Image of God

...the mystery of what it means to be human, and the glory of what it means to be divine, find their perfection in Jesus Christ...

SJF • Trinity Sunday A 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...”

And so it begins... We heard this morning the unfolding of the beginning of all things, the creation of the world and all that is in it, as recorded in the first chapter and the first verse of the second chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. In this powerful vision of creation, God is portrayed as a master architect — as in William Blake’s famous illustration: God sets his compass on the face of the deep. Blake — a master craftsman himself — portrays God as the supreme Master Craftsman, the heavenly architect at work.

So too, the language of this creation story echoes the building of the earthly temple. This is fitting. For just as the temple was God’s symbolic dwelling, all of creation is a habitation for the Most High. Of course, as Solomon would later say when he built the temple in Jerusalem, even heaven and the highest heaven can not contain the greatness of God, how much less this earthly temple. Yet we know that God does visit these earthly habitations — in ways that will become clear, I hope, in a moment.

In the cosmic temple described in Genesis, the dome is the roof of the sky, and its foundation is the earth. The waters are gathered together into one place, into just such a basin as was featured in the temple in Jerusalem, a huge bronze basin in which the priests would wash before they entered the inner courts. The vegetation reflects the decoration of the temple, the walls and columns, carved with fruit, vines and branches. The great lights of the sun and moon are like the huge bronze lamp-stands that stood in the temple court. Then, to provide the multitude of sacrifices, all the living creatures are created. Thus the temple is almost complete, ready for the worship of God.

I say, almost complete. What is missing? Well, in most temples of the ancient near east, in the innermost portion, in the shrine of the holy of holies, you would find an image of the God that the people worshiped, to whom the temple was dedicated. And this is where we come in. As you know, God forbade the Israelites making and worshiping graven images; and in the temple in Jerusalem, in the Holy of Holies, there was no image of God — but instead, the ark of the covenant and the cherubim who served as the throne of the invisible God.

But in the cosmic temple described in Genesis, God does create an image, a likeness, to represent God, and to take its place at the center of creation, in the holy of holies. God creates humanity.

This tells us that the author of Genesis understood humanity as the crowning achievement of creation, but even more, to be an image or likeness of God. It is as much as to say, If you want to know what God is like, look at human beings.

Now, this doesn’t mean that God has a head or two arms and two legs. And we also have to acknowledge, especially given the rest of Genesis, to say nothing of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and all the rest, that we are to look to the best of humanity — humanity as it is meant to be at its best — if we want to gain an idea of God’s nature. So what are people like at their best: and how do we reflect the image of God?

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We find an answer to this question in the closing words from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Grace, love and communion: these three qualities of God, reflected in humanity, are facets of God’s image and likeness; and these facets, like the persons of the Holy Trinity itself, are related and connected, much as the human and divine natures are interconnected in the person of Jesus Christ. What’s more, the mystery of what it means to be human, and the glory of what it means to be divine, find their perfection in Jesus Christ; he is the true image and likeness untarnished by sin: revealing humanity as all that humanity is meant to be, when God created us in the first place. It is in the Incarnation of Christ that we will find the place where the human and divine meet, as the hymn says, “God in man made manifest.”

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First comes the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. What is grace? We tend to think of grace as being about style, decorum, elegance. We say someone is “graceful” when they move well. But the grace of God, especially of God in Christ, is about the gift of God and the giving of God, the stooping down and emptying out of the Son of God, the graceful descent from the throne at the Father’s right hand, the choice to come to us, to be with us as one of us, the graceful condescension of Emmanuel — God with us — when the power of God leapt down into the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the infinite reality of the creator of all that was became, as one old poet so beautifully put it, “compassed in little space.” This is the grace of Jesus Christ, like the grace of the most perfect high-board diver who leaps from the highest point and spins and plummets but then enters the water with only a tiny splash! This is the grace that is a gift: a gift to you and a gift to me, that the Son of God, should for our sake, take our nature upon himself, as naturally as a man or woman puts on a garment perfectly tailored for them — because it was for this reason that God made us in his image in the first place: that one day God might put on our nature with such a perfect fit. This is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Next comes the love of God the Father. And John the Evangelist is the great exponent of God’s love; it is a theme he takes up again and again. It is he who assures us that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. He continues, that God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. As John said, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. So once again, John helps us to see that God’s very being is tied up with the Incarnation, the sending down of the Son of God to be with us, in order to save us. As Jesus said in John’s Gospel, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And this is what God did for us, in Christ, giving himself to save us, even from ourselves.

