I have to wonder just what the freak was going through John the Evangelist’s brain when he wrote the story we have for our Holy Trinity gospel lesson (John 3:1-17). I’ll bet he was really getting his jollies with this scene. It’s kind of vintage John—people talking with Jesus who don’t have a stinkin’ clue what Jesus is saying to them. Of course, old John probably figured that his readers would get the joke when Jesus talks about living water to the woman at the well or tells Thomas “You know the way where I am going,” and Thomas replies, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way..?” It’s sort of like the classic Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” routine. We in the audience understand that the characters in the story don’t understand.
But this begs the question of whether we really understand any of this ourselves. I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and guess that the reason the compilers of our Lectionary (whoever they were—I guess that’s another Divine Mystery!) chose this passage for Holy Trinity because the three persons of our Godhead all make appearances in the conversation between this seemingly well-meaning Pharisee and Jesus.
There is, of course, reference to “God” and to Jesus as one who has “come from God.” I’m guessing that we’re talking here about what we Christians call God the Father. There is also reference to God sending his Son, and Jesus talks about being born of the Spirit. But what the heck do we do with this passage? What does it really mean to us?
Okay. Here’s my take. The older I get, the more I appreciate the gift the Council of Nicaea gave us in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (And remember: John was writing hundreds of years before Nicaea, so this doctrine reflects stuff Christians had already been kicking around for a long time). To me, the Trinity expresses the completeness of our experience of God. God the Father is both creator and creativity itself. It is our experience of being, of existence itself, of "IS-ness." God told Moses “I Am.” When we try to ponder the source of all that exists or answer the question of why there is something and not nothing, we eventually take a leap back to the Creator God. God is the source. But God is also the reason and purpose.
Could we know God if we did not comprehend relationship? In Jesus—in his suffering and death as an act of sacrificial love—we see the ultimate reason for being. We see love that transcends self-preservation. And this is something we can relate to. We know God not only because we experience the wonder of being or creation, but because in that being we experience love. And Jesus is the ultimate expression of love.
But the experience of love also lives within each of us, and this experience is transformative. This is what makes us mature and wise and compassionate. The spirit—the living presence—of God’s love in Christ works power within us. It’s what allows us to say a big, fat “Yes!” to verse 17 in this gospel lesson, or to agree with the anti-Nazi Lutheran theologian Martin Niemoller who said, “It took me a long time to realize that not only did God not hate my enemies, he didn’t even hate his enemies.”
So we—along with the early Christians—put all of this together and call it God: God in existence, God in the love of Jesus, and God in ourselves. If we miss any part of this, we are missing out on the whole.
Does your brain hurt yet? I love what Jesus says to Nicodemus in verse 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?”
Contemplating the Trinity or the nature of God is as taxing as doing equations in calculous or studying theoretical physics. But because we aren’t going to tie it all up in a neat little package of understanding or analogy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it, pray about it, and talk about it. Maybe the coolest thing about this gospel story is the very idea that Nicodemus—whether he gets it or not—comes seeking answers about Jesus and God. Isn’t that our job, too? Let’s keep wrestling with the mysteries of the faith and not just reduce them to the jingo of “church talk.” Let’s see if we can find a way to speak of what we believe in that will touch and transform the hearts of a wounded humankind.
May God bless you all in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Thanks for reading.