Today we are remembering Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost and we are meant to celebrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity – God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three-person Godhead. Celebrating foundational Christian doctrine might not sound all that exciting, but it is!
It is good, I think, to remind ourselves about the essence of our Christian faith after the events and activities of Lent, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Phew – the church year now opens up and rolls along until Advent as the big festivals are now complete.
Most Priests shiver at the thought of a Trinity Sunday sermon. We try to take holidays, pass the preaching on to a visitor or a curate. Clergy Facebook groups are filled with angsty posts about Trinity sermons!
So where does that leave me?
Well with Nicodemus. My attempt this morning is to look at how Nicodemus came to understand more about God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit through his conversation with Jesus that dark night in Jerusalem.
Who is this guy? Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the Jewish leaders. He is a big deal in the Jewish circles of Jerusalem; Nicodemus has been well educated in the faith and is a smart man.
Like most religious people, Nicodemus believes, to some extent, that God is love. But he believes that God’s love is measured and sensible, and follows a set of rules. I think that many Christians today still follow this thinking.
They have reasoned that God’s love is reserved for really ‘good’ people, those who are nice or do good things or turn up to church on Sundays. This is true and untrue as God’s love is for everyone despite our perceived and actual goodness and badness.
Nicodemus is confused about Jesus and where he fits; Jesus is not playing by the conventional Jewish rules that Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees are expecting. This could be why Nicodemus pays him a visit – to get Jesus to fill in the proper forms, tick the right boxes.
His confusion is given away in the detail about coming to see Jesus at night. Darkness or night in John’s Gospel represents confusion or a lack of understanding.
A second reason for going at night means that Nicodemus was concerned about being seen with Jesus. He wasn’t willing to risk his reputation or position as a leader in the Sanhedrin for Him.
But credit to Nicodemus for even going in the first place, his colleagues couldn’t or wouldn’t. Nicodemus’ attraction to Jesus has led him to take action which is leading further into the love of God.
Nicodemus starts by telling Jesus that he, and others, know that there is something special about Jesus – only someone with a special relationship with God could do the things Jesus was doing. He is basically saying ‘I’m someone who can recognize what God is doing – and you, Jesus, are doing a pretty good job’.
Jesus’ reply seems to mystify Nicodemus. I’m not sure what your response is when you hear the words ‘born again’. What do you say when someone asks you ‘are you born again’? Jesus wants Nicodemus to tear up the checklists and understand that God’s activity cannot be ordered.
Nicodemus is picturing a physical re-birth which makes for some interesting mental images around re-entering his mother’s womb. This is not what Jesus means – he is referring to spiritual rebirth in which someone who already possesses life at the physical level comes to birth at a spiritual level.
Spiritual rebirth is about discovering life in all its fullness, which comes only through being born again, or from above. Spiritual rebirth has to come from God. To see his kingdom we need to be born both of water (physically) and spirit (from above).
Jesus then makes the crucial link between his own forthcoming death and the full benefits of the gospel. This comes through the deliverance of believers from death through the gift of eternal life which will become possible through his death.
This eternal life is a new quality of life, made only possible through the love of God, which is shown in the astonishing fact that he loves the world so much that his only Son should die for it.
John 3:16 – This very familiar verse. It is the first one I remember learning as a child. When I think of verses – it often comes to mind first as it is so ingrained. But do I really know what it means – the massive significance that gets lost or overlooked with over-familiarization.
John 3:16 sets out what it means to be a Christian; it sums up the essence of what Christianity is.
What is that?
An invitation to join God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit in the unfathomable richness of God’s love. To join in their being and doing. This is the invitation that Jesus extended to Nicodemus that night and continues to extend to us today.
Jane Williams writes ‘God does not love when we have met requirements, or when we have changed enough to be lovable, or when we were lucky enough to born in one race or sex. God just loves. And trying to measure the love of God is like trying to control the wind. God will do anything for this world he loves, including coming himself, the Son, to die for it. To understand this, in Jesus’ words, born again, to start the world again, learning to walk and speak and think and grow in a world where the love of God is the breath we breathe, so that our every response to the world around us is informed by that love.’
I think that Nicodemus made a start that night in understanding what this love of God is really about – even if he doesn’t quite yet understand. After this midnight meeting with Jesus, Nicodemus goes away changed.
How do we know? He appears on two more occasions in John’s Gospel. First in Ch 7 – Jesus has gone back to Jerusalem for a festival and has really irked the Pharisees and temple priests – remember that Nicodemus is one of them. They send the temple police to arrest Jesus and they don’t. Nicodemus steps into the fray to protect Jesus by reminding the other Pharisees about a point of law that they have easily overlooked about giving a person a hearing before judging them.
Think for a second here – would Nicodemus risk everything – his whole life – in that moment if he didn’t believe who Jesus was? If he didn’t want more of what Jesus was offering? I think Nicodemus had way too much to lose if it was untrue.
The final appearance of Nicodemus is after the crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea has asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. Nicodemus is the one who brings them myrrh and aloes for the preparation of the body. They – Joseph and Nicodemus take the body, wrap it with the spices in linen cloth according to burial custom and they lay him in the tomb.
Why would he do that if he didn’t believe it? Again – risk everything. You also need to really love someone to care for their body after death. A few years of Macmillan Nursing helped teach me this – only those who are most intimately acquainted with a person – the ones who really love them will be with their body after death.
Nicodemus was extended an invitation into the deepest relationship that we can be offered – a relationship with God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. The belief that God is Trinity is the foundation for the belief that God is also love. I wonder when Nicodemus accepted the invitation? At what point? These are questions for another day. But he accepted the invitation.
His next actions – defending Jesus in front of his peers at great personal expense and then anointing Jesus’ dead body can only speak to love. A love that is born again, a start-the-world-over kind of love.
Maybe I have skated around the Trinity and trying to explain the doctrine of Father, Son and Spirit being the three in one. Start with the Three and see that it is the deepest nature of One. In the Trinity we discover God’s character, personality, priorities and God’s reality. I can point you in the direction of large theological volumes if that is helpful. When we see the deepest nature of the One – as Nicodemus did – we are invited to join in the relationship of the Trinity, we are invited to the table to share love and life together. This is worth celebrating.
Trinity Sunday! The celebration of the complex and beautiful and messy doctrine central to the Christian faith. It is exciting!