Trinity Sunday Sermon: Nicodemus and Life in the Spirit

[This is the manuscript to a sermon I preached this past Trinity Sunday, May 31st, on John 3:1-17. The audio can be heard here.]

When we talk about life in the Spirit, we are essentially at the same time talking about life in the Trinity, because the Spirit is that relationship that is shared between the Father and Son that we too get to participate in.

God the Father, who is called father not because he’s male — God transcends the categories of gender and is also “female” — but because “father” says something about the intimacy that Jesus has with God. The “Father-ness” of God also tends to point to God’s attributes as great, big, beyond, eternal, infinite and Creator, who is vast, transcendent and more immense than the universe itself. While on the other hand, the Son, Jesus Christ, we could say, is that particular, near, close, concrete, historical, embodied, human side of God. And everything between them, that relationship itself, is a field of energy charged with love, communion, interconnectedness, and movement. And that field of relationship is so dynamic, so alive, so strong, so intimate, so mutual and so deep, that Christians started to regard it as having its own personality in God — not separate from God, but distinct in the way we experience its presence.

And so the central Christian claim is that right in the middle of the Father and the Son, in that field of love, relationship, movement and energy — that’s where we get to live. When we wake up to this, when we become aware of the fact that the Spirit is living inside of us, and we’re living in the Spirit, then we actually start to see ourselves as children of God. This is what Jesus and Paul are both talking about in today’s readings.

The truth of the Christian story is that everything has its beginning and end in God. But we’ve been given just enough finite freedom to ignore this and grow unaware of it. And so a lot of the time we’re going about our business and our lives thinking that we live in some other reality that either we’ve created or our in-group believes in — our family, our company, our culture, or nation — rather than living in tune with that truth: the truth that comes from being attuned to, being synced up with the Spirit that is all around us and in our midst.

One of the things I realized is that I think many of us in this church, me especially, are a lot like Nicodemus. At this point in John, Nicodemus does seem to revere and respect Jesus. He’s taking him seriously. It’s kind of like how even though people respect Christianity or “church” less and less in our culture, sometimes for good reason, many people still seem to respect Jesus — and I’m talking about even non-Christians — they still find him intriguing, or think his teachings are profound.

Nicodemus was probably similar. He may even, like many of us, have come to the point of believing in Jesus’ identity — that Jesus was sent from God, that he was God’s Son. But that doesn’t mean Nicodemus really believes in Jesus as Lord, or that he was ready to put his trust in him. He wasn’t. He wasn’t prepared or willing to surrender his life to Jesus, and to let go of the security system he trusted in and that was supported by the very religion Jesus came from. This is why John also tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night, playing on the light and dark imagery, and suggesting that Nicodemus was still living in spiritual blindness.

And because he’s thinking in very literalistic terms, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus when he starts talking about birth at a deeper level than the merely physical. Jesus says, you must be born of the Spirit, to see the Kingdom of God. In the Message version, it reads this way:

“Unless a person submits to this original creation — the ‘wind hovering over the water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into new life — it’s not possible to enter God’s Kingdom.”

Now let me just make a side comment here: Those of us with Protestant backgrounds have inherited quite the preoccupation with the question of if and how are sins can be forgiven. And the Reformation gave us a great gift of renewed understanding about this at a time when the church desperately needed it. But we lost sight of something else as a result.

John’s Gospel is not even thinking about the forgiveness of sins. In fact, it’s only mentioned once. The Gospel of the Gospels, and of the Gospel of John — especially at least in this passage — is about the availability of life in the Kingdom of God, which is the same thing as life in the Spirit and life in the Trinity and life lived by grace through faith. Which means: we can still be on the path that leads to destruction even though we’re forgiven, because the Gospel is bigger than forgiveness. It’s about being set free from that path to live by the Spirit. The Gospel is bigger than the forgiveness of sin.

Now, the Nicodemus encounter in John comes right before another exchange Jesus has in the next chapter, with a very different person: the Samaritan woman at the well. For John and the Samaritan woman are probably intended to be a stand in and a representative of a whole group of people, and even beyond that, a certain type of person, and how they tend to respond to the Gospel. We’re not going to read the “woman at the well” story, but you may know that the Samaritan woman, unlike Nicodemus at this point in the story, does finally — even though there is some initial skepticism — she does finally leave her water bucket and run to tell people about what she’s seen and heard and come to believe about Jesus, and as a result of her testimony, others are led to faith in him.

So why is it that Nicodemus remains resistant to what Jesus is talking about? Nicodemus was almost certainly a good man — honest and well-respected in the community, and open enough even to come to Jesus to ask questions. But, he was also likely very prominent, wealthy and powerful. He had status. This puts him in an entirely different place compared to the woman at the well, for who Jesus’ words were liberating and good news. For Nicodemus, however, they were scary and confounding words.

Nicodemus had accomplished a lot. He was successful, and he probably did what people expected of him. And for the Jewish leadership in particular, ensuring the future of your people is a most precious and important thing. as well as protecting and preserving your religious identity. To throw his lot in with Jesus would have been terribly costly for Nicodemus and his family, because Jesus was challenging all of this. Jesus was practically making the Temple itself seem obsolete, which was the sacred symbol and institutional structure of the whole Jewish way of life.

This is why I say we’re like Nicodemus, because we see this all the time today: that some of the biggest barriers to discipleship can actually be family, cultural norms, careers, and social standing — things that aren’t inherently bad, but it’s stuff we’re loyal to that just doesn’t matter very much in the Kingdom of God. Then we don’t see. Our lives get so cluttered, and then we miss the life of the Spirit…

This talk about spiritual rebirth makes me think of when as a youth minister right out of college, I was in seminary and we were having one of the first youth lock-ins that year, and some of the parents were volunteering, and since I was new, we had a get-to-know-your-new-youth-pastor moment, you know, ask him whatever you want — that sort of thing. Pretty amusing.

