John 3
Sermon for Trinity Sunday

A sermon preached by The Reverend Canon Dr. David Anderson at St. Jude’s Anglican Church, Oakville, on Trinity Sunday, May 26, 2024.

I speak to you in the name of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I suspect that the social media algorithms feed present me with different material than some of you receive. Nevertheless, perhaps you did hear about the recently released study by Cardus (a conservative Christian think tank based in Hamilton) and the Canadian Bible Society, titled, “Still Christian (?): What Canadian Christians Actually Believe.” The study looked at a number of traditional teachings that all Christians are assumed to believe. The study showed that those assumptions are unfounded.

For example, a finding very related to this Sunday when we celebrate Trinity Sunday showed that when asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “there is one true God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” only eighty-nine percent of people identifying themselves as evangelical Christians agreed, as did fifty-one percent of Roman Catholics, and fifty-seven percent of mainline Protestants. Similar findings were made around such questions as whether the resurrection of Jesus was an historical event, and whether Jesus was divine.

One of the findings that was more surprising to some was the fact that younger Christians generally displayed  stronger commitments to traditional teachings than did older generations. One reason for this, the study suggests, si that at a time when Christianity is no longer the cultural norm in Canada, some your people “may be making deliberate, counter-cultural choices to adhere to the beliefs and devotional life of historical Christianity.”

The Reverend Andrew Rampton, my successor as rector of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Hamilton was quoted this week in the Winnipeg Free Press, commenting on this study. He argued that we Anglicans have not done a good job at teaching or members the foundational Christian beliefs. As Anglicans, he argued, we have relied upon a kind of “liturgical osmosis,” just assuming that everyone would figure it out simply by being a Canadian and an Anglican.

I would add that among those of us of that older generation have also had to contend with the cultural pressures of the modern, scientific worldview and growing secularism of the culture we live in. We have tended to think that the faith handed down to us was in need of radical reinterpretation if we did not simply reject that faith outright. We have thought that we needed to dumb-down our liturgy and market the faith to the next generation.

But I would also add that I have certainly seen evidence of how young people are more likely to hold traditional beliefs, even if they hold these beliefs in different ways and for different reasons. Certainly, most of the young people I know who are members of our Anglican Church are here by choice. Young Anglicans tend to be very deliberate about their choice. They see it as counter-cultural and they don’t want it watered down.

The question of what we believe and how we come to believe it is a theme in John’s Gospel. We find it in today’s Gospel reading for Trinity Sunday. Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes to Jesus under the cover of night seems curious about the young teacher named Jesus. As he greets Jesus, it seems that he thinks he has figured Jesus out, opening with what we must assume was a sincere compliment, “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” (v. 2b).

Nicodemus’ statement is, among other things, a statement about his belief based on the evidence of his observations of Jesus. Nicodemus has seen Jesus in action—he has seen the “signs”—and this, on the basis of this evidence, he has come to believe something about Jesus’ identity. He believes that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. Good for you, Nicodemus.

Now, I would not accuse Nicodemus of being a modern, but isn’t that just like us, to draw conclusions based upon the evidence of what we have seen, what we have been able to observe, and more than that, to think that we have got it all figured out.

Jesus is very subtle in the way he challenges Nicodemus’ assumptions. Jesus stays with the theme of seeing and believing that was Nicodemus’ starting place, but he moves all of this to a different level. He responds, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (v. 3b).

Now Nicodemus gets hung up on what Jesus says about being “born from above,” and the fact is that most of the sermons I’ve ever heard on this passage tend to focus on that turn of phrase by Jesus. It is a compelling image, and I can see why. However, what we often miss, I think, is the subtle way that Jesus is trying to reorient Nicodemus attention. Remember, Jesus is responding to Nicodemus’ statement of seeing and believing. Jesus is suggesting that there is something that Nicodemus has not yet seen, not only because he has not yet been born from above, but because he does not yet know what he is being invited to see when he looks upon Jesus. Looking upon Jesus is not just about seeing a single teacher, as wonderful a teacher as he might be. Looking upon Jesus is about seeing the kingdom of God in its fullness.

Throughout his ministry Jesus has consistently downplayed the significance of his miracles, and  here we gain a deeper insight into why that is. Not only is Jesus interested in a faith that is not dependant upon the signs and wonders that Jesus is able to perform, but he is interested more in reorienting Nicodemus’ vision and ours so that we have an entirely new perspective—not just one what we seek to see in Jesus, but what it is we seek to see more generally. If we are interested in looking at Jesus to see something about his identity, that is one sort of project. We might be able believe we have him pegged, we might think we have him figured out. But the fact is that there is much more to see in Jesus than a fact of his identity. If we look at Jesus to learn something about the kingdom of God, there is an opportunity for everything to be refocused. That is the opportunity to see the world in a whole new way as the place where God is at work to redeem all things, where God is working to set the world right, where we can see God at work and even join God is God’s mission. The refocus that Jesus invites us to begin starts with looking to the margins, to the humble and the poor.

I am reminded of the twentieth century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement in his Berlin lectures where he spoke about “Christ the centre.” Bonhoeffer reminded his hearers and reminds us that Jesus Christ stands at the centre of our faith. But on the other hand, that centre is not where we might imagine it to be, because Jesus does not choose to stand at the centre of power as we think of it, he stands not at the centre of worldly power, but at the margins. This is the sort of reorientation that Jesus talks about in his conversation with Nicodemus.

This morning we are welcoming four young children  into full membership in the church of Jesus Christ, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They might well wonder what it is they are getting themselves into. The remarkable thing about baptism—and this is especially obvious to us in the case of the baptism of a young child—is what is required of the baptismal candidate in terms of belief. They will not be required to recite the Apostles’ Creed (although we will do that as we renew our own baptismal covenant). They will make no promises. We, the parents, sponsors, and faith community will do all of that. By making our promises we are embracing God’s future for ourselves and our little ones. But the fact is that the candidates for baptism will do nothing this morning except be their cute selves. They will freely receive God’s gift given in love and grace as we all must, and in doing so they will be reborn by water the Holy Spirit as we all are, not because we have believed the right things, but because we are recipients of God’s free gift. The result of this new birth, being born again of the Spirit, is a new way of seeing and a radical reorientation, allowing us to “see the kingdom of God” (v. 3b).

Over the past few months here at St. Jude’s we have been asking the Holy Spirit to help us see. We have been asking the Spirit to help us see the kingdom of God around us. We have sought to discern how we might more deeply engage in our own Christian discipleship, how we might adapt our parish culture to enhance our life of mission and ministry, and how we might engage with our neighbours where God is already at work. This is what we have sought to do in developing our new Mission Action Plan which we hope will guide us for the next two to three years.

We have had three parish listening days were we sat together and generated a lot of ideas. Our planning team has collected all of that and the result is a number of key priorities in areas such as (1) Community Engagement, (2) Discipleship, and (3) Faith and Worship. Today is the day we are going to meet to decide which of these continue to speak to our hearts, where we sense God’s calling, and where we feel God inviting us to get involved to make all of this happen.

Today’s meeting will be a short one. After the service we invite you to grab a coffee and join us in the Victoria Hall for this final phase of our discernment. Please join us for that.

Trinity Sunday is the day when we remember that God has revealed God’s-self to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons and one God. That community of love holds us in that same love and invites us to join the dance of the Trinity. The Father sent the Son into the world. The Father and the Son have sent the Holy Spirit into the world and into our hearts and lives. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit sends us, the community of the baptized, to the world, to extend that same love as the kingdom of God is present and coming in our world. May that same Spirit give us eyes to see, minds to discern, and hearts to love. +