Friday, May 29, 2009

Trinity Sunday Year B

Trinity Sunday Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 6: 1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8: 12-17; John 3: 1-17

Isaiah describes the details of his call to be a prophet for God. The experience is so powerful it produced a vision of heaven, yet so personal he felt it on his lips. Given the role of a prophet as troublemaker to the religious and political status quo, the predictable failures of prophets (the verses which immediately follow, 9 and 10, assume Isaiah's words will not be heeded), and the personal costs to prophets for the rest of their lives, an overwhelming certainty of God's irrestible call was necessary.

The psalmist presents another vision of God "enthroned" in God's "palace," whose "voice in power" is linked to some of the most violent and chaotic events in nature, yet inspires "peace." (This psalm is frequently cited as an example of how the followers of Yahweh adapted religious texts from rival cultures, sometimes verbatim, to describe their experience of God.)

In this excerpt from Paul's letter to the church in Rome he articulates their new status. "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are Children of God." Alluding to the tradition inaugurated by Jesus of addressing God as "Abba," Paul extrapolates that it is the "Spirit of God" speaking to our "spirit" that imbues them with the status not only as "heirs of God," but "joint heirs with Christ." They should, therefore, understand life's inevitable challenges, especially those they might endure for their faith, through the prism of Christ's death and resurrection. He writes, "if, in fact, we suffer with him... we may also be glorified with him."

What begins as a conversation between two sincere "rabbis" becomes a crucial monologue in John's narrative. Jesus prefaces what he is about to say by saying it requires a unique "testimony." He characterizes his entire public life, then seems to allude to his coming crucifixion and then proceeds to its meaning: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son , so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." This is the "testimony" of those "born of the Spirit."

The custom of observing "Trinity Sunday" on the first Sunday after Pentecost first appears in Western customaries in the tenth century in Liege and was adopted officially in Rome in 1334; the East observed an "orthodoxy Sunday" as early as the ninth century. It seems to serve a summing-up function in the church's calendar. Having observed the major dominical feasts of our Lord -- birth, death, resurrection and ascension--and the demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the church now pauses to consider what is the source and linkage among these events.

In his contribution to the
Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, Vanhoozer, ed.) David Cunningham paints some very broad stroke distinctions between "modernist" and "postmodernism's" approaches to "The Trinity." He writes, "In contrast to the modernist penchant for division, isolation and classification, postmodernism posits a much more interdependent approach. Individual instances are not so much sorted into discrete categories as they are set in relation to other instances." "In postmodern perspective, a much more appropriate metaphor is a complex network of relationships... in which every element is, potentially, directly related to each to every other element." (p. 189) "So a doctrine of the Trinity... cannot be simply a matter of choosing the right (eternally orthodox) words.... Rather, it is a matter of examining how people are motivated to act when they believe (or claim to believe) certain things." (p. 195)

In unique ways, each reading, psalm and the gospel read on Trinity Sunday this year describes how the faithful have a kind of double-vision, that is, the capacity to see beyond this world so clearly that it changes how one sees this world! Isaiah's dramatic vision of heaven turns his understanding of justice in this world upside-down and inside-out. The psalmist meditates on the seemingly random violence of nature-- thunder, the brute force of the ocean, earthquakes, floods-- and discovers the voice of the Lord who gives strength and peace to God's people. Paul boldly asserts that when we finally realize that because of Christ we are "children of God," and that God's Spirit speaks directly to our spirits, it completely alters how we see life's inevitable gains and losses. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus alludes to the essence of his mission but then cautions that underrating the actual meaning of his words and his mission requires a decision, a "testimony" "born of the Spirit."

In an outpouring of original writing, Jean-Luc Nancy returns frequently to the kind of double vision, which is the uniquely human capacity to sense something beyond this world that alters radically how we understand ourselves and this world. And, he connects this unique capacity specifically to faith. Drawing a sharp distinction between belief, which fusses about concepts, lives in the head and produces endless arguments, as distinct from faith, which is closer to personal trust and results in decisive and constructive action, he writes, "Belief waits for the spectacular and the invents it when needed. Faith consists in seeing and hearing where there is [seemingly] nothing exceptional for the ordinary eye and ear. It knows how to [really] see and to [really] hear." (
Noli me tangere, p. 22) "To be a human being is to be open to infinitely more than simply being a human being." (p. 82) "What does it mean to be oneself as mush as possible and thus to be as much of a human being as possible? It means nothing other than being faithful to... this infinite going beyond of the human by the human." His emphasis on the unique nature of faith (as distinct from mere belief) comes out this way, "Fidelity does not consist in believing and thus supposing, in accordance with what we know, that things will be in conformity with what we believe. Fidelity means not at all knowing about this. When one is faithful to someone, one does not know in the end about this person at all, nor about what he or she will become later in life. But if one is faithful to him or her, one is faithful without knowing." (p. 84)

How can we expereince God? As Creator of the sometimes violent and sometimes achingly beauty of creation, others and myself" As an obedient servant of all who befriended a rather motley posy of women and men who are our forbearers and witnesses of faith in this Christ? As "Spirit" that speaks to my "spirit?" They are all consistent this way: they invite a relationship of faithfulness not to concepts but to a hunch, which, if we follow it to the end wihtout knowing exactly how it will end, turns how we see this world upside-down and inside-out and we are literally willing to bet our life on it.