The Parish Church of Connersville, Indiana

Trinity Sunday 2024

Sermon Date: May 26, 2024

Passage: John 3

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ (St. John 3:9).

It is tremendously appropriate that we hear St. John’s presentation of the Gospel on Trinity Sunday. Perhaps more than any other evangelist, the beloved apostle fearlessly exposes the darkness of human nature whenever it’s exposed to the light of the Trinity. In the very opening of His eyewitness account, the famous prologue to the Gospel, he writes, ‘In [Christ] was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.’ (St. John 1:4-5). Many modern English translations substitute ‘overcome’ for ‘comprehended’ to capture the original Greek word’s sense of mastering the light through intellectual means, for to fully comprehend the light is to have some measure of control over the light, or at least the illusion of control. From the very beginning, John wants us to recognize the mad struggle that consumes our world—the conflict born of the same hubris that imagines we can fully comprehend God, the conflict that ripples through our dreams and nightmares, our hatreds and loves: the war between man and God. This toxic fight between creature and Creator poisons us against the truth, making us allergic to the very light sent to lead us home. Compare our nation’s intense need to endlessly scroll through the darkness of the internet vs. the dread with which people consider entering the church where light lives, and we begin to understand the enormity of our disorder. This self-imposed spiritual blindness leads the Father, in His boundless mercy, to send God the Son and God the Holy Spirit to meet us in our infirmity and heal us where we stand. Only when we understand the contrast between the gracious work of the Trinity and the stubborn sinfulness of man do we finally begin to wrap our heads around the magnificence of God. It is only then that we begin to understand why our lives are to be joyful, daily sacrifices to the Trinity.

Nicodemus is a perfect representative of a humanity that doesn’t get it. Recent scholarship of the best kind has shed some useful light on who this ‘ruler of the Jews’ was. Far from being the sincere but confused seeker, as he is so often described, Nicodemus—whose name means ‘conqueror of the people’—was sent out at night to engage Jesus in rhetorical combat and shame Him before His disciples. The whole structure of their conversation fits an ancient form of debate known as a ‘social challenge dialogue,’ which helps explains why Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ flattering words with a barbed counterpoint, for the seemingly respectful opening remarks of Nicodemus are as poisonous as the false praise one might hear at the beginning of a presidential debate. Remember, just a few verses earlier, Jesus has symbolically destroyed the Temple by making a whip of cords and driving out the powerful moneychangers; Jesus has declared war against the corrupted religion of his people, and more broadly, he has declared war against the human darkness that corrupted the Temple in the first place. We should now see why this elite Pharisee has come out of the darkness to bury Christ; he has come to rhetorically batter this upstart rabbi into submission, and so he is a perfect representative for a willfully blind humanity who always approach the Living God in the wrong way. Nicodemus is a living reminder of St. Paul’s chilling rebuke of our race, ‘…None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive…there is no fear of God before their eyes’ (Romans 3:10-13). Nicodemus does not fear Jesus; he should.

In the next few verses, Jesus accepts Nicodemus’ challenge and effortlessly blows his mind, he states, ‘…Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (St. John 3:3:). The phrase ‘born again,’ in keeping with the normal structure of these debates, holds together multiple ideas designed to confuse and frustrate and broaden the mind of one’s opponent. The Greek adverb can mean both ‘again’ and ‘from above,’ thus compactly and poetically illustrating the only antidote to the madness that would drive a man to challenge God to a debate: one must be made a new creation to be fit to live in the new earth to come, one must be remade by the Creator to survive in the Creator’s new world.