And as John continues in his First Epistle: “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” You can’t see God — God is invisible — but when we love each other, giving of ourselves for each other, we become so much like him, that the original image and likeness he bestowed upon us in creation begins to glimmer through the stains of sin that we accumulate in our earthly life. Every act of love, every “sending” of ourselves, every stepping aside to honor and serve another, is a reflection of God’s very being. Such is the love of God the Father, who sent his Son to save us.

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Which brings us to the “communion” or “fellowship” of the Holy Spirit. Of all human love, the love that Christians show to one another, which finds its perfection in the communion of the church, is a revelation of God to the world. John again gives us Jesus’ word on this: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The harmony of the church reflects the harmony of heaven; the unity of the church reflects the unity of God, and the loving fellowship and communion of the church reflects the being of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Communion, whether the communion shared by the persons of the Holy Trinity, or the communion shared by individual Christians or by Christian churches, does not mean that everyone is exactly the same. Right in the middle of our west rose window you can see the old emblem of the Trinity: and it affirms the truth that while we believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God — yet we do not, as the Athanasian creed put it, believe in three Gods, but one God. At the same time, the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Holy Spirit. The Three in One and One in Three are united without confusion, but I’m afraid that when preachers start to talk about it they begin get a little confused, and so it’s probably something best not to talk too much about. But you can look at it — you can behold it, there, and in each other, as we reflect the Holy Trinity, God with us, in us, and through us.

This is the great mystery at the heart of the Christian faith. But as I say talking about it has gotten many a preacher into trouble. So I’ll stop while I’m ahead, and remind us that Jesus promised that Christians would be known by our love, not by our doctrine! Instead let me point us back to the primary lesson I hope you will carry away with you this morning.

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That is, that God made us in his image. That God made us to be like him. That God made us to be filled with the generous grace that suffers for the sake of the beloved. That God made us to be filled with the love that gives without reservation or qualification. And that God made us to be in communion with each other, joined in the bonds of affection through the instrument of God’s unity. May we be One in Christ as Christ is One with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all now and forever more.

Second-Hand People

The disciples were an heirloom from the Father to Jesus, vessels precious containing the word...

SJF • Easter 7a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.”

One of the peculiarities of John’s Gospel is that his account of the Last Supper contains no mention of the Holy Eucharist. Rather, John is the only evangelist to record the startling act of humility, when Jesus rose from the table and washed the disciples’ feet. But John’s account is also unusual because it is so much longer than that of the other evangelists. As Deacon Cusano reminded us last week, John’s Gospel retelling of the Last Supper includes four and half chapters of teaching and prayer. In this long discourse, Jesus reveals why he came to be among us. These chapters have a timeless quality, as they appear to describe the future, but they also reflect the eternal. It is as if Jesus is both looking forward to his Passion but also looking back upon that Passion, and even upon struggles of the early church, by which the church would come to share in his sufferings. It is as though he is looking back from a time long after his Resurrection — from an eternal perspective, from a God’s-eye-view.

There are even moments, as in today’s portion, in which Jesus refers to himself in the third person — as if he were talking about someone else: “This is eternal life,” he says, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

On top of that, there is an almost hypnotic quality to the language in these chapters — the repetition of phrases, their inversion and weaving together, in a wonderful vision of the interconnectedness of the Father and the Son, knit together in the Spirit, folding the disciples into the unity of God himself: “all mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.... so that they may be one, as we are one.” It is as if all of time and space, humanity and divinity, were displayed on a great silken tapestry being shaken out before us, held up on display, then folded and refolded, tucking all of history, all of the cosmos, into a small space, four and a half chapters in the middle of the Gospel according to Saint John.

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One of the things Jesus makes clear in this reflective and prayerful meditation is that the disciples were not his originally. As he says, they belonged to the Father, and were in the world. I noted in my sermon a few weeks ago, that it was God who chose those who would become followers of Jesus, those God deemed precious. And God committed these chosen disciples to his Son. Jesus had them second-hand.

Anyone who comes from a large family knows about second-hand and hand-me-downs. Actually, since my younger brother outgrew me and soon was bigger and taller than me, I actually experienced a few cases of hand-me-ups! But they were still second-hand.

