30th MAY 2021
How can these things be…?
As most of you will know, Menza is our Saint Margaret’s weekly online gathering for study and reflection. Many of you have actually participated from time to time in our discussions and deliberations. We began some years ago as a kind of monthly supper club meeting at a local café -- hence the name Menza which itself refers to an old-style school cafeteria in Hungary. We have now migrated online with the aid of ZOOM technology. And during this time of pandemic, we have alas become strictly food for thought, although an occasional online participant has been seen grabbing a bite or even sipping a glass of wine. Which, come to think of it, may help to explain why our discussions are always so vibrant and lively.
Over the course of the months and years, we have studied and discussed most everything faith-related at Menza from the various books of the Bible to Church history to arcane theological themes and concepts, such as the nature of sin and redemption to predestination to the meaning and importance of Church itself. We have often been helped along in our studies by documentary taped presentations, many of them available on YouTube, from some of the great theological minds and scholars of our age; including New Testament professor and Anglican Bishop NT Wright, philosopher William Lane Craig, literary light CS Lewis, and most recently, historian of religion, Karen Armstrong, noted for her best-seller of some years back intriguingly called The History of God.
In fact, in recent weeks, our Menza scholars have delved ever more deeply in their studies into the very mystery of divinity, or God-ness, as I have found myself calling it for lack of a more adequate word or expression. The philosophy of God, in other words. Is there a God in the first place? And who or what is God…? Where did our understanding of God first arise….? Questions for the ages, to be sure. As the keeping of this festival day of Trinity Sunday itself makes clear, comprehending God is by its very nature always a work in progress, always a journey or quest.
In fact, the very term, work in progress, might be an overstatement to some degree of what human ingenuity is capable of when it comes to the Almighty. As one of the scholars quoted in Karen Armstrong’s historical documentary suggests: If you think you have understood God, you can be pretty sure you have not. Or, as another of the sages tries in some frustration to explain: God is the is-ness of is. The is-ness of is. That turn of phrase stuck with me, though I am not at all sure I know what it means. But then, perhaps that was just the point the scholar was trying to make. If we are not confounded or even dumbstruck in our thinking about God we are probably not paying attention.
Nicodemus, who figures prominently in our account this morning from the Gospel of John, would probably feel right at home at our Saint Margaret’s Menza. Perhaps I should invite him to join with us some evening if he is available. After all, he surely likes questions, asking three in a row in this short passage. “How can these things be,” are in fact his last words spoken in all of Scripture; and again a question at that. And, like the members of our Menza, Nicodemus seems to like getting together in the evening, or at night as the Gospel explains, although in his case it is probably more out of fear than intellectual curiousity.
Some questions, he must have known, are not quite ready for the light of day and maybe never will be. That is to say: They never will be fully grasped or understood by the enlightenment of the human mind. While Nicodemus’ questions are not about the very existence of God -- God’s is-ness -- they do very much touch on the nature of God. And as our Lord explains in answer to Nicodemus and his questions, the nature of God is, for lack of a better word, relational. God may well be at some level is-ness. But if that were all there is to it, we would never know of it. In fact, we would not be around to contemplate it as a possibility. We would not be, period.
Going back perhaps to the time of the great English Saint, Patrick of Ireland, or even before, God has from time to time been represented by of all things an equilateral triangle -- as if explaining God involves some sort of celestial trigonometry -- with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each in his own neat sixty-degree angled corner facing off against the other Persons of the Trinity. All well and good to a point, but wholly inadequate in explaining the God of love; the God of the Gospel; the God Nicodemus seeks almost without realizing it.
For, if there is to be a geometry to God, it must surely be that of the circle; or better yet that of the universe itself. The geometry in other words of love. If God is not the is-ness of is, God surely is the love-ness of love. It is this in turn which our Lord is getting at, I think, as he speaks of “water and the Spirit;” as good a metaphor or explanation of who and what we are as you can probably find, an explanation which even hard-nosed scientists would begrudgingly have to accept.
How much of us is water and how much spirit remains of course an open question for scientists, philosophers, and theologians to study for centuries to come. But that we are both of this world and of the Spirit is clear. And knowing who and what we are leads us inevitably to relationship; to love; to love-ness, to God. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
The full meaning of God is in other words love, pure and simple. Or put another way: The full meaning of God is Christ. If that is not divine is-ness, divine love-ness, I cannot imagine what is. Nicodemus is the first to hear this profound truth from the lips of our Lord himself. He makes one last appearance in the Gospel of John by the way and then is never heard from again. He assists in the burial of our Lord after his death at Calvary; a sure sign, it seems to me, that he too had come to believe; he too had come to know just how these things can be. He too had come to understand that the is-ness of God is love.
The question remains of course:
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs