Are Your Ears Burning?
Monday mornings have a bad reputation. Many priests find it that way, too. On a typical Monday morning, we preachers go to our studies and look up in the lectionary book which epistle reading and gospel reading are assigned for the liturgy on the next Sunday. Then we preachers take our Bibles and look up those passages. All very easy so far! Now comes the hardest part of preaching: figuring out what to say in the sermon about one of those passages for next Sunday! Some Monday mornings, that is easy. Some Monday mornings, it is tough.
I had a tough Monday morning one week back in May. I knew that I wanted to preach on the gospel reading from John 17 for that Sunday. I’ll have to admit, however, that when I read it over again that Monday, my reaction was a bit of “ho-hum.” It comes up each year on the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost. And it gets read in Holy Week, too – it’s part of that longest of all gospel readings, the first one on Holy Thursday evening. And so I’ve preached on it quite a few times before. So “hohum” was my reaction – what to say about this passage when I preach on it one more time? And then something in the passage jumped out at me, something I knew was in John 17 all along, but it hit me differently somehow that Monday morning, so let me tell you about it.
John 17 is part of Jesus’ long talk with the apostles, and long prayer to the Father, on Holy Thursday evening, the night before He was crucified. In this part of John there is quite a bit about the Holy Trinity.
The fact of the Holy Trinity is the great mystery, the essential mystery of all of life. Our belief in the Holy Trinity is what makes Christianity unique. Sometimes people say, “All religions are very similar.” Well, actually they’re not – no other faith believes in the Holy Trinity. This great mystery, this belief unique to Christianity, is that there is one God and that that one God consists of three divine Persons. These three Persons have always existed, they are co-equal, and co-worthy of our worship. All three are God. God is one, but God is three, too. God is three, but God is one, too.
We’ve heard this so much, we’re so used to hearing the three divine Persons mentioned in our prayers and hymns while we bless ourselves with the sign of the cross to express our reverence for the Trinity – it’s familiar to us and so perhaps we forget what a big deal it is. But how strange and revolutionary it was to the world when Christ revealed the truth of it when He came to earth! The Trinity is only hinted at in the Old Testament, so when Christ came and revealed it, it was quite a shocker! That shock has a lot to do with why Christ was crucified.
The most important fact there is, is this – that there is one God who consists of three united divine Persons: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We can’t even begin to understand this amazing truth – it’s way, way over our heads. St. Augustine, one of the most intelligent men ever, was walking down the beach of the ocean near his home in North Africa about 1,600 years ago. As he walked, he was contemplating the Holy Trinity and trying to figure it out. He wished to wrap his mind around this great mystery and was trying to understand “how it worked.” As he walked, he came upon a little girl playing in the sand on the beach. She had dug a hole in the sand not far from the water. And she was walking back and forth between her hole and the water, carrying a little pail with which she scooped up some ocean water and poured it into the hole. Over and over again, more and more water was poured into the hole. Augustine was surprised by her persistence and finally said to her gently, “Little girl, what are you doing?” She replied, “I’m putting the ocean into my hole.” Augustine walked away chuckling at her silly project and then he thought to himself, “I’ve been just as silly. Here she is trying to put the whole ocean into a little hole. And here I am trying to figure out the Trinity, trying to put God into my little brain” (Father Anthony Coniaris, Introducing The Orthodox Church, Light & Life Press, p. 29).
So we won’t ever succeed in understanding the Holy Trinity. There is one thing, though, that we know about it from the Bible. The three Persons of God interact with each other and communicate with each other. In the Bible, at Christ’s baptism, the Father sends down the Holy Spirit to the Son. At the Ascension, the Son goes up to the Father and then soon after (at Pentecost) the Holy Spirit is sent down. The Three work together in a united way.
And they “talk” to each other. I use the quotation marks because it is very important to remember that when we talk about God, our human words don’t cut it. The Orthodox term for this acknowledgement is apophaticism, which means that God is so far above us that we can never accurately describe Him. If we say that God is loving, that’s not false, but it’s not true in the way that we understand love – His love is so much greater than anything we can comprehend that our words can’t describe it. So when we say that the divine Persons “talk” to each other, we must reverently remind ourselves that their “talking” isn’t like our talking to each other. Who knows what it is like? Only God knows! But we know that they communicate with each other, even if on a level far, far above what we can accurately describe. In the gospels, there are several times when the Father speaks to the Son. And there are many, many times when the Son speaks to the Father – the Son frequently prays to His Father. Lots of communication going on in the Trinity!
