Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1:17

Trinity Sunday

St Barbara’s; 26.05.2024

Rev Jeremy Bevan

I’m not usually the sort of person who bites off more than I can chew. But in a couple of projects at work recently, I have done. There have been hidden dips in the landscape ahead, and I’ve found myself having to look at the roadmap again, so to speak, working out a different way forward.

If Nicodemus were to hear me say that this morning, he’d probably respond, “Welcome to my world.” His opening greeting to Jesus looks like he’s grasped where this enigmatic holy man from Galilee fits on the Jewish religious establishment’s map of the religious landscape it controlled – or thought it controlled. But Nicodemus has badly underestimated what Jesus is about. Jesus’ reply to him effectively asks, “The presence of God? What would you know about that?” But then he begins to map the landscape for Nicodemus, describing what the one God’s activity in the three persons of Spirit, Son and Father looks like. Firstly, he opens up the world of the Spirit to Nicodemus.

God as Spirit is not a God Nicodemus can put into a near little box. To see God’s realm through the Spirit, let alone enter it, is like starting life all over again, says Jesus: learning to see, walk, talk, think, from scratch. When Jesus gets onto talking about God’s Spirit being as unpredictable as the wind (the words for ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ being the same in the language Jesus and Nicodemus spoke), any Jewish listener would pick up from those words a reference to the Spirit of God, also translated as ‘a mighty wind’, moving creatively across the waters in Genesis 1. Doing new and surprising things, lovingly shaping order out of what had gone before.

And while Jesus gently chides him for