A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 31, 2015 (Trinity Sunday, Year B)
This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has to go down as one of the most infuriating exchanges in the history of human interaction. Like the most egregious case of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” they’re both talking right past one another. We see this all the time in international diplomacy or race relations or couples therapy. And their discussion seems to embody the ancient Chinese idiom “like a chicken talking to a duck.” In other words, a conversation between two people speaking entirely different languages. In order to have an actual conversation, both parties must speak the same language — otherwise misunderstanding and miscommunication abound.
In this case, Nicodemus speaks literally, Jesus speaks metaphorically, and we just stand back and observe this linguistic train wreck. It’s really two monologues rather than anything resembling dialogue. And it’s maddening to try and follow the arc of the conversation. It’s like watching a tennis match where every time a ball is hit to one of the players he smacks it over the fence into another court. You just can’t follow the action.
Jesus and Nicodemus are indeed speaking different languages. That whole Pentecost concept we encountered last week of speaking in a variety of tongues and yet being understood in our native languages is out the window here.
In fairness, Nicodemus can’t possibly understand what Jesus is saying; he’s not yet equipped to do so. And so we end up with that awkward exchange about being born from above and Nicodemus, clearly flustered and confused, asks how it’s possible for someone to be born again — “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
In a word, no. Of course not. And it’s about as absurd an image as a camel trying to enter the eye of a needle. The new birth, the birth from above, happens when we are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit; it ushers in a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We can see this, now, standing as we do on this side of the Resurrection. But for all Nicodemus could comprehend, Jesus may as well have been speaking like one of the parents on Charlie Brown. Or reciting the Nicene Creed.
Because in a sense this is the perfect conversation for Trinity Sunday. The whole nature of Trinitarian doctrine is confusing, bewildering, mysterious and in the end can leave us asking, as Nicodemus puts it, “How can these things be?” One plus one plus one equals one; the three in one and one in three; a divine dance of love. Throw in words like only-begotten and co-eternal and the only logical response is, “How can these things be?” So, that’s not a bad refrain for Trinity Sunday.
We will never, at least in this life, know completely how these things can be. The fullness of God is more mystery than certainty; more article of faith than verifiable fact. Human words and formulas only take us so far because they are, by their very nature, incomplete.
Some of you know that when it comes to sermon writing, I’m a creature of habit. For years I’ve set aside Thursday mornings as the time I get most of it done. Always at a coffee shop. It’s become something of a Pavlovian response for me as I literally can’t write a sermon without coffee — nor would I subject anyone to the byproduct of un-caffeinated sermon preparation. This Thursday morning I was all set to head down to Redeye Roasters. I already had a few ideas banging around my head and even at the gym earlier that day I was thinking about the doctrinal challenges of preaching on the Trinity.
And then I got a phone call from one of our regular Saturday night service parishioners whose 41-year-old son was dying of cancer. He’d had a rough night and the hospice nurses were pretty certain the end was near. So obviously I scrapped my regular routine and told him I would drive right down to Pembroke to administer last rights.
And I was again reminded that all the theological and linguistic gymnastics in the world can never explain the fullness of God. It can’t get at the depth of God’s love for us or describe the powerful healing presence that comes through faith in Jesus Christ or reveal the glimpses of resurrection glory that shine even in life’s darkest and most painful moments.
We can try our best to parse out the unity of God in three persons, an attempt that will always fall short, or we can simply be present for those in the throes of grief as an embodiment of God’s love. We can show rather than tell. And that’s what I invite you to do in the coming days. To think about the ways in which you practice God’s love for yourselves and for those around you. Friends, family, strangers. It’s human interaction that puts flesh on theology and doctrine; otherwise we’re left with a sack of dry bones.
I should note that eventually Nicodemus did come to understand what Jesus was talking about. You may recall that in John’s gospel, darkness is codeword for lack of understanding so it’s significant that Nicodemus came by night when he sought out Jesus for this initial, unsatisfying conversation.
Despite his confusion during that first encounter, at the time of Jesus’ arrest we hear Nicodemus referred to as “one of them,” meaning a disciple of Jesus. And after the crucifixion he joins Joseph of Arimathea this time, significantly, in the daytime — in the light — to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So the veil has literally and metaphorically been lifted from his eyes. He understands Jesus’ identity with his very soul. Nicodemus may not have been able to write a theological treatise on the Trinity but he has a fuller understanding of God because of his interactions with Jesus. And that is enough.
“How can these things be?” I don’t know. At least not precisely. But perhaps this is why John, our patron saint, John the Evangelist, also makes this crystal clear. Amid all the language of Trinitarian doctrine, John reminds us again and again that “God is love.” That’s not a bad working definition and it’s one we could stand to heed more rather than less; to show more rather than tell.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck