SERMON: On Trinity Sunday – Are you a teacher… and yet you do not understand these things?

By Revd John Davies

Trinity Sunday, 31 May 2015, Queen Camel, West Camel

Romans 8.12-17John 3.1-17

 

And Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘Are you a teacher… and yet you do not understand these things?’ 

[1]

Oh dear. Here I am, a preacher on Trinity Sunday charged with the task of trying to explain the mysteries of the Trinity to a congregation of believers. It’s a scenario which every preacher finds themselves in many times in our ministries. The scenario where we feel barely up to the task.

‘Are you a teacher… and yet you do not understand these things?’

It’s a scenario which each of us, Christian believers, may face from time to time as in an increasingly non-Christian culture people look to us for understanding about the way we see God; as in a society where everything is questioned, people seek our particular perspectives. You may not think of yourself as a teacher; but as parents, grandparents, neighbours, friends, people do look to you and me to demonstrate the Christian way of life; and less often perhaps, but nevertheless, people will sometimes ask us to share what we know about Christ. And we may be understandably nervous about getting it wrong, for being found wanting in our example or our knowledge.

‘Are you a teacher… and yet you do not understand these things?’

I think Jesus liked Nicodemus. I’m sure he welcomed him into his little gathering late that evening. I think that when Jesus asked Nicodemus that question he was just teasing. Because Nicodemus had started the whole conversation, a rich conversation which gave Jesus the chance to give that beautiful one line explanation of the gospel which means so much to so many Christians:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Nicodemus was a religious leader: I’d say a good model for anyone religious, be they ordained, unordained, preordained or just ordinary everyday faithful Christian people.

Nicodemus was a good model because he came to Jesus with questions, and though that made him vulnerable to criticism, open to looking a little out of his depth perhaps, Jesus swept that vulnerability away, and gave Nicodemus so much more than he’d ever imagined he would see or hear on that occasion. Deep and deeper insights into eternal life.

Trinity Sunday is a tricky one for preachers, trying to bring all the knowledge of our theological training to bear on a subject which has always been elusive, hard to pin down. And usually end up feeling we’ve not done justice to the topic. But the burden is lifted if we rest in the knowledge that we’ll never know it all, and rejoice in the insight of this gorgeous truth: that we’re on a journey, and we keep on learning all the way through.

Trinity Sunday is tricky for every other Christian, too: we who recite the creed week by week, but who may pale if someone asks us to explain it in any detail. But like the preacher honest about the limitations of their knowledge, so too every believer can rest secure that if we stay open to learning about God, God will keep feeding our insight and knowledge, giving us experiences which we can share. I’m sure you will recall experiences in life which have given you insights about God, the Trinity:

God the Father – the creator, the generator of life, the one to look up to. Maybe you feel especially close to The Father because of a love you have for creation, for nature in its details or in the great wide sweep of the heavens or the oceans; maybe you feel especially close to The Father because of your having had a good father who you learned so much from in life; maybe you feel especially close to The Father because of your own experiences of being a father, learning  by trial and error how to be a good one.

You have experiences which have taught you about God the Son – Jesus, the prophet, preacher, healer. Maybe you’ve been influenced by people who have been inspired by this man: Christians who have lived out their lives in response to his calling – who have shown you how it is possible to love the neighbour, love the enemy; who have cared for the poorest and neediest, practically, in response to Jesus’ teachings to ‘do this to the least of these, my children [so that you] do it to [him]’. Maybe Jesus has inspired you to perform acts of charity yourself, acts of grace; inspired by the feeding of the five thousand to open your door and share your food with strangers; inspired by the life of the disciples to embrace other believers and share in fellowship with them.

And you know about God the Spirit too – the one who Jesus sent to help us make the connection between ourselves and the Father. Maybe you’ve seen the Spirit at work, healing people, inspiring great teaching, inspiring humble but wonderful acts of love. Maybe you’ve been touched by the Spirit yourself, found yourself (in the words of John Wesley) ‘strangely warmed’ by the presence of God as you have prayed or worshipped, found yourself unusually provoked to go to someone to help them, to take a decision in faith. Recognised the Spirit at work within you.

‘Are you a teacher… and yet you do not understand these things?’ 

Well, yes, you can say, quite humbly, I am a teacher – inasmuch as by my actions I do influence other people; inasmuch as by my words, sharing my experiences and insights about the Father, Son and Spirit, I do educate others about who God is.

And, yes, you can say, quite happily, I do not understand these things – inasmuch as the entire mystery of God is beyond my reach as it is beyond everyone’s reach; I do not understand these things – inasmuch as the mystery of the Trinity, how God can be three persons and simultaneously One, is beyond human description. But although I may not understand all these things, I’m still seeking, still open to learning. And that being still open to learning, I can be a good friend, good guide, good teacher, to others who may be at different stages in their journey of life and understanding, but who are my companions nevertheless.

In this turbulent age we live in, Christians respond differently in speaking and acting in the world. Reflecting on how people communicate and learn today, the Christian writer Rick Warren suggests that

‘Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.’ [2]

We note that there are Christians who are confident in scripture and often have very fixed views which they put across aggressively – alienating others, especially those they negatively ‘judge’. We might say that they have a strong, but hostile Christian identity. We see these especially in the Bible Belt churches of America with their strident TV evangelists, but they are active in the UK too.

On the other hand we see other Christians who are ‘nice’ benevolent people  but who lack confidence in scripture and are slow to discuss their beliefs. They don’t alienate others, but they don’t influence them either. We might say that they have a weak, benevolent Christian identity. This may describe many of us Anglicans who observe our faith, but hesitate to discuss it.

In this questioning world demanding engagement, we are challenged to find a third way of Christian identity between the strong, hostile and weak, benevolent identities. We are challenged to find a strong, benevolent identity that does not compromise on its Christian thought but is rooted in compassion and respect for all humanity. [3]

I think the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus encourages us to embrace that challenge joyfully.

‘Are you a teacher… and yet you do not understand these things?’

Jesus’ light-hearted comment, far from being a put-down, was part of their ever-deepening conversation nudging Nicodemus towards a greater understanding of who God was in Jesus, of what God was doing through Jesus. We might say, a conversation which moved Nicodemus from being a weak, benevolent believer towards someone with a strong, benevolent identity.

So, on Trinity Sunday, my first message is: don’t let the theological complexities of the historic creeds frighten you into silence about your faith – for you have experiences and insights of your own which Jesus will delight in hearing you air.

And if the Trinity is about anything, it is about unity and fellowship, it is about different characters coexisting together as one. So, on Trinity Sunday, my last message is: be encouraged that the way you are will be different to the way other Christians are. Feel valued for being yourself; cherish your distinctiveness and your story; be encouraged that the questions you have will be different to the questions other seekers have – and as we search for answers to the great mysteries before us, we will benefit from making that search together.

 

Notes

[1] The first part of this sermon is based on John 3 – Are you a teacher… and yet you do not understand these things? preached in Liverpool in 2008.

[2] Ed Stetzer, Rick Warren Interview on Muslims, Evangelism & Missions (Responding to Recent News Reports), Christianity Today, March 2012

[3] The strong, hostile and weak, benevolent scenario is discussed in depth in Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World.
By | 2017-03-30T00:42:03+00:00 June 4th, 2015|Sermons|0 Comments

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