Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Trinity’

A Spirit Perspective on Life

John 16:12-15

Our perceptions are incredibly important. How we see the world—our perspectives—determines how we react to things in life and also how we interpret the t hings we experience. So let’s do some activities to reinforce that idea.

What do you see?

illusion1

You may see a lakeview with a tree and two people standing.

 Or, do you see an infant in the fetal position?

 What do you read?

illusion2

Did you skip a “the” in the triangle?

illusion3

Which word did you see? Good or evil?

Quick: How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?”

Two, you say? All right.

But wasn’t it Noah, and not Moses?

What do you see in this picture?

illusion4

Coffee beans. Right. Me too.

But what about the poor guy buried in the beans? Do you see him?

Look on the lower left-center side of the picture.

illusion5As you look at this picture, do you believe me when I tell you that there are no triangles?

 How we see and perceive things makes a huge difference. But what our eyes see is not the whole story—not at all. Our perspectives, attitudes, and our worldviews determine how we interpret what we see. For instance, some of you may have already seen these pictures before. This time, was your perception different than the first time you saw them? And, for those of you seeing these for the first time, I’ll venture a guess that your experience was quite different than mine.

Often we cannot see what we are not expecting to see.

This is called confirmation bias, the tendency for us to favor information that confirms our preconceptions or assumptions regardless of whether the information is true.[1]

We look to see what we expect to see.

And depending on what stage of life we are in, perceptions change. We illustrate this all the time with kids. There are some things we don’t want a child to see, but we in fact see these things daily as adults. So we shelter the child from those things—at least until he/she is a bit older and perhaps more able to “see” and “experience” the thing in a healthier way. I am about to perform a wedding this afternoon. The young couple soon to get married will hear me give them some advice and a blessing for their relationship. But my words won’t mean much, you know. They haven’t even begun to experience the challenges, blessings, joys, and sorrows of a life partnership. Ten years from now, if things work out for them, I could say the exact same words I will speak today. But I guarantee that this young couple would perceive my words to be different ones than I spoke at their wedding. Why? Because after many experiences, day-to-day life together, and the altering of their own individual views, their ears would hear something else.

Today’s story in John is all about perception. Jesus of Nazareth, trying to comfort his disciples before his departure, leaves them with a new way of seeing things. They won’t be alone. The Spirit will be with them and guide them through this crazy life. The story refers to the Spirit as parakletos, the ever-elusive Greek word that can mean so many things. This parakletos, the Advocate, is the Spirit of truth. This Spirit will lead the disciples into all truth. This Spirit is Jesus’ legacy, for Jesus himself was full of truth, and it is the truth that leads them on their way. But the disciples would not, could not accept such a shift in perspective right away. How could anyone or anything replace their rabbi Jesus? And yet, Jesus kept on insisting that his Spirit would be speaking to them—long after he was gone.

But notice that Jesus is also very honest with the disciples—about their tendency to cling to the past and their nostalgia–their inability to let go. He said to them:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

Sounds like what we often say to someone when we’re unsure if she can take difficult news or constructive criticism. Sounds like what we say to someone who isn’t ready to change his perspective, or at least recognize that there is more than just one way to see things.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

The disciples loved Jesus; they did. They relied on him. But they were not supposed to be co-dependent. Their calling was not supposed to be limited to their hometowns or to their narrow worldviews. The disciples were meant to be mature, growing, creatively transformed people. They were meant to move forward and to let go. They were not alone, remember. The Spirit was with them! Jesus’ teachings and example were with them.

This was their new perspective and their new way of life. Be humble. Recognize and embrace the Spirit’s presence; be connected to that Something Greater; let that Spirit move you to heal, to forgive, and to love.

Friends, like the disciples, we too can become clingy, nostalgic, static people. We can get too comfortable and stay in the same place. We can start to see the world as a depressing, scary, and awful place.

And then our lives aren’t life at all.

