by Auriol Farquhar
(Based on John 3:1-17)
Trinity Sunday – my first sermon. I couldn’t help but overhear Joan when she was saying – with some glee – though a nice sort of glee – that I was giving my first sermon, and it was going to be on Trinity Sunday. I asked, ‘Well, what’s the problem with that?’ She then explained that it was a difficult concept for people to get their head around, and I thought, Oh, great!
So I set out to research.
I was rather puzzled when I looked at the Gospel reading – it didn’t seem to refer to the Trinity at all – but more of that later.
Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western Christian liturgical calendar; it celebrates the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the ‘three Persons of God’: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I read that ‘the Trinity is one of the most fascinating – and controversial – Christian teachings. The Trinity is described as a “mystery.” By mystery the Church does not mean a riddle, but rather the Trinity is a reality above our human comprehension, that we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must know through worship, symbol, and faith. It has been said that mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim.’
Well, don’t know about you – but I am floundering already!
We all say that we believe in the Trinity when we affirm our faith. I can remember reciting the Creed as a child when we talked about God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. I wasn’t too happy about the Holy Ghost – ghosts are scary things, aren’t they? Holy Spirit is a much more fitting term; after all, ghosts are something that ‘appear’ – a spirit is something that is within you – that animates and inspires you.
Then I thought, if I don’t really comprehend the mystery of the Trinity – does it mean that my faith is weakened? The discussion of theology and debate about the meaning of scriptural text is fascinating – well I find it fascinating – but does it really make me a better Christian to spend time puzzling over the meaning of individual verses or words in the Bible?
We can tie ourselves up in knots in trying to understand how God can be equally three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are many analogies that people have made to try to help us – but often they leave us more confused, because they are human analogies and don’t really explain the reality of God. My thoughts are – is our faith supposed to be difficult to understand? Did Jesus want us to spend so much time in trying to work out the complexity of our beliefs – or, and I quote: ‘perhaps, instead of trying to work out how God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we should concentrate on the wonderful fact that this is how we experience God.’
- .In the first place we experience ‘God-above’; God is our heavenly Father; loving us, holding us, guarding our lives.
- Then we experience ‘God-with-us’; Jesus the Son of God; forgiving us, praying for us, leaving an example for us to follow.
- And then there is ‘God within-us’; the Holy Spirit; empowering us to live for him and to live for others, when we invite the Spirit to enter our lives.
At the end of the day, it is not the doctrine or mystery of the Holy Trinity that is important. What is important is how we experience God in our lives and how we share that with other people so that they can experience God for themselves.
Trinity Sunday is a day to celebrate our experience of God in our everyday lives: God the lover, God the forgiver, God the empowerer.
And so we come to the text, to Nicodemus arriving to visit Jesus. Who was Nicodemus and why did he come to see Jesus under the cover of darkness? Well he was a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who knew the Mosaic laws that governed the Jews, backwards and forwards, and followed them strictly. Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin court, an elite group of Jewish leaders who taught and enforced the Mosaic laws. He was an expert and a rule-enforcing judge, and when someone broke any of these stringent rules or threatened the religious legal system, Nicodemus was one of the few who would get to determine the rule-breaker’s punishment. (Which – as we know in Jesus’s case – could be quite merciless.) Later on in John’s Gospel he tells the other Jewish leaders to give Jesus a fair hearing; he also comes with Joseph of Arimathea to collect Jesus’s body for burial. So quite a good bloke in some ways!
Now, Nicodemus probably chose to go to see Jesus at night because nobody would be able to see where he was going and find out what he was up to. Jesus was getting a reputation as a rule breaker – and the Sanhedrin were getting worried about the stir that he was causing – so they would not have been too happy with Nicodemus going to see him – and calling Jesus ‘Rabbi’, or teacher.
Nicodemus tells Jesus that he knows that he is a teacher come from God. He was struggling to comprehend the exact nature of Jesus and his relationship to God the Father; he wanted to have a clearer understanding of Jesus’s ministry. But Jesus turns the conversation into one about how Nicodemus can experience God, which is far more important. Jesus tells him that the rational approach is not enough – you can’t see the Kingdom of God without being born from above and, later, that you can’t enter the Kingdom of God without being ‘born of water and Spirit’.
Jesus’s words in this passage have been interpreted by some Christians as meaning that we need to be ‘born again’, something that puzzled Nicodemus. The idea has been interpreted as someone having to undergo a sudden moment of conversion, usually accompanied by an intense emotional experience, which is the sign of having truly accepted Christ as Saviour; this is a very real experience and has happened to many Christians. But in some church traditions, being ‘born again’ is the mark of being a true Christian; there are Christians and there are ‘born-again Christians’. It is treated by some as if it were a command from Christ: “What must I do to be saved? Or, what must I do to go to Heaven when I die?” “You must be born again!”
[Auriol tells briefly of her experience as a young person at a Pathfinder camp.]
I may not have had that sudden ‘conversion’, like Saul on the road to Damascus, but I have always believed and always felt blessed by God, and that I know that I want to live my life being guided by Him. I don’t believe that I am not a Christian because I have not had that sudden realisation.
For Jesus doesn’t actually say you must be born again. He says, ‘Unless you are born from above, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ What does he mean?
I think that it means that we must be born into a life or start to live an existence where we love God and live out his ways on earth. It’s not a bargain – be born again and get eternal life. The Kingdom of God is not just something for the future it is for the now if we work for it.
We can go to as many church services as we like, we can attend as many Bible Studies as can be crammed into a week: we can do all that, but still not see the Kingdom of God. And the reason, quite simply, is because Christianity is not an observer-event. It is a way of living, a way of being with, of experiencing, God – of believing that you are blessed, and sharing that with others. The Kingdom of God is not a phenomenon to be observed: it is a gift to be received, experienced and then lived.
When we are baptised, ‘by water and the Spirit’, we are baptised into the family of the church. And just as each family member has something to offer their family, each of us must find our place through participating in the family of the church. We don’t go to church asking, “What can I get out of this?” but rather, “What do I have to offer?” When we meet together in God’s name, we encourage and support each other in our faith. The greatest gift we have to offer one another … is just being here: to celebrate together the love of God for us as a family; and to go out into the world to spread that love. We need to consider tangible ways in which we can do that.
We are not to be observers – we are to be participants: to participate in the life of the Church, to participate in the resurrection of Jesus, who died for us, to give our lives to God, who fills us with his Spirit and gave his Son so that we might live in an intimate relationship with him and serve him better in the world. Being born from above means that our lives are radically transformed; being born from above brings newness to how we live.
And that newness of life is what we celebrate today, this Trinity Sunday. What we are sharing together is our lived experience of God, in which we participate every day of our lives and through regular worship together. We feel loved by God the Father; we try to live our lives based on the teachings of Jesus, God the Son, which is not an easy thing to do, and we experience God the Holy Spirit, guiding us and empowering us to live our lives as children of God.
As we leave this Church today let us consider how we share this with others as we go in peace to love and serve the Lord.