A sermon, based on John 3.1-17, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018
Once again, we come to that annual day, Trinity Sunday, for eleven hundred years in Western Christendom, the only Sunday in the church calendar devoted to a doctrine; in this case, the nature of God.
This morning, I think of Isaiah’s prophetic description of the quintessential difference between divinity and humanity: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways,” says the Lord, “for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my thoughts and ways higher than your thoughts and ways.”(1)
I also recall the testimony of the Apostle Paul: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, how inscrutable his ways!(2)
Given that it is God’s mercy, that God can and will be mercifully kind to folk beyond human understanding,(3) that led Isaiah to declare God’s thoughts and ways higher than ours and Paul to marvel at God’s inscrutability, it occurs to me that on this day I, humbly acknowledging the incomprehensibility of God’s nature, ought keep this sermon properly reverent and mercifully short!
However, recalling Alexander Pope’s(4) admonition that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, I press on!
Looking at, listening to our gospel passage, we hear Jesus unfold the mystery and majesty of the Trinity…
Nicodemus is a Pharisee. A living, breathing, walking, talking repository of God’s Law; “a leader of the Jews”, respected for his wisdom. Thus, he may believe, with good cause, that he knows all about God. However, he is bewildered by Jesus. This rabbi who has come out of nowhere performing “signs”, in word and deed, that Nicodemus, based on his vast knowledge, drawn from study of sacred text and rooted in observation, reason, and deduction, all age-old and accepted tools of perception, considers impossible unless Jesus is from God. So, intrigued by the signs, but uncertain about Jesus and daring not to be seen consorting with one who may prove to be a fraud, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night.
Jesus immediately upsets Nicodemus’ understanding of God: “No one can see the kingdom of God” (who God is, what God does, the way God works) “without being born from above.” Nicodemus, stuck in the literalism of his trusted intellect, grounded by the gravity of his earthbound comprehension, doesn’t get it.
Perhaps, we, too!
Jesus, then, speaks of God’s Spirit. The same Spirit, as wind “that blows where it chooses”, that “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…swept over the face of the waters.”(5) This same Spirit is the Source of spiritual rebirth that remakes and reshapes one’s entire being so to see God, who is Spirit.(6) Nicodemus is more confused.
Perhaps, we, too!
Jesus teases Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand?” Then speaks of himself as the Son of Man who descends from and ascends to heaven, thus, connecting, being the God-sent conduit between heaven and earth.
In a word, Jesus tells, teaches Nicodemus and us who God is, what God does, the way God works: God, in love, creates through the Spirit and, in love, sends the Son to die for sin, all that separates heaven and earth, so that all who believe and receive this gift of love might be saved, no longer scathed, scarred by sin so to be sent as God’s gifts of love into the world.
Nicodemus appears again in John’s gospel. Gathered with his fellow Pharisees, who were plotting Jesus’ demise, Nicodemus alone stands among them and, at grave risk to himself, challenges them, asking, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”(7)
Later, after Jesus was crucified and died, Joseph of Arimathea, who, in fear of those who hated and killed Jesus, was a secret disciple of Jesus, came to Pontius Pilate, asking permission to take the body of Jesus, and, thus, courageously “outing” himself, declaring, demonstrating his loyalty to Jesus. Who was with him? Nicodemus, bearing, in accord with Jewish custom, spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. The amount? A hundred pounds. Surely, a measure of his devotion to Jesus.(8)
Nicodemus, once confused, coming to believe, receive, love Jesus, got it.
Alway, may we, too.
(1) Isaiah 55.8-9, abridged
(2) Romans 11.33
(3) See Isaiah 55.6-7 and Romans 11.30-32.
(4) Alexander Pope (1688-1744), English poet and satirist
(5) Genesis 1.1, 2b
(6) So, Jesus would later say to the Samaritan woman at the well: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4.24).
(7) John 7.51
(8) John 19.38-42
The Holy Trinity (1511), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Note: Dürer depicts God the Father as the central figure, surrounded by the angelic host, bearing in his arms the body of his crucified Son, Jesus. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, hovers overhead.
Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Christ carried to the tomb, James Tissot. Note: Tissot depicts Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus at the head of the entourage.