Sunday, May 27, 2018
By the authority vested in me, as minister of the Gospel, an ordained Baptist Pastor, I hereby grant to all present, every one of you, the sanctified permission to say, “I don’t know.” It’s OK. It’s alright to not know everything there is to know about God.
That’s true all of the time, but this truth is of special import today – Trinity Sunday.
Just imagine yourself. You go to church. You sing the songs and listen, really listen, to the sermons. You read the Bible on your own, and attend a midweek Bible study. You can, in your own words, explain that you know you are a sinner and Jesus died for you. You can give your own story, of how and when you gave your heart to Jesus and began living life under His rule, with Him as your Lord.
Then, a non-church going friend, in the course of casual conversation asks that question. “I get that you believe in God and everything, but what about the trinity? Can you explain that?”
Ooh. At that point, the collar gets a little tight, the mouth a little dry. Beads of sweat appear on the forehead. Explain the trinity? Okay. The trinity is God, 3-in-1; kind of like water, which is ice, liquid water, and steam; solid, liquid, and gas.
That explanation doesn’t work! Those are just different modes of H2O, just different forms. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each God, the one God, but distinct from the other two. It’s how Jesus could pray to the Father. They’re distinct, but also one. It is how, as we see in Mark 1:12, the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus does not evaporate and become the Holy Spirit. The Father does not melt to become Jesus. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other, and the analogy of water fails to explain that.
Let’s try again. How to explain the trinity? The trinity is like the sun that produces light and heat and gives vitamin D!
Again, that explanation is a no go! The Son and the Holy Spirit are not produced by the Father. Heat and light are things the sun produces as it gives off energy. God the Son is fully God; so is God the Spirit. Neither emanates as a product of God. Both are eternal. Both are persons existing as personalities, distinct. And yet, the three together exist as one God and there’s no separating them.
We cannot claim the Father, Son, and Spirit are modes of God. One could make such a claim, but that would not be an orthodox Christian claim. Nor can we say the Son and the Spirit are produced from the Father, not if we want to align with the traditional claims of Christianity.
One more try? Here goes: just as an apple is the core, the pulp, and the skin – all of the apple – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all equal parts of God. Does that work?
No! The Father is not 1/3 of God. The Father is fully God. The Son and the Holy Spirit each are fully God. The three persons of the trinity are not parts. They are not modes. They are not emanations. Each one is distinctly, fully God – the one God; God, 3-in-1.
Remember! You have sanctified permission to say, “I don’t know!” Your unchurched friend says, “Hey, Christian, what about the Trinity?” Your response? “The triune nature of God is an unexplainable mystery. The Father is eternal, fully God, and distinct. The Son, is eternal, pre-existent, and is fully God. And the Spirit, is fully God. The three together are one, existing in a perfect relationship of love and cooperation within the Godhead.
Regarding Trinitarian theology, we all have the permission to say, “This is confusing. I don’t quite understand it. It’s an incomprehensible mystery.” However, we do not need to fear the conversation about the trinity. Don’t be afraid of talking about and thinking about God in this way. In fact, God as trinity is cause for rejoicing! How so?
In our reading, John chapter 3, we meet a great Pharisee, Nicodemus. Jesus affords him the highest of respect, calling him a “teacher of Israel” (v.10). Nicodemus also gives Jesus great recognition. He says to Jesus, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. Nicodemus, the “teacher of Israel,” has come to Jesus, the carpenter-rabbi from Nazareth, to be taught. He’s not prepared for the lesson Jesus will give. It is as hard for him to understand as it us for us to wrap our brains around the notion of trinity.
Jesus tells him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above” (3:3). All who want to follow Jesus, all who want to go to Heaven and not Hell, and all who want to be Christian must be born again. All Christians are “born again” Christians. Any who have not undergone second birth have are not followers of Jesus.
I know this can be distressing. I have talked to people desiring to be Christians who have said to me, “Rob, I cannot sense the Holy Spirit in me.” Or, “I don’t remember a definitive time of being born again.” People who want to be with Christ, but lack such a clearly identifiable divine encounter, have obvious concern. Maybe they aren’t truly Christians. Maybe you have such worries.
Jesus explains in verse 5 that “No one can enter the Kingdom without being born of water and of Spirit.” Nicodemus might hear “born of water” and think of a several different things. There’s natural child birth. He might remember the Noah story: the world was remade in a flood. He would definitely call to mind Israel’s defining moment. The nation escaped slavery in Egypt, and then received the 10 commandments and the written law at Mount Sinai. The centerpiece of that story comes when God parts the Red Sea and the people pass through those waters.
Nicodemus would remember that. He also knew that his own day, John the Baptist and other radical teachers were baptizing in the Jordan River. He would have known that Jesus himself was baptized by John. So when he hears Jesus say, “Born of water,” familiar thoughts come to mind.
