith, but a significant choice of action, to associate himself in any way with an executed criminal.
I expect that all of us have ups and downs in the life of faith –
I think that the experience of pandemic that we have been through, and from which we’re just starting to peek our noses out the door, has thrown lots of things into question, and matters of faith may well be among them.
If you’ve drifted away from faith practice during the pandemic or found yourself surprised to discover that you don’t need to attend church in the way that you always assumed you did, don’t feel badly.
The Bishop’s office recently did a survey asking diocesan clergy about the state of our emotional and spiritual lives as a result of the pandemic, and plenty of clergy admitted that the changes and challenges of ministering through the pandemic have caused them to re-examine their sense of vocation.
Nicodemus is a good guy to sit with in moments when faith may feel uncertain. His faith was more about questions than answers. He never seemed ready to go “all in”. And yet it seems, as David Lose has observed, that “If God keeps working in and on and through Nicodemus across three years and sixteen chapters in John’s Gospel, God will keep working in and on and through us. No matter how long it takes.”
God was patient as Nicodemus questioned; God accepted and affirmed his curiosity. God was loving as Nicodemus needed, repeatedly, to take a step back. Maybe God knew that Nicodemus would be there, myrrh and aloes at the ready, when it was needed.
Surely God will be equally patient and loving with us.
To that end, Molly encouraged us to make a list of 100 things we are grateful for. If you haven’t made your list yet, take ten minutes and do it today. You will be glad you did. These lists proclaim the breadth and depth of God’s abundant generosity, as well as our call to live a life of gratitude.
Today’s psalm (104) reminds us that God’s generosity is not limited to humanity. In fact, God gives to every living thing, and all that has life is called to take a posture of gratitude towards our Creator.* The psalm describes the ecosystem of creation and proclaims, “...the earth is fully satisfied by the fruits of your works” (104:13b).
The psalmist goes on to describe the grass grown for flocks and herds, the trees full of sap, and the birds building nests in those very same trees (104: 14a, 17, 18). “Yonder is the great and wide sea with it’s living things too many to number, creatures both small and great”, including the sea monster playing in the waters (104:26-27). The psalmist tells us that all creatures-whether they be in the water, on land, or in the air- look to God (104:28).
Ultimately, this psalm is not about humanity. Rather we are one of many species and forms of life within the ecosystem.This is reflected in verse 25 when the psalmist writes:
“O Holy One, how manifold are all your works;
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures” (104:25).
Theologian J. Clinton McCann, Jr. explores this idea in depth, and writes:
“The psalm does not put humanity as the climax of creation, rather we are among the ‘all’ God created.”
He goes on to say,
“Our existence and the ongoing existence of the world are grounded in God’s commitment to and enjoyment of life.”
Not to overstate the obvious here, but this is not how our culture has shaped our understanding of our place in the order of creation. We have been taught in thought, word, and deed that the earth is here to serve us. And historically the Church has played a role in perpetuating that myth. Capitalism and individualism have gone to great lengths to perpetuate this false truth that the earth’s resources are infinite and that it is God’s intention for us to use the earth’s resources as we see fit.
Yet our ancestors in faith have something to teach us about the posture we take towards God and Creation. In his book Sabbath As Resistance, Walter Brueggemann writes about an important speech Moses gives to the Israelites as they prepare to conclude their forty year journey in the wilderness and enter the promised land.*
Forty years is a long time. It was long enough for the generation who had been enslaved by Pharaoh to have died off. Before their liberation and journey into the wilderness, that generation had only ever known the back breaking cycle of making more bricks, to build more structures, so Pharaoh might store more grain. Meanwhile, a new generation had been born, and while they heard the stories of the time in Egypt from their parents and grandparents, they had only ever known this time of covenant with God and wandering in the wilderness towards the promised land.
Moses was concerned that when they entered the promised land, they would forget what they had been liberated from in Egypt, and the life changing covenant they had entered into with God. He urged the Israelites to keep their covenant with God, and to maintain a posture of gratitude in the way they embodied their faith and lived their lives. To remember, it was God who had pulled them out of the deadly, back breaking cycle of making more bricks. The fertile soil in this new land would allow their people to prosper-- and that was what concerned Moses. He knew how easy it would be for the Israelites to settle down, growing and prospering, that they would eventually return to the pattern they knew all those years ago under Pharaoh- a cycle of constant work, driven to produce and take more and more.
