TEXT: John 3:1-17
“Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:7-10)
Poor old Nicodemus! He was a Pharisee, a religious authority, a “teacher of Israel”—and yet, trying to comprehend the divine mystery of rebirth, he was completely baffled.
I can sympathize with Nicodemus. Can’t you?
Just when you think you’ve got reality more or less nailed down … just when you think you finally have a firm grasp of theological principles … God sets you back on your heels.
That kept happening to Jesus’ disciples, too. In fact, it’s still happening to Jesus’ disciples! Each year, the church calendar designates the Sunday after Pentecost as “Trinity Sunday.” It is the only day in the calendar that celebrates a doctrine rather than an event. It is also a Sunday that strikes fear into the hearts of many preachers!
Why? Because we think we’re expected to preach a sermon that is both inspirational and which explains the doctrine of the Trinity. However, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, this is extremely difficult, if not impossible! You might as well ask someone to explain the evolution of fencing wire and make it exciting.
Now, I’m not saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is not inspirational. In fact, given that the root meaning of the word inspire is “to give breath,” it would be fair to say that you only breathe because you are inspired by the Trinity. The trouble is, when you try to explain the Trinity … well, I’ve found that such attempts almost inevitably fall far short of being inspirational. They usually fall far short of succeeding as explanations, too.
Even so, here’s a smidgen of background.
From their origins in Judaism, the earliest Christians retained the conviction that God is one—the One who called everything into being, and continues to sustain his Creation. However, they were also convinced that—in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—they had encountered God “in human flesh.”
More than that, after the risen Jesus had left them and ascended into heaven, they’d had this “Pentecost experience” where God showed up in yet a different way again, blowing through their lives like a hurricane.
How can these things be?
Good question. The concept of the Trinity—of God existing in three Persons—is an attempt to answer that question.
Now, the word Trinity appears nowhere in Scripture. And the New Testament does not explicitly teach a Trinitarian doctrine. However, it does contain several passages that use threefold patterns to speak of God.
One of these is from Jesus’ “Great Commission,” found in Matthew’s gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
Here’s another one, from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where the apostle writes: “… you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
Then there’s the salutation which opens the First Letter of Peter, addressing it: “To the exiles of the Dispersion … who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood …” (1 Peter 1:1-2).
Passages like these provided the material from which later Christians would develop ideas about the Triune nature of the One God.
The doctrine itself does not seem to emerge in any complex formulation until around the fourth century. However, from the first century onward, Christian teachers asserted Christ’s deity and spoke of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicaea adopted the Nicene Creed, which described Christ as: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
That creed used the term homoousios (ὁμοούσιος – meaning “of one substance”) to define the relationship between the Father and the Son. After more than 50 years of debate, homoousios was recognized as the hallmark of orthodoxy, and was further developed into the formula of “three persons, one being.”
Yup. It’s complicated. That’s what happens when theologians get hold of an idea. Through the centuries, there have been countless attempts to define the Trinity—sometimes in puzzling detail. But really, any attempt to explain the nature of God … Well, to me, it’s like trying to capture the wind in a jar.
Over the years, humbler—and wiser—Christians have been content to refer to the doctrine of the Trinity as “a beautiful mystery.”
Back in the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus put it this way:
“No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Three than I am carried back into the One. When I think of any of the Three, I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 40.41)
A beautiful mystery. A divine mystery, as the Church has traditionally described it.
Here’s a tip from an old preacher: when the church calls something a mystery, don’t expend too much energy trying to exhaustively explain it. Chances are, nobody else has ever managed to explain it, either!
But you know, Christian faith is not about explanations, it is about experience. Christian faith is about a growing relationship with the living God. And trying to explain that is like trying to explain the experience of falling in love. You can say things about it that are true, but you can never explain it. Not really. In the end, it remains a mystery.
To push that analogy a bit further, imagine trying to write down a set of instructions for falling in love. Could you do it? Could you provide a set of step-by-step instructions, so that—if someone followed them—he or she would actually fall in love?
