1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (CEB)
The Sunday after the Day of Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, and it’s the day we celebrate one God in three Persons. While neither the John nor the Isaiah texts that we just read say anything direct or specific about God as Trinity, they are important texts in our reflection upon God’s nature as Three-in-One. The John 3 text hints at God as Trinity with Jesus the Son teaching Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God, and his own work on earth. The Son speaks of the Spirit and the Father to a leader of the Jews.
Nicodemus, himself, is a curious figure. From early on, church teachers and theologians have both lambasted and praised him depending on the teacher’s agenda. During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin compared Protestants who were living in Catholic France to Nicodemus who, as a secret disciple, came to Jesus by night. The Nicodemites, as Calvin called them, were secretly Protestants at heart but Catholic in appearance because they were afraid of the Catholic authorities.
Later, Søren Kierkegaard, described Nicodemus as an admirer of Jesus, but too cowardly from fear of his own people to become a follower.
Neither of those views of Nicodemus are accurate. Even though Nicodemus came to Jesus by night that first time, he did stand up among his peers and call them out when they wanted to arrest Jesus without giving him a fair hearing as the law required (John 7:44-53). Ironically, the leaders argued that no one among the leaders had believed Jesus to be the Christ except for the crowds who didn’t know God’s law. That’s when Nicodemus stood up and reminded them that the law doesn’t allow them to judge someone without first hearing them to see what they’re about. But his peers didn’t want to listen to Nicodemus and accused him of being a Jesus fanboy from Galilee because the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee as Jesus did. Later, Nicodemus brought the burial spices and helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial with Joseph of Arimathea (c.f. John 19:38-41).
Like most of us, it seems that Nicodemus was a work in progress. Painting him as a fearful coward who never stood up for Jesus against his peers or who never made the leap to true discipleship doesn’t fit his whole story. Nicodemus was someone who saw that Jesus had come from God, and who went to Jesus in order to investigate what his faith told him about Jesus. It’s really not fair for us to judge Nicodemus too harshly. He might have been confounded by what Jesus taught him, but he was trying to understand.
Every Trinity Sunday I’m reminded of the inadequacy of human language when speaking about God. One of the texts for today is from Romans 8, where Paul goes so far as to say that we’re children of God and cry, “Abba! Father!” In one sense, this cry signifies the confidence that we Christians have in turning to God. In another sense, the cry “Abba! Father!” reveals that the desperate longing, eager expectation, and grasping hope of humankind can only be expressed in comparison to the cry of a small child. Small children don’t know how to express why they want their mommy or daddy. But they feel that mommy and daddy are where they need to be.
We believe that the One God is revealed to the world and exists as Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But it’s difficult to explain that concept in human language because human language is incapable of defining God. I studied the theology of the Holy Trinity in seminary because it is an essential dogma of the Christian Faith. Still, people have difficulty understanding it. In fact, we can’t know all there is to know about the Trinity, because God is unfathomable and indefinable. There is no end to who God is. No one could ever learn all there is to know about God. When we say that God is eternal, we mean more than how long God has existed or will exist. God is also eternally indefinable. God the Trinity is a mystery. We can only know what has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ, the Son, and that often times, just as with Nicodemus, we have difficulty grasping God and God’s work in our minds.
The text from Isaiah provides a powerful account of Isaiah’s vision of God sitting exalted on the throne. At this vision, Isaiah can only speak the words, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the LORD of heavenly forces!” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB). One of the seraphs touched Isaiah’s mouth with a live coal and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” (Isaiah 6:7 CEB). Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord and was able to respond to it.
Isaiah was almost completely paralyzed with a sense of God’s power and his own inadequacy by his vision of God, and rightly so! Even the seraphim had to shield their faces from God’s majesty. The act of cleansing not only restored the sinful Isaiah to wholeness, but also released his power to hear God’s speech and, in turn, to speak God’s words to a sinful people. The prophet had been released from sin so that he could be the bearer of God’s word. His being able to hear and respond to God was not something of his own power or ability but was wholly a gift of grace from God. God enables us to hear and respond to God’s words. It’s never by our own abilities apart from God that we come to God, because all that we are is a gift from our Creator. Every breath we breathe is gift. Just like Isaiah responded, “I’m here; send me” (Isaiah 6:8b CEB). We are called to respond to God’s voice and be sent.
As Jesus taught Nicodemus, it’s through the power of the Third Person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—that we’re born from above. Many translations of the Greek Scripture translate the adverb ἄνωθεν (anothen) as again, meaning, born again. Yet, the word has multiple meanings, including above. Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about being born from above. Jesus says, “Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 CEB). We must be born of water and the Spirit.
This Son of God, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity, was sent by the Father from heaven to earth, so that God might teach us and give us life through His eternally begotten Son. The eternal Son of God took on flesh from the Blessed Virgin Mary and became human. By this action, God the Son forever united human flesh with the Godhead. Humanity has been given a share in the Divine life by God’s gracious invitation.
Yet, we had to be redeemed from the power of sin and death. So God’s Son was lifted up on a cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. When the people of Israel were still wandering in the wilderness, they sinned by speaking against God and Moses. So God sent poisonous serpents against the people. They repented, and asked Moses to pray to God for them so that He would take the serpents away. The Lord told Moses to make a poisonous serpent and put it on a pole, so that anyone who was bitten by a serpent they could look at the serpent of bronze and live (c.f. Numbers 21:4-9). Jesus the Son, in whom all things were created, was killed by his own creation. He willingly gave up his life so that we might have eternal life. We have life in the cross of Christ.
One of the paradoxes of our faith is that our life comes through death. The eternal life of John 3:16 is synonymous with the birth from above of John 3:3 and 3:7. Birth from above is from believing—having faith—in the death of Jesus Christ.
Part of what we remember on Trinity Sunday is that God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity, is the one who sent His eternal Son into the world for our sake. God the Father initiated the redemptive activity of Christ. God would not remain content with a world in the process of self-destruction and enslaved to the power of sin. The divine act of love was reaching out to the unlovely creatures we had become. God’s gift of the Son is an expression of deep love. When the Son returned to the Father, the Spirit came not only to empower and teach us, but to birth us from above so we could be called children of God.
God is always acting in and among us, giving grace upon grace even to the unbelievers, so that all may come to know the love God has for us. Humanity has never merited salvation. We have never deserved to be saved. God’s grace is an unmerited, gratuitous gift. All is grace, and all is gift.
The Father loved, gave, and sent for the salvation of the world. The Divine Trinity wants all of us to live in communion with God. This communion is exemplified in our communal life together. God gives us grace when we seek grace, and has done wondrous and powerful deeds for our redemption and salvation. As God’s children, born of water and the Spirit, we share in the relationship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is perfect relationship, perfect love, and we’re invited to participate in and receive the life God offers.
But we know we aren’t perfect. The self-giving love of Jesus Christ shines on us, illuminating even the darkest pieces of our inner selves, and seeing the places within us that have been wrapped in darkness can make us want to keep hidden. It isn’t easy to let ourselves stand in the kind of light that sears and burns through the darkness. Like Nicodemus, we’re works in progress. What we can trust is that the Father didn’t send the Son to condemn us, but to save us and heal us and bring us into the light. God didn’t send the Son to judge us or toss us away, but to make us more perfectly God’s own.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!