Sunday 30 May 2021
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
In the name of the most holy and blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Sunday was Pentecost and, as I said then, the two Sundays of Pentecost and Trinity, taken together, force us to think more deeply about the God we worship and with whom and towards whom we travel.
Whilst we thought about the sending of the Holy Spirit on the church last week, and whilst we are encouraged to think about the Threeness and oneness of God this week, of course, both the Holy Spirit and the Trinity should inform our thinking, our praying and our worship all 52 weeks of the year. These should not be things which we grapple uncomfortably with for 2 weeks and then pop back in the box so that we can get back to thinking about Jesus for the rest of the year. To be followers of Jesus is to be in relationship with the whole of God the whole of the time.
Trinity Sunday could also be known as the Sunday of Inadequate Metaphors, in which preachers try to demonstrate how something can be one and three at the same time by trying to relate it to eggs and ice and so forth. Last year, on my first Sunday back from Sabbatical, I looked at most of those metaphors and challenged some of the heresies they contain. I ended up dwelling on the icon of the trinity by Rublev, which remains one of the best illustrations of the concept. However, as beautiful and meaningful as that is, even that is an abstraction.
So this year, rather than dealing in metaphors and abstractions, I simply want to look at the gospel reading and see something of Father, Son and Holy Spirit shining through the words we are given.
“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…”
Despite being an establishment man, Nicodemus found himself unable to ignore the Jesus phenomena, albeit that he made his initial approach under cover of darkness. There is something quite modern and relatable in that reluctance to be seen in public with Jesus.
But, despite it being uncool and dangerous, Nicodemus wanted to know the truth about this man Jesus. And, despite his own position of importance he had to approach Jesus as someone willing to learn at the feet of a teacher. His first words are:
“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who comes from God, For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Nicodemus recognises, at the least, that Jesus is a teacher blessed by God, that he is with God, and Jesus uses that starting point for a dialogue which leads us further into who Jesus really is.
“Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
In Greek the word which means “born from above” is very similar to one which means to be “born again” and Nicodemus interprets that a bit too literally and asks Jesus how an old man can be given birth to a second time and this leads Jesus onto to explain that, of course, he does not mean a second physical birth but, rather, a new birth of the spirit:
“What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Nicodemus asks the question that is on everyone’s lips at this point:
“How can these things be?”
It is a simple question but the most profound. If we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven without being born from above, having a second spiritual birth, then how does this happen, what do I have to do?
Of course, we can’t give birth to ourselves spiritually, any more than we can give birth to ourselves physically. Our spiritual re-birth comes only from the Holy Spirit.
I spoke to someone at length during the week who had had a dramatic and life-changing experience of being ‘born again’ through the actions of the Holy Spirit, her life had been completely transformed. But, being ‘born from above’ doesn’t have to be dramatic to be real – I wouldn’t be here without the Holy Spirit and you wouldn’t be there.
Each of our lives are already different because we seek to follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit. But, despite being Anglicans, we can still pray continually for the awareness of and renewal by the Holy Spirit and that the fruits of the Spirit would become ever more real in our lives and in our church.
It may no longer be Pentecost but we can still say: “Come Holy Spirit.”
It would make a great evangelistic story if Nicodemus had responded that he wanted to be born again, had received the Holy Spirit there and then and become another one of the first disciples. But the truth is sometimes a bit messier and Nicodemus does not respond to Jesus at this point and he fades into the background for a few chapters. It should be a sobering reminder that when even Jesus himself evangelised on a one to one basis that immediate and obvious conversion were not always the result. Although I think that Nicodemus did become a disciple of Jesus, albeit a less public one, as it was he and Joseph of Arimathea who wrapped Jesus’ body in linen following his crucifixion, when the more public disciples had gone into hiding.
Having taught Nicodemus about the work of the Holy Spirit Jesus then spoke about the relationship between himself and God the Father:
“No one has ascended into heaven except the one descended from heaven, the Son of Man”
And perhaps the most famous evangelistic verse of all time, John 3:16:
“For God so loved the World that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”
Some people may tell you that the concept of the Trinity was invented by the church a long time after the bible was written. But today, in a space of only 17 verses, Jesus has told Nicodemus, essentially that it is not sufficient to worship God as a far-off being,
Rather, in order to enter the fullness of relationship with God that he desires for us we need to be ‘born from above’ by the power of the Holy Spirit and believe in the name of Jesus, his only Son, who was himself conceived by the Holy Spirit and blessed by the Spirt at his baptism.
God the Father sent his Son to the world out of love and the Father and the Son send the Spirit upon us out of love.
We don’t need metaphor or abstraction today we just need to know that the whole of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, love us and want us to have eternal life by being born in the Spirit, in the name of the Son and to the Glory of the Father.