This did not seem to me to come together so well. I had written the Trinity-dance analogy for the week before but didn’t have room for everything (as always). I end up hovering above the text in John 2, without ever really delving into it. Oh well. A few people said they enjoyed it. Producing a sermon each week is a lot of work, even for a mouthy theologian.
Texts: Exodus 24:1-11 ; John 2:1-11
Two weeks ago we talked about revelation as an accommodation of God’s absolute being to the limited framework of our human life—maybe. Exodus gives wonderful expression to this notion of the Absolute God coming down to our human level, and infusing the life of a people with that absolute being. In doing so, God pushes the people Israel to the limit—commanding them to be a people like no other in holiness, dedication to God, and justice to the vulnerable.
Last week we considered Jesus’ baptism as God’s doing the same thing, now with this one individual, who will be God’s own. Jesus is commissioned as God’s son, and all humanity is rededicated to God in this one. When we undergo baptism, we dedicate ourselves, and we dedicate our own children, to be God’s own humanity, practicing love, justice, and holiness to the absolute limit.
That’s one way to look at it. It’s not the only way, it’s not perfect, although it may have the benefit of being novel to you and as such, I hope, provocative. But on another way of looking at it, God is not this Absolute being who only with great difficulty and struggle can be revealed and reconciled to our faulty, limited existence in time and space. That is one way we can approach the mindboggling mystery of God. But if there is a fundamental rule for talking about God, it is this: first off, we don’t really know what we are talking about. Just about all problems in religion begin when we assume falsely that we know what we are talking about when it comes to God—or maybe anything. So in one way we might say that God is the Absolute being whose glory threatens to burn us up if we get too close. Remember God making Mount Sinai burn and quake when God descended on it? Yes, ok. But we might need to set beside that image a very different one. God is also the most familiar. God is familiar, what we know best. Familiar, as in family. God is the one with whom we are most at home. God is the one we are completely comfortable dining with; and eating together is something we most naturally do with family. It is not strange or dangerous to eat with God; it is natural, what we were made for. If we are to approach the mystery of God we need at least these two descriptions of God, although they might seem contradictory: God is this Absolute Beyondness and also something familiar and intimate.
To say that Jesus is the Son of God, which is something some of us struggle with—and it should sound odd to us—perfectly encapsulates this mystery. It would not do to say Jesus is God’s brother or sister, or that Jesus is God’s spouse. (I recognize that it feels somewhere between comical and blasphemous to consider these weird alternatives.) To call Jesus God’s sibling or spouse would suggest an equality with God that would leave no room for the absoluteness of God, the way God precedes everything in being and grandeur. God takes precedence over Jesus—more like a Father or Mother than a sister or spouse. But a precedence that still includes the intimacy of a parent to a child! So God is not Jesus’ Lord or General or Queen. Jesus is not an instrument of God, like a sword or scepter; nor some completely different metaphorical order of being, like God’s steed or God’s vegetable. (Yes that sounds silly and disrespectful, but some medieval theologians actually debated whether God could have been incarnate in a gourd. So I’ve been told.) Jesus is God’s son—with all the familiarity and intimacy that is implied. And so Jesus is of one nature or being with God, as the Nicene creed has it, and so God is eternally Father to the Son. In other words, being with God comes naturally to Jesus, as being with family does to us. And everything that is Jesus’ is also made available to us. His humanity is our humanity. We also can enjoy this intimacy with God that takes us beyond all limits.
God is this Absolute who is a tender mother. Strange but true. Those two sides to God sound incompatible. But look at Exodus. Two weeks ago we mentioned the divine name given to Moses, which is Holy and beyond comprehension. And we mentioned that Exodus says, “You shall not see God and live.” And what do we see in today’s reading from Exodus? “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel.” “They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” How’s that? I gather that Exodus is also using these two very different ways of portraying God’s absolute and intimate being.
And in the Gospel of John, everything about how Jesus is portrayed points to the intimacy of God and Jesus. What is revealed by Jesus is not an Absolute God, but above all, love. The First Letter of John says it explicitly: “God is love.” How this revelation of God’s love works in John’s Gospel is wonderfully subtle and therefore hard to explain. Jesus shows God’s love in human form—what it would mean for a human being to love like God loves. Jesus demonstrates love to us. Apparently that doesn’t always mean being deferential or sappy. Notice Jesus’ curt reply to Mary’s implied request that he do something about the wine running out. He doesn’t say, “Yes Mommy!” Instead: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” And yet he complies. But besides exemplifying love, Jesus also shows that the Father loves us, sending God’s only Son to bring eternal life. Jesus communicates to us that God loves us. But there’s one more layer: Jesus enjoys and has always enjoyed, so it seems, a consummated love with God. This is what we might call a love within the Trinity itself, which is extremely hard to make sense of. It is like God’s self-love, but at the same time the love by which God loves everything outside of God. Mystics like Meister Eckhart described God like a pot that boils so intensely with love that it boils over into a love for what is outside of God. But it needn’t be so mysterious and mystical. Doesn’t it sometimes happen that your love for your spouse or child does not just make you more focused on that one individual, but makes you more loving of everyone? So it is with God, perhaps. God’s love of what is most familiar makes God also love the stranger, the sinner.
