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A Welcoming Church

God came to meet us in a three-fold figure: 1) as the Creator, the Lord of all history, the Father and Judge revealed in the Old Testament, who spoke through the prophets, the God who kept coming back for his people.

2) as the Lord who came to us in the person of God’s only Son Jesus Christ, who lived among us, who was present in our midst and gave us the commandment to love, who lived a perfect life yet died as one of us and rose again that we might live.

3) as the Holy Spirit, who came to us after Jesus’ Ascension, to be for us our comforter and guide and advocate and exhorter and helper and inspiration. The Holy Spirit is God at work in the world. God’s presence and power among us now and forever, which we celebrated last week on Pentecost.

What a wonderful, towering faith we have been blessed with! We have three ways to worship our one God. That three-part way that God revealed himself to us is what we celebrate today. We would not want a god who was simple and uncomplicated; we want our god to be magnificent. In our

God, three persons share the same essence, namely, love.

So, now to this morning’s gospel. It is about a man named Nicodemus. Who was Nicodemus, and what in the world does he have to do with the Trinity? Why was this passage chosen for today? I confess, I don’t know – the passage itself makes no mention of a Trinity – but I have a theory.

It came to me this week as I read other preachers’ tips on how to understand and convey the Trinity. From ages past, the Trinity has been thought of as hard to grasp; hard to explain; hard to articulate and justify. As if it were a stumbling block. So here goes.

Nicodemus, according to this morning’s text, was “a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews”. Actually, we know from later in John’s gospel (7:50) that he was not just a Pharisee, and not even just a Sadducee, who were the Jewish moneyed class, but a member of the Sanhedrin, which was a council of the richest Sadducees. A little background on the Sanhedrin:

The gospels are clear that it was the “chief priests and elders” who had Our Lord crucified – not the Roman soldiers or Pilate or “the Jews” –  but the Sanhedrin and their leader Caiaphas. And Nicodemus was one of them.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Why at night? Our text does not say why, but it seems clear. He was himself a member of the ruling class who benefitted from its corruption, like the protection racket being run out of the temple. The Sanhedrin were his people. By going to see Jesus, he was a traitor to his class, so he did not want to be seen.

Why did he seek Jesus out? Again, we don’t know, but we can make an educated guess. Something in Jesus’ words and manner and persona and conviction resonated with Nicodemus and compelled him to know more about this strange prophet, Jesus. Although he had life by the tail, he was still restless and curious and unsure.

So he comes to find Jesus and says, “Teacher, these signs that you do mean you come from God.” The text doesn’t say it, but the implied question is like the one the rich young man asks in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, namely, what do I need to do? Jesus tells him that to see the kingdom of God, he will need to be reborn from above.

This exchange starts a whole bewildering, obscure dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus. Q: How can I reenter my mother’s womb if I am already old? A: By being born of water and Spirit. The wind blows where it chooses. That’s how it is to be born of the Spirit. Q: How can these things be, i.e., what are you talking about? A: You are a teacher, and you don’t get it?

Jesus then goes into a monologue about receiving testimony or not; earthly things vs. heavenly; the Son of Man ascending into heaven; Moses lifting up the serpent; and God sending his only Son so the world might be saved.

That is where we leave Nicodemus today. It might be disrespectful, also wrong, to say it, but I believe the whole encounter left Nicodemus clueless. At least the narrative quickly moves on, without any editorial statement like, “Nicodemus then said, Rabbi, now I get what you are saying; I understand.”

On the contrary, unless Nicodemus was unnaturally perceptive, he understood none of it. So, what’s the point of the Nicodemus story?

Nicodemus appears twice more in John’s gospel. First we see him (John 7:50-51) defending Jesus against the chief priests, who wanted him arrested. Nicodemus was one of them, but he tells them, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing.” It took some courage for Nicodemus to take Jesus’ part this way.

Then, most memorably, we have Nicodemus after Our Lord’s crucifixion (John 19:39-42). He came with Joseph of Arimathea to pay the last duties to the body of Christ. After everyone else left or fled, it was Nicodemus who helped Joseph take away the body, and who brought a hundred pounds of precious spices to embalm it, wrap it in linen cloths, and lay it in the tomb.

By my theory, Nicodemus never fully understood Jesus. But he responded. He loved his Lord and worshiped him. He responded.

It is that way for us with the Trinity. Our call is not to understand or explain the Trinity. If we could do that, He or She would not be God. God is bewildering. As Christians, we don’t understand; we believe. In fact, we believe a whole set of wild, outrageous claims about the deepest truths. Our call is to respond with love and worship, the way Nicodemus did.

None of this makes sense. That is what is so wonderful about it, and makes it true. I treasure the fact that our God is incomprehensible, ungraspable, unfathomable. God had better be a bewildering mystery to us, just as Jesus was to Nicodemus.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. We remember and honor all those who gave their lives in the service of our country. In the words of Isaiah this morning, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”

God be praised. Love your neighbor. Amen.