“You Are the One: The Three-in-One”

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Dr. Jim Somerville

5/26/2024

John 3:1-17

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You Are the One: The One-in-Three

First Baptist Richmond, May 26, 2024

John 3:1-17

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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

In the annual preaching plan I put together last August I thought this would be the perfect day to begin a new sermon series called “You Are the One,” taking its inspiration from the Old Testament stories of Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon, those real-life characters who were singled out by God in one way or another and told, “You are the one!” I want us to find ourselves in those stories this summer; I want us to hear God whispering those words in our ears—“You are the one!” But when I looked at my preaching plan again recently I saw that I had miscalculated by exactly one week. Because the story of Samuel doesn’t show up in the lectionary until next Sunday. Today is Trinity Sunday, and I can’t imagine that we are going to find ourselves in the story of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are we?

Or are we?

On this Sunday preachers around the world will step to the pulpit and try to explain the mystery of the Trinity. They will resort to all the usual analogies—that it’s like water, which can exist as liquid, ice, and vapor; or that it’s like the Sun, which is a star that emits light and heat; or that it’s like a man who is a father, a son, and a husband all at the same time—as I said, they will resort to all the usual

analogies, and some preachers, in an attempt to be novel, will try out some unusual analogies. I did an Internet search for the “worst explanation of the Trinity ever” and found a post from Michael Patton who said that a student in one of his theology classes once suggested that “God is like 3-in-1 shampoo: three activities, one substance.”i To which he could only shake his head.

When I looked back through my notes from Preacher Camp I saw that my fellow camper Dorisanne Cooper, Pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, had suggested that this year we look for inspiration for Trinity Sunday in a book called The Divine Dance, by Franciscan friar and ecumenical teacher Richard Rohr. So I did. I downloaded the book on my Kindle reader and according to that little number in the bottom right hand corner of the screen I have made my way through at least 26 percent of it. Rohr lost me for a minute when he began to compare the Trinity to a rubber band. I thought, “Uh-oh, this may be the worst explanation of the Trinity ever,” but he won me back when he wrote: “All of our metaphors are simply words trying to grab at the reality, at the experience of God that ultimately can’t be verbalized. It can only be experienced.”ii And I thought, “Yes! That’s it! The Trinity has to be experienced.” Because I believe that’s where we got the doctrine in the first place.

I want you to think about Peter, whose life began in the little fishing village of Capernaum. If he was like all the other Jewish schoolboys of his time he learned how to recite the Shema every morning and every night. It’s from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and it goes like this: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. And as for you, you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” We Christians are familiar with that second part, about loving God, but let’s not skip over the first part: “the Lord is One.”

Because the people of Israel were strict monotheists. They had made a covenant with God that they would make no idols of any kind, and that they would have no other gods but him. From an early age they were taught that there is only one god—Yahweh—and that he was the one they were supposed to love with all their heart, soul, and strength. So when Peter heard Jesus say that Yahweh’s kingdom was coming, and that he needed some people to help him bring it in, Peter said yes. He began to follow Jesus: to listen to him teach and preach, to watch him help and heal. And as he did, Peter became a believer.

We’re making our way through the Gospel of Mark this year, and if you begin to turn through those early pages you can imagine what Peter experienced. In chapter one, Jesus casts out an unclean spirit in the synagogue, heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and cleanses a leper. In chapter 2 he heals a paralytic, says that he has authority on earth to forgive sins, and claims that he is Lord of the Sabbath. In chapter 3 he restores a man’s withered hand, preaches to the crowds by the seashore, and appoints twelve apostles. In chapter 4 he tells several parables of the Kingdom and stills a storm on the Sea of Galilee, but by the end of that chapter his disciples are asking, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” And that’s a good set-up for the question Jesus asks them in chapter 8:

“Who do people say that I am?”

They give him all the usual answers: John the Baptist come back from the dead; Elijah, or maybe one of the other prophets.” “But what about you,” Jesus asks. “Who do you say that I am?” And it is Peter who says, “You are the Messiah!” His experience of Jesus had led him to this impossible conclusion, this incredible confession, that Jesus of Nazareth was the One all Israel had been waiting for: God’s own Anointed. In Matthew’s version of the story Peter goes

even further, saying “You are the Christ; the Son of the Living God!” He had become a believer.

But he wasn’t the only one. In today’s Gospel lesson John, another one of those first disciples, tells a story about Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. Nicodemus isn’t quite ready to make a confession of faith, but he certainly is curious. He comes to Jesus by night and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” And then Jesus engages him in one of the most confusing conversations in the Bible.

“You must be born again, Nicodemus.”

“What? I’m an old man. Am I supposed to go back into my mother’s womb so I can be born again?”

“I’m telling you the truth: no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said you must be born again. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit. The wind blows where it will and you hear the sound of it. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

And Jesus said, “You’re a teacher of Israel and still you don’t understand? I’m telling you what I know to be the truth, and yet you don’t seem to get it. If you can’t understand when I tell you about earthly things, how will you understand when I tell you about heavenly things?”