“The new land will work so well that Israel will think they can manage on their own. They will be tempted to autonomy, without due reference to YHWH. And the reason they will be tempted by autonomy is that the new land will make them inordinately prosperous. Moses knows that prosperity breeds amnesia”(37).
Prosperity breeds amnesia.
Moses knew there was great risk of the Israelites forgetting their time trapped in the endless cycle of making more bricks. He knew they were at great risk of forgetting their covenant with God, especially God’s expectation that they cease from work one day each week so that God, the earth herself, and all of the species within creation could find rest and renewal.
We live in America. We know what prosperity looks like, and we also know how easily we can fall into that amnesia. Our prosperity leads us to forget much...
This psalm calls us back. On the Day of Pentecost, a day when we celebrate the many manifestations and experiences of the Holy Spirit. What if today as a Church we lean on the Holy Spirit to remind us that this Way of Love we are called into is not just for the people that walk on this earth, but for every form of life within Creation?
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry frequently reminds us that the kind of love we are talking about in the Way of Love is an ‘agape’ love. Agape is Greek for “love for the other--sacrificial love that seeks the good and well-being of others, of society, of the world” (14).* Sometimes when we hear the word “world” it is tempting to imagine all the people of the earth-- but as this psalm lifts up, we are but one small piece of the world. World is really just another word for creation.
God modeled the Way of Love in the story of creation and in the covenant at Sinai.
Jesus of Nazareth showed us how to walk the Way of Love throughout his ministry.
The resurrected Christ calls us to walk the Way of Love.
Today, the Holy Spirit empowers us to embody that sacrificial Way of Love for the good of neighbor, society, and every living thing within creation.
If this psalm does nothing else for us today, may it be to teach us we are but one of many majestic forms of life within creation that God treasures; and as such, we are called to live in unity with this ecosystem, to care for and love it. The psalmist writes of the Holy One,
“...you ride on the wings of the wind. You make the winds your messengers…” (104:3b-4a).
This Pentecost, my prayer is that as a Church we will embrace a posture of gratitude towards our Creator, and that each time the wind touches our skin we will remember the Holy Spirit is with us. A gift to empower and sustain us as we live out the sacrificial Way of Love by caring deeply for the welfare of our planet, and every species we share this ecosystem with-- whether they be chickens, leviathans, or even mosquitos.
May it be so.
There seems to have been a movement arising around gratitude in recent years, and certainly, there are lots of organizations, philosophies, and spiritual guides that promote gratitude as a life orientation. Much of the interest in gratitude seems to focus on gratitude as a self-help strategy: I’ve read a number of pieces about research on the effects of practicing gratitude.
Research has revealed, apparently, that people who regularly think about things they’re thankful for and express gratitude feel less pain and less stress, suffer less from insomnia and depression, have stronger immune systems and greater emotional resilience, experience healthier relationships and do better academically and professionally. Noticing and being thankful for the good things in life increases our sense of well-being and lowers our blood pressure.*
These effects of gratitude are obviously terrific – the more we can cultivate “attitude of gratitude”, the better off we are – BUT we should ‘grow gratefulness” in ourselves NOT primarily to benefit ourselves, but because we have so much to be grateful for!
The gospel we’ve heard this morning continues the sequence of teachings we have been following from Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses” in the Gospel of John.
We began, several weeks ago, with Jesus reminding the disciples that he is “the Good Shepherd”, and then sharing the analogy of himself as the Vine and the community of his followers as the branches, and then last week last week we heard Jesus sharing the command that we love one another.
Today’s passage bring us to the climax of the “Discourses”, in which Jesus offers a prayer to God, known as “the High Priestly Prayer.”
Today’s gospel an excerpt from that prayer – Jesus asking God to protect the disciples from the dangers of the world, as Jesus prepares to depart from them.
Jesus’ words in the prayer are a means of teaching the listening disciples; they are a means of John teaching us.
There’s a theme in this rather grammatically challenging reading: did you notice it? In the thirteen verses of today’s Gospel, Jesus uses a form of the verb “to give” nine times.
Throughout his telling of the “Good News” John wants us to pay attention to what we are “given” by God in the life of Jesus: in fact he uses the term seventeen times in this chapter and seventy-five times in his gospel overall.