But we are offered another perspective. We are asked to stop putting Jesus and God in a box and to be open to a reality shift. Seeing life with a Spirit perspective means that our theology [how we think about God] is dynamic and forever changing. The way we see God and the world cannot remain the same; God is not limited to a church or a sanctuary or a song or a book or a doctrine. God is not limited even to our past experiences.

The Spirit is not a spirit of oppression or depression, but a Spirit of freedom, joy, and fulfillment.

This Spirit changes our perspective. The world is bigger.

There is more than just one way to see things.

We are connected to Something Greater.

We are connected to others in the work of compassion, justice, and love.

The Spirit is poured out on all of us; we just need to recognize it.

So what do you expect to see each day in your life?

Do you expect God to love you?

Do you expect to have opportunities to help someone?

Do you expect to see positive change in relationships that are broken?

Do you expect healing where there are wounds?

Do you expect to find strength to overcome the struggles you have?

Do you see the work of the Spirit around you and in others?

What actions, movements, creative moments, prayers, experiences, relationships, and enterprises make you more aware of the Spirit?

Which things make you less aware?

All of us are invited to a new perspective. The Spirit is in you. Recognize it. Perceive. Broaden your worldview. The Spirit is in your decision-making, in your day to day living. Notice the Spirit in others. And be led in this way. Find spiritual fulfillment and growth.

Walk this path knowing that you are not alone.

Each moment of your life has purpose and meaning.

And in those moments when this is hard to claim, when you feel alone or lost or completely broken—close your eyes.

Take a breath.

Listen.

Open your eyes and see things anew.

Hear new sounds.

And keep breathing, knowing you are never alone.

Amen.


[1] Baron, Jonathan (2000), Thinking and deciding (3rd ed.), New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sermon on John 3:1-17

John 3:1-17

Not What We Know but What We’ve Been Given

 Sometimes I feel like I don’t know anything. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes I feel that the more I explore, read, study, discover, and experience the world—the less I actually know. I love to travel, to meet people of different cultures and backgrounds; I love to learn new things. But as I do that, I often feel that I actually know very little. Perhaps I agree with US historian Will Durant, who once said: Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance. Life can certainly feel like that sometimes. Maybe some of you are in that place today. Perhaps there are things going on in your life that you just cannot explain. The more you try to understand, the less it makes sense. You scratch your head in agony over not knowing what to do. Should I take this new job? Should I move? Will my sister ever speak to me again? Is my kid ever going to get better? How long do I have to feel this loneliness and emptiness? Why did this person have to die and why did this person live? Why do people kill children in Syria? Why do people kill children in Greater Philadelphia? Is there a God? Does this God really care? Who knows?

Today is a good day to ask such questions and to struggle with what we do not know. It’s Trinity Sunday, after all, when we’re supposed to focus on God being known to us in three persons: father, son, holy spirit—at least, that’s what the doctrine tells us. I’m not sure I want to go there today, because, as some of you have heard me say before, years ago when I was serving a church in Honolulu, Hawai’i, I tried to teach the Trinity to some teenagers who looked at me like I was from Mars. Rightly so, because I failed miserably. Actually, throughout my years, I have unsuccessfully attempted to understand and teach the trinity and have watched countless others seek to do the same. Each time when we tried to explain it, we failed. Our explanations became too simplistic, superficial, and token.

Now I have mentioned this before, but I think it’s worth remembering: the word trinity does not appear in the Bible. Go ahead and look for it. You won’t find it. The closest thing you will get is the mention of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at various times in the NT epistles. But the trinity itself did not come to be until hundreds of years after the Bible was written. It was the year 325 CE, and a council of Christian bishops got together in Nicaea, what is present-day Turkey. Their purpose was to come up with a theological agreement for all Christians around the world. Roman Emperor Constantine was behind it. But this council in Nicaea was more about controversy than anything else. There was this guy Arius, a preacher from Libya, who had written a commentary on the Bible; he had a wide following. These Arians believed that God was the Father of Jesus, and therefore, Jesus was born of God. This meant that Jesus was born after God, meaning that God created Jesus. The controversy was about Jesus’ divinity—whether or not he was equally God. Arius obviously lost the argument. The Council of Nicaea passed the Nicene Creed, which stated that God the Father and Jesus the Son were of one substance and that Jesus was “begotten” of God, not created by God.  But they weren’t finished.