And here is what hit me that Monday morning, what jumped out at me from John 17 and knocked the “ho-hum” right out of me: What is it that the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity are “talking” about to each other? They are “talking” about you and me! Perhaps there are other things the Divine Persons “talk” about – how could we ever know? God does have an entire universe to uphold and keep going, but He seems to have that set up pretty well, so I doubt the Persons of the Godhead are “discussing” how to keep the stars burning well, how gravity has been working lately, and so on. As far as I see from the Scriptures, there is really only one thing that we know the Divine Persons “communicate” with each other about: us! Are your ears burning? They should be! Someone is “talking” about you: the Divine Persons of the Godhead!
Here is how we know this. We see it in John 17, which is a long prayer of the Son to His Father. In most of the prayer, Christ prays for the Apostles. Then, in verse 20, Christ starts praying for someone else: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word.” That’s us! We Christians are those who believe in Christ through the word of the Holy Apostles. So it’s us that He is praying for in verse 20, and He prays for us for the rest of John 17.
And Christ didn’t stop praying for us yet! We know this from what we read in Hebrews 7:25: “He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” “For all time” and “always”: that’s when Jesus prays for us, makes intercession for us, “talks” to the Father about us. So sometimes you think you might be unimportant, of no real account in this huge world? Wrong! The Second Person of the Holy Trinity is “talking” to the First Person of the Holy Trinity right now about you! Are your ears burning? They should be. Somebody’s “talking” about you.
As true believers in the Trinity, we would love to know how the Trinity functions and lives. That’s too far beyond us, however. Will we understand it all in the next life? No, not even in eternity will we be able to figure out the Trinity. And even if we could somehow hear the Divine Persons “communicating” with each other, we still couldn’t figure it out.
Imagine you’re having a nice cook-out in your back yard. You’ll probably have a few guests you didn’t invite – flies. They love cook-outs! You and your family and friends are having a nice conversation while you eat, and there’s a little fly on the table. As far as I know, flies have fine hearing, so he hears everything you say, he hears every word you all utter. But he never understands a single thing. Your conversation is so far above his little brain that it’s all just noise to him. He hears what you say but understands nothing. All he cares about is getting to that spilled drop of barbecue sauce without getting swatted. That’s about the way it is with us and the “communication” among the Divine Persons of the Trinity. Even if we could hear what they “say,” we couldn’t understand it.
There is only one topic that we know the Divine Persons “talk” about. We know because Jesus Himself tells us in John 17 and because St. Paul tells us in Hebrews 7: Christ is always praying for us to the Father.
Yes, the Persons of the Holy Trinity “talk” about us. What about the fact that there are billions of people to be “talked” about? That’s no problem for the infinite God! What amazing love God has for you: to be concerned about you, your problems, your salvation. What amazing love God has for you, that your name keeps coming up in the inner mysterious workings of the Holy Trinity!
So don’t ever think God doesn’t really know you or care about you. In France there are huge military cemeteries, full of the many thousands of French soldiers who died in the horrible trench warfare of World War I. In those cemeteries you can find quite a few graves with no names. The bodies of those boys could never be identified. But there is something carved into their gravestones. Each one reads, “A Soldier of the Great War – Known to God.” Unknown to everyone, except to God (Our Daily Bread, May 30, 2001).
Do you feel all alone sometimes, forgotten even by God? Don’t, because it’s not true. You are known to God. You are known quite well by the three Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity. In fact, they are “talking” about you all the time! Your ears should be burning. Remember what we saw in Hebrews 7:25: Jesus Christ is “always” making intercession for you to the Father, praying to the Father for you.
So give thanks to God each day. Thank Him, worship Him. For what a great God He is. How wonderful it is that the three Persons of the Godhead have you in their thoughts and are “communicating” about you! How great that the Son is always praying to the Father for you!
Thanks be to God!
Father Andrew Harmon
St. Matthew the Evangelist Orthodox Church
North Royalton, Ohio