Usually such second-hand hand-me-downs are forced by economy and practicality. When you don’t have much money, getting some more wear out of someone else’s clothes can help a family pinch a penny until Abraham Lincoln weeps. And I can readily admit that in my early days living in New York City as a struggling artist, I made more than one trip to Goodwill both for clothing and for furniture — and I wasn’t making a donation! I also was savvy enough to take advantage of the Thursday evening “set your unwanted furniture out on the street for collection” that still turns New York City streets into a kind of free-for-all flea market where one person’s refuse becomes another’s living room furniture! I’ve still got a floor lamp over at the rectory that I rescued from the clutches of the sanitation department over forty years ago.

But there is another kind of second-hand that is far more important and valuable than even the greatest curb-side flea-market discovery: and that is the precious inheritance that a father or a mother passes on to their children. I’m sure most of us here have some kind of heirloom from a parent or a grandparent, an uncle or an aunt — perhaps not some valuable by worldly standards, but important to us. In my office downstairs I have on the wall a porcelain plate with Raphael’s “Madonna and Child” on it. It belonged to my mother, and she gave it to me as an inheritance. It probably is not worth much by the standards of AntiquesRoadshow, but it means a great deal to me.

Most of you probably have some such item, perhaps also not worth much in the worldly marketplace, even if you would never think of parting with it. That’s because its value to you as a family treasure is so much more important than its value may be as a worldly treasure. (I do wonder, sometimes, when someone on Antiques Roadshow learns that the treasured vase that momma left them isn’t carnival glass, but a Tiffany worth tens of thousands of dollars, as you can see the wheels beginning to click behind their eyes, calculating the value of this keepsake versus its possible value of cash on the barrelhead, and how much longer it is going to stay on momma’s dresser. Because it’s no longer a vase; it’s a vahse!”)

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But, vases and vahses aside, God’s gift is much more precious than any heirloom, valued for sentiment or even for its cash value. What the Father gives to Jesus is precious — precious to God and so infinitely precious; for the Father gives Jesus the disciples, chosen out of that worldly world to be the beginning of a new family, the human family, the family we call the Church. They are the heirloom vessels, chosen to be the means by which the family of God will grow, through the preaching of the Gospel. The Father presents them to Jesus his Son, and from that moment on they belong to Jesus, and he puts them to immediate use, filling these vessels with the Word — which also comes second hand; as he said in our Gospel today, God gave the word to him, and he passes the word on to the disciples. As he said to the Father, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.”

These disciples, though second-hand, are second-hand from God: they are heirlooms of the precious kind, and they are given for a purpose. They are not just pretty pictures to hang on a wall, attractive furnishings to brighten up the corner of a room. No, my friends, they are chosen and precious vessels — vessels designed by the Creator, who presented them to his Son, to bear his message — to carry that word, that saving word, his saving message, the words God gave to him, that he committed unto them — to the rest of a waiting world.

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We are poised today, on this Seventh Sunday of Easter, between the observances of the Ascension of Jesus and that of Pentecost, next Sunday. After the Ascension, the apostles, those chosen vessels, were dumfounded; they stood there looking up into heaven with open mouths like so many vases or urns. We hear their names recited out again, names to be repeated to the end of time, these chosen eleven, and then the angel gives them the charge to go back to Jerusalem, and wait for the Spirit. There they will await the fulfillment of their purpose, the fulfillment of what they were designed for, what they were meant for, what they were chosen for. For on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will come upon them, and fill those chosen vessels. The fire of God will fire that ceramic and make it strong enough to bear the days that are to come, the days of stress, the days of trouble, the days of persecution. God will give them the power to testify and proclaim, God will fill them to the brim with many languages so that they can bear the saving message to the world’s four quarters, to all of the people of the world, and enlarge the family of God, sharing with them in a precious inheritance.

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And you know what? We are second-hand people too. Because we received the message from those who got it first hand, from those apostles and evangelists who stood staring up on a hillside looking after Jesus as he ascended into heaven; but then returned to Jerusalem to await the coming Spirit; who, when the Spirit came, were filled with power to spread the word abroad.

We second-hand Christians, members of Christ’s family, have received the most precious inheritance imaginable — the word of salvation itself — we aren’t just vases, we are vahses, we are full of the Spirit and the message of salvation.

And you know what? We’re not going to take it to Antiques Road Show. We’re not putting it up on eBay. We’ve got a better way to share the gift, through the power of the Spirit. We too, with the disciples, can proclaim the way to eternal life of which Jesus spoke that night in the upper room: that all the world may know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

So let us not, at the end of our worship today, simply stand staring with open mouths, even though we’ve all been singing. Let us go forth, having been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, to do the work God has given us to do, to the glory of his Name, that all may be one in him, even as God is One: God the Father Almighty, his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Holy Spirit, is worthy of all honor and glory for ever and ever.+

Wisdom From On High

We would be very foolish indeed to ignore such an invitation, to turn aside from such a host, to abstain from such a feast...

