Whenever we read Bible stories, it is important to remember how ancient technology shaped the message. Etching ink into leather scrolls by hand was a slow, expensive, and specialized craft, and so most Bible stories read more like newspaper articles than novels or modern short stories. John does not waste words filling out the scene with any details about location, meal, or gentle conversation that Jesus and Nicodemus shared. Like an efficient reporter, John dives straight into the heart of the conflict. Jesus’ first quote is a kind of an abrupt challenge, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, (again or from above) it’s not possible to see God’s kin-dom.”
Preachers have made too much of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus at night, and there is likely some symbolism there, but it may be as simple as working people doing their visiting at night. We need to be careful with John’s references to the ‘Jews’ so as to not perpetuate any racism or anti-semetism. Jesus was a Jew and shared much with the Pharisees. Nicodemus greets Jesus with deep admiration, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with them.” The title ‘Rabbi’ and use of ‘teacher’ flows from Nicodemus’ deep respect for Jesus. Nicodemus confesses that his community has noticed Jesus’ work and has concluded “we know you have come from God” because we see the signs of God working in the world through you! What could someone say about your life that would be sweeter than “I see God at work in the things that you do”?
Jesus meets Nicodemus’ high praise with a deep challenge, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, (again or from above) it’s not possible to see God’s kin-dom.” Nicodemus asked a good question, “How is that possible?”Jesus sidesteps the question by restating his premise, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kin-dom. .. Don’t be surprised that, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus persists, “How are these things possible?” Perhaps, Jesus does not directly answer Nicodemus’ question because there are no scientific answers to such spiritual questions. Instead of arguing, Jesus invites Nicodemus to engage with a story of faith and healing from their common scriptural tradition.
Jesus recalls the story of Moses lifting up a cast bronze serpent to end a plague of fiery snake bites. (Numbers 21) Commentators tell us it is likely a pre- Abrahamic tale with polyheistic roots. Jesus, or perhaps John as editor, links the bronze serpent as a gateway analogy: God so deeply loved the world that God gave God’s only child, so that everyone who believes in the Christ child will find eternal life. God didn’t send the god-child into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Christ.” Did these references answer Nicodemus’s question? John never tells us. There is no tidy ending that ties it all neatly together. Maybe the image-loving John is content to let us dwell in the icon of Jesus lifted up on the cross like Moses’ bronze serpent. Perhaps, John, the beloved disciple and poet, is willing to let us linger in holy mysteries: Living Water, Good Shepherd, Light of the World, or Love Crucified. Maybe you can’t prove by hard evidence or careful argument that someone must be born from above.
The story of Moses lifting up the Bronze Serpent presents several sticky theological wickets! How is the Bronze Serpent not an idol? How can a cursed object bring about salvation? We theologians and preachers are often experts in finding problems and sewing division. It is much easier to tear down another person’s idol than it is to build up collective faith, hope, and love. Theological arguments rarely draw people closer to God. If God has tamed some fiery serpent in your life by healing a deep wound or casting out demons of self-doubt, your experience of God’s healing love will likely resist any test of orthodoxy. The strange story of the Bronze Serpent reminds us that experiences of the holy transcends theology and ritual. To see God’s kingdom, you must be born from above. God is beyond our best words, rites and efforts. God’s Spirit can’t be boxed in- it blows wherever it wishes.
The Reverend Dr. King speaks of God’s mysterious healing in Our God is Able, “God is able to give us interior resources to face the storms and problems of life… When our days become dreary with the low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows! This is our hope for becoming better men and women. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.”
Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when preachers try to explain holy mysteries like how one unified God can be manifest in three personas: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Over the years, I have tried and failed to explain the Trinity with shamrocks or the states of water, ice, and steam. Perhaps things from above can’t be so easily reduced to an argument. Maybe we find faith, hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control by opening ourselves to awe and service more than reducing God to tidy arguments. How are peace, patience, and kindness even possible? How do we prove the truth of beauty, art, justice, joy, love, peace, or community? Why does music move us? Why do our souls cry out for justice? Why does a welcoming smile help heal us? Why do we giggle when we touch a baby’s toes? Perhaps the most essential elements of life- faith, hope, and love- come to us more through the inner quiet of worship and a life of service more through debate and definition. “You must be born from above to see God working in the world.” Maybe any worries Nicodemus had about Jesus’ orthodoxy could have ended when Nicodemus initially concluded “no one can do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with them.” Jesus warns about the dangers of judging. (Matthew 7) Jesus’ crucifixion for blasphemy should slow down our race to drive out the heretics.
On this Trinity Sunday, maybe it is best if we resist trying to define the Trinity and simply remember that we believe in the holy mystery of God existing within relationship. Christians understand God as relational. God so deeply loves the world that God sends God’s very self personified in a baby born in Bethlehem. That may lead to questions or awe. We can argue if it is possible for God to be born? We can ask: what exactly must whosoever believe about Jesus in order to find eternal life? We can ponder the beauty and mystery of the Incarnation. We can dwell in the holiness of Joseph’s dreams and Mary pushing Jesus’ holy life into God’s beloved world. You may ask, with Mary, Joseph, or Nicodemus, “How can this be?” (Luke 2) But do not let your search for tidy theological answers end your wonder at the mystery of God with us. Let us say with Mary, “Here I am Lord, I long to be your closest servant…let it be, let me be an instrument of your peace, love and justice.” To see God working in the world, we must be born from above.
Over the next six weeks, we will be talking about relationships: our relationship with God, family, ourselves, forgiveness, suffering, homelands, and creation. God exists in relationship with God’s self- Creator, Christ, and Spirit of love. Not only is God in relationship with God’s Self we believe that God exists in relationship with humanity. John Wesley’s favorite passage might’ve been Romans You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back into fear, but you received the Spirit that shows you are adopted as God’s children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Holy Father & Mother.” God’s Spirit testifies with our spirit, that we are God’s children.
God is love; (1 John 3-5) Love is relational. God invites us to order our lives around “loving the Lord with all our heart, all our being, all our mind”. Love can’t exist outside of relationship. God is relational. Jesus’ second ordering rule is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (Matthew 22) We hold a deeply relational understanding of God and life. Jesus says, “If you want to see God’s kin-dom coming into the world, you must be born into relationship with God.” Born again, born anew, born of water and the Spirit. The word “born” is so incarnational, so human, mother-child, labor-love, so filled with touch, water, blood, work, and hope. The Incarnation is so deeply relational. It is Trinity Sunday, let us remember the mystery of “God with us.” On this Trinity Sunday let us say with Mary and all the saints, “yes to God”, so that God might do the impossible through us. Amen.