Two years ago this month I spent a week at CREDO, a conference that the Church’s Pension Fund provides for Episcopal Clergy. CREDO provides space away from the demands of active ministry to reflect holistically on our lives – as well as the physical and spiritual aspects of our lives, CREDO asks us to look at our vocational and financial lives – and it does so to promote renewal and, where appropriate, to invite change.
One of the exercises we took part in that was very powerful for me that week was an exercise relating to gratitude. Sitting at our individual desk spaces in a large classroom, we were given ten minutes and asked to write down at least one hundred things that we were thankful for.
Starting my list was totally easy – expressing thanks for my family, my health, this congregation that I work among, the beautiful place I live, and so on, is a regular part of my own prayer, and came quickly to mind.
What was fascinating was discovering the places that my mind went as I pressed myself to go beyond thankfulness for the things I think about all of the time. My mind went to places both small and large, listing not only individuals in my life who have cared for me, inspired me, and sometimes challenged me, but I also listed specific pieces of music that have brought me joy.
I realized that I am thankful for electricity, and science, and color, and otters.
Considering the incredible number of things I am thankful for and realizing how much they enrich my life and how much I appreciate them gave me a tremendous sense of joy.
If we had time for it this morning I would insist that we pause right now, and I would hand out (or ask you to go find for yourself) paper and pencil and have each of us to list one hundred things we’re thankful for, but I don’t think we do have the time. Instead, I’m going to invite and encourage you to really make some time this week and write your own list – I expect each one of you to get to AT LEAST one hundred items on the list. And I’d love to hear what YOU discover – send me an email after you’ve done it!
It is God’s incredible generosity given to us that provides us with all of the things that we write down on our lists. God’s generosity provides the boundless opportunities that lie before us every day, to say nothing of the gifts given to the ancestors who have gone before us over the generations. And as John’s gospel reminds us, God’s love gives us the life of Jesus, that shows us and opens up the way to fullness of life.
We should not just BE grateful, but to live a life of integrity, we must also LIVE our gratitude: just as Jesus saw the disciples as gifts, given him for safekeeping,
so too is the world today given into our safekeeping - the world itself and all of God’s children who inhabit it. The choices we make in the ways we use what we have been given express our deep gratitude, or not.
With God’s help, we can continue to grow into ways of living that express our gratitude, that make a positive difference to that world given into our care. We can make and be our own “Grateful Farm.”
We need to do it NOT just to maintain inner peace and a healthy blood pressure, but because it is the only reasonable response to the love with which we are surrounded.
But it is unlikely you will find a Hallmark card featuring the line “Happy Ascension Day!”, and since it is always on a Thursday, it gets less attention than a normal Sunday. Yet, it seems to me, there is no Pentecost without the Ascension. This feast marks the end of Christ’s time as a visible figure on earth. Yet in a real way, it marks the beginning of his ministry with his followers. He begins to work in the lives of believers in a whole new way. This is the point in time where we get the opportunity to do the work for which he prepared us with his life.
In some ways, it may have been easier for the apostles to handle the Ascension than the crucifixion and resurrection. They were prepared for a savior, not someone who would die and leave them behind with their hopes dashed. And the resurrection was almost too hard to believe. Why were those women the ones first trusted with the knowledge that Jesus had risen? Why wasn’t there a clear, obvious and public resurrection? Why was it shrouded in secrecy?
Were Jesus’ other apostles any better than Thomas after the resurrection? Did they not doubt the women? When their friends returned from Emmaus to tell them of their encounter with a risen Christ, they were already talking about Simon’s sighting, but when suddenly Jesus appeared to them, they thought they were seeing a ghost. They were terrified.
In Luke’s gospel, the ascension seems to occur on the same day as the resurrection. The joy the disciples feel upon seeing that Jesus is truly risen gives them the courage to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. This joy gives them the ability to embrace the ascension of Jesus into heaven.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples get more time to prepare. Here, the ascension occurs forty days after the resurrection. Jesus’ appearances have given them hope and courage. Following these appearances, they can more easily accept the idea that Jesus could ascend into Heaven. He is, after all, the risen Christ. His ascension filled them with joy!! And I think it should fill us with joy as well!