The bishops added a line at the end of the creed: We believe in the Holy Spirit. It didn’t satisfy everyone, though, so in 381 CE at the First Council of Constantinople, they added: We believe in the Holy Spirit the Lord and giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.[1] This is why I’m not going to use an egg or an apple to try to show you who God is, because the trinity is not perfect, nor is it actually taught by Jesus. The Trinity is simply about human beings trying to say [or write down] what they think they know about God. Ironic, I think, because today’s Gospel story is all about a guy in Nicodemus who thought he knew about religious things.

So who was Nicodemus? The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory” and is a name of a member of the Sanhedrin, or the ruling Council in Jerusalem at that time. He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans, which means that Nicodemus was part of the group that didn’t care for Jesus too much. But actually, the Pharisees and Jesus had a lot more in common than we think. They were avid students of scripture and people of prayer. The problem for the Pharisees was that they loved the status quo and the religious institution. People like Nicodemus were kind of torn between two worlds. On one hand, this Jesus of Nazareth made some good points in his sermons and teachings. But he was just too risky and threatened the dogma and doctrine of their religion.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. This is John giving us a clue, because remember that in the 4th Gospel, Jesus is the light of the world. John borrows a lot from Isaiah of the Old Testament—contrasting darkness with light. You see, we live in this world and oftentimes things can seem pretty bleak. We walk in darkness, so to speak, when tragedy, violence, injustice, guilt, and despair overwhelm us. When you try to walk in the dark, you stumble and fall down quite a bit. You cannot see anything. So light, the concept of Jesus as Logos/Word of God, breaks through the darkness and illuminates people with love, grace, and truth. Nicodemus came at night. He came from a place of confusion; he stumbled over to Jesus. He came to Jesus with his assumptions and his proud knowledge of what he thought he knew.

John’s Gospel periodically criticizes characters who claim to know more than others. Why–because at the end of the first century, a famous intellectual movement called Gnosticism developed. Proto-Gnostics claimed to have special knowledge; therefore, they could set the standard for spiritual truths. This was contrary to what John was saying about this Jesus of Nazareth, the one who opened up knowledge for all people to receive and enjoy. So Nicodemus is a symbol of the institutional knowledge [doctrine and dogma] of the temple and religious bureaucracy that contradicted Jesus’ message.

Nicodemus was sure that he knew who God was and who Jesus was. After all, he knew the doctrines. He might as well have been present for the Council of Nicaea. But Nicodemus, in the dark, was about to get shocked with some light. Jesus said: No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. That really wasn’t what Nicodemus wanted to hear. First, Jesus was basically telling Nicodemus that his knowledge was suspect. Second, he was teaching Nicodemus something new, at least for people like him who were so loyal to doctrine. Born after being old? How could a person go back inside mom’s womb? I kind of think Nicodemus was scratching his head and uttering a few what the…? Of course, he didn’t have the luxury of rewinding back to the beginning of this Gospel. John 1:10-13:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

But Nicodemus still didn’t get it, and that’s obvious, because even though Jesus used the phrase born from above, Nicodemus asked how it was possible to be born again? He got stuck in semantics. So Jesus continued: No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”Jesus clarified his point by using common, universal symbols of water and spirit. This is classic John—the 4th Gospel’s famous wordplay. John uses an almost spiraling repetition of words and phrases to help the reader see their double meanings. As words are repeated, their meaning is intensified and deepened. The more we read, the more the message moves forward. Jesus is moving Nicodemus away from his narrow view of life and God to a more mysterious, yet illuminated perspective.

The wind 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 Spirit.

Notice that I removed “the” from the end, because in the Greek it should read born of spirit, not the spirit.

