Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015
“We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Nicodemus said that to Jesus. He called him ‘rabbi,’ and not just any rabbi. Nicodemus felt Jesus was unlike any other.
Moreover, John writes, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He was an expert in the scriptures, one devoted to study. He was the other people would come to if they had questions about the laws of God. And he comes to Jesus.
John also writes that he came “by night.” Why? Was Nicodemus up late, studying the scriptures by candlelight. Some scholars think so. Or was he afraid? Jesus had an antagonistic relationship with the Pharisees. Was Nicodemus trying to avoid being seen by his colleagues?
John frequently writes that Jesus’ problems were from “the Jews,” but he did not specify which Jews. All Jesus’ disciples were Jews. Some Pharisees, like Nicodemus, were Jews who respected Jesus. So too were there council members who followed him, like Joseph of Arimathea. So when we read John’s Gospel and see Jesus in conflict with “the Jews,” we have to realize John meant something he thought his first century readers would understand. But we are removed from the context and do not see the entire picture. Jesus did not oppose Jewish people. He was Jewish. He gladly received the Pharisee Nicodemus.
Why did Nicodemus come under the dark of night? We cannot be sure. We know this man revered Jesus, but when Jesus spoke, Nicodemus was taken aback. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above” (3:3). What does that mean? Nicodemus didn’t like it.
Jesus did not soften his message to accommodate Nicodemus’ reservations. Jesus continued, “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and of spirit.” Baptism had already been introduced in John 1. And the community that would receive John’s gospel was already a baptizing community. To be born of water was clear enough; Jesus meant baptism. But he also said that being born of the Spirit was necessary.
The word can mean either wind or spirit and it is used both ways in this passage. Furthermore, this word has layers of meaning both in its Hebrew rendering, ‘ruah,’ and in Greek, ‘pnumatos’. In the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 2, creation has not yet begun. God is there and so is chaos, a raging, water, an ocean of blackness. Genesis 1:2 says a wind from God “swept over the face of the waters.” Throughout the Old Testament the Holy Spirit shows up with this as the first example.
In Genesis 2:7, at the apex of creation, “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” “Wind,” “Spirit,” “Breath;” it is all the same word. Before anything exists, there is the Holy Spirit. The muscles, bones, ligaments, and skin do not become a human in God’s image until that creature is filled with the Holy Spirit.
We see it in Ezekiel 37. The Lord sets the prophet down in a valley of bones. At the Lord’s command, Ezekiel prophesies, and the bones rattle and shake and come together. Flesh covers the skeletons until the piles of bones are replaced by an army. The valley is filled with people – but they are not yet people. These bones do not truly live until Ezekiel, at the Lord’s instruction, prophesies to the breath and the breath fills them. And then a multitude of humans made in God’s image stand before him.
Nicodemus would know these stories. He was familiar with God’s Spirit hovering over the pre-creation chaos. He knew of God’s breath animating the first humans in the Garden of Eden. He knew of the Spirit’s activity in Ezekiel’s vision. Yet when he talked to Jesus he got confused. “How can these things be?” Nocodemus asked.
If a teacher of his stature had trouble, how can we hope to understand God? How can we relate to one who is three? What does trinity even mean? It seems mystical, like something that cannot be explained. How is the idea of God as three-in-one in any way helpful in the struggles we face in daily life?
We are challenged to live holy lives in a secular culture. Some among us find it difficult to make ends meet. Financial stress eats away at our emotions. Others battle physical health and the limitations that sickness brings. Others face mental health problems, which sometimes come with stigma attached. Some among us are burdened to serve in ministry for the poor, but the reality of debilitating poverty is so massive it seems our efforts to alleviate it are futile. In these and a thousand other struggles, what help is there in a discussion of trinity and new birth?
Jesus says we must be born from above, and Nicodemus counters with “How can these things be?” Jesus responds, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand?”
In the Greek, verse 10 includes a definite article. Jesus does not say, “Are you a teacher of Israel?” He asks, “Are you the teacher of Israel.” This entire story is bracketed by acknowledgments – Jesus acknowledges that Nicodemus is a ‘didaskalos,’ a teacher. He is the teacher. Nicodemus represents the education establishment, the fount of knowledge in Israel. Yet, he comes up short. He does not understand a crucial point.
