Letting go of what we know
The Sunday after Pentecost is always called Trinity Sunday. And every year preachers wonder, should I preach about the Trinity, which is a doctrine of the church but not exactly a story? What can we say about the Trinity? We say we worship a Trinitarian God, we baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and we dance around the topic in hopes that no one will press us too hard to explain the Trinity without committing heresy.
This year I checked out an article in a philosophical journal about the Trinity, and here are a few of the topic headings from that article:
One self theories; three self theories; four self, no self, and indeterminate self theories. Persons as improper parts of God; Mysterianism, both negative and positive; Trinity as Incoherent; and my favorite: Beyond coherence.
Luckily, we don’t have to be able to understand and define the Trinity using philosophical terms such as these in order to experience the Love of God, our creator, redeemer and sustainer. It’s ok for us to not know how one plus one plus one is still one. We have to let go of math and turn to poetry. Trinity is movement, a dance, an invitation. It’s yearning and self-giving love. Trinity is transformation. Trinity is a relationship: it’s friendship and conversation.
When Jesus and Nicodemus begin their conversation, Nicodemus is going to have to let go of what he knows in order to experience what Jesus has to offer. “We know that you,” Nicodemus begins, but he quickly learns that what he claims to be sure about is going to get into the way of the new life Jesus is inviting him to have. All we have to know is that God’s love knows no bounds and that all God wants is to give us the gift of eternal life, which is not just going to heaven when we die but about having abundant life right now.
But for Nicodemus, and maybe for many of us, un-learning what we think we know is going to take time and require experience. Repeated experience. That’s one of the things I like about Nicodemus who appears three times in the Gospel of John. The first time, as we see today, he seeks Jesus out and hears things that unsettle and confuse him. Then he goes about his life, and later comes back, still a little tentative when he advocated for Jesus to at least have a chance to be heard when other Pharisees, his peers and tribe, tried to have Jesus arrested. And the third time he comes despite the possible danger to himself to help prepare Jesus’s body for burial and to place him in the tomb.
Nicodemus had to let go of his certainty, and then his fear, and then his life. He had to un-learn what he had been taught about how he was supposed to believe and how he was supposed to order his life, to make himself available to the Spirit’s movement through him and to grow in faith.
He had to let go of what he thought he knew.
In the world we’re living in now, we are constantly being told what we ought to know. Especially we are being told what we ought to know about other people, people who are not like us. It’s a common occurrence now for public figures, especially politicians but other leaders too, to label others and to ascribe motivations to them. We are told that Black people are lazy, that Hispanic people are criminals, that gay people have an agenda. That unwed mothers have children so that they can draw welfare and that they use their food coupons to buy steak, and that unemployed people who draw benefits don’t want to work. We are told that working women are destroying men and stay at home moms are not allowing their boys to be boys. We are told that men are all toxic.
And if we do not experience these other people ourselves, because in our society we often feel more comfortable hanging around “people like us,” then we may believe what other people are saying and think we know all about them even though we don’t have experience with them. And then everyone just gets put in a category and is expected to stay there and we can keep our distance, entrenched, along with our biases and prejudices and our certainty.
The thing that I love about the Trinity, though, is that it means God is community. God is about relationship. And so God calls us into relationship too with God and with neighbor, and by neighbor God means all of God’s other children besides us. And the way to get to know our neighbors is to do what Bryan Stevenson, the author of the book Just Mercy, says: get proximate. We don’t know our neighbors until we get proximate, make contact, develop relationship, get to know them through experience.
And that means we’ve got to let go of what we think we know about “other people” and make room for their experiences, their desires, their situations to be real for us just as they are for them. This is what we are called to do as followers of Jesus, to be in relationship, to be reconcilers, to allow ourselves to be transformed through the experience of connection with those who are different from us. We have more life, not less, when we connect across divides.
So here is our challenge. We must find ways to start going about the business of unlearning our biases and prejudices. We must find ways to get proximate with people who are different from us. As a church community and as individuals, we must let go of what we think we know and invite abundant new life to come in through the mysterious channels of relationship and experience to heal us, transform us, and make us all whole.