Paradox. That’s the theme for this Sunday of the Holy Trinity. Paradox.
Dictionary definition: A seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true. Example: “And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in three Persons, and three Persons in one God, neither confusing the Persons nor dividing the Substance.” Got it?
I’m reminded of that famous line from Dorothy Sayers, who wrote: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible.” And that’s good, right, and salutary. Any god who fits comprehensively inside your head isn’t big enough to be your God anyway.
The Christian faith is built on paradox: God is Three and He is One – a tri-unity. Jesus is God and man – two natures, yet one Person. The Scriptures are God’s Word and man’s word. As a believer, you are both sinner and saint at the same time.
There is danger lurking in these paradoxical waters. The danger is that we turn God into a concept, a mathematical abstraction, something we can tuck safely in a book or a theory or a picture in our minds. A safe God that you bring out for those “special occasions” when you need a little dose of deity. A tame God on a leash for those times when we need a little religion to help us through our troubles.
Holy Trinity Sunday is a feast without a narrative. No story. The best we have is Jesus telling the disciples to baptize in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – there are rich historic narratives for these days. But the text behind Holy Trinity Sunday is a doctrine not a narrative, a summary of the mystery of the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God who revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush, the God who led Israel out of captivity into freedom; the God made Himself concretely known and knowable in the incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ, the God who blows His Spirit-breath through His Church and raises the dead to life.
The Holy Trinity is about a living relationship, communion within God and with God. The Father begets His Son; the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son. God is never alone, even when He is alone. Together as One the undivided holy Trinity creates, redeems, makes holy. Each divine Person doing His personal thing, yet always as One. And you, baptized “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” enter into the tri-une love and life of God. The Father is your Father. Jesus the Son is your Brother. The Spirit is your Advocate, Guide, and Friend. You are a member of God’s family; you live in triune communion with God – with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
There was a man named Nicodemus, a rabbi, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin. He was about to encounter a divine Paradox in the flesh. Jesus – the Son of God. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Don’t you get just a wee bit suspicious when someone starts a conversation that way? As the praise heaps up, you’re waiting for the “but” that comes at the end of the clause. “You did a really great job with the report last week and corporate couldn’t be more thrilled but…” “Pastor, I really like your sermons and your bible classes are always interesting but….” Jesus preempts Nicodemus with an Amen and a perfect non sequiter. “Amen. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he’s born again.”
The born must be reborn. Again, paradox. Nicodemus has a brain sprain. “Wait a minute. How can an old man be born again? What’s he supposed to do? Enter his mother’s womb a second time?” (In logic they call that an argumentum ad absurdum. Argue to the point of absurdity.) Did Jesus mean born again or born from above? The word works both ways. Which is it?
Jesus says, “Amen, listen up. Let me put it another way. No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he’s born of water and Spirit.” As if that made things any clearer. Shuffle through your mental concordance. Water and Spirit; that’s creation talk. Genesis 1 where the Spirit hovered over the waters of the Deep in creation. Unless you are a new creation, created by water and Spirit, you can’t enter the kingdom.
There’s another birth, a new birth from above. The old creation is shot dead. Flesh give birth to flesh. That’s your birth from below, what makes you child of Adam. That’s the birth that gives birth to a sinner. You know all about that one. You don’t need anyone to teach you about that. But that one doesn’t get you an entry ticket into the kingdom of God. Quite the opposite. Not that God isn’t involved in that birth. Every birth is the result of God’s Word – “Be fruitful and multiply.” But that makes children of Adam, not children of God. Your first birth delivers you to death; your second birth brings you to Life.
“You must be born again,” Jesus says. Born from above. A spiritual birth through water and the Spirit. Do you hear Baptism talk in that? I sure hope so. It’s like the wind, Jesus says. You hear it, but you can’t see it. You see it’s effects – the leaves rustling through the trees, but you can’t get a hold of it. That’s how it is with the Spirit and with everyone born of the Spirit. You must hear it and believe it because you can’t see it.
Of course, that leaves Nicodemus more confused than ever. “How can this be?” The teacher of Israel is stumped. The problem is not that Nicodemus isn’t a sharp tack. He’s plenty smart. He’s a rabbi, after all, a Pharisee, a member of the ruling council. He’s no dummy. The problem goes back to his first sentence. He doesn’t yet see Jesus for who Jesus actually is. He sees Jesus as a holy man, a teacher come from God, a miracle worker. Close but not cigar, (as they used to say before cigars became politically incorrect.) Nicodemus doesn’t yet grasp the paradox – this man standing before him is God in the flesh, the second Person of the undivided holy Trinity, God of God, Light of light, true God of true God, eternally begotten of the Father.
Nicodemus is staring at the Word made flesh, the One who would be lifted up for the life of the world. He is the Son, sent in love to save the world by His dying and rising. Nicodemus has no way of knowing or believing that. Yet. Somewhere, somehow the Spirit-wind of God blew on Nicodemus, the water, Word and Spirit had their way with him. I say that because Nicodemus was already a believer the day Jesus died. Secretly, yes, but a believer. He trusted that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. He along with Joseph of Arimathea arranged to bury Jesus.
In a way, you and I have an advantage over old Rabbi Nicodemus. He was standing on the threshold between the old and the new, between the prophesy and its fulfillment. He saw the signs, but the pieces of the puzzle weren’t yet in place. That’s why John mentions that he came to Jesus at night. He was still in the dark, so to speak. The light of Easter had not yet dawned. The Spirit had not yet enlightened him. We live entirely in the new. Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ has risen from the dead. Christ now reigns. What was a riddle to Nicodemus is perfectly clear to us: To be born again from above by water and Spirit is to be baptized into Jesus: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.”
“The Spirit blows like the wind wherever He pleases.” You can’t bottle the Spirit up, put him into a box, label and categorize Him. You can only enjoy the refreshing, heavenly breeze. The Spirit has blown on you in His good time and place, as it pleased Him. And it pleases Him that you believe the Word He brings to your ears, that you trust that Jesus’ death and life are your life and salvation, that on account of Jesus you can say, “Our Father.”
Yes, God’s tri-unity is an incomprehensible paradox. That’s true. The Athanasian Creed can’t even contain it, though it gives it a good try. You and I would never have invented such a God. But on the other hand, remember, gods we invent are not God. They are useless idols; gods that sit on the mantle pieces of our lives so we can be spiritual without believing anything. The Lord’s ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts. He’s not the sort of God we would invent for our selves. And for that we are grateful.
You don’t have to understand someone to be in relationship. Most of us are in relationship with people we don’t begin to understand. How much more with God. You don’t have to understand the mystery of the undivided Holy Trinity; only confess and praise Him. “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown mercy to us.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,