Trinity C 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, and our first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, presents us with an opportunity to think about one particular aspect of the nature of God, the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This portion of Proverbs begins with what is sometimes referred to as “The Song of Wisdom” — and it forms an important part in a whole complex of “Wisdom Literature” — a collection biblical and inter-testamental texts, the latter so called because they come between the Old and the New Testaments.

In the Wisdom Literature, Wisdom is not only praised as an abstract virtue or concept, but is personified, often, as in the text today, portrayed as a regal woman. Wisdom is portrayed as a woman in part because both the Hebrew and the Greek words for wisdom, ḥokmah and sophia, are feminine in gender, and the latter obviously even came to be a common woman’s name. So Wisdom is seen as a woman... but, I’m sorry, my friends; to the women here today I have to alert you not to take too much pride in this relationship with Wisdom, because the Book of Proverbs also personifies Folly as a woman! From a biblical standpoint, it seems women just can’t win, at least not all the time. Thank goodness some things change!

And one of the things that changed over time, particularly in the Christian era, was how Wisdom came to be seen, and about whom the texts were said to speak. And that is Jesus!

Now, you might well wonder how this movement from an abstract idea of wisdom as a virtue, to wisdom personified as a regal woman, a princess or queen, to wisdom incarnate as the Son of God, Jesus, took place. And so I’d like to explore that process with you a bit today, on this Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the Christian year when theology steps to the forefront.

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First of all, we know that the Jewish people had long valued wisdom as a virtue. Wisdom for them included knowledge, and people who knew a lot of things would be accounted wise. Solomon, for example, is held up as the supreme example of wisdom, as it is written of him in the First Book of Kings:

God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt... He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.

I’m not all that sure that Solomon would have been a great guest at a dinner party; but in addition to this kind of “know-it-all” wisdom, there was also high admiration for what we would call common sense, or even crafty shrewdness, or even cunning. There is no doubt that given the scrapes into which the patriarchs got themselves, the ability to be clever, shrewd, or even crafty, came to be admired. Being able to get out of a difficult situation, even if by the skin of your teeth, is an admirable quality. You will no doubt remember that parable Jesus told about the business manager who is about to be fired and who comes up with a scheme to win friends for himself by marking down their debts to his master — and then the master turns around and praises him for his shrewdness. So being a smooth operator was admirable, in a down-to-earth way.

And so it is that both book-smarts and street-smarts both come under the heading of Wisdom in this first understanding of the word. But as the poets and wise men, such as Solomon himself, began to extol the virtues of wisdom more and more, they began to take poetic license by personifying wisdom as that regal woman, Sophia. As I noted before, this plays both ways, as the writers of the Wisdom literature believed that there were few things more valuable than a wise woman, and few things worse than a foolish one, and they would play these images against each other by comparing and contrasting a wise wife with a foolish harlot. The Wisdom writers also wrote of how a man could be blessed by a wise wife but destroyed by a foolish harlot, and he would be a fool indeed after her tempting ways.

But wisdom itself they saw as the pinnacle of goodly virtue: a woman more precious than jewels or gold. The passage we heard today from Proverbs is typical: she is described as being with God from the beginnings of creation, working with God, like a master-worker cooperating with God in creation itself.

The author of the intertestamental Book of Ecclesiasticus, Joshua ben Sira, took the analogy even further, picking up where Proverbs leaves off and extolling Wisdom even more; he writes:

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people... “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High... I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway... Before the ages, in the beginning, God created me, and for all ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion... in the beloved city he gave me a resting place... Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits.... Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more.”

I think it is easy to see how the early Christians, hearing these texts, even though they are describing Wisdom personified, and though even here less as a woman than as a kind of emanation coming from God himself, could come to see that these texts are referring to Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. But there is one more reason even more telling, because the passage I just cited ends by saying, “All this” — that is, all that has preceded, the whole description of Wisdom — “all this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us...” In short, Wisdom is identified as the Word of God, coming forth from the mouth of God and recorded in the Holy Scripture, most especially the Torah.

As you know, Jesus came to be understood to be the living and incarnate Word of God. This was due largely to the Gospel according to Saint John, and from there it was an easy step to go back to the Wisdom literature and see Jesus foretold in those texts. And so Jesus came to be understood by the early church as the “Wisdom from on high” dwelling with his people, inspiring them, as the Word of God incarnate, fulfilling both the law and the prophets.

