May 30, 2021
Some of you may recall that a couple of years ago a bishop from another diocese visited St. Alban’s. He preached on Trinity Sunday and explained that somewhat esoteric doctrine, so I’m not going to attempt to do that today.
Things aren’t going back to the way they were.
Rather, I’d like to try to exorcise the demon – more a quandary – from the trip Jan and I made to Mendocino two weeks ago. For at least ten years, we’ve visited that lovely little town every February. We were fortunate to do so last year – just weeks before we were all locked down. This year, we delayed our trip until late May.
I’m probably the only one who was completely surprised that Mendocino isn’t the same wonderful vacation spot as in years past. We’ve been vaccinated, virus cases are at record low levels, and it’s Spring. But restaurants aren’t serving inside. Others have closed permanently. And, instead of February fog and drizzle, high winds make hiking a frustrating exercise. Two weeks later, I’m still in a funk.
This minor – and obviously petty – setback has led me to conclude that things are not going to go back to the way they were. Not soon and probably not ever. The days ahead are going to be filled with struggles at the personal level. Our neighborhoods and cities will be challenged by homelessness and congestion. Because of post-Census jerrymandering, Congress will likely be even more opposed to the interests of the majority of voters. The Middle East and all the other places of international conflict will make this a dangerous world.
It’s fitting, then, that the Prayer Book notes that Trinity Sunday is the First Sunday after Pentecost. Today is the beginning of what we call “ordinary time” in the church year. Interestingly next Sunday, the Second Sunday after Pentecost, is the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time. The date of Easter determines how many Sundays after Pentecost we have. Curiously, we work backwards from Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost usually in late November, and then we cut out any Sundays at the beginning of the Pentecost season.
And, because this is the year of Mark’s Gospel – which is half the length of the other Gospels – in the middle of the summer we have the “Season of Bread.” For five Sundays in July and August, we will read sections of John’s Bread of Life discourse in chapter six. All along, we’ll be reading sequentially from the Old Testament and from Paul’s epistles. Even Barbara Metcalf will find it hard to find any connections among the three Scripture readings.
What a hodgepodge all this is, one confusing and sometimes frustrating mess.
Of course, all this liturgical and lectionary disarray reflects “ordinary” life. Our day-to-day existence is one step forward, two steps backward. In some ways, aging and illness are the best we can hope for – fearing the worst, violence and tragedy. In this so-called ordinary time, talking about God’s love seems insufficient if not delusional.
Born again – by dying with Christ
That’s why today’s Gospel – echoed by our second reading from Romans – is such good news. We are given the promise that we can be born again. A fresh start. A new beginning.
Jesus makes this outrageous claim in response to a question from Nicodemus, who comes in the dark of night. It’s important that it is Nicodemus, a religious leader, who asks the question of Jesus. Nicodemus is a person with knowledge and authority descended from Moses, the great prophet who led the Exodus from Egypt to the promised land. He represents the best human effort to shape society and inspire good living.
Nicodemus’ question reveals his skepticism that we can be born again. His question may also reflect doubt that we need to born anew. Isn’t it enough to be a religious leader whose is preserving and continuing the great heritage of Moses?
Jesus’ response is that “Yes, we can be born again.” But it will take a new Moses and a new Exodus. And what makes Jesus the new Moses is dying is the way to be born again.
During the Exodus, Moses lifted up the serpent on a cross as the antidote for those Israelites who were dying from snake bites in the Wilderness. So, too, Jesus, lifted on the cross is the way God rescues us from death and gives new life.
Significantly, in chapter 19, it is Nicodemus who helps Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus down from the cross and prepare him for burial. Nicodemus literally participates in Jesus’ death.
Baptism and Eucharist – where the Spirt blows and breathes
John wanted his first readers – and us today – to join Nicodemus and participate in Jesus’ death. Today’s Gospel suggests how that is possible.
Our reading today is just a few verses away from the wedding in Cana in chapter two and a prelude to Jesus’ meeting the woman at the well in chapter four. These stories remind us that it is through baptism and in the Eucharist that we are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection. The huge amount of water, wine, and bread gushing through John’s Gospel is a metaphor for the abundance of God’s grace we experience as a beloved community gathered around baptism and the Eucharist.
What makes it possible for us to experience this abundant life today – to be transformed by water, bread, and wine – is indeed Pentecost and the gift of the Spirit.
In John’s Gospel, there is no Ascension 40 days after Easter, nor a Pentecost 50 days later. John wanted his first readers – and us today – to keep both the Ascension and Pentecost closely connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Indeed, in John, the crucifixion is depicted as a type of resurrection as Jesus re-joins the Father who, in the crucifixion, gives God’s own life in death. Right after the Resurrection, Jesus meets Mary Magdalene in the burial garden. Jesus tells her that she can’t touch him because he hasn’t ascended to the Father.
Then, in chapter 20, Jesus appears to the disciples in the locked room and Pentecost takes place right there. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his crucifixion wounds. Then the ascended Jesus – breathes his Spirit on the disciples.
In all of this, the Spirit – that third person of the Trinity – is present. Last week, Kathleen Van Sickle reminded us that the Spirit is a wind that blows where it will. And the wind is something heard, and speech is a form of breathing. And what we hear, as the Spirit breathes and blows, are the words of the Risen Christ.
Our commission for Ordinary Time
After his resurrection, Jesus doesn’t take the disciples with him, but rather leaves them to live their ordinary existence. Indeed, the Risen Christ breathes on his disciples and commissions them – and us today – to engage with the world, to keep talking about him and about the new life we are living. In other words, to love one another.
So, yes, we are stuck in ordinary time, but today’s Gospel and Epistle remind us that we have an extraordinary family. Our baptism is our adoption into a new family with a parent and a brother who literally sacrifice everything to keep us together. And we experience that self-renewing love today and every time we gather – even by Zoom. Hearing scriptures, praying, singing, and – yes – talking with each other helps us begin again.
So, our post-covid world will be both uncertain and ordinary. But each day and each week will also be an opportunity to be born again, to start over, to build new connections in our new family, and to invite others to join us in this beloved community. Amen.