What is “born of Spirit?” Nicodemus is absolutely perplexed.
Jesus has told him that he cannot enter the Kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit and he doesn’t know what that means. I insist that this teaching, for us in our time, means each one of us has to be born of the Spirit to be with Christ. I say that knowing many people who want to be Christians but cannot, in their own story, identify that specific time when they were “born again.” It’s hard to pinpoint.
The crux of the matter comes when Jesus talks about the wind in verse 8. In both Biblical Greek and Biblical Hebrew, the same word means wind, breath, and Spirit. As we said a few weeks ago, as the writer of this gospel set pen to parchment, he surely had the prophet Ezekiel on his mind. Ezekiel tells of a time when God set him down in a valley of dry bones and commanded Ezekiel to tell the bones to come to life. He obeyed, and the commanded the bones rattled and came together and took on muscle and tissue and skin. And there before Ezekiel stood a multitude of lifeless people.
They did not come to life until Ezekiel prophesied a second time, this time to the breath. He did that, and the multitude came alive. God told Ezekiel, in exile, the nation of Israel completely destroyed, “Mortal man, these bones are the house of Israel” (37:11). God told him to tell the people in exile, “I will open up your graves” and restore your life. “I will put my spirit in you.” They would not be the people of God until God put God’s spirit in them.
Nicodemus may not have thought of Ezekiel when he spoke with Jesus. But looking back on the encounter, later, after he gained understanding, I imagine he made the association. God promised to put his spirit in the people, through the mouth of the prophet. And God the Son, Jesus, told Nicodemus, you must be born of the Spirit to see and enter the Kingdom of God. I think Nicodemus understood that when Jesus told him this, he, Nicodemus, was having his own Ezekiel moment. I think he figured this out later, probably with a lot of help from the Holy Spirit. He’s probably the one who shared the entire story that’s told in John 3 with the writer of the Gospel.
In the moment, he was thoroughly lost. “How can these things be?” Jesus let him ponder. He didn’t clear it up right away, but rather, he let Nicodemus sit with it. All he said to Nicodemus was, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things” (3:10)? That’s how utterly new and unexpected the Gospel was. Neither uneducated people nor the most educated of people were ready for what God would do in Jesus. The only way understanding could come would be by the Spirit.
Yet, Jesus says in verse 8, “The wind [the spirit] blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” We have no control over the Holy Spirit. It seems hardly fair for God the Son to tell us that we need God the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God the Father, when we cannot grab hold of the God the Spirit. Does that mean that anyone who has not felt the touch of the Spirit is just left out?
Of course not! Jesus mentions in verse 13 that he is the one descended from heaven, and then in verse 14, he references another story Nicodemus would have known. This comes from the book of Numbers and might be less familiar to us. The people of God were in the wilderness and rebelled against God. Poisonous snakes came and began biting the people and they were dying. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to display it atop a tall pole. Anyone who had been bitten should fix his gaze upon this serpent that had been lifted up and he or she would be healed of the poisonous snake bite.
Jesus tells Nicodemus and all of us, John’s readers, that he must be lifted up like that snake. If you fear that you lack of that experience with the Holy Spirit that tells you that you’ve been born again, look at Jesus, lifted up on the cross. Verse 15, “Whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
This illustrates both the beautiful dance of the Trinity and the reason our understanding of God as Trinity is cause for rejoicing. The Kingdom of God the Father is eternal life, eternal joy, and eternal love. We all want to be in it. We need the Spirit to get there. But we can’t control the Spirit. However, we can fix our gaze upon the God the Son, who inhabited human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. We can look at Jesus, believe in him, worship and follow him, and we are saved. Even if you don’t feel it, per se, the Spirit is working. Believe in Jesus.
The next verse, maybe the most famous in the Bible, ties together God’s love and the salvation of the world. Remember what we’ve stressed throughout our 9 weeks spent in the Gospel of John. “The world,” as presented in this Gospel, it opposed to God. It is the realm of the enemy. John 3:16 says God loved this world so much, he came – gave his only son – that whoever believes in him may not die, but rather may have eternal life.
Can’t explain the Trinity? It’s OK. The Trinity is a mystery beyond comprehension. What you can share with friends and what you can count on, if you’re trembling in the shadow of doubts about your own relationship with God, is the Gospel. We can rest secure in the Gospel.
God is love. God’s love is on display in the beautiful dance within God – the perfect love and cooperation between Father, Son, and Spirit. The Son went to the cross for our sins. The Spirit is about in the world, convicting people of sin so that they might repent and turn to God. The Spirit is also residing in your heart and in the body of Christ – his Church. Instead of trying to reduce this beautiful mystery to an easily contained explanation, live in it. God invites us to join in the dance and live in relationship with God. And not just at Pentecost or on Trinity Sunday, but every day. Every day, His love is real and present for us. Every day, God walks with us that we might have life and live in His joy.