Miracle and Paradox

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Trinity Sunday – Pentecost I – 3 June 2012
The Sacrament of Holy Communion

Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-13

From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
The prophet relates his glorious vision and concludes with these words; Woe is me! for I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. And a seraphim, having burned Isaiah’s lips with a coal taken from the altar of the heavenly temple said, Lo, …thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin purged.

From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
The apostle wrote, When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, … and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

And from the Gospel According to St. John:
Speaking to Nicodemis, a Pharisee and a secret admirer of our Lord, Jesus said, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God…. and unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,

Every time I write a sermon, I do so painfully aware of the religious context in which we live here in New England. More specifically, in this part of the country, the Christian church in all of its denominations is weak, poorly attended, poorly supported and often ridiculed. Believing Christians are seen as synonymous with both ignorance and stupidity while the de facto religion of political correctness – to which both ignorant and stupid might very well apply – is honored and glorified. Why are our churches empty? What have done to the faith, once so strongly supported in New England that now attracts so few participants?

Part of the answer is most certainly the making of our churches into fellowships – human fellowships. These human fellowships – or better expressed – humanistic fellowships – have replaced the church as the one institution that has as its primary purpose the proper worship of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We focus on the horizontal dimension of good fellowship with each other rather than on the vertical dimension of Holy Communion with God. Good fellowship with each other is great. But the purpose of worship is absolutely NOT each other – its focus must be entirely on God and our relationship with Him.

Worship, the church’s primary function – its reason for being – has virtually disappeared as an awesome, powerful, transcending and holy experience. Rather we now have a celebration of ourselves.

It’s no wonder that so many of our church are dying. And they must die. As they do, we, of course, pray for resurrection. But if our churches continue to be self-indulgent institutions of self-glorification, then they will die. And they should.

Keep this in mind as we shift gears to talk about this morning’s lessons.

If I had to select the three most important books of the Bible, I would choose the three from which we read this morning – Isaiah, The Epistle to the Romans and St. John’s Gospel. I would select these three over all the others because they proclaim salvation more completely, more eloquently and more beautifully than any of the others. It’s not that the others are not important – they most certainly are. Every one of them offers the divine revelation. But Isaiah, Romans and St. John’s Gospel inspire and uplift the soul in ways that none of the others can do.

Surely one of the most inspiring and most beautiful passages in all of Scripture is the sixth chapter of Isaiah. In this account of the prophet’s heavenly vision, he sees God the Father enthroned in the heavenly temple surrounded by the six-winged seraphim and other astounding creatures.

He speaks of these magnificent angelic beings praising God so powerfully calling out one to another, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory – they sing so loudly that the foundations of the thresholds tremble as if from an earthquake and the throne room is filled with the smoke of the incense from the sacrificial altars. So powerful was this vision that the prophet exclaimed, Woe is me, I am undone!

The apostle Paul’s masterpiece, the Epistle to the Romans, expresses better than any other writing in the Bible or, for that matter, in any other commentary or piece of literature of any sort, the mystery and miracle – yes miracle – of our salvation in and through Jesus Christ. No one else, at any time or in any place, proclaims the miracle and paradox of salvation so eloquently as does St. Paul in this letter as he navigates between law and grace, fear and love, condemnation and mercy, sin and salvation. He sails those tumultuous seas and carries us along in his ship of faith to the best understanding we can have of the divine paradox given in the saving miracle.

Notice I said to the best understanding we can have. Those words are important. We cannot understand the miracle of God’s saving sacrifice. It transcends human intelligence. Every effort to figure this out can only go just so far.

For those who have to understand before they believe, they will never believe or understand. For those who believe, well, they understand enough to know that God’s wisdom so far transcends ours, that everything that we do amounts to foolishness. His ways are not our ways. Simple as that. But by faith, we can understand our own limitations. Accepting those limitations allows us to soar far above ourselves and into the heavenly courts into which Isaiah could see in his vision.

Isaiah’s visionary journey into the heavenly Temple left the man undone. Some translations have ruined, lost or broken. Whatever the word, I wonder how often anyone might have such a powerful encounter with the holy in any of our churches. I fear never. Many will get a warm and fuzzy feeling but never an experience of God that breaks us apart. And we have to break apart in order to be rebuilt. Dare I say, reborn?

The same applies to God’s Truth – that’s always with a capital “T”. His truth is paradox. We mere mortals prefer things to fall into clear-cut categories of thought and experience. But the transcendent God can only condescend just so much. He is who He is.

His very nature is paradox. Being three in one and one in three – being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – each person distinct from the other yet perfectly unified into one great, holy, pure, creative, redeeming, re-creative and saving power – well that’s too much for our limited minds to understand. And again, by faith we can see that Truth. Without faith, we believe in deception.

