The Holy Trinity
So what is God like? If someone asked you that question, I doubt that your answer would sound like the Athanasian Creed! Each year on Trinity Sunday as we wrestle our way through the language of that massive Creed, it reads as though it were written to show us just how mysterious God is…perhaps even more mysterious after we have confessed the Creed than before! All those words…big words. It is not easy going.
Which is why Trinity Sunday is not a day to explain God, to explain what the Trinity means. How could we? After all, so much of our language about God relies on metaphors and analogies. We talk about what God is like. And St. John uses two metaphors about God that are classic—Light and Love.
So classic, that many early teachers of the Church talked about God the Father as the Source of the Light, and God the Son as the Illuminator of that Light, and God the Holy Spirit as the warmth of that Light. Brilliant!
Other early teachers of the Church went with the Love. God is Love, as St. John famously writes. So the divine Father is the Lover. The divine Son is the Beloved. And the divine Spirit is that living Love that is shared between them. Lovely.
But you will quickly notice that neither of those metaphors tells us much about God. What they do, these classic metaphors and analogies, is wrap us up, embrace us in the life of God. And that is what Trinity Sunday is all about…not so much explaining God to us, but taking us up into God by a sea of metaphors and analogies, words which wrap themselves around us like a new skin, and breathe into us a whole new life.
With today’s Gospel Reading, this is now the third time this year that Nicodemus and the world’s most famous Bible verse make an appearance. So where do we go this time? Well…how about the audacity of God. How audacious of God to claim us in love without asking our opinion ahead of time? He didn’t clear the idea with all those noisy atheists who don’t believe in Him. He didn’t check it out in advance with all those noisy believers who are busily consigning the world to hell.
Jesus is clear in this text: God loves the world. Period. Moreover, the divine Son did not come into the world to judge the world but to save it. Period. And, frankly, this kind of love is hard to comprehend. Which is why Jesus doesn’t demand that we figure it out. Trying to grasp God’s love makes Nicodemus’ efforts to figure out how an old man can enter the womb again look like child’s play. But thankfully for us, as Jesus notes, the Spirit blows wherever He wants. And it’s not we who must grasp God. It is God who grasps folks as unlikely as us in His loving Spirit.
To paraphrase our big Creed, not by our converting the divinity of God into humanly understandable terms, but by His assumption, His loving embrace taking humanity into God, taking us into the Light and Love of His being.
St. John is a master of dramatic settings and symbolism and imagery. In John’s Gospel, he is always saying so much more than what the words at first appear to be saying. So it is important to note here that Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader in the Jewish Sanhedrin, arrives at night. That’s not just a time of day in John. For John it is also a symbol of unbelief, ignorance, and temptation. Night! (For instance, later in the Gospel when Judas departs to betray Jesus, John deliberately writes, “And it was night.”) So here, in John’s assessment, Nicodemus comes out of darkness and ignorance to learn more about this young Rabbi. If not faith, Nicodemus has, at least, curiosity.
And in John’s typical fashion, we see Jesus spinning Nicodemus in circles with one sudden turn after another. Nicodemus praises Jesus as One who comes from God, and then Jesus, in response, suddenly asserts that no one can see the kingdom without being born anōthen, which can be translated as born “again,” born “anew,” or born “from above.” Nicodemus takes the first of these three possibilities, and his confusion about how a grown man can enter his mother’s womb a second time is answered by Jesus’ words about the difference between the Spirit and the flesh.
And Nicodemus, still confused, or perhaps more accurately, more confused yet, just shakes his head. “How can this be?” And suddenly Jesus takes yet another turn to speak about His death on the cross. And as He does so, Nicodemus fades from the spotlight of this scene as the language of “you” shifts from the singular, Nicodemus, to the plural, John’s readers and the whole world…the world loved by God, the beloved world for whom the Son will perish on a cross so that the world need not perish.
And suddenly the little light may dawn on the reader…hey!, this story begins with Nicodemus trying to figure out Jesus, figure out God. But the story ends with God embracing Nicodemus and the whole world in the loving light of His Son.
But this is the mystery of God. He doesn’t ask the world if it wishes to be the recipient of His love. He just goes ahead and loves. And not only does He love but He also gives the world His well-beloved Son…into death. He loves the world, loves us, whether we like it or not. And our own heads are set to spinning!
The Greek word here for world, kosmos, normally is used in John to signify the world which is hostile to God. In one place, Jesus tells His disciples, “In the world—kosmos—you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the kosmos.” It is precisely this “God-hating” world which Jesus has overcome by His death…not by turning the hating world into love, but by embracing the hating world in His love. This makes God’s love not only unfathomable to us, but also somewhat offensive. We would much prefer that He just do away with the haters, rather than embrace their hate with His love!
At this point in the story, Nicodemus is not portrayed with much sympathy. He comes at night. He misunderstands Jesus because he takes Jesus’ words literally and gets very confused about what Jesus says. Then he disappears from the story showing no signs of any greater comprehension or faith.
But Nicodemus will reappear later in John’s Gospel. In chapter 7, he offers a somewhat hesitant defense of Jesus. Oh, but then at the tailend of chapter 19, he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, publicly, with an exorbitant amount of spices for Jesus’ burial.
So has Nicodemus come out of the darkness and into the light at this late moment in the Gospel? It’s not entirely clear, but it may be that St. John wants his readers to recognize that while some—like the Samaritan woman in chapter 4—come to faith quickly, others take more time. And perhaps John is inviting some of those who have difficulty believing, some of us, to come along for the ride or, as John often puts it, to “come and see.” Faith, as John writes about it, is always a verb, always a gift. And this verb, given by God, may take some folks longer to discover than others. But here today the gifting verb is lovingly given once again…by an ancient creed slopping over with many, many incomprehensible words; by the sheer simplicity of an even more ancient Bible verse, John 3:16. The gifting verb is at work.
And here again comes John’s ending. Trinity Sunday begins with us trying to get a handle on God. By the end we discover, once more, that it is God who has gotten His hands on us!
The Holy Trinity is on the move. Words and water and bread and wine. So look out! This God, who blows like the wind as He wills, this God whose greatest glory is displayed in the weakness of a crucifixion, this God who is Light and Love and yet always greater than any metaphor we could name…this God is still embracing people as unlikely and, even, as unwilling as you and me…embracing us as His own, sharing His presence of Light in us in a darkened world which He loves so very much.