Today we might say “bless his heart” about Nicodemus. Here is this Pharisee, a teacher of the law, who isn’t one of those ones trying to test Jesus to trip him up but instead he has perceived in Jesus the closeness of his relationship to God and he wants to know more. But to those of us who know the story, he just seems to be confused, doesn’t he? Bless his heart.
But lest we be tempted to judge Nicodemus as particularly clueless, it is a grand irony that today is Trinity Sunday. If there is anything which draws us up short in understanding God, it is the doctrine of the Trinity. The Sunday after Whitsunday (the old name for Pentecost Sunday) was the day Thomas a Becket was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury and he declared the anniversary of his consecration to be a day set aside to honor the Holy Trinity. So this feast day has its roots in our own Anglican heritage. But this concept of the Holy Trinity – a God who is a trinity of persons in unity of being – is something which confounds us as much as being born again confounded Nicodemus.
Yet there are those who have tried to explain the Holy Trinity. If you look in the Book of Common Prayer on page 864, back in the Historical Documents section, you’ll find the Quincunque Vult – or the Creed of Saint Athanasius – which attempts to explicate this doctrine more fully. “And the Catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” (to which George Bernard Shaw quipped, “the whole thing is incomprehensible!”).
And perhaps this is the best place to begin – God is incomprehensible. God is far beyond the rationality of the human mind. God is the Great Divine Mystery and any mere words or constructs which humans try to use to describe this Mystery will always be paltry and finite. Language is limited and often a poor means of communication … but it is all we have. Bless our hearts!
But lest we throw up our hands and walk away from the incomprehensible Majesty of this Triune God we really can’t understand, our readings today beckon us not to do so. One thing we can say about the nature of a God who is a Trinity of Persons in Unity of Being is that this God is by very nature a relational God. This is not some deistic type of God who created the world and then largely left it all to its own devices. This is not a capricious God who toys with humanity in a detached abstract way. No – we Christians believe in this Triune God who is wholly Other and yet is in intimate relationship with all the created order.
God’s manifestation to Isaiah was an awe inspiring and terrifying vision. The Lord of Hosts enthroned in the temple with the heavenly host of Seraphs calling out, the pivots of the temple shaking at the sound, the place filling with smoke – Isaiah’s response was to name his own unworthiness to be in this Presence. But God did not manifest to Isaiah this way to frighten him or denigrate him – God did it to call Isaiah to go to the people of Israel and declare God’s great love for them in a time of great crisis.
Jesus, likewise, engages Nicodemus in relationship to draw him closer to the Kingdom of God. He gently challenges Nicodemus and tells him about the transformation needed to be a part of the Kingdom. And while this encounter with Nicodemus is the most well-known to us, John’s gospel has Nicodemus appearing two more times. In the 7th chapter Nicodemus makes the case for not judging Jesus without a fair hearing which results in his being put down by his fellow Pharisees. And in the 19th chapter it is Nicodemus who brings 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial with Joseph of Arimathea. These accounts point to a continuing, and even incomprehensible, relationship between Jesus and Nicodemus.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole. This reference is to a story in the Book of Numbers where Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole so that the people of Israel could look upon it and be healed. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he himself is the one by and through whom we will be healed. And this is because the incomprehensible Triune God shows us through Christ the nature of self-sacrificial love that we might be drawn into the same kinds of loving relationship – both with God and with each other.
This is our call – to proclaim the incomprehensible love of God in a world which needs this love now more than ever. We are called in our imperfection, in the midst of the sometimes mess of our lives, just as we are, to show that God has made us worthy through Christ to be called his children. We have been called, we are being healed, and our response can be no less than Isaiah’s: “Here I am. Send me.”