The Savior Himself – God the Son – is a further paradox. He was – and is – and will be forever fully human and fully divine at the same time. He has to be both in order to save. Divinity fully alive in humanity – well that’s the only way that we can truly know God; that’s the only way that the powers of sin and death can meet defeat. The divine Son must die so that death dies. None of us can understand that. We can only bear witness to it. Only God can save us. And only God made man can accomplish it. Only God can rise from the dead – and raise us up with Him.

St. Paul bears such a witness. He helps us to understand to the best of anyone’s ability. But, at the end of the day, we cannot fully understand (we see as through a glass darkly). What we do know is this – that in Jesus Christ and by virtue of His saving sacrifice – by virtue of His broken Body and shed Blood, we become the children of God and heirs to eternal life. We’re not born that way. We do not achieve that status. We can only receive it as a gift. Again, a miracle and a paradox.

The Gospel According to St. John comes across differently than do the gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke. John writes from a perspective of intimacy, of Holy Spiritual insight and of holy love. He was the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one closest to the Lord, and was present to hear even the private, agonizing prayers offered in the Garden on the night of betrayal. He – and he alone – among all of the other disciples – stood with Jesus at His trial, conviction, crucifixion and entombment. And he, with St. Peter, was the first of the twelve to witness the empty tomb after the resurrection.

But for all of the closeness, for all of the familiarity – for all of the personal accounts of the events in Jesus’ life, the pathos of His death and the glory of His resurrection, St. John never presents the Lord as a good buddy or just one of the guys with whom one might hang out. However friendly and casual they might have been on a day today basis, Jesus remained the Lord.

Although Jesus, fully divine, shared our human nature – and did so fully in every way – there remained a gigantic difference. He never sinned. Everyone else did and does. He did not. Paradox. Fully human but without sin.

Hence, He taught Nicodemus, His disciples and us that we must be born again in order to both see and enter the Kingdom of God. This rebirth comes in and through the power of the Holy Spirit alive in the individual. It comes through authentic, sincere and genuine baptism with water – the water representing the water that flowed with the blood from Jesus’ side as the centurion pierced Him. As He died on the cross to defeat death, so we die in the sacramental holy water so that we can live forever in, by and through Him. Miracle and paradox.

We loose when we try to diminish God by perceiving Him as just one of us. He’s not. He becomes one of us only to lift us up so that we can be one with Him. This union never assumes equality. Even God the Son did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped to quote St. Paul. Hence, we should not make that mistake. But it does assume perfect and holy communion between God and His children.

St. John, as well as St. Paul and the prophet Isaiah, present God the Father, and the Son and or the Holy Spirit in hugely respectful terms – sometimes majestic – sometimes familiar – but never so common, so folksy or in any such a way as to even suggest a vulgarity as we have seen from time to time in our culture. Never do they speak of the Lord as if they were speaking of anyone other than God Himself.

None of these inspired and called men attempted to bring God down to our level. Rather they seek to lift us up to God’s level. God the Father, came down to us of His own accord and by His own intention. We did not bring Him down, he came down – condescended to our human condition to redeem and save – not to socialize.

Neither Isaiah, nor Paul nor John ever claims that our salvation is anything other than a miracle. Truly, if you cannot believe in miracle, you cannot believe in the One True God. Miracle is His modus operandi.

We work in science and technology, logic and reason, emotion and feeling. None of these human methods can save. None of them can bring us the living Truth who is the Holy Spirit. The best we can do is relative truth that changes with each new discovery or insight. And even that quality of truth, such as it is comes as a divine revelation as well. All truth belongs to and comes from Him. Anything that claims truth and is not comes from below.

The eternal, redeeming, saving and living Truth who is God the Holy Spirit calls us into His paradox of miraculous power that allows for is to be born again so that we can see and enter the eternal Kingdom of heaven. God the Father sent God the Son to accomplish this on the cross. God the Holy Spirit continues with us until God the Son returns again to claim His people, take His power and reign.

Until that great day, a day of judgment for those who do not believe, He nurtures and sustains us in this great and miraculous Sacrament of Eternal Life in which we experience Holy Communion with Him. This is not in any way a fellowship meal with each other. It is supremely – and exclusively – communion with God.

So come to this sacred table as the children that the loving Father has saved. Come as heirs, not to lay claim to anything that belongs to us as an entitlement, but rather to receive it as a gift, remembering the suffering from which came – and comes – the glory. And receive the gift by faith with thanksgiving.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, deliver us from ourselves. Open our minds to the paradox of your Truth and our hearts to the reception of your saving mercy. Come alive is us that we may continually be born again in you, that by grace received in the True faith, we may live forever. We ask this in the name of your Son, our only Saviour, Jesus Christ the Lord.

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