Being chosen to preach on Trinity is a bit like drawing the short straw; people don’t like doing it. Why is it that even priests, who have all studied Theology, feel that they would be inadequate in explaining this concept of God, our three in one?
The first thing I would like to say is: you do not need to understand it. We know that God is a loving God, yet he is also almighty, omnipotent, creator of all things …. and vastly beyond our human comprehension. According to Jane Williams, you can read whole tomes of nineteenth-century theology without ever being confronted with the idea that Christians believe that God is three in one, except in the appendices. We could ask ourselves, did this omission either damage the mission of the Church or in any way diminish the commitment of Christians of that time? Was their belief in some way inferior to ours? How could we possibly stand in judgement?
Just because we do struggle to comprehend the Trinity, does not mean we should not endeavour to do so. I have heard the Trinity described as a three leafed clover or a candle, with wax (God), wick (Jesus) and flame (Holy Spirit). We talk about it, accept it, try and explain it; so, what changed? Partly it is because the Trinity fits very well with our current emphases on God as social, relational and loving. Partly because we now have greater understanding and dialogue with Eastern Orthodox Christians, whose liturgy and practices have been less influenced by Reformation and Modernity than ours in the West. It is also partly contributed to the Charismatic movement, emerging in the fifties, a movement emphasizing ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’, and dramatic gifts such as healing and speaking in tongues.
How do we connect the Trinity directly to Nicodemus’ story? Well, let’s look first at the other story that Jesus referred to in his discussion with Nicodemus. Nicodemus would have been very familiar with this story in Numbers 21, in the journey of God’s people from Egypt to the promised land:
5.They spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
Jesus said to Nicodemus: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’.
The serpent on the pole was not magic; it was a symbol of healing – it still is in secular life: it is the symbol of the WHO.
No, It was the obedience of the people to look upon it to be healed, just as we look on Jesus to save us; that is our re-birth.
When Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus had accepted him as the Messiah, and then he really knew what Jesus meant when he said he would be ‘lifted up’. After Christ’s body was removed from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea claimed his body, prepared it for burial, and placed it in a new tomb. Nicodemus was there. He brought myrrh and aloes and spices and assisted in Christ’s burial. These spices weighed about 100 pounds, which was enough for a great king. Nicodemus acknowledged that Jesus is the Son of God and treated his broken body with great respect.
Nicodemus had been perfectly mystified when Jesus told him he needed to be born again, now he understood that we need to be born of water and the Spirit. Jesus was God!
In Old Testament understanding God the creator, the Word of God and the Spirit of God were One; now they emerge as three different persons, but still One. It is true to say the Trinity is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures; scholars of Hebrew say where the ‘Spirit of God’ is mentioned, such as in Ezekiel 37, it is just another way of saying ‘the Lord’. It is necessary to remember that these shared Scriptures are read differently by the two religious communities who own them.
The Charismatic movement of the fifties and sixties brought the term, ‘born again’ into everyday Christian language. When we are born again, we receive the Holy Spirit. It encourages us to meet our needs in a way that honours God. It leads us to salvation, regenerates us, convicts us of our sinfulness, teaches us to live for Christ, and seals us for redemption.
God enters history uniquely identified with Jesus, who was fully human and fully God. But God also personally encounters us in our own stories through the holy Spirit.
Perhaps the most difficult truth for us to understand is that our sinful nature has made us spiritually dead to God. The Holy Spirit gives us a spiritual awakening. Nicodemus thought that he understood the Jewish faith, that he could not change, but the encounters with Jesus transformed him. We cannot meet with God in the person of Jesus as he did, but our encounters with God the Holy Spirit transform us.
That is why we need to be reborn spiritually. Once the Spirit turns on the light in our souls, we can understand spiritual things a little better, but it is a gradual process, a journey. Perhaps you will remember the illustration Anna used last week in her sermon, of the family bike ride. God is our goal, Jesus is our guide, to show us the way, and the Holy Spirit is our encourager, the motivational speaker in our hearts.
When we re-establish our relationship with God, he becomes our Father by rebirth and adoption. God loves us because it is his nature and he won’t stop loving us. The Spirit gives us rebirth and new life, and God gives us the Spirit because he loves us.
In return, God uses the Holy Spirit through us as a voice of humanity in an inhumane world. We gain the confidence to speak out because the Holy Spirit has touched us like the fiery coal touched the lips of the servant in Isaiah 6:1-8.
The Trinity is a Jesus-related issue for Christians. Jesus is the one who opens up the way for us to the Father. The Spirit is the one who keeps Jesus and his work present and active for us now. The work of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has one goal, which is that we should be God’s family.
Having said all that, there are two things I would like you to take from this today, once again thanks to Jane Williams: ‘God the Trinity is experienced most intensely in two Christian activities; they are prayer and community.
Praying to the Father, as though we were, like Jesus, his children, because the Holy Spirit helps us to have the confidence to do it.
Building up the Christian community, who know themselves to be, like Jesus, God’s family, and know that this is not because of any natural ties of affection, but because of the Holy Spirit.’
Finally, just consider how often we say this prayer, and ponder on its words anew:
‘The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore.’