There is a picture of a kitten going around on Facebook. This in and of itself is not unusual; we have all of the knowledge of the world at our fingertips and yet we generally waste our time watching videos of cats and dogs. But this particular kitten goes around among clergy each year at Trinity Sunday. The caption on this kitten picture says: How not to commit heresy preaching on the Trinity: Say nothing and show pictures of kittens instead. Well, tempting as that may be, I’m not going to do that today. The Trinity is probably the most perplexing teaching that we have about God. This whole Three-in-One and One-in-Three thing is beyond our power to comprehend, and every time someone in church history has tried to explain what it’s about, he (and yes, it’s been mostly men) gets condemned as a heretic and excommunicated from the church. And yet, this teaching about God that we as Christians are taught to believe, but without comprehension, is the God in whose name we baptize, including little Otto here today, in just a little while. So, what can be said about this God, this Trinity, this Three-in-One and One-in-Three, in whom we believe and trust, without lapsing into heresy, that is, wrong teaching about God?
Well, I think we can take a cue from today’s Gospel reading, when Nicodemus comes to Jesus. Nicodemus has questions. He has seen the signs that Jesus has done. He knows that no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God, and so he knows that Jesus has come from God. But he doesn’t understand how. And so he enters into a conversation with Jesus as he struggles to understand how this works. And Jesus does not turn Nicodemus away. He welcomes the questions that Nicodemus comes with, and he challenges Nicodemus with the answers that he gives. And this is what God does with us: by presenting us with the mysterious character of who God is, God invites us to ask our questions, but, when God gives answers, these answers will most likely invite us to ask more questions of God. And I think that God does this in order to keep us talking to him: to keep us in relationship with him. For if God is a relationship of three persons in one God, then the God whose very nature is that of relationship most surely wants to have a relationship with his creation.
So, let’s take a look at the relationship that Nicodemus and Jesus have in this encounter. The first thing that I think is significant to look at is that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. This is important because Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews. He knows there is something special about Jesus, but, as a “teacher of Israel”, he doesn’t want it known that he is going to visit Jesus. Why? First, of course, because the other leaders may condemn him for being a follower of Jesus, but second: he’s a teacher. How would it look for him, a teacher of Israel, in the eyes of the people, to become a student? There would be some serious loss of honor going on here, and that could be dangerous for Nicodemus in the honor-shame society in which he lived. But Nicodemus, this man of faith who has received all kinds of religious training, is curious. He wants to know more. So he figures coming to Jesus by night is his safest bet. And Jesus does not turn him away, but welcomes him and enters into conversation with him.
The life of a Christian is a journey of faith. It is a recognition that, no matter how much we think we know, there will always be something more to learn. God is a God of surprises. God wants to be in relationship with us so much that God invites us into conversation with him, continues to draw us closer to him with our questions, and gives us answers that will have us continue to come back with more questions. Every time we think we have this Christian faith down, God will throw something new at us to think about. I will be the first to admit, for example, that no matter how many times John 3 comes up in the lectionary, no matter how many times I read it, no matter how many commentaries I read about it, I still do not fully understand what Jesus is telling Nicodemus in this conversation. The answers that Jesus gives are riddles, and any interpretation of those answers I read or hear just raises more questions in my mind. So God uses this passage of Scripture to keep me coming back and asking those questions, so that God can continue to have a conversation and a relationship with me.
And this time around, the Holy Spirit has given me some images to wrestle with in this passage. The primary one that stands out to me is that of new birth. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Now, as Lutherans, our minds instantly think, “He’s talking about baptism.” And I think that the baptism imagery is definitely there. But, just for a moment, let’s ask ourselves if Jesus is also talking about the act of physical birth. There is water involved in physical birth, and there is also spirit. When God created the first human beings, he breathed his breath, his wind, his spirit, into their nostrils so that they would live. Just so, in the process of physical birth, at some point God breathes his breath into each one of us, so that we might live. So, if we look at Jesus’ statement again, it’s possible that he’s saying that, in order for us to enter the kingdom of God, we first must be live, flesh-and-blood human beings.
Many of us, if not all of us, who have been brought up in the Christian faith either consciously or subconsciously have this idea in our heads: anything physical is bad, because it is inherently sinful, and anything spiritual is good, because that is of God. But if we read Scripture attentively, we will find that this is not the case. In the account of creation in Genesis 1, we find that, as God created, he called each thing good, and on the last day, it was all very good. In the creation account of Genesis 2, we find God molding human beings out of dirt: basically, God is playing in the mud and makes a human being. If the physical creation is not good, then God would not be doing that. If the physical creation is not good, then God would never have deigned to come to earth, to be one of us, to die on the cross for us, and to be physically, bodily, resurrected. But because God did all of these things, we know that, even though we human beings have messed up the creation, God still loves the creation and calls it very good.
So, in order to enter the kingdom of God, we must first be live, flesh-and-blood human beings. That is our first birth. Our second birth then comes in baptism, where we are given new life, where the Holy Spirit comes upon us again and claims us as children of God. But the mystery is this: when the Holy Spirit comes and claims us in baptism, we are not somehow removed from creation just because we are spiritual creatures as well as flesh and blood. No, we are still in creation and called to care for it. When Jesus says later, “For God so loved the world,” the Greek word translated “world” includes not only human beings, but also grass, trees, flowers, crickets, moose, elk, bears, wolves, even mosquitoes. And baptism is that promise that eternal life starts now, in the created world, and will continue in heaven and in the new creation still to come: a physical creation, where every good thing will once again be very good, and without the taint of sin.
This is the God that Jesus teaches Nicodemus about. This is the God that loves us so much, that wants so desperately to be in relationship with us, that he will go to the point of taking on flesh and dying for us. This is the God that loves us so much that he has promised us eternal life, and who loves us so much that he comes to us in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, giving us physical proof that as God’s children, we are both physical and spiritual beings. This is the God of relationships, who wants an intimate relationship with us, the beings that he created, and with all of the creation. And this mysterious, triune God is the God in whose name Otto will be baptized in just a few moments. Think of it: God loves us so much that he has even given us his name, so that we might be sisters and brothers with one another and with people all around the world. What an amazing gift! So it’s okay, then, if we don’t understand how exactly this all works, if we ask with Nicodemus, “How can this be?” It is enough for us to be surrounded with God’s love. Amen.