Jesus’ mention of water and spirit inspire many thoughts. First, water is something directly connected to nature. Water is basically limitless; it goes around, under, and through things. It carves rocks, making rough places smooth. It’s powerful. The word for spirit, on the other hand, is actually the same word for wind in Greek. The spirit/wind blows where it wills. It’s unpredictable, chaotic, sometimes dangerous, sometimes comforting and soothing. To be born from both water and spirit/wind is to recognize full humanity as a child of God. Our bodies are not separated from our souls. This John wordplay brings together two things that Nicodemus [and most people] always see as separate. God and humanity coexist. It blew Nicodemus’ mind! So he borrowed from Mary, the mother of Jesus: How can this be?

Well, duh, Jesus answered. Nicodemus saw the world, himself, and God as existing inside a small box. His perspective was limited and therefore, it was easier for him to think that he knew things. But, as Jesus pointed out, once you let your perspective of the world, yourself, and God outside of the box—you realize you don’t know much at all. When perspective is small and rigid, it’s easy to say, “I know this or that” with certainty. But once your perspective expands to be bigger and freer, you tend to say: “I don’t know everything and therefore, I’m open to new possibilities.”

And then, in the middle of the story, John’s Gospel throws us for a loop. Notice that starting in verse 11, we seem to leave the Nicodemus-Jesus conversation and start to hear from a narrator. There is “we” language. Most likely, this is the 4th Gospel addressing its community and context, for there were many people still on the fence about Jesus. So the writers of John appeal to Old Testament sensibilities and utilize the story of Moses and the serpent. You can read the original story in Numbers 21, but here’s the synopsis: snakes were biting little kids in Israel and so God tells Moses to place a fiery serpent [an ancient symbol of knowledge] on a pole so that when people get bitten by the snakes they could look at the snake on the pole and live another day. It’s weird, I know. But John’s Gospel changes the story. John’s version has Moses lift up the serpent on the stick, just as Jesus would be later lifted up on the cross. Both Moses and Jesus bring life to the people.

Jesus is then called the Son of Man [literally, son of humanity], a very common phrase that is the result of the long road of translation from Hebrew to Greek and then to English. Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic. But in all linguistic cases, the phrase son of humanity is meant to lead us to recognize Jesus’ full humanity and our full humanity. It connects directly to being born of water and spirit, being children of God. Jesus, the son of humanity, fully demonstrated what it meant to live as a child of God. And he was “lifted up,” not to condemn or point fingers, but to exhibit God’s unconditional love.

That is the lead-in to the sparkplug of John 3:16. Ironically, the dark place—the world, which I mentioned before, is the reason for all this lifting up and unconditional love. Jesus’ own disciples are not specifically mentioned; only the world. God so loves that darkness. God so loves the Nicodemus in all of us. God so loves in a way that disrupts our three point sermons, doctrines, dogmas, and logical sensibilities. God so loves without any kind of condemnation awaiting those who don’t believe a certain way.

There’s a message for all of us here. When we become too sure of what we think we know about God, we can expect demanding, piercing light to interrupt just like it did for Nicodemus. Our certainty will be overturned, our black-and-white religion undone, our neat, little categories upset. And that’s the best part of all. Because when we’re upset and pulled out of our religious comfort zone, wrestled away from what we think and believe about Jesus, we’re invited to experience the miracle of a new perspective. It’s not about what we know, because no one knows more about God than another. When we’re infants, we know as much about God as we know when we’re 90. It’s not about what we know; it is about what we have been freely given. God has given us life, and the moving, blowing spirit wind; the relentless, cooling and shaping water; an unending, inexplicable love. God has freely given.

This grace is lifted up before us and we are drawn to it. We are drawn to this love; we are surrounded by it and filled with it. And we are so loved that we have plenty of this love flowing out from us in glad response. Friends, each day of your lives, embrace your identity as a child of God, no matter what. You are born of water and spirit-wind, and love. It’s not about what you know; it’s about what you’ve been given. Amen.


[1] Nicene Creed, 1973 draft ICET text.

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