It is not the task of the preacher on Trinity Sunday to explain the Trinity. Resist the urge to find the perfect metaphor to explain God in a way that satisfies everyone listening. It won’t work. Maybe the children’s sermon can bring out the three-leafed clover, or the water in three states. But all our metaphors reduce the immensity of God into something comprehendible and therefore something less than the true nature of God.
Maybe what would be better on this Trinity Sunday would be to come with questions, to come seeking to know, to experience God in all God’s fullness. To come and share stories, encounters, glimpses of God, all the while pointing to a larger truth beyond our images and stories. What does it mean to be born of the Spirit? How does that affect my life day to day? How does this fit into our discipleship path? What is it like? Bring your honest questions and lay them before the throne of God.
Did Nicodemus come with a question? Or did he come to score points? “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he bombasts right in Jesus’ face. We know who you are. We’ve got you pegged. We’ve caught you, tagged you, and are releasing you back into the wild, so that we can track your movements through our community. And then we will determine whether you are an invasive species come to wreak havoc on our ecosphere!
Am I being hard on Nicodemus? Maybe. Maybe it was more open than that, more innocent than that? Maybe. But maybe not. Jesus lights into him right away. John writes after that carefully worded political salutation that “Jesus answered him.” Answered him? Where was the question? Maybe John should have said, “Jesus responded to him” or “Jesus debated with him.” Or Jesus stripped to his wrestling singlet and leapt onto the mat for three falls out of four with yet another pharisaical opponent. Yeah, that might have set the tone nicely.
It seems like Jesus is trying to pick a fight. And Nicodemus is outclassed. He doesn’t seem to know he’s in a stranglehold, and that escalates when he does finally squeak out his questions: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” and “Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?” And worst of all was, “How can these things be?” That really sets Jesus off; he gets personal in his response.
Why is Jesus so upset? I mean, he throws Nicodemus a wicked curve and is upset when Nick whiffs on the first pitch. Maybe he’s upset at having his evening disturbed. Nicodemus was the first-century equivalent of a telemarketer who interrupts dinner to sell siding for the house you don’t own. Or maybe Nicodemus caught him on a bad day. In the last chapter, Jesus attended a wedding and was called out by his mom, then went into the temple and ruined everyone else’s day in one angry gesture, which left folks muttering about him as he strode through the wreckage back home. And he finds Nicodemus huddling on the doorstep, like a homeless man at his gate. Or maybe Nicodemus forgot he was in the Gospel of John and missed the whole dark versus light symbolism. Dark, for John, is the absence of the knowledge of and presence of God. And then Nicodemus proceeds to miss everything else that Jesus tries to tell him because his mind is as dark as the night.
Perhaps he misses it because he starts with this “we know” stuff. That’s what sets Jesus off. Nicodemus comes not to learn but to show his knowledge. Nicodemus probably was expecting gratitude or something like that from Jesus. “Wow, gosh thanks, guys. Gee, you really think so much of little old me?” But no, instead he gets some head-spinning theology about the Holy Spirit, of all things. And to make it worse, how did they know that Jesus was a teacher come from God? Nicodemus says we know this because Jesus does cool stuff. Jesus does magic tricks, signs, and wonders. There is nothing that ticks Jesus off as fast as getting all excited about the special effects and losing the narrative of the film. He didn’t want heads turned by miracles; he wanted people to come to him. He wanted people to hear his words and know his love. He wanted people to have a relationship with him and not just come for the show.
That’s how he gets to The Verse: 3:16. There are people who wear T-Shirts with those numbers on it who may not even know what the verse means. That might also make Jesus mad. It might make him as mad as he was at a pharisee who thought he knew all there was to know about Jesus because he had seen an unexplainable event or two. It might make Jesus as mad as he was at a temple full of buyers and sellers, making money of the need to worship that is deep down in every soul. Mad, or sad. A little of both, I suspect. God so loved, he says, so loved the world, that whoever believes . . . The word, or concept, believe in the Gospel of John is more than a head thing. Nicodemus had a head thing. But he didn’t have a heart thing. Or a soul thing. He wasn’t leaning into Jesus the way Jesus wants us to lean into him. He wasn’t hungry for Jesus the way Jesus wants us to be hungry. I am the bread, I am the gate, I am the way, the truth and the life. He wants to be all for all—our light in the darkness, our hope in the midst of the world’s despair. He doesn’t want to be a side show, or a sometime friend. He wants to be the center of our lives and hopes and dreams.
How can these things be? That would be Nicodemus’s reply, I’m sure. Because it is often ours. How can these things be? How can we hold on to Jesus when the path gets slippery and the light grows dim? We must be born again. Great. Cliches. Religious nonsense cliches. Has there been a phrase more divisive in the body of Christ than that one? Maybe. But this one has been misused and misunderstood since Nicodemus stumbled over it one night. Born again? Anothen is the Greek word. Anothen. It means again and anew and from above. All wrapped up there together. But not again as in repetition - same thing over again; that’s what Nicodemus missed. But neither is “born again” a badge of honor or an entrance certificate. That’s what many modern-day users miss. Rather, it is an invitation to join in the dance with Jesus—whoever believes; whoever takes him by the hand and says, “Lead me”; whoever says, “I find myself in you”; whoever leans for repose as the old hymn says (How Firm a Foundation, for those who wonder), shall have life, abundant, eternal life.
How can these things be? They just are. Start leaning. And learning. Lest, on this Trinity Sunday, I leave you with the impression that questions are somehow bad, forgive me. But no. Questions, dumb ones and smart ones, irritating ones and time-wasting ones, earnest ones and honest ones, are good. We need to ask to learn. But then lean as we learn. Trust as we seek. Believe as we wonder. How can these things be? Believe. And ask. And live. To be born of the Spirit is to ask your questions and seek God in truth.