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It is written in Proverbs, in the chapter after the one from which we heard the reading this morning, chapter 9:

Wisdom has built her house..., she has mixed her wine, she has set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town..., “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”

What the wise men wrote of, what the prophets foretold, we have come to realize at last. Jesus, the Wisdom from on high, calls us to this house, calls us to his table, and gives himself to us his faithful believers much as Wisdom gave herself to those she summoned — and he gives himself to us in that bread and in that wine. Jesus our Lord and Savior, and also the Wisdom of God and the Word of God, calls us to Take and eat, to take and drink — more than bread, more than wine, but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We would be very foolish indeed to ignore such an invitation, to turn aside from such a host, to abstain from such a feast. May we always gladly eat and drink at the table of the Wisdom from on high, in the Eucharistic feast committed to our hands by the Word of God himself, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Take It From the Top

Born again or from above -- we take it from the top. A sermon for Trinity Sunday

SJF • Trinity 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus answered him, How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

It doesn’t take a divinity degree or years of study in literary criticism to see at once that the Gospel According to John differs markedly from the other three gospels. This is not just a matter of content — that much is obvious, since John’s Gospel lacks a Nativity and the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. But beyond these details of the story-line, the whole style of writing differs from that of the other evangelists. While all of the gospels tell the story of the ministry of Jesus, John’s version differs from the others almost as much as a novel differs from a poem. It is true that the other three gospel writers each have their own particular angles and styles, but John is more unlike any of them than they are unlike each other.

Matthew takes pains to show the fulfillment of the words of the prophets; Mark is eager to tell his story quickly and evoke a vivid response from his readers; and Luke sees himself as a patient historian laying out all the facts, but also with a little bit of poetry thrown in.

However, John the Evangelist is the only one of the four who offers us extended commentary, and even more to the point and in light of today’s reading, long dialogue scenes. The other evangelists record very short interactions between Jesus and those who speak with him, but John gives us these extended conversations, some of them running whole chapters or more. You will recall the conversation that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well — easy for us to remember because of the stained-glass window right there. You may also recall the long discourses in which Jesus argues with the people and their leaders about who he is and where he comes from, or discourses on his mission to the disciples; or, as in today’s reading, when he has an earnest conversation with a rabbi on the subject of salvation.

Another feature of these dialogues — and we see it in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus just as we saw it in his conversation with the Samaritan woman — is that the person or people to whom Jesus is speaking often don’t understand him. This gives Jesus the opportunity to unpack and expand his explanation, and the dialogue can grow into a discourse, as it does in this encounter today.

Whatever it was that Nicodemus had wanted to talk about when he came to Jesus by night, Jesus quickly steers the conversation to the subject of the kingdom of God and how one becomes a citizen of that kingdom. And right from the beginning a misunderstanding sets in: or rather two different understandings of how one is born — Jesus says “born from above” but Nicodemus hears it as “born again.” The problem, which doesn’t translate very well into English, is that in the language Jesus and Nicodemus were speaking, what Jesus said could mean both “from on high” or “from above” and “from the beginning” or “again.” Jesus seems to intend it one way, but Nicodemus appears to hear it the other way, which gives Jesus the opportunity to expound on what it means to be born from above — from the heavenly realm of God’s Spirit.

As I thought about this passage it occurred to me that there is one English phrase that captures this ambiguity, and may help us better to grasp what Jesus is getting at here. If you’ve ever been part of a choir or a band or an orchestra, you will no doubt have heard the conductor or band-leader say, “Let’s take it from the top.” “The top,” of course, is the beginning of the piece of music. “Taking it from the top” normally happens after you’ve worked through the piece of music bit by bit, dealing with the difficult passages and unexpected turns in your part — soprano, alto, tenor, bass; strings, woodwind or percussion — making sure you know when to come in, when to rest, and how to sound, whether loud or soft, whether smooth or staccato. And after working through all of those difficult bits, the director will say, “Let’s take it from the top.” At that point you are ready to try to sing or play through the whole piece to see how it all fits together.

Jesus is saying that coming to the kingdom of heaven works in a similar way. Remember who he is talking to here: a teacher of Israel. Nicodemus is a man who has puzzled through all of the hard bits of the Law of Moses; he has studied the Scriptures up and down and backwards and forwards. And Jesus is inviting him to “take it from the top.” And most importantly, not to do so on his own, but under the direction of the leader of the heavenly choir himself. No one, Jesus assures us, can ascend to heaven except the one who has descended from heaven — “from the top” in every sense of the word, both from on high and from the beginning — the beginning of all things. It means both “again,” and “from the place you can see the whole thing laid out before you” — from the top, as if from the top of the hill, from the top of the mountain, of the view from heaven. Jesus has come down from heaven, “from the top” with the express purpose to be with those of us below, who have worked through all the tough bits of this earthly life — sometimes hitting wrong notes and coming in a measure early when they should have rested. He has come to be with us precisely so as to be able to raise us up with him.

