Trinity Sunday (Year B)
“God as the Holy One invades human life, shattering earthly powers but transforming those who respond.”
Trinity Sunday is a transitional Sunday between the long sacred seasons of Lent-Easter and the six months of “ordinary time” that extends until Advent. There is a corresponding transitional Sunday at the end of this ordinary time, Reign of Christ (used to be Christ the King). It has been said that Trinity Sunday focuses on the Being of the holy and mysterious God whose Actions were revealed in the holy times from Advent to Pentecost.
The lections for Trinity Sunday this year begin with the awesome call vision of Isaiah. This was the Biblical text that was evoked for many of us by Rudolph Otto’s classic study The Idea of the Holy. It is the Lord as the terrible and fascinating power, overwhelming and annihilating, yet producing a transforming approach to the human singled out for the revelation.
The report of Isaiah’s vision assumes that the speaker is standing in the main hall of Solomon’s temple, though it is transformed into a heavenly court by God’s enthroned presence. The seraphs were part of the standard imagery of heavenly things, so distant from human experience as to seem alien or bizarre. Like the even more bizarre “living creatures” with wings and faces in Ezekiel’s vision of the enthroned God (Ezekiel 1), the seraphs are associated with God’s throne and its mobility. Here the seraphs are vaguely human creatures with faces and private parts (“feet” in verse 2 is a euphemism), and they have voices, which may roar like thunder, making the building tremble, but which utter articulate words of praise, beginning with the thrice-repeated qadosh — “holy, holy, holy.”
The human who is confronted with this is devastated. “Woe is me! I am lost…” His own condition, which is such a contrast to this overwhelming holiness, is described as being a person “of unclean lips” (verse 5, NRSV). This undoubtedly has reference to speech rather than eating — the unholiness of the human condition derives from things said. Our speech alienates us from the holy realm.
A marvelous transformation comes about here, when a seraph touches a live coal from the incense altar to the speaker’s lips. He is purified, his power of speech transformed. Now he hears the consultations of the heavenly council and is even able to speak up and say, “Here am I; send me!” (verse 8).
The Holy One overwhelms but transforms and gives mission to the human who has made himself present in God’s temple.
The Psalm reading repeats the psalm that is used in Epiphany to celebrate the Spirit of God at Jesus’ baptism (1st Sunday after Epiphany in Year B). The psalm is an astonishing presentation of the Lord of Israel as the Storm God, repeating the phrase “the Voice of the Lord” (thunder) seven times as it tracks a great electrical storm from the Mediterranean Sea across the Lebanon mountains until it dissipates over the desert east of Damascus (verses 3–9).
The outer framework of the storm passage (verses 1–2, 10–11) is the worship of God as enthroned King in the heavenly palace, which worship is to be replicated by devout humans in the earthly temple. The first word summons the “heavenly beings” to worship God’s glory (verse 1) and at the end, “in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9, NRSV).
Appropriate to Trinity Sunday is the triadic structure of the opening call to worship.
Ascribe to the Lord,
O heavenly beings,
Ascribe to the Lord
glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord
the glory of his name.
Worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The reading from the Epistle presents an amazing glimpse into an inner life of God into which humans are drawn. Those believers who “are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” by adoption. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” (verses 14–16). When the faithful utter the ecstatic cry of prayer, “O Father!”, it is the Spirit of God addressing God the Father through the prayer of the adopted Spirit-born child of God.
The New Jerusalem Bible renders it somewhat differently but with the same implications: “…you received the spirit of adoption, enabling us to cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God” (verses 15–16, NJB). The encompassing God of Paul’s vision works through the redeemed people to converse with God’s own self — a divine inner dialogue carried out by means of salvation history! A remarkable aspect of the divine mystery, and an awesome note to sound about human prayer!
The Gospel reading is Jesus’ discussion with the Jewish leader Nicodemus about being born again.
As a Trinity Sunday reading, two things stand out: the Spirit of God as the agent of the rebirth (verses 3–8), and the Son who descended from heaven and is “lifted up” again so that believers may have eternal life (verses 11–15). The ending of the passage contains what is perhaps the world’s most famous quotation from the New Testament (John 3:16).
Jesus’ first words to Nicodemus speak of seeing (or in verse 5 “entering”) the Kingdom of God. This is not John’s language; it is Synoptic Gospel language. The phrase “Kingdom of God” occurs only in these two verses in all of John. On the other hand, John’s phrase “eternal life” occurs only once in all of Mark, in the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus very much as Nicodemus does in John. The young man asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Our John passage assumes that Nicodemus meant to ask exactly this question, and this is the question that Jesus in fact answers.
The answer Jesus gives is that one must be born of the Spirit. There is a sharp distinction between the flesh and the spirit. To be born of flesh is to live by the flesh, that is, to indulge all the bodily desires. To be born of the Spirit is to have one’s own spirit guided into a kind of unpredictable manner of life, later to be characterized as love of God and others. “The wind [= spirit/Spirit] 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” (verse 8, NRSV). There is a spontaneous unpredictability about the works of love inspired by the Holy Spirit that is denied to bondage to the flesh.
If it is the work of the Spirit to inspire a manner of living that gives body to the love of God, it was the Son who opened up such a possibility for humankind. The phrase “Son of Man” in John refers to Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God who became human in order to suffer and be raised up, providing access to eternal life for believers. The discourse in 3:11–15 speaks of this work of the Son for the salvation of humans. But this passage also introduces a change in the mode of speech. This passage about the Son is spoken to a group rather than to just Nicodemus, and it is spoken by a group: “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you [plural] do not receive our testimony” (verse 11).
What we hear in this passage are Jesus-believers in conflict with their Jewish opponents. When Jesus is speaking one-to-one with Nicodemus about the work of the Spirit there could have been some agreement between them. Jesus implies, at least, that a “teacher in Israel” could understand these things (verse 10). When, however, the discussion is about the special status and work of the Son of Man (verses 11–15), the issue is drawn between the old believers and the new. The One God known to the Jews (and other unitarians/Unitarians) is not a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In their different experiences of the Holy God, the Being of God remains an encompassing mystery to people of faith.
“Compassion and justice are companions, not choices.”
—William Sloane Coffin, Jr.