Sermon - 16th June 2019
Trinity Sunday:"Here I am, send me".
Scripture - John 3:1-17
From the earliest days of recorded history, in the attempt to try to make sense of the universe around us, humankind has given names to anything and everything. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, interpreted the world into a series of straightforward stories which would have been told and re-told down through successive generations. In Genesis 2:19, we read: “So [the Lord God] took some soil from the ground and formed all the animals and the birds. Then he brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and that is how they all got their names.”
Humankind has never stopped the naming. Take the stars, for example:
The pattern and shapes we perceive as constellations like Orion or Ursa Minor are attempts to bring some sense of order to the apparent chaos and absence of coherent meaning.
Naming the physical world around us is one thing, but naming and understanding abstract notions and concepts is far more complex. This Sunday in the Church’s year is called Trinity Sunday. If you go looking in the Bible for the word “trinity”, you will not find it. The concept of “The Trinity” is a human attempt to explain and to bring understanding of God’s nature, in that God’s nature is described across the 66 books of the Bible as having three aspects.
If you grew up as a Catholic, it is very likely you will have heard the Trinity explained as a three-leafed clover.
Preachers sometimes use the scientific illustration of water existing in three states: ice, liquid water and steam.
Other preachers will have sought to explain the Trinity using art, where the artists themselves have sought to enlighten their audience:
Here is one in stained glass.
One of the most famous depictions of the Trinity was painted by the Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev.
Or here is a more modern one from 2001 by the US artist from New Mexico, Alcario Otero:
And here is just one more, from the late Roman Catholic artist, Elizabeth Wang, whose artwork we often use on our service slides. The tagline she gave this image is: “Through repentance and faith in Christ we allow Him to draw us into the heart of the Holy Trinity.”
Finally, here is a diagrammatic representation. All of these are human attempts to bring understanding and insight to the person of God. Embracing inclusive language, we can describe afresh God’s aspects as Creator, Redeemer (Saviour) and Life-Giver.
Of these attempts to explain the mystery who is God, we may have a favourite, one which echoes within us and fires our imagination. For me, they all have a common theme: a relationship.
God is love, and God invites us in to a relationship with our Creator, the Creator who loves us so much that He gave Jesus to set the relationship right, and God in the Holy Spirit sustains the relationship of our faith life.
Look again at Rublev’s and Wang’s depictions of the Trinity: the outstretched arm which invites each one us to join in that relationship; and the square table with the fourth side waiting for someone – each one of us – to join them.
Let us now look at our Bible reading from John’s Gospel. It challenges us with abstract concepts of being “born again” and “eternal life”. This, perhaps one of the most famous Gospel passages, speaks deeply about the relationship God longs to have with each person.
Nicodemus came to visit Jesus late at night. Who was Nicodemus? He is mentioned only in St John’s Gospel, and is mentioned three times: here, in today’s passage, later in discussion at the Temple with other Pharisees; and finally, at Jesus’ burial. The Gospel tell us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, part of the group of religious leaders of Israel of the time.
Why did Nicodemus come at night to see Jesus? The Gospel is silent on this point, so we can only guess at an explanation. Maybe Nicodemus did not want to be seen by anyone, so used the cover of darkness for his visit. Maybe he just wanted to talk to Jesus privately - without other Pharisees, without the crowds and without Jesus’ disciples - and at night was the best time to do this. From Nicodemus’ two other appearances in St John’s Gospel, it is clear that Nicodemus is, at the very least, a sympathiser of Jesus’ message, or possibly he is something more.
The conversation between the two men can be broken down into three questions and three answers, each of which deserves some comment.
Nicodemus’ first question is more of a statement in which he acknowledges that Jesus has come from God, and it is the miraculous signs which Jesus had performed which had led Nicodemus to this conclusion. Curiously, Nicodemus uses the first personal plural – “we”. Was he referring to the whole group of religious leaders of which he was a part?