Jesus spells it out in that timeless promise, “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.” In Jesus Christ, God gives us the opportunity to “take it from the top” and to make the beautiful, heavenly music that God desires us to make.

Apart from him we can do nothing, or at best still struggle and get caught in the difficult bits of life and keep playing the wrong notes or at the wrong time. Without him, we are like Isaiah before the seraph touched him with the coal of the heavenly fire, brought down from the top to touch him below here on earth — lost people, lost and of unclean lips, hoping for the best but somehow always doing the worst. Without him, we are like orphans, waiting in vain for someone to adopt us.

But with God’s help, with the Father and the Spirit and the Son, with our sin blotted out and our guilt departed; with the spirit of adoption poured into our hearts; with Jesus our Savior at our side to lead us and raise us up with him — well, with all of this, it is as if we have been born again. By taking it from the top with him — the one who was and is and is to come, the Lord of all time and of all creation — we can come to the kingdom of heaven, sanctified by him and in him.

This is the promise that Jesus shared with Nicodemus that evening long ago, that God has come to us empower us to get it right — to take it from the top with him and not to miss a single note or mar a single harmony. Not through our own virtue, but because we have the best director in the world, the one who will conduct us into the pure harmony of everlasting life, in the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Watch and Listen

SJF • Trinity 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...”+

We come today to Trinity Sunday, the day on which we are invited to think about who God is rather than what God has done — although with that wonderful reading of the story of creation from Genesis still in our ears, there is ample opportunity to reflect upon what God has done!

Thinking about the Trinity is something that theologians just can’t seem to get enough of. They also often don’t know when to stop! There are distinct dangers in trying too hard to understand what is beyond our comprehension. It’s especially hard if one has a curious and inquiring mind.

I learned the danger in that as a child of six when I tried to dismantle my mother’s wristwatch — all that exercise got me was a hopelessly damaged watch, and going to bed without supper and with a sore behind and, and an earnest talk from my father trying to explain — in terms that my child’s mind could understand — how much more valuable my mother’s Hamilton wristwatch was than even all of my toys put together. Strange to say, after all that, I still became a theologian!

But maybe it was because of that. Perhaps it was my father’s willingness to offer an explanation that did it. And surely it is good on this day which is Father’s Day as well as Trinity Sunday, for me to remember and give thanks for my own father, God rest him. For even though he gave me a good shellacking after my misdeed with the watch, he also took the time to explain what that watch was worth in terms I could understand. He didn’t teach me anything about its mechanism — which I as a child had vainly sought by taking it apart. But he did teach me about its value — and surely that is what a good theologian is called to do, especially when it comes to the Trinity.

As my father sat on the edge of my bed while I pouted under the covers, he held up one of my toys, a wind-up tank, and said, “Toby, do you understand that your mother’s watch cost more than a hundred of these?” I was awe-struck. A hundred tanks! What an armored division that would make! All the toy soldiers in my plastic army would not be able to stand up against such an assault! And it slowly dawned on me, How awesome is the value of that tiny wristwatch. I did not learn how the wristwatch worked, but how valuable it was.

My father took the time to explain the value of that watch in terms I could understand and in the form of a metaphor — a parable, if you will. My father taught me how to teach.

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And I pass along this teaching. God is not to be taken apart in the vain search to understand how God works. Rather God is someone to be supremely valued — valued as worth more than all creation. Even after we have taken in all of creation, in awesome wonder, our final word should be, How great thou art!

God is to be supremely valued, and loved — and listened to. God is, after all, more like my father than like my mother’s watch. Not only did I learn more from my father than from the watch, but my father showed his love for me — even though at the time the discipline was painful! — especially in taking the time to teach and help me to see where I had gone wrong. God is not to be dismantled, but to be listened to — and listened for.

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Author James Hamilton tells a story that resonates with my own childhood. In the suburb where I grew up some people still didn’t have refrigerators. Many had moved to Baltimore from the mountains of West Virginia to get jobs in the post-war boom, and they brought their iceboxes with them. The iceman would still come down the alley behind our houses with his horse-drawn ice-wagon, selling slabs of ice just the right size to slide into the compartment of the icebox — do any of you here still call your refrigerator an “icebox?” My father always did — in spite of the fact that he worked his way through night-school — studying to become a school-teacher — in the appliance department at Sears! So even though we had a Kenmore in the kitchen, it was always the “icebox” in our house.

