Well, I understand I missed all the excitement when the bat came to church last Sunday. I would have liked that. A bat. I heard it all went well, and with the aid of a musician’s towel, there was a rescue and return. What fun. What a natural invasion of this space. No better image of the wind of the spirit blowing into the room. And as the DNR reminds us, bats are our friends.
This Sunday we are not visited by a bat, but by the festival of the Trinity. The observance always comes after Pentecost, the coming of the spirit. In the Lutheran calendar it’s a reminder that the work of God in creation, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the coming of the spirit; the Trinity is now complete. And we have a full vision of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: creator, redeemer, and Sanctifier.
Or do we? The readings for the day are selected by the Common Lectionary committee because they highlight the persons and work of the Trinity. The readings are themselves classical expressions of the faith. But the readings point as much to the mystery of God as they do to any understanding of God. Isaiah speaks to mystical experience and the mystery of God. Romans speaks to the first century issue of adoption. And the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus reminds us to think about how God does not confirm our views, but moves us along, changing and challenging us just when we thought we understood it.
First, Isaiah is having a religious or mystical experience. During time in the temple, as the smoke of the incense and sacrifice begin to fill the temple, Isaiah has a theophany, a vision of God. As the smoke begins to float along the floor, Isaiah sees it as the hem of God’s robe. As the smoke fills the room, he hears the voices, sees the heavenly creatures, and discovers himself as part of the vision.
Now Isaiah does not have a vision of the Trinity. Isaiah’s vision of God is from a different place, place, and tradition. But Isaiah’s mystical experience reminds us that when we encounter God, or talk about God, we are in the end dealing with the mystic, the mysterious, and the visional. In the mystical experience of God, in the mystery of God, in deep religious experience, we encounter a God who is grander, greater and bigger than we had previously imagined. Meeting God is always that way, always mysterious. God is more than we expected. And then in deep religious experience there is always the sense that we are not worthy, not holy enough, not pure enough to encounter the divine. When we sense deep goodness we do not feel adequate or worthy.
And in deep mysterious experience God acts to cleanse us, and then calls us. And in the mystic experience we find ourselves hearing voices and accepting this call. The greatness of God, the feelings of failure, cleansed by the action of God, entering in a dialog with angels, and accepting a fresh responsibility: these are the elements of mystical experience. And I just wanted to say that people, even in our most scientific of ages, still have such deep encounters with God, deeply religious experiences, mystical visions and voices that call them and us to live life more deeply, fully and passionately. When your vision of God comes, whatever that is, nurture it, listen to it, and let it overpower and then empower you for a life of compassion.
But not all of us are mystical visionaries. Some of us are more practically minded. Especially American Christians, especially German Lutherans. And for those people there is the second reading today: Paul’s 8th chapter of Romans. Now Paul is talking about adoption. You can see that in the reading. And to us this may not sound like a down to earth piece of the Bible.
But adoption is not something abstract in the early church. It is very real. The ancient church cared for the poor, and was famous for caring for the ill. It was also noted for its adoption in a society in which unwanted children, especially girls, were often discarded, left on the street to die. Christians took these children in and made them part of their extended families in their household churches. In some Roman Empire urban early Christian groups, as many as half the people in the room listening to these words would have had an adopted child or would have been an adopted child. In this setting, with this audience and this ministry of care for unwanted children; when Paul starts to talk about adoption, the room would be hushed, and the spirit would be present. Adoption, practical adoption, mattered, as people looked around the room and saw so many who had joined the fellowship through this process. So what is Paul going to say about adoption?
He says that God adopts us all. And that God is our Abba, our father, not through the accident of physical birth, but by the spiritual sense of being parent and child. Anyone listening who loved by means of adoption would know instantly what Paul is talking about on a practical level. Regardless of the physical accidents of our origins, God is our spiritual Abba. And in this spirit of adoption, we are the heirs of God’s love. We are each other’s real brothers and sisters, and Jesus is our brother. This is Paul’s vision of God, based on the practical practice of adoption in the ancient church.
Whether we are based in the practical affairs of life in the church or the mystical experience of someone like Isaiah, the reading from John reminds us that the encounter with God drives us to something deeper, something bigger, something more challenging and grander than we expected.
In the third reading, it doesn’t matter how you were physically born. One is born anew by the Spirit. Like the wind we cannot see, the spirit moves us along the way. What we thought should be put down is really lifted up. What we sensed was rejected becomes the cornerstone. What we thought we understood becomes a mere pretext for a different understanding. What we thought was a special benefit of being a Christian is just the first act in a grand drama that involves the salvation of all people and all creation. Like the wind we cannot see, the spirit moves us along the way, never fully satisfied with the current explanations of the mystery of God, the God who comes in smoke and mist, the God who adopts us and calls us to adopt one another, and the God who blows us along life’s way.
So today, as we encounter the triune God, let us nurture the mystery. Let us rejoice in the loving spirit behind our adoption into the family of God. Let us move, as Jesus moves Nicodemus, into new ways of seeing God and each other.