Of all the gospels, John’s Gospel sets us most squarely in front of these mysteries of the Trinity. Apart from its stunning prologue—“The Word was with God and the Word was God”—John’s gospel discloses these mysteries gradually, through seven signs of Jesus and seven statements of “I am.” John’s Gospel does not attempt to seem realistic; every scene shimmers with hidden, symbolic meaning. The story of the wine at the wedding of Cana alludes in a veiled way to the eucharist—the gift of Jesus’ presence through the bread and cup. And when we learn to see symbolically, we can see the Eucharist shimmering in the story of Moses and the elders seeing God, and apparently eating and drinking in God’s presence. But all the stories in John build toward the mystery of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father, and the mystery of our union with God through Jesus. That’s also how our worship goes, by the way. We have communion, and then by the offertory follow with our own participation in God’s inner circle of giving; and we conclude with the Doxology, which is a recognition and praise of the Trinity. That is where the story of the wedding at Cana is going in John’s gospel. The wedding theme inspired me with some analogies by which we can grasp this this trintarian mystery, and I’d like to share that with you.
The life of faith is like a dance with God. God leads with definitive acts of presence, revelation (like we talked about two weeks ago), liberation, deliverance, salvation, creation. We respond to God’s lead and begin to move in God’s time, with understanding, wisdom, praise and thanksgiving, and enactments of the care and justice God has shown to us. Like in a wedding dance where the bride and groom have the first dance, and then everyone joins in, so with this divine dance: once God shows us the steps, God cuts out of the revelation dance and lets us all dance with each other. And if we dance well, it becomes infectious, and soon everyone will want to be out on the dance floor with us.
Let’s deepen the analogy a bit. Even though God cuts out of the dance at a certain point, the whole dance is still God’s. God is still dancing, now in us. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity helps us make sense of this. At first, God demonstrates the dance with the people Israel and especially the particularly good dance partners among her like Moses and Debra. But in Jesus God demonstrates the dance as perfectly as it can be danced, at least in human form. And so as best as possible in human form, Jesus reveals the mysterious, eternal dance within God’s own triune being. We might think of it as the wilder dance between the Absolute and the limited within God, whereby God is both beyond anything created and finite, but also willing and capable of uniting with it. Or it might be a slow dance of seamless love between God the lover and the beloved, a dance in which God dissolves into the Spirit of Love. However we understand the mystery of God, in Jesus God best shows us the rhythmic interchange that is the stuff of God’s own being.
In this intimate dance between bridegroom and bride, lover and beloved, or what tradition usually calls Father and Son—the Spirit is the energy, the rhythm, the “chemistry” as we might say, the power of the dance, shaped by the interplay of partner and partner. And when God starts to cut out—hold on, because I’m about to let this analogy dance out of control—when the Mother of the Bride cuts out and the Bridegroom dances with us, we begin, differently and not as perfectly, to take on and be shaped by that same rhythm, same energy, same Spirit. To the extent that we human beings respond to God’s gracious lead and our dancing with God becomes fluid and—how do you describe good dancing…sexy?—we lose our awareness of who is leading and who is following, we lose ourselves in the spirit of the dance and become like real lovers with God, possessed by and possessing that grace that first moved us. [I’m ready to just stop there and dance, aren’t you?]
During the liturgical season of Christmas and Epiphany, you and I have not yet been on the dance floor. We are still marveling from the sidelines at the birth and growing love between God, the Absolute who is like a parent, and Jesus, the one who is like a son to God. This week we marvel at the extravagant power of Jesus to show God’s glory, but without yet understanding what it means to turn six jars of water into wine./ Through the Spirit God took the Word of God—all the good stuff that God did through Israel, embodied in Mary’s willingness to receive God—and shaped human partnership afresh into this chosen one, Jesus. Beginning with his birth, we watch as humanity begins anew, now directly revealing of God’s own nature. We watch, as wedding guests watch and are always struck, are we not, by the beauty of a bride or groom, who in this most beautiful moment manifests for us the way human beings were meant to be from the beginning—lovers. We are still admiring from the sidelines, but get ready, because we are going to be called out onto the dance floor next week, when Jesus begins to call his disciples.
In recent months, it came to the attention of our deacons, and Dennis Doucette was particularly mindful of this, that we as a church find ourselves a bit confused about the role and relationship of our sacraments. One particularly sharp issue is whether a person must or ought to be baptized in order to receive communion. I suspect we could muddle on without settling this issue formally, but the deacons and I agreed that this confusion provides us with the perfect excuse to think more deeply about baptism and communion in the life of our church. So we decided to convene and open study group on the issue; we’ll soon figure out when and how to convene this group, but all will be invited. To some this may not sound like a pressing issue, but it can be really healthy for us to talk about the deeper matters of our Christian faith, rather than arguing over the infamous “hot button” issues that more often than not end in churches dividing. Remember my rule with regard to deep matters involving God: we don’t know what we are talking about. That’s not because there is nothing much to be said about them. It is because there is too much to be said, and no easy way to boil it down to something simple. And that, my friends, is how you know that you are on to a truth worth pursuing. Let’s do so.