The ice in the wagon came from the icehouse, where it was made and stored. Our neighborhood icehouse made the ice with a compressor, but back in the old days they would harvest it in the winter from the frozen river near which it stood. The slabs of ice would be covered with canvas and sawdust until it was time to deliver them. The long, low icehouse had no windows, and the thick door sealed shut to keep the coolness in. The ice would be secure there behind those well-insulated walls.

Well, one midsummer day, one of the workers in the icehouse discovered he’d lost his pocket-watch. It had been left to him by his father, and he was really upset to lose it. He searched up and down, pushing the sawdust with the big broom they used, but with no luck. The other guys helped him, but they couldn’t find the watch; and then they began to wonder if maybe he hadn’t lost it somewhere else.

Kids such as myself used to hang around the icehouse, especially in the hot, humid Baltimore summer, because when the men loaded the ice on the wagons with the big, scary metal pincers, occasionally a block would drop and shatter, and the kids would scramble for the sliding shards of ice, to rub on their forehead or the back of the neck, or to let the cool water drip over their heads. (I could use one right now!)

One of the kids was watching and listening to the men looking for the missing watch, and when they went off on their lunch break, shaking their heads and shrugging, he snuck into the icehouse, and closed the door behind him.

The dim light bulbs were spaced far apart, and even with them on there wasn’t much light; all to keep the ice from melting. The air was cool and he could see his breath, the first time he’d seen it in six months. And it was very, very quiet. The thick walls and sealed out all the heat and all the sound. He looked around at the stacked-up blocks of ice, like building stones mortared with sawdust, covered with canvas shrouds. He imagined he was inside the Great Pyramid, a silent, ancient tomb.

He saw a flat spot in the sawdust about his size, went over to it, and laid himself down; he folded his hands across his chest and closed his eyes thinking about Boris Karloff in The Mummy and keeping very, very still. And in that stillness, he could hear the sounds that ice makes as it gently creaks, and the drip-drip-drip of the water as it slowly melts off. But soon he began to hear another sound. Tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick.

And after a few moments of careful listening, he got up and walked across the sawdust to right where the watch had fallen, stuck half under the edge of a slab of ice, wedged tight in a fold of the canvas and covered with sawdust. All of the men’s searching and sweeping had only pushed it deeper. And when he emerged into the bright summer afternoon, even though squinting against the sun, he greeted the astonished iceman with the watch he thought he’d never see again. And as a reward he broke him off a nice fresh corner of a slab of ice, just for him, pure sweet cooling ice that had never touched the ground.

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If God is like a watch — he’s more like that one. We won’t find God by sweeping up a sawdust storm of theological speculation. As the Psalmist says, I will still my soul and make it quiet like a child upon its mother’s breast; or, as I will add, this Father’s Day, like a child in its father’s arms. God is holding us close, and loves us dearly, this unsearchable and sublimely valuable God of ours, and all we need do is listen — listen — and we will hear the beat of the heart of the One-in-Three who called the whole world into being. Listen! Upon that breast, and in those loving arms, we are carried day by day, by this loving God whom we know by Name as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.+

Three Things About God

SJF • Trinity Sunday 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to Nicodemus, Are you a teacher of Israel yet you do not understand these things?+

Today is Trinity Sunday, our annual opportunity, on an almost-summer morning, to talk a bit about the nature of God — our Father and our Creator, but also Christ our Brother, and the Holy Spirit our advocate and guide. Today, in honor of the Trinity, I want to say three things about God, three things about the nature of God, about who God is, and what that means for us.

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The first thing I want to say is that God is One. This truth echoes forth from the first of the Ten Commandments, on through the most important Jewish prayer — the prayer that gives rise to all other prayer: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai ehad — Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is One Lord. And what was true for Israel is also true for us. Among the earliest errors to plague the church was the mistaken belief that the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, wasn’t the same God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. You will still sometimes hear people talk about “the angry judgmental God of the Old Testament” and the “loving God of the Gospel” as if there were two Gods. Well, I’m sorry, but we don’t believe in two Gods. We believe in One God — who is sometimes angry because we don’t do all that we should, but who is always loving because we are — even when we misbehave — his children, through the Holy Spirit.