Nicodemus responds by falling right into the trap.  He says, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ (St. John 4:4). The bewildered debater’s only recourse in the face of Christ’s transcendent argument is this lame set of questions. Of course, Jesus does not mean that we all must find our mothers and ask for a big favor; no, Nicodemus, by focusing on only the earthly or strictly visible world, has failed to see that our first birth is a God produced analogy to help us understand the radical nature of what it means to be a recreated human being. Human birth, with all of its beauty and danger, loveliness and horror is so much more than just the way we enter this world. Every birth we witness is a course of instruction meant to give us context for understanding the final stage of the Trinity’s creative work on earth. Our first birth is the living metaphor for our true and miraculous birth into everlasting life. This is why Evil spends so much of its time trying to snuff out as many births as it can; Evil knows we are being divinely instructed by our proximity to God’s gift of life, and our enemies want us to be blind and alone. Nicodemus can’t see this possibility because he has come from the darkness and refuses to look at the light that stands before him.

To drive His point home, Jesus connects His radical and jarring call for a new creation to the Old Testament Scriptures over which Nicodemus claims authority.  He says, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit…’ (St. John 3:5-6). Again, with a beautiful economy of words, Jesus links the new birth of the recreated Christian with the creative act of the Trinity in Genesis 1:1-3, where we read, ‘The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’ The whole Trinity is involved in the first creation as we see the Father (God), the Son (the Word as in ‘Let there be light’), and the Holy Spirit (hovering over the water) acting to form the world from nothing—to bring light where there was once only darkness. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh—the ‘Let there be light’ made flesh—now stands before Nicodemus as the great crescendo of the Trinity’s mission to save the creation from itself. Jesus is uniquely qualified to begin the resurrection of reality because He is the blessed space in which spirit and flesh have come together in a new and fulfilling way. He is the eternal spirit made flesh from which new flesh can be born; He is the living answer to all the questions of our future.

It is here that we begin to understand why St. John has included this debate in His Gospel, for this dialogue between a Jewish ruler and God the Son is central to the mission of John’s Gospel, the incarnation event itself, and nothing less than everything that has ever happened. Jesus states, ‘The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (St. John 3:8). We see the work of the wind, we can measure it and analyze it, but anyone whose ever tracked a tornado knows that even with all of our technological might, we cannot know what the wind will do. The mystery of the wind, another word with a double meaning in Greek and Hebrew (spirit), is an analogy for the too big to comprehend way in which all reality is an expression of the Trinity revealing Itself to us. It is a declaration that a benevolent Godhead is moving creation itself to draw and save a new humanity. Poor Nicodemus, and us along with Him, has touched, for a moment, the very mystery of the universe, and all he can say is, ‘How can these things be?’ (St. John 3:9). Nicodemus has gone from proud representative of his people to shamefully defeated supplicant. Momentarily peering into the divine has broken this man who thought he was divinity’s master.

Jesus, towering above this supposed ruler, could have reveled in Nicodemus’ shame, but the Son of God did not descend from heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit to win a debate; no, Jesus ends their debate by taking the public shame of Nicodemus and claiming it for Himself. He tells Nicodemus and His disciples that His mysterious destiny is be ‘lifted up,’ so that whosoever believes in Him may have eternal life. This shameful exaltation will come in the form of the cross. Amazingly, through the crucifixion, the Trinity will forge a peace treaty between God and Man by forgiving the debt of sin through the uplifted sacrifice of the only sinless man.  By embracing this means of saving the world, the Trinity reveals that no evil is stronger than the love of God. By shaping all history to culminate on the cross of Calvary, the Trinity has definitively shown that all evil can be counteracted by the Trinitarian love that rescued the Son of God from Hell and revealed the eternal fate of all those gifted with recreated hearts in the waters of Trinitarian baptism. 

The more we meditate on the mystery of the Trinity, the more we understand the ironic piety of Nicodemus’ statement: ‘How can this be?’  As Christians, we are to spend our lives constantly asking, ‘How can this be Lord?’  How can the Trinity, the Godhead responsible for the creation of all things possibly find me worthy of all of this saving effort? What have I done to earn this new life? The answer, of course, is we have done nothing to recreate ourselves, but that is exactly why we are bound by love and duty to give all that we are to the God who has revealed Himself by giving all that He is to us. May we always love God; may we always love the Trinity.