So, since I always listen to both the Archbishops of Canterbury and David Lose, I’d like to share just a few brief thoughts in reflection on the Trinity, and then do some thinking about the character we meet in our gospel passage this morning, Nicodemus.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity expresses the conviction that while we experience God in three forms – namely, as our source and creator, in Jesus Christ who has redeemed us, and in the enlivening and guiding presence that fills and surrounds us – God is one God.
I think the important thing to take away about the Trinity that God is more than we are ever going to know or understand in this life.
The late Robert Capon, the Episcopal priest and writer whose work was much loved in the latter part of the last century, has a parable about the enterprise of theology, and it is pertinent to consider as we aspire to think about the Trinity. (The parable is too long to include here, but you can easily find it if you google it.)
In the parable, an oyster lying on the sea bottom next to a rock becomes boastful about its superiority to the rock. When reminded by the rock of its vulnerability to the starfish that lives in the neighborhood, the oyster becomes petulant and eventually cries out at life’s unfairness. To its surprise, the oyster’s cry is answered – you can perhaps detect a parallel to the story of Job – and the voice that answers tells him:
“It’s all true. There are things you never even dreamed of. All kinds of stuff. And with moves you couldn’t imagine if you tried. As a matter of fact, that’s your problem. There you sit with a rock on one side and a starfish on the other. My apologies.”
The voice goes on to describe to the oyster the glories and beauty of basketball, and of squirrels jumping from one tree to another, and then, the pinnacle of perfection – ballerinas.
The voice, in its response to the oyster, then concludes:
“Think very carefully. Remember that all this stuff really is, but it can’t possibly be the way you think. Or, to turn it around: The way you think about things will never be exactly the same as the way they are.”*
In considering the Trinity, despite the good intentions of Thomas Becket, we are oysters contemplating ballerinas.
So on to Nicodemus. He is a pretty interesting fellow. He appears only in the Gospel of John, not in the more plot-rich gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. And he appears three times in John, which is extremely unusual for a secondary character, someone who is not one of the disciples who travel with Jesus. Nicodemus was important to John.
Nicodemus has been called “the secret disciple”. We could also call him “a reluctant disciple”. He’s a Pharisee, the sect whom we know had grave reservations about the Rabbi Jesus, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the board of governing elders in the Jewish community.
What is fascinating is Nicodemus’ quiet pattern of reappearing over and over again in Jesus’ story. In today’s passage, Nicodemus’ first appearance, he arrives under cover of darkness to ask Jesus to explain himself and his teachings, which have been riling up the community. Nicodemus is unable to write Jesus off, apparently, as many of his Pharisaic peers have done, but neither is he able to quite wrap his head around the idea of spiritual rebirth that he and Jesus discuss.
We next hear from Nicodemus when Jesus’ opponents on the Sanhedrin, “the chief priests and Pharisees”, are discussing what to do about him after an incident in which Jesus’ teachings have upset the Temple security guards. Nicodemus speaks up – again quietly, and taking a position that falls short of affirming faith in Jesus – to remind his colleagues that Jewish Law prohibits judgement before an accused is given a fair hearing.
Nicodemus’ final appearance is quite poignant: it is he who accompanies Joseph of Arimathea in anointing and preparing Jesus body for burial after his crucifixion. John tells us that it was Nicodemus who brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes for the anointing process. Again, not quite an open declaration of faith, but a significant choice of action, to associate himself in any way with an executed criminal.
I expect that all of us have ups and downs in the life of faith –
I think that the experience of pandemic that we have been through, and from which we’re just starting to peek our noses out the door, has thrown lots of things into question, and matters of faith may well be among them.
If you’ve drifted away from faith practice during the pandemic or found yourself surprised to discover that you don’t need to attend church in the way that you always assumed you did, don’t feel badly.
The Bishop’s office recently did a survey asking diocesan clergy about the state of our emotional and spiritual lives as a result of the pandemic, and plenty of clergy admitted that the changes and challenges of ministering through the pandemic have caused them to re-examine their sense of vocation.
Nicodemus is a good guy to sit with in moments when faith may feel uncertain. His faith was more about questions than answers. He never seemed ready to go “all in”. And yet it seems, as David Lose has observed, that “If God keeps working in and on and through Nicodemus across three years and sixteen chapters in John’s Gospel, God will keep working in and on and through us. No matter how long it takes.”
God was patient as Nicodemus questioned; God accepted and affirmed his curiosity. God was loving as Nicodemus needed, repeatedly, to take a step back. Maybe God knew that Nicodemus would be there, myrrh and aloes at the ready, when it was needed.
Surely God will be equally patient and loving with us.
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