Later, another misguided effort was made to parcel out history to the Trinity as if the Trinity were divided into three gods. A monk named Joachim of Fiore thought it made sense to give God the Father authority over the Old Testament times, Jesus the Son rulership for the few years he was on earth, and up until the time when things would be turned over to God the Holy Spirit in a new age of universal peace and love, which Joachim predicted would start about the year 1260. An interesting idea — but boy, was he ever wrong!

These errors, and others like them, forget that God is One at the same time that God is Trinity. The Trinity is not three Gods, but three Persons in One God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the same God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and the same God who fills the church in the Holy Spirit. God is One. That is the first thing to remember about God.

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Now, in case you haven’t noticed, we are doing theology! How about that! We are all theologians, quite consciously at least one day a year, when Trinity Sunday invites us to look for a moment at the nature of God. For that’s what theology is, looking at God not so much for what God does but as who God is.

Theology was long ago described as “faith seeking understanding.” Note the order. Theology isn’t about understanding seeking faith — if you try to understand God before you trust and believe in God you will never get there. We are too young to understand God, but if we love God and trust God, loving and trusting as only a young child can, our faith and love seeking to understand, God will then pour the Holy Spirit into our hearts. And God will do this not to give us all truth — nobody has the corner on the truth market — but to lead us into all truth, as a loving parent leads a child to learn. God graciously leads us into the beginnings of the glimmers of understanding. as our hearts and minds are turned towards God. Even though we cannot comprehend God, we can at least turn towards God and allow our hearts to be warmed by the glow of his love.

This is what Moses did when he turned aside to see why the burning bush was not consumed. He did not know beforehand that he was turning towards the Holy One of Israel. All he knew was that he saw something marvelous, and like a curious child, he wanted to know more about it. The bush burned, and yet it was not consumed.

And this burning yet unburnt bush provides me with the second thing I want to say about God: God touches his creation, and makes himself known to us through that creation, but God is infinitely more than the creation. God is not just the Creator of Everything that Is, but the Source of Everything that can Possibly Be. God utterly infuses and saturates the whole of creation, and yet God was God before creation began, and God will still be God after this creation ceases to be, and the new creation is begun.

The word for this marvelous quality of God is holiness. God is Holy: intimately connected to the universe, the source of its existence, and yet completely distinct from it. Perhaps it might help to think of how water permeates and fills a sponge, and yet is completely distinct from it. The water is still water, filling the sponge, saturating every pore — and without the water the sponge is just a hard, dry thing of no use to anyone!

So it is that God infuses the universe, filling it and making it useful and meaningful and fruitful. God is holy, deeply present while remaining completely distinct: the bush burns but is not consumed, and Moses, though called by God to approach, is warned to “come no closer” than is absolutely necessary.

God fills the universe and makes it work, but when at the end of time the universe is squeezed out like a used up sponge, God will still be God. God is Holy: that is the second truth about God to reflect on today.

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The third thing about God that our Scriptures teach us is that God, in addition to being One and being Holy, is also Loving. God loves us; indeed God loves us so much that he has given us his only Son, to the end that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. Saint Paul tells us that God’s own Spirit speaks in our hearts and calls out “Abba! Father.” The Spirit speaking in our hearts lets us know that we are children of a loving God, who is the source of our being.

The problem is we don’t always appreciate how much God loves us. So Jesus tells the old sage Nicodemus that the only way to know God’s love is to be reborn, to be born from above, not through the flesh, but through water and the Spirit, God’s own gift to us. God loves us, and has shown us how to love him back. But again, it is not about understanding God first, but about loving God first, about being reborn, being a new creation, about becoming once again a child who can wonder and love and trust.

Our own lives as children and later as adults show us that love comes before understanding. Most of us have gone through that human transition, from loving our parents when we were little, and then as we grew into our teen years and began to try to understand the world, finding it very hard sometimes to understand our parents! And then, as we and they grew older, as the turmoils of adolescence cooled down and we became adults ourselves, we became aware once more of the love that was there all along.

The great American humorist Mark Twain noted this phenomenon when he said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

That is part of what Jesus meant when he said that it is as a child that we come to God, that it is as one reborn that we come to know who it is that is the source of our life, that God is Love.

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Remember these three things our Scriptures teach us today: God is One, dwelling in light inaccessible from before time and forever. God is Holy, untouchable, beyond our reach, burning and yet not consuming, pervading but distinct from creation. And God is also Loving, generous, giving us a new birth through water and the spirit and making us children of God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. May we ever thus be blessed by the God who is One, Holy and Loving, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.+