It’s a ridiculous idea, isn’t it? And yet, the fact that you cannot explain the experience or write a manual for it does not prevent you from falling in love. The experience comes whether you can comprehend it or not. It can come even if you do not believe in it. It’s the same with the doctrine of the Trinity. Before there was ever a doctrine of the Trinity, there was an experience of the Trinity.
The early church experienced God in certain ways, and—as they attempted to describe their experience—the idea of the Trinity emerged. They began with their experience of the living God. The theology came second. It still has to work that way, I think. Theology cannot create experience.
Even so, I don’t want you to think that theology is unimportant. Without theology, we would have no common language to describe our experience of God. Bearing that in mind, I want to tell you that I see two reasons why the doctrine of the Trinity is vital.
The first reason is that, when our experiences of God are so diverse, it is important to decide whether or not we are still talking about one God. As someone has said, the doctrine of the Trinity is an assertion that—despite appearances to the contrary—there is only one God. The mystery of the mighty God of the cosmos, the mystery of the vulnerable God who walked among us, and the mystery of the God nudging and whispering within us … These are all the same mystery—the same God. This ought to tell us that God will always be bigger, more diverse and more surprising than we can wrap our heads around.
The second reason the Trinity is important as an explanation for our experience of God is that it tells us that God is by nature relational. The perfect love relationship is not just a theoretical possibility, it is actually taking place constantly within God. God is not desperately combing the universe in a futile search for someone who can reciprocate the love that he longs to express. God exists as a love relationship. God exists as a community: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God exists in community. And perhaps it’s this idea of community that is most relevant—and most accessible—to us today. I mean, the idea that separate persons can be at the same time one person is implicit in the apostle Paul’s analogy about the church being “the Body of Christ.”
Like in that favourite quote from First Corinthians, chapter 12: “… just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13).
Right? “There are many parts, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:20).
“If one member suffers, all suffer together [and] if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).
I think community is something we understand pretty well within the community of faith. Most of the time, anyway. Oh sure, we’ll have our squabbles—sometimes about the dumbest things. But for the most part, we’re pretty good at this business of living in community. Maybe not with the perfect harmony displayed in the Trinity—but not bad, for human beings.
Perfection may be something we expect of one another, sometimes. But it’s not something God expects of us, ever. He knows us too well for that.
Community. Comm-union. Unity with one another. At our best, we Christians naturally demonstrate that quality.
When one of us is in trouble, the rest of us pitch in and help.
When one of us is in sorrow, there’s no reason to grieve in solitude.
And when one of us has reason to celebrate, the rest of us throw a party! Even when we quarrel, we remain united by our love.
Why? Well, most of us would likely say it’s because we’re a family. And that is part of the answer.
But I think for us believers, it goes much deeper than that. It pertains to a sort of connection—a connected-ness—that runs so deep in us that it really does approach some kind of mystical union.
Know what I mean?
That’s what is symbolized and expressed in the Sacrament of the Table, which we variously refer to as Holy Communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. If you’ve paid attention to the wording of the liturgy, you’ll have noticed there’s almost always some kind of phraseology like: “send your Spirit upon these fruits of field and vine, and upon your people here assembled” and … “Let them be for us the body and blood of Christ Jesus our Lord, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”
Through the power of the Spirit, Christ is present in his people—in we who come to the table. That’s where the “Real Presence” of Christ is—it’s in the people who come to the Table. We eat and drink together as a symbol of our oneness in Christ.
This is not a closed relationship. That was made clear through the life of Jesus. It’s what we saw when—without any fracturing of the Divine—God became human, walked amongst us, and invited us into his community of love.
What does all that mean? Well, it means you don’t have to measure up to some high standard of love before you can approach your heavenly Father. It means you don’t have to earn your way—by your loving—into the experience of God’s love. You just have to respond to the Son’s invitation. Then the Spirit will draw you into the experience of God’s love—and you will be transformed by it.
Every other necessary thing will naturally follow. Thanks be to God.