Nicodemus also acknowledges Jesus as a teacher. He is not just any teacher. He is a rabbi from God. Nicodemus will lay his own credentials aside and submit to Jesus’ instruction, but when he does, he sees just how much he does not know. He knows about ‘ruah,’ and ‘pnematos;’ he knows about Spirit and wind and breath of God. He knows the creation story. What Nicodemus does not know is that it needs to happen again.
The fall – Adam’s sin and the sin of every generation thereafter – has corrupted and decayed God’s good creation to the point that death reigns. Nicodemus is bound for death. We all are and it is because of generations of rebellion against God. That is what sin is and it is the source for all pain in the world.
A moment ago, I cited struggles many of us face as I wondered how a discussion about trinity or new birth could help us face these struggles. The problems exist because we are in a fallen world. Every one of us sins – everyone. Sin always leads to pain and death.
When Jesus came, the progression of sin in the world had gotten to a point and is still at that point where death is inevitable. The old bromide the “only things that are certain are death and taxes” holds true. But it should not be this way. When God created the world, he created life. God is the God of the living Jesus says in Luke 20:38. That death is our greatest certainty is the complete opposite of God’s creation plan. It is so because of the fall and sin. God will not tolerate such a state of affairs.
So God the Father came and walked among us as one of us, God the Son – Jesus. God inhabited human flesh and went to cross to die so we would not face eternal death. Our bodies will die but as Jesus was raised so too will resurrection come for us. We enter the kingdom of God by being born of water and spirit.
The water, the baptism, represents what God has done for us. We are immersed, buried, dead in sin, never to live again. But as Jesus rose, we rise, this time born of the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, and in resurrection, death is defeated forever.
There is no such thing as a Christian who has not been born again. All Christians are born-again Christians. “Born-again” has, in some circles in our country, come to be some kind of identifier.
Oh, she is one of the born-agains.
Really? Are you also a born-again?
Oh, no, no, no. I am an Episcopalian. No, I am not one of them. I am a Methodist. A born-again? No, not me, I am a good Baptist.
It is like being born again is some kind of condition and if you just calm down and live in a sensible, sedate religion you can in time be cured of it. But Jesus said “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He said this to the teacher of Israel because he wanted Nicodemus to take this truth and pass it on to all who would sit under his instruction. Jesus said it because sin abounds and is destroying the creation God declared good. Jesus said it because he had come to declare the end of sin’s time. Death was done with Jesus on the scene.
A sensible, sedate religion? No, when we turn to Jesus and receive His Holy Spirit into our lives the change we go through is as dramatic the change a baby experiences when passing from the dark warmth of the womb into the invasive light outside. That is a picture of how radically different life is for one who is in Christ from one who is not in Christ.
Any who would say becoming a Christian is no big thing has not heard a word Jesus has said. He sees us and breathes and his Spirit animates us to the point that we are completely different than we were before meeting him. This is why the idea of being made new is so important in our church’s expression of faith. Someone says, “I don’t see what the fuss is all about. I decided to become a Christian. OK. I am still me.” Jesus says, “You have read the Bible and sung the songs and heard the preaching, and still you do not understand.” You are the teacher of Israel and do not understand?
Last week in Acts 2, we saw what happens when the Holy Spirit comes and animates the church. People become prophets. Everyone hears the Gospel in his own language. Disciples come out of hiding and tell their stories even when doing so gets them arrested and executed.
What does it look like when God animates the church today? We learn and re-learn this each generation. What we can depend is God’s generosity. The Spirit did not pour out on a select few in Acts 2. All in the church were blessed and filled. And it is so today. As Paul writes in 1Corinthians 12, we are all given the Holy Spirit.
In a sense this is how we relate to God and to each other. As born-again people, we are born into love. More important than identifying specific spiritual gifts, we remember that the greatest fruit of the Spirit is God’s love which passes through us from one person to the next. This love holds us together.
And the generous God who fills all of us also is a patient giver. Nicodemus was not ready in that nighttime conference to receive the Spirit. By the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus has forgotten that he was afraid to be seen with Jesus. He is out in the open as a follower. He is a disciple and he will receive the Spirit, he didn’t know he needed. He will undergo the new birth he did not understand.
This patient, generous Spirit is patient and generous with each of us as individuals and with us as a gathered body. Together we are and will be animated and filled. Sin abounds around us, but, born again, we are already living into eternity. Even as we live our daily lives, we do so as new creations ready to draw others to Jesus and to life. We don’t understand it all yet, but He meets us where we are and guides us each step of the way; it is the way of life, life everlasting.