As I read more about the ascension, I discovered that while there are a fairly large number of “mentions” concerning the ascension throughout scripture, most of them are exactly that, small mentions. A single line in a gospel or a prophecy from the Old Testament. Luke’s gospel is the only gospel that has a somewhat detailed description of Jesus’ ascension. The reading from The Acts of the Apostles that we heard Kathryn read this evening is the only other somewhat detailed version of this story. Yet even here, there is much more about the promise of Pentecost than about the ascension. In this reading, after he has finished telling them about the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are told “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
I felt dissatisfied with what I had learned of the ascension in my past incarnation as a Roman Catholic; in my look into scripture; and in much of what I had found in my initial research. I think my dissatisfaction arose from the fact that I had really strong feelings about the importance of the ascension, but I wasn’t really sure why. Then, my wonderful husband reminded me of some reading I had recently done and a new avenue of research presented itself. Fr. Richard Rohr’s daily meditations have long been part of my morning routine. His recent book, The Universal Christ, was incredibly helpful to me in putting words to understandings I had about the Christ, but seemed unable to express very clearly. So I began looking at Fr. Richard’s writings on the ascension. And there I found the writing that had given me a new understanding of this feast. It was not surprising that I had not remembered exactly where my understanding had come from - this piece on the ascension was written as part of Rohr’s meditations in 2016! Yet it had clearly meant something to me as I still felt its importance five years later.
I was pretty certain that I could not deliver a first sermon on something for which I did not have a personal understanding; something that did not resonate deeply within my own heart. And finally I had found that understanding. Initially, it began with trying to explain to a friend that Christ is not Jesus’ last name. The fully human Jesus who lived among God’s people had all the emotions, doubts and concerns that we have. While he was clearly a far more perfect human than we are, he still felt doubt as he cried out on the cross, “why have you forsaken me?”; and anger as he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple; and even anguish tempered with incredible faith when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark’s gospel, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)
But the Christ is eternal. We hear in the the first chapter of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” And on to verse 14, where we hear “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus came into the world just over 2,000 years ago, but the Christ has always been and will always be. And this is where the Ascension comes in. It is through the Ascension that Jesus becomes reunited with the eternal Christ. The risen Christ includes all the spiritual and physical world reconciled within himself. It is through the Ascension that the two worlds become one.
Finally, I was ready to answer two of the questions we use in our Monday Bible Study. This is the way that I am best able to fully embrace scripture. This is how I have taught myself to slow down and internalize the scripture. This helps me to make scripture not just meaningful, but truly proactive in my life. The two most important questions from Bible Study for me are: 1-What do I notice about God in this reading?; and 2-What does this understanding make me want to do and/or be?
What do I notice about God in this reading? First, I notice that Jesus is still teaching and guiding his disciples even as he ascends to heaven. He opens their minds to understand scripture. He reminds them that there is more to come - they will be “clothed in power from on high.” He is preparing them for Pentecost while he loves them through their doubts and fears. This is a loving and patient God who walks with us through our fears and doubts and disbeliefs.
What does God, in these readings, make me want to do and/or be? First, God fills me with hope by reminding me that even in my doubt and fear, I am not alone. That in one God is the creator, redeemer and sustainer and each plays a roll in the growth and maturation of my faith. Knowing that I am not alone gives me the courage to move forward and share the love I have found with others, whether the folks on the margins or our bible study partners or all of you listening this evening.
This God reminds me that, as Bishop Curry says so often, “if it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.” God reminds me that my most important job is to love. Whether it’s my friend, a stranger, someone I admire or someone I definitely do not, it is still my job to love. Being a follower of Christ, I am called to be Jesus to the best of my abilities. I am called to live a life of service, love and joy. And when I strive to do these things, I feel like the person I am meant to be. I feel fulfilled and alive. My heart sings. The risen and ascended Christ has given me the hope and courage to stand before you and express, to the best of my ability, the love and joy that comes to me in being his hands and feet and heart on earth.
You, of course, will have your own understandings of this wonderful feast. And I encourage you to share them with one another or even with me, if you wish. I have often found in our weekly Bible Study, that in the sharing, our understanding becomes broader and better. We become more like Christ in our acceptance and love. May this be so for all of us.
In closing, I like to share a poem with you from Malcolm Guite:
Sonnet for Ascension
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings, Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness, Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight, Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed, Which all creation waits to see revealed.
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Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm, Associate Rector