Preached Sunday June 3, 2012 at Presbyterian community Church of the Rockies in Estes Park, CO
Today is Trinity Sunday
The day we acknowledge a doctrine that strictly speaking is never mentioned in the Bible.
The “Feast Day” as they are called was not celebrated until the 14th century and then only in the west. It came about when Pope John XXII made an edict proclaiming it. The idea of the Trinity dates back to the 2nd century from a theologian named Tertullian.
This doctrine was first suggested in relation to debates that were raging between two groups of adherents to “The Way of Jesus”. The 2 groups could not agree on the makeup of Christ physical being. The argued if he was wholly human how could he also be wholly divine too? How can these two states co-exist?
This debate was raged between the homoousios meaning of the same substance and homoiousian meaning of like substance. (there were more accurately 3 sub categories of this camp but that is just way to technical) To be honest I could very likely prepare an entire semesters worth of discussions about just this one debate, but I don’t want to.
When this fight finally ended although it is still not cleared up, the Nicene Creed stood in testimony to the winning side but strictly speaking the western version was not the same as the eastern version.
The point however that I want to make is that there was a winner and there was a loser. The winners were deemed Orthodox while the losers were labeled heretic! It was a classic winner/loser conclusion and for the next 1000 or so years the Orthodox folks went about hunting down and often times killing the heretics. The goal of this was ultimately to wipe away this disparaging train of thought.
After all we can never forget history is written by the winners and the losers books are piled on the fire. Gretta Vosper a Canadian philosopher is quoted as saying:
“Church history, like most history, is generally told from the perspective of the victors, those who made the rules and reinforce them. Those who dissented from the accepted beliefs of their time – often risking infamy, isolation, academic shunning, ridicule, or death – are depicted as heretics and traitors to the faith. History is told to discourage us from finding affinity with them”
Now to be fair this isn’t a Christian thing, it a human thing.
Which brings me to what I really wanted to talk about today: Heretics!
Along with being Trinity Sunday thanks to our good friends in Australia it is also “All Heretics Day”.
Now it may not be initially recognized but Nicodemus from our story today was a heretic. He may not have been an out in public kind of heretic but the faith he held in his heart would have branded him a heretic immediately if the other Pharisee leaders knew. He did indeed feel that Jesus was the Christ, the foretold messiah to come and save the Jewish people from oppression forever. This is why he was out slinking around in the dark hiding in the shadows. He wanted to keep his faith under cover.
In fact it was not until 80ce that the Sanhedrin officially made it unlawful to state that Jesus was the messiah, punishable by expulsion from the Synagogue. Although ole Nic knew it would not bode well for him to completely come out about who he was.
I say completely because we have two other accounts of Nicodemus in John’s gospel both of which seem to show were his heart was at. He shows up as the Jewish leaders are plotting his assassination pleading that he deserves a “fair” trial. He again shows up with traditional burial spices after Jesus is removed from the cross (which honestly kind of shows he didn’t really understand what Jesus had been saying.)
Nicodemus was a man of clout among his people. He was expected to hold an orthodox view on correct belief. Jesus was not part of the correct belief for his community. Jesus and all who put their faith in him were deemed heretics.
But Nic was a seeker. He was not satisfied with “because” as an answer. He wanted to ask why even after people were tired of hearing it.
As we know however if you challenge the status quo you are bound to be labeled a heretic.
As I said “All Heretics Day” comes from the land down under. A place the English developed to send heretics of all sorts be it political, social, and yes even religious. It’s no wonder that the Australian church today is producing some of the most forward thinking outside the box theologian’s the world has ever known. Many of these heretics where sent there for seeking more than truth, just like Nicodemus. They went against the winners and blazed a whole new path.
One of the core problems with these heretics was that they suggested an open understanding of God’s desire for community. Instead of a world where God favors the few and condemns the many, they had the gall to suggest that God’s love was available to all of creation. The challenged the idea that humanity at its root is depraved and w/o help aside from a bloody understanding of atonement. The advocated for a compassionate humanity that desires to seek out good for one another, even if they need some help getting it right sometimes. These people favored a critical approach to religion that appreciates reason and individual thought.
Which brings us back to the Trinity. Our passage today points out to us that belief is not about our knowledge. It’s not about signing on the dotted line agreeing to a policy. It is about our faith that we experience being known and loved by a God who draws us into a mystery that is beyond our wisdom or understanding (just like this table that seems to make no sense yet pulls us in).
This passage reminds us that when we think we think we know who Jesus is, when we believe we have captured the Jennie in the bottle, that is precisely when it will all be turned upside down, like our buddy Nic the heretic. Our certainty is tossed is tossed into the shadows and we experience a rebirth into the light that is not about knowing but blows us on the wind with no idea where it’s going.
That wind blowing our perceived notions and tightly wound ideas open to the possibility of a new life.
Marjorie Suchocki, professor emeriti of Claremont School of Theology shared this idea about the Trinity in a blog past some time ago:
“despite (its) divisive history, the doctrine of the Trinity is more important today than ever, and for two very practical reasons: the first is that the doctrine can keep us from the idolatry of thinking God is just a human being, only bigger and better than the rest of us. The second is that the doctrine tells us that the very deepest form of unity is one that includes irreducible diversity”
Are we attuned to the voice of the Triune God? Do we allow it to direct us in new ways bring about diversity that was inconceivable just a short time ago? Do we become church in the world to those that have been excluded and pushed to the margins? Or are we a little afraid of being labeled a Heretic?