But one of the questions I got was fairly expected, especially for this particular church. A parent asked me, “tell us about when you were saved. Talk about your “born-again” testimony.” I recall struggling with my response to the question a little bit: do I give an answer that they want to hear, or do I just honestly say, I really don’t know when that happened for me? I did end up talking about how I was baptized at age 10, grew up in a Christian home, had a good group of friends in high school, never really doubted my faith in any really major way… maybe some of you can relate to that faith background.

I think I did finally have something happen to me that was a little bit more like spiritual rebirth later on in college, but I think one of the challenges with this concept is that we’ve reduced it down sometimes to a transaction, and to a single moment, as if yesterday we were one way and today we’re totally different.

It’s kind of like asking someone to describe what it like to have a baby by only talking about the day the baby is born, ignoring the culmination of so many other moments that were necessary to get to this One. Some people do have radical conversion experiences — you’ve heard the testimonies. For most of us though, new birth is more of a process. It’s like if any of you know the song by Texas singer Pat Green: “it came upon me wave on wave.”

Or, maybe you’ve heard the phrase paradigm shift. To me this is the closest parallel concept I know of to what being reborn is like. Sometimes in the scientific world, for instance, there’s build up with all these little advances and discovery that one by one add up, and the finally there’s one more, that stands on all the others, but it’s that one that leads to a total transformation in the outlook on the subject altogether. There’s no going back, because a totally new horizon has been opened up.

And Nicodemus is a great example of this, because as you may know, he actually shows back up at the cross to help with Jesus’ burial during the middle of the day. It’s as if in order to understand what Jesus was talking about, he had to see it played out in front of him in Jesus’ life, bit by bit, until it come that dramatic, tragic, and earth-shattering moment of his death, when Nicodemus witnesses the horror of his own people conspiring against the Son of God to have him killed. It was unthinkable before, but maybe now he can believe in a crucified Messiah.

It’s difficult to believe that the way God loves and saves the world is through suffering love. It’s the great mystery of the Gospel, that salvation comes through death. And then that we’re called to pick up our crosses too? As Paul says in Romans 8, we are God’s children by sharing in Christ’s suffering!

Now, this doesn’t excuse the kind of suffering that comes in the form of poverty, abuse, war, violence, betrayal — in fact, the cause of all that is usually people’s unwillingness to suffer and care for each other in the first place. And the world is in a big mess because of this.

So the only way God can save a world in this kind of mess, it would seem, is by stepping right into the middle of it, taking it head on, and going through it, and then taking it away! As John the Baptist says in John 1: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

This is the good news of the Christian faith: not that your sins can be forgiven (if you do this or believe that). But that your sins are forgiven. They’ve been taken away. Now though, will you dare to live like that’s actually true? To trust Christ and the Spirit who enable you to live like that’s true? That your sins are indeed forgiven, and so are the sins of others!? (which is often even harder to accept…)

In C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity which we’re revisiting in one of the groups I’m part of, Lewis says:

“We are all like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

In this same section of the book, Lewis goes to say that it’s almost impossible for most of us to hand over our whole selves to Christ, to truly die to ourselves and give our lives over to him, because that means giving up on most of stuff we dedicate our lives to. But what we are trying to do instead of giving our lives to Christ is even harder! Because we’re trying to serve two masters. We’re trying to do what we want, and also to be good at the same time. Which is impossible.

I felt this way about halfway through my senior year of college. It was time when I was just figuring this out. I thought I might still be able to basically just do I wanted and be a Christian. Whitney can tell you, because she almost broke up with me! Nope, it doesn’t work. Thankfully I had some friends in my life at the time who had the courage and care for me to tell me that it wasn’t going to work. And that really was a kind of new beginning for me, a “mini” new-birth.

Now once you hatch, you’re not even close to mature, but you are on a new trajectory, and that’s what life in the Spirit is all about. You get set on the second-birth path. And even though you still have a long way to go…it means you’re living in way that is consistent with reality — that your life really does exist in God, in the Spirit, in the Trinity.

If you’re unaware of this, or unattuned to it, it’s not so much that you’re so bad. It’s just that you’re not true. You’re lasting. You’re not whole. Paul calls it life in the flesh, which is really just the life of the ego or the life of the self. It’s a distorting of the truth of who you really are. Who you are becomes clear when you subordinate yourself to that original Creation and Spirit – the Trinity itself.

One final observation about John 3 to close as we prepare to move into communion: The infamous verse 16! For God so loved the world, Jesus says to Nicodemus, that he came into it himself, as a person, that whoever trust in him — trusts in Christ — will not perish but have life that whole, real, true, lasting, abundant life in the Spirit.

Isn’t it surprising that this is where a verse like John 3:16 shows up? I mean just based on the way we tend to use it, you’d think it was right smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount or at least addressed to a large group of people, but instead it comes in this quiet, late evening conversation with a single lonely Pharisee — someone more familiar with “church” or “God and religion” at that time than we are now!

I don’t know what to make of this except that maybe sometimes it isn’t the world “out there” that needs to hear this message about God’s love the most. Maybe we — the people who happen to be in church today, who are familiar with church, who consider ourselves to be Christians — maybe we are the ones that really hunger for it, because sometimes we are the ones who are perishing and desperately need the reborn life of the Spirit.