3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
8 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.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “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.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s an awkward “holiday,” as it isn’t based on a Biblical event. It is based on a concept and is the result of many men over many years trying to define God.
For much of our belief system, we have to use figures of speech. Metaphors: Lamb of God. Similes: God is like a mothering hen. Adjectives: God is omnipotent. We define God using the same language system we use to define ourselves. It’s all we have. Truth be told, I’ve played with the idea of a Quadrinity, adding Sophia—Wisdom. And we could keep adding “inities” because God is multidimensional.
The passage about Nicodemus is chosen for this Sunday because in it, Jesus references all three manifestations of God.
16 “For God so loved the world —God the Father—that he gave his only Son, —God the Son. .
6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.—God the Spirit.
Have you ever wondered how the writer of this Gospel knew the content of this conversation? After all, Nicodemus came at night, after everyone else had retired for the day, all safe inside their homes. There is no mention of anyone else being in the room with Jesus. So, from where did this information come?
The only source I can think of is Nicodemus himself.
Nicodemus was a scholar, a Pharisee, who knew the Scriptures as well as anyone. What had the Scriptures promised the Jewish people for centuries? A Messiah. Nicodemus came to Jesus with hope and with questions. Instead of answering his questions, Jesus forced Nicodemus to ask more questions. In fact, Jesus and Nicodemus used a popular form of discussion, the Socratic method. The Socratic method is a cooperative way of discussing a topic. The participants, instead of lecturing each other, ask and answer questions about the topic. Two of the advantages of the Socratic method are that it inspires new ways of seeing a subject while revealing assumptions that may or may not be accurate.
Nicodemus had to see being reborn in a new light. Jesus pointed out that we are not just flesh and bones; we are spiritual people. One of my favorite quotations is from French Priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
That is, we are more spiritual than human. Our bodies simply provide a space for the “real us” to reside.
Yet, our real bodies often lead us into temptation and sin. And for that reason, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Notice that God loved the world, the whole of creation—not just humans. We are a part of what God created. If there was ever a call to protect the earth, that is it. But that digresses from Nicodemus’s story.
This conversation was so important to Nicodemus that he shared it with other disciples. Jesus had already made a great impression on Nicodemus; otherwise he would not have risked meeting Jesus in person. He took the precaution of leaving his home after dark, making his way to where he thought Jesus was staying, risking being seen even in the dark. But he had to know. Perhaps he had prepared questions in his mind: Are you the Messiah? Can you prove to me who you are?
He didn’t even get a chance to ask his questions before Jesus presents him with new questions. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus takes the conversation in an unexpected direction, not with the purpose of defeating Nicodemus in argument, but with the purpose of helping him to understand this totally different concept of the purpose of the Messiah.
We know that Nicodemus continued to follow Jesus. In John 7, at the time the temple police were being instructed to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up: 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, 51 “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” and he was brave enough to assist in Jesus’s burial: Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. (John 19:39)
Nicodemus walked a risky line between his position as a prominent temple authority and as a follower of Jesus. He was challenged to rethink his entire religious education and practice. His conversion was as drastic as Paul’s, as fraught with conflict as Peter’s. And he had to learn to think in terms that ignored the obvious, everyday state of his existence: that he was flesh and blood, merely a body and a mind, working against the odds of common knowledge to accept a Messiah.
We know that he accepted this Messiah, who defied all the expectations of a Jewish nation hoping for a political revolution. Instead, the revolution was one of the spirit, one unseen, like the wind.8 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.”
As humans, we depend on our senses. Nicodemus was using his senses to understand Jesus: no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus dismisses the signs: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” He dismisses the miracles, the acts that have made him famous, as unimportant.
How can we apply this to our lives? It’s a matter knowing whether to put the horse before the cart or the cart before the horse.
One of my father’s favorite quotes was from Martin Luther. ““Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.”
James says in his epistle: 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
We must first have faith.The Spirit inspires us, strengthens us, gives us courage. The Father creates us. The Son redeems us. We cannot walk in faith without acknowledging that our God is complicated, multi-faceted, and always available in ways that we don’t even know exist.
The creeds and much of our language uses a chronological order to describe the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. First, Second, Third. But in fact, there is no order, no numbering, no quantity, no quality that distinguishes Father from Son from Holy Spirit.
Like Nicodemus, we must examine our assumptions and continue to refresh our knowledge of God. Perhaps it is safe to take God for granted—until we forget God and let the sinful ways of the world dictate our thoughts and actions. Unlike Nicodemus, we do not have to seek God when no one is looking. We do not have to worship in secret. May God protect those who do have to worship in secret.
How can we emulate Nicodemus? I think his greatest example to us is his curiosity. May we also continually ask questions, not because we doubt, but because we want to learn more. May we have dialogues that teach us what we know and what we can learn. May we see God’s words as still living, not only in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but in our own lives. Amen.