We don’t hear from Nicodemus again after that, and it’s hard to know whether it’s Jesus or John who says what comes next, but I believe it’s John, because what he makes is a bold confession of faith. He writes, “No one has

ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” Two verses later his confession become even bolder: “For God so loved the world,” he writes, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” And let me just say that when you refer to Jesus as “the only Son of God,” you have become a believer.

Maybe John was inspired by Peter, who was the first to blurt out such a bold confession. But notice that it wasn’t Peter’s understanding that got him there; it was his experience. He couldn’t understand how God could be eternal in the heavens and yet somehow also standing right there in front of him. But at the same time he couldn’t deny that whatever God was, Jesus was, and that whoever Jesus was, God was. It was the beginning of a mind-boggling breakthrough that would ultimately lead the church to embrace the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. But not yet. There was at least one more stop along the way, and that was the Day of Pentecost.

Peter was there for that, too, remember? He was right there with all the rest of them, waiting and praying for the promised power from on high. But when it came, wow! He’d never experienced anything like it before. It filled him up, lifted him to his feet, pulled him out the door, and pushed him onto the street, where he preached the most powerful sermon of his life. “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel,” he said: “‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

Peter could bear witness to that. There he was, full of God’s Spirit,

prophesying with the best of them. He didn’t understand it, but he experienced it. If the Holy Spirit had asked him, later, “What are the believers saying about me?” he would have said, “They think you’re amazing! They couldn’t believe what it was like to be filled with your power.” “And what about you,” the Spirit would ask: “what do you say about me?” “I say you are the one Jesus told us about: the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, the Power from on high. And in the same way I came to believe that Jesus is God, I believe that you, too, are God.” Do you see? Richard Rohr is right: you can’t understand the Trinity, you can only experience it. And Peter was one of those who had first-hand experiences of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. But then there was Paul, whose experiences were a little more second-hand, and that gives me hope, because if Paul can experience the Trinity, then maybe we can, too.

You remember how he was persecuting the believers in the beginning, because they were saying Jesus was God and Paul knew that there couldn’t be two Gods, there could only be one. He had learned that as a schoolboy. He recited the Shema every day. But then, as he was on his way to Damascus to round up another bunch of heretics he encountered the risen Christ on the road. A bright light flashed around him. He fell to the ground. His companions had to lead him into the city by the hand. But a few days later, after he had been baptized, he was out there on the streets like Peter, telling everyone that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of God. In his later writings Paul would swear that he had seen Jesus, but he hadn’t seen him like Peter had. As I said, it gives me hope that you and I, too, can have an experience of the risen Lord, and that our knowledge of the Trinity can be more than head knowledge.

But Paul also had an experience of the Holy Spirit. He wasn’t there on the

Day of Pentecost. But at some point along the way, and probably at his baptism, he professed his faith in Jesus as Lord and received the Holy Spirit. From that moment on he operated under its power, and when he talked about it he often talked about Christ being “in” him, as if the same Spirit that animated Jesus and allowed him to do what he did was in Paul, animating him, and allowing him to do what he did. Paul had an experience of the Holy Spirit that brought him to a Trinitarian understanding, even though the word hadn’t been invented yet. Did you know that? Did you know that the word Trinity isn’t found anywhere in the Bible? But the concept is. At the end of 2 Corinthians Paul writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” If that isn’t Trinitarian, I don’t know what is.

Richard Rohr insists that the Trinity cannot be understood; it can only be experienced. But if we were going to try to understand it we might say that God is not three persons, but rather three relations. According to Rohr the most ancient and solid theology of the Trinity comes from the Cappadocian Fathers of the third and fourth centuries who used the word perichoresis to speak of God as “a circular rotation of total outpouring and perfect receiving among three intimate partners.”iii This is the image that inspired the title of Rohr’s book, The Divine Dance. He writes: “Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three—a circle dance of love. And God is not just a dancer; God is the dance itself.”iv

I’m not saying that Richard Rohr got the idea from me. I would never say that. But he published the Divine Dance in 2016 and in a sermon I preached the year before I said: “There’s an old word that is sometimes used to describe the Trinity: it’s the word perichoresis, which means, literally, ‘dancing around.’ And

there are paintings that illustrate that word by showing images of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit holding hands and dancing around in a circle. That may seem a little silly to you, but imagine this: that as you approach that circle the Son and the Spirit let go of each other’s hands and reach out toward yours, to draw you into the circle, so that you can dance around with them. And because there is no way to refuse that kind of invitation you do—you just grab their hands and join the dance and before you know it you’re whirling around, out of breath, giggling like a schoolgirl.”v

At the beginning of today’s sermon I doubted that you could find yourself in the story of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But what if you can? What if the Son and Spirit are reaching out to you even now, inviting you to join this whirling circle dance, and what if the Father is gazing at you with eyes so full of love that you can’t say no?

—Jim Somerville © 2024