Each of Jesus’ three answers begin with “I am telling you the truth”. This is expressed in original Greek as “Amēn. Amēn.”, and this is a common phrase throughout St John’s Gospel. Jesus’ answer is not to confirm what Nicodemus has said. It is not seeing the miracles that is important, but the change that comes over a person as a consequence of the spark of faith that began upon seeing the miracles. That change, Jesus calls “being born again”. The Greek word used for “again” is “anōthen” which has a number of meanings including “again”, “for a second time”, “from above” or “from the top”, all of which occur at different points in the New Testament.
Interestingly, it is the ambiguity of the word used which allows Jesus to explain Himself further. Nicodemus’ understanding of “again” is a physical one, which triggers his second question to Jesus: “How can a grown man be born again?”
Jesus immediately clarifies His teaching and that He means a spiritual re-birth, and it is Jesus’ longing for all humankind to be reborn. It is interesting that the metaphor Jesus uses is that of the wind, also a metaphor for the Holy Spirit.
Too often, faith and religious belief are understood by many – presumably as a result of their experience - to be moral straight-jackets, creating do-gooders and party-poopers. Jesus’ metaphor of the wind to describe reborn people is the complete opposite, one of liberation and total freedom!
This leaves Nicodemus stunned into incomprehension. His third question to Jesus is: “How can this be?” As a devout Jewish teacher, obedient in the Jewish Law, rituals and customs, the concepts of beginning life afresh, and living life with freedom akin to the wind would have been an anathema to him. A modern comparison might be trying to explain smartphones, the Internet and air-travel to our great-great grandparents, had we known them just some 100 years ago!
Jesus then challenges Nicodemus - and presumably the other Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders, as He said “none of you”. Jesus challenges their stubbornness; He refers to His death and resurrection; He refers to Himself in words which Nicodemus as a religious scholar would have understood immediately to be the Messiah, the Saviour: in Hebrew, “Ben HaAdam”; that is, “The Son of Man”.
And so, on this Trinity Sunday, a day on which we try to consider the all-encompassing nature of God, we read of how Jesus sought to explain His purpose in coming. The verse John 3:16 is perhaps one of the most well-known in all the Bible: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.”
Churches apart, references to this verse are seen everywhere, and frequently seen on signs at sporting events, even on the players!
Sadly, many preachers put on the brakes at verse 16 and do not keep reading into verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.”
Despite recognising that Jesus was from God, Nicodemus and the other Jewish religious leaders of the time did not accept Jesus’ teaching. Their harsh condemnation has been perpetuated throughout the centuries within much of the Church, judging people instead of loving them.
The word for “love” Jesus used in John 3:16 is “agape, that is sacrificial love, love which brings life and freedom. And Jesus was talking about that life beginning now, not just in the life after death.
What does this passage have to say to us as LGBT Christians? Many of us have had the experience of being judged and rejected because of our sexual orientation or gender identity. Listen again to Jesus’ affirming words in John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.”
The so-titled Queer theologian Robert Shore-Goss in his commentary on John’s Gospel compared Nicodemus’ late-night visit to Jesus with those Christians who remain closeted in respect of their sexual orientation or gender identity; those who live their open, religious life in the daylight, but refuse to embrace their physical beings and the associated desires and longing. Integrating our sexuality and gender-identity with the spiritual itself a rebirth, being born-again!
But while we, here, are on that journey, many others are not. The voice and the volume of condemnation and hatred that has emanated against LGBT people still rings more loudly in their ears than the call of Jesus and His sacrificial love for all of humankind.
What do we need to do about this? Last week, on Pentecost Sunday, one of our readings was from the book of the prophet Isaiah, where in a vision, the Prophet saw God, and God sought people to proclaim God’s message. Isaiah’s reply was a simple, whole-hearted one: “Send me!”
Jesus, our Saviour, has invited us in, and by His sacrificial love, we are saved and have eternal life. We are born again of the Holy Spirit, cleansed and made new. And having been born again, we stand ready for God’s question: “Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?”
Who will go and speak the Good News of the all-embracing, non-discriminating love of God? Nicodemus may have been a closet believer in Jesus, coming to Him at night. Let us not be closet believers in Jesus, afraid to mention our faith, particularly among our LGBT friends.
So when God asks of us: “Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?”, may we have the courage, faith and strength to answer: “Here I am. Send me!”