(Revelation 4.1-end & John 3.1-15 – Year C, 2022)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s good to start a sermon with those words. It is a reminder that we are rooted in the faith of the Triune God. If we deny or ignore any person of the Trinity, our faith is impoverished.
On this feast day, Trinity Sunday, we often try to explain the Trinity, as if God is a piece of algebra to be solved. It’s a very natural response to what is a mystery, and sometimes the only way we can do that is to try to simplify what is complex. We try to use metaphors to explain what it is a relationship, and in doing so sometimes we drift into good old fashioned heresy. My personal favourite this week was how the Trinity, God in his infinite majesty, is like a marmalade sandwich. Thank you Paddington for that one!
Of course our feeble attempts to explain and understand God are merely like seeing in a mirror dimly. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying; simply that we shouldn’t think we can solve the Trinity like a particularly tricky Sudoku puzzle.
It can be heartening therefore to realise that this struggle is not something new. Early in John’s Gospel a learned Pharisee called Nicodemus came to Jesus to learn more about God, and very quickly he found himself struggling with his teachings. ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ he asks. He’s being too literal about it. He scoffs, he questions. Jesus even at one points gently teases him, saying ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?’
Yet this is an opportunity for doubt and confusion to lead to greater faith. Jesus invites Nicodemus to grapple with challenging theological ideas, and it shakes the Pharisee’s world to its core. Don’t forget that this man who came to Jesus secretly and at night, would be one of his followers who provided care for Christ’s body after the Crucifixion. This passage was just part of his journey in coming to know Jesus and the Father better.
So perhaps we should take a lesson from Nicodemus, and rather than focusing on the Trinitarian maths of 1 + 1 +1 = 1, let’s focus on the idea that we encounter the Trinity in this text through a series of divine actions.
Nicodemus acknowledges straight away that Jesus comes from God. The Father sends the Son. So we know God is missional (he sends) and relational (both within the godhead and with us). God desires to be near to us, engaging with and shaping us to be a holy people.
Secondly, when Jesus speaks of being born again by water and the Spirit, we are being shown that the Holy Spirit is an active agent in the world. We have a tendency to assume that coming to faith is something entirely down to ourselves, rather than thinking of faith as a gift from God. To put it in the terms of this passage, does a baby decide to be born? More than a few theologians have made the link between this passage and the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, but rather than focusing on the physical, incarnational birth of Christ, this is about the spiritual birth of a new Christian.
This birth will look differently in each person’s life, and we can’t predict how the Spirit will move in each of our lives. Jesus says the Spirit is like the wind blowing over the treetops – we might see the movement and discern the Spirit’s presence, but that doesn’t mean we can nail it down, just as we can’t nail down the perfect definition of the Triune God.
Sometimes we have to just sit in the mystery, and glorify in God’s greatness, delighting with wonder and awe that God wants to love us and be a part of our lives.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(Artwork: ‘The Trinity’ otherwise known as ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’, written by Andrei Rublev, 15th century)