Year B, Trinity Sunday
June 3rd, 2012
Thomas L. and Laura C. Truby
It is the story of Nicodemus that captures me. I sense his longing for something that has eluded him his entire life. Even though his peers are highly skeptical, Nicodemus thinks there is something special happening with Jesus. He wants in on it but aware of the rivalry and envy that swirls within his group, he comes at night. No use giving his enemies fodder to fuel their campaign to push him aside.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee. Pharisees earnestly wanted to bring true religion and faithful piety back to their people. They strongly believed the religious establishment in Jerusalem was corrupt, illegitimate and the reason God was not blessing them. In United Methodist terms, they are a very strong “lay witness mission”.
Nicodemus very respectfully approaches Jesus. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus knows the Pharisees have always wanted to bring God’s Kingdom to this earth—whatever that means; that’s their reason for existence. He also knows that this particular Pharisee has opened himself by referring to Jesus as Rabbi. And coming after dark, he knows Nicodemus is risking his reputation. Pushing aside conversational preliminaries, Jesus addresses the heart of Nicodemus’ caughtness. “Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus organized his life around being good, keeping all the rules, and going to church and now Jesus says he must be born from above. He can’t help but protest. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Suddenly we see Nicodemus’ longing for something more and his frustration at ever finding it. He had hoped Jesus would offer him an open door but instead the door appears to be closed. Is there hope? Is the dye cast? Can he find what he has been looking for, or is it too late. Last Monday evening my wife and I went to see “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” with Judi Dent, the famous old English actress. In a way, it too deals with this question. Is it too late for us to find our “best exotic marigold hotel?”
If Nicodemus’ first question had a flicker of hope, his second stressed the impossibility. You can’t enter into your mother’s womb and be born a second time. As a sincere and earnest Lay Witness Ministry leader, Nicodemus has looked for the door that opens to God. Now he hears Jesus telling him it’s too late.
Jesus knows it’s not too late but Nicodemus must see things differently to have hope. And so he says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” It’s the first phrase that struck me. Jesus says you have to be born of water. I think that means you have to accept yourself as human, ordinary, flesh and blood, everyman. Give up the quest to be extraordinary, better than your neighbor, and exceptional so as to prove your worth to yourself and God. This can only get in your way in learning to live by grace. Remember, this is what the Pharisees thought God wanted. They believed that when every Jew lived the Godly life like they did, then the kingdom would come and they would be free and even able to throw out the Roman Army.
The reference to being born of water is not a coded reference to baptism as we had thought. It is about accepting our humanness—the way we are all alike. We were all born through the water of the womb. James Alison in his new video “The Forgiving Victim” says that what we give up in order to be saved is our sense of being good. If Nicodemus wants to enter the Kingdom of God he must give up his quest to be more religious than his neighbor. Jesus’ prescription runs completely counter to Nicodemus’ whole way of life. That is step number one and must happen before step number two is possible. Step number two is being born of the Spirit.
We must be born of the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, who is the embodied picture of God. Suddenly we have the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Jesus’ picture of God is so different from our common picture that he even uses another word to refer to Him. He calls him his Abba. Jesus and his Abba enjoy perfect harmony where Jesus fully imitates his Father. No rivalry, no jealousy, no envy exists between them as they honor each other in complete unity of purpose. This is the Spirit of Trinity on this Trinity Sunday.
Trinity is the interplay of three equals with no one cast out. How do you do that? Three almost always turns into two against one, particularly when there is any kind of stress. Isn’t that the rule? Yet here three are included and no one gets excluded and this is the very structure of the God-head, the foundation of reality. Maybe the kingdom of God is where three get along without the one being thrown out or marginalized.
Could it be that two against one is so deeply engrained that we can’t refrain from doing it unless an intervention comes from outside ourselves. Maybe St. John’s way of referring to this intervention is being “born of the Spirit” and it’s “the Spirit of Jesus” that he’s thinking of. Maybe this is what makes Peace with Justice possible, the other theme for this Sunday.
“What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of sprit is spirit.” There is a separation and you can’t get there via the flesh alone. We are impossibly caught in a web of our own making. We are formed in rivalry and since we model ourselves after each other, it is inescapable. That is why our redemption can only come from above. We must model ourselves after Jesus, the one not in rivalry with anyone, to escape rivalry.
Nicodemus must have been astonished. He had spent his life trying to rise above his humanness. Now Jesus tells him to stop it and accept himself so that he can be born from above.
Jesus replies “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above’. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This “being born from above” just happens, we don’t know how. We see the result, we feel it, but we don’t know how it happens. This is why I use terms like “we find ourselves changed”; “we discover ourselves doing things that surprise us,” “We feel ourselves feeling things we have never felt before.” Suddenly life is an adventure and we are on a journey with views just around the corner that are new to us. We change and we don’t even know we are changing. It appears a mysterious and invisible process but we see the result and it is undeniable. Jesus concludes his soliloquy with “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This is just how it works. We aren’t in charge and still it happens. It is really rather exciting.
I have a hunch about how it happens. We each form ourselves by imitating others—other persons, other idea, other cultural value—but we forget who we imitated and think it’s all coming form within us; that we are self-made. As we fall under the influence of Jesus’ Spirit, some of those old connections and attachments to specific but forgotten others, begin to unravel. The binding that binds us to their thoughts, feelings and actions loosen and we find ourselves less caught that we had been. Consequently, we find ourselves thinking things we had never thought before, feeling things we have never felt before and doing things that before we could not have dreamed of. Since we have forgotten the connections that bind us, this unraveling happens in secret. It’s like the wind, we can’t see it but we see that it is active. Though invisible, we hear it as it impacts our inner and outer reality. Can you see how this is not some mystical thing happening magically but a fully explainable psychological and social phenomena, if you begin with an accurate anthropology (understanding of humanness)? We have the basis here for a new psychology built on the truth of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus embedded in our gospels. It’s all here and has been.
Nicodemus, deeply attune to his culture’s unfulfilled longings exclaims, “How can these things be?” How can this all be true and I haven’t seen it nor has anyone in our culture? “Jesus answered him with a question; ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” These are basic truths. This is how we human are put together. These are things you need to know if you are to lead.
In verse eleven Jesus begins exploring why we are so resistant to seeing the truth. It makes sense that he would move in this direction. He wants to explain why this hasn’t been clear to Nicodemus and us all along. He tells us we are not going to get any of this until we get the cross and resurrection. It will take the Son of Man lifted up on a cross and our believing in him, to straighten our thinking.
Then we will see that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. He wanted the whole world to see what we don’t like seeing about ourselves and then to experience his forgiveness. For John crucifixion and resurrection converge into one event. Believing what Jesus revealed about human beings and God in that event moves us into an awareness of eternal life for it points toward God’s infinite and astounding compassion. A compassion that subverts our hearts and moves us toward being able to love as God loves.
Knowing we tend to distort God’s words to artificially divide ourselves, Jesus said, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The word “saved” is a wonderful word particularly when applied to us as individuals. Perhaps the word “salvaged” through him also works. Can the world be “salvaged” as well as we ourselves saved? Jesus wants that because he loves the world. And he wants us to join him in moving in that direction. In doing that, we find our own longing healed. Amen.