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Don’t Understand the Trinity? Good.

The Holy Trinity

Commemoration of Barnabas, Apostle

June 11, 2017

John 3:1–15

When Jesus drew His last breath Joseph of Arimathea drew the courage to approach Pontius Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Being a wealthy man and recognizing that though his hope in Jesus went away with Jesus being crucified, he carried out an honorable burial for Jesus by laying Jesus in his own new tomb. Being a member of the Jewish religious council, this was a risk. He was one of the of the Jewish religious leaders who went against the grain and actually believed in Jesus and did not consent to the trial and conviction of Jesus. In fact he and some others strongly objected to it.

One of those others was a wealthy Pharisee, a leader in the group of Pharisees. Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in carrying the body of Jesus to the tomb, Nicodemus bringing spices for His proper burial and embalming. We don’t hear anything more about these two men after this but we can well imagine that they became aware that their hope in Jesus ended up not being unfounded when they found out that though Jesus had died He then rose from His grave.

What had brought Nicodemus to this point? When the Pharisees largely considered Jesus a sham and eventually concluded that He must die for His teaching, how did Nicodemus come to see in Jesus something more? When he approaches Jesus as we see in our Gospel reading he doesn’t appear to be hostile as was often the case when the Pharisees approached Jesus. He seems to legitimately want to engage Jesus. Since he was a leader of the Pharisees he speaks not only on his own behalf. He says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus says to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Since Nicodemus is a teacher of the Word of God and approaches Jesus as a teacher of the Word of God Jesus shows him the endgame: seeing the Kingdom of God. Recognizing it and being a part of it. How this happens is, as the Bible version we use says, by being born again. The Greek word Jesus uses, ‘anothen’, can indeed mean again. It can also mean above. Nicodemus apparently understood Jesus to use it in the first way, that you must be born again, as he said to Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

In being born again, Nicodemus is understanding a physical birth, which he is saying to Jesus, how is this possible to go back into your mother’s womb and be born a second time? And while this second birth Jesus is speaking of is indeed being born again, He is speaking not of a physical birth but of a spiritual birth. He says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” We’re not talking here about being born again from your mother but from above, of water and the Spirit. Clearly Nicodemus is confused. But his initial words to Jesus provide the clue for understanding what Jesus is talking about.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus saying that he knows Jesus comes from God, that He is a true teacher because of all the works that He has done. And what was one of those works? It was being Baptized. He Himself was Baptized of water and the Spirit. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel account we are shown that John the Baptist bore this witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him, but He who sent me to Baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who Baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

In the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus institutes the Sacrament of Holy Baptism after His resurrection and before He ascends into heaven. Here in the Gospel according to John Jesus is speaking of Baptism at the beginning of His ministry. He says to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, 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 was still trying to wrap his mind around this remarkable teaching. How is this possible? It is possible because it is the work of God. Remember, Nicodemus had already given the clue as to who Jesus is and what He does. It’s just that Nicodemus continued to try to fit Jesus into his own rational understanding. But Jesus isn’t simply one who performs miraculous actions. In one verse, verse 13 of the Gospel reading, Jesus encapsulates the entire work of God and who God in fact is: “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

If you are to understand who God is you must understand the Incarnation, God coming in the flesh. The festival of Christmas rightly celebrates Jesus being born. But the Incarnation includes the entire life of Christ. He came in the flesh to engage in ministry. He came in the flesh to carry that ministry to fulfillment in His suffering, death, and resurrection. He says to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”

Notice how seamlessly Jesus moves from Baptism to His Incarnation to His suffering, death, and resurrection. They are all of the same cloth, there is no genuine separation between them. They work together as a whole. Jesus descended from heaven to bring us to heaven. He Baptizes us so that we may be born from above. In Baptism we are brought into this new life which our Lord purchased by being lifted up on the cross.

No wonder Nicodemus wasn’t understanding this. It’s impossible to comprehend. But after Jesus rose from the dead it’s not hard to imagine that Nicodemus remembered these words of Jesus and came to know what it truly meant to be in the Kingdom of God. While many of the Pharisees rejected Jesus as true God, some such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea saw in Him something more and likely came to believe that He is true God along with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Neither you and I are going to be the first in history to be able to explain how it is possible that God is three Persons in one God and one God in three Persons. As with Nicodemus, we ask, “How can this be?” But as with Nicodemus, we hear the word of our Lord and we rest in our Baptism, being born from above by water and the Spirit.

As one who is Baptized, live in your new and eternal life. You have been born from above. The eternal and almighty God has come to you in the person of Jesus. He has descended in order to secure salvation in His death and resurrection. And He has ascended, to be sure. But the Triune God is not God unless He keeps you in the eternal life He has given you and so the Holy Spirit brings you forgiveness and strength as you remember your Baptism, as you are forgiven in the proclamation of the Gospel, and as you reverently partake of the bread and wine of the Sacrament, in which your Lord descends to earth and comes into you with His body and blood.

At the altar of the cross Nicodemus reverently took the body of Jesus and laid it in the tomb. At this altar we reverently partake of the body and blood of Jesus and it is a marvel that we do so with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. We ought not to try and comprehend it, even as we cannot comprehend the mystery of the Triune God. But we can join with the apostle Paul and all who have gone before us in the faith and the whole Christian Church on earth instead in raising up the doxology of praise to the eternal Triune God:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?”

“Or who has given a gift to Him that He might be repaid?”

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

SDG