John 3:1-9; Genesis 18:1-15
Poor Nicodemus. A leader in his faith community, Nicodemus comes at night to speak with Jesus. Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover. His first act in the holy city is to visit the Temple … and throw a hissy fit. He overturns the tables of the moneychangers and yells: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
It’s not long after this scene that Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus. It’s no mystery why he comes at night. After the scene in the Temple, it wouldn’t be wise for a religious leader to be seen fraternizing with the angry-crazy guy.
If Jesus’ behavior in the Temple was confusing, the things he says to Nicodemus are downright opaque. Be born again? Of water and Spirit? How can this be? Indeed. The lectionary folks probably chose this story for Trinity Sunday because Jesus, God, and the Spirit all show up. All three “persons” of the Trinity are accounted for…or, as my theology prof said, “All three hypostatic forms of being…” But maybe the strongest connection between the story of Nicodemus and the doctrine of the Trinity is his question: How can this be?
Have you ever asked that question when contemplating the Trinity? How can this be? How is your relationship with the Trinity these days? Do you understand it? No? Good news! All is about to be revealed! (Trinity Video!)
Ann had just had eye surgery. The recovery process required her to lie face down for two weeks. Ann’s husband fashioned a bed for her, with a hole cut out for her face. The bed was surprisingly comfortable…but staring at the floor for hours on end was excruciatingly boring.
So, Ann had her husband place her Rublev Holy Trinity icon on the floor so she’d have something to look at….which might sound just as boring as staring at the carpet. But spending time with an icon is different than simply looking at a poster. Coming from the Orthodox tradition, icons are invitations to prayer. Every step of their creation is itself an act of prayer— from the preparation of the wood on which they’re written to the materials, objects, and colors used. Icons aren’t meant to be glimpsed and quickly understood. They’re meant to be sat with, entered into, and taken into the pray-er’s deepest self.
On this Trinity Sunday, the invitation is to enter into the Rublev icon. It was created by a monk named Andrei Rublev in the early 1400s to honor St. Sergei, one-time abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery near Moscow. Like many iconographers before him, Rublev set his depiction of the Trinity in the context of the story of Abraham and Sarah hosting three visitors. It seems odd that Christian iconographers would use an Old Testament story to illustrate the Trinity. Let’s listen to Genesis 18 and see if we can figure out why they did.
Yhwh appeared to Abraham by the oak grove of Mamre, while Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Looking up, Abraham saw three travelers standing nearby. When he saw them, Abraham ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by our tent. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves beneath this tree. As you have come to your faithful one, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves. Afterward, you may go on your way.” “Very well,” they replied, “do as you have said.”
Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick— take a bushel of fine flour and knead it into loaves of bread.” Abraham then ran to the herd, selected a choice and tender calf, and sent a worker hurrying to prepare it. Then Abraham took cheese and milk and the calf which had been prepared, and placed it before the travelers; and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.
After the visitors have eaten and rested, they promise the elderly couple that, in a year’s time, Sarah will bear Abraham a son.
In the icon, we see a couple of references to the Genesis story. There are three visitors, who first are identified as “YHWH.” We see the tree, which could be a reference to the oaks of Mamre where Abraham was camped. There’s the building, which could be Abraham’s house, though in the story he and Sarah live in a tent. The three sit at a table which recalls the hospitality Abraham extends to the visitors. In the original, that blob in the middle of the chalice is the head of the calf mentioned in the story.
Generally, rooting around in the Old Testament looking for Jesus isn’t the most responsible form of biblical exegesis. Even so, I’m intrigued by our faithful forebears connecting this story to the Trinity, not so much for the three-in-one God thing, but because Genesis 18 fundamentally is a story of hospitality. When the three visitors appear, Abraham bows to them, he washes their feet and offers them food and a place to rest. He whips up some milk and curds then has the fatted calf killed and served to the visitors. It’s only after all the rituals of hospitality have been completed that God gets down to business promising a son for the elderly couple…which suggests just how important these rituals—and hospitality—are.
Look again at the icon. The guests are seated at a table. There is a cup; there is food. In the way the 3 figures lean toward one another, the connection among them is clear. All these pieces of the icon—along with the allusions to the Abraham story—clearly portray hospitality.
There is one more thing about it that fairly shouts hospitality. Can you discern what it is? (Responses) The gap. That gap invites us to pull up a chair and join the three figures at the table. Rublev’s icon isn’t just a picture of the Trinity; it’s an invitation to participate in the Trinity. Despite all those great pictures we saw earlier, none of them invited us to participate with, to live in the Trinity…except maybe the one of the 3 men in the pub. Almost to a one, those diagrams and depictions invite us only to look at the Trinity from the outside, to observe it, to analyze it, to come up with a mathematical equation for it. Except for the men in the pub, none of the depictions invited us into the Trinity. Rublev’s 15th century icon does exactly that.
So…How can these things be? Let’s say we accept the Trinity’s invitation to pull up a chair—Then what? How does one go about participating in, with, and out of the Trinity? Ann Persson, the woman who prayed the Rublev icon as she recovered from eye surgery, calls Rublev’s depiction of the Trinity a “circle of love.” The icon invites us to join that circle of love….not just for our own edification, but so that we can work with God in the world. Persson writes: “Just as Rublev’s icon leaves a space for us to enter the circle, so the Trinity makes space for us to join in. The dance is in full swing but a hand is extended, as it were, so that we, the people of God can join in and live life out of relationship with the Trinity. This life is to be expressed in the world in which we live, in our attitudes and actions, our thoughts and words. God is at work and calls us to join in that work.” (K848)
So, what might it be like to join the Trinity’s dance? What does it mean for us—as individuals and as a community—to live in and with the Trinity? Another quote from Ann Persson: If we lived in, with, and out of the Trinity, “we would see a genuine honoring of each other, the people of God in whom the same Spirit dwells. We would serve one another without feeling threatened. This attitude would release us to be the people God created us to be, both individually and as a community of believers. We would recognize the differing gifts that lie in one another and find contexts in which they could be expressed. Instead of hierarchy, we would create a fellowship built on relationships emanating from God’s own love” (K963).
We’ve only scratched the surface of praying this icon. In truth, we haven’t prayed it at all. I’ve just been talking about it. So….we’re going to take a couple of minutes of silence. In the silence, I invite you to pray this icon. Allow yourself to experience the hospitality that’s being extended. Allow yourself to accept God’s invitation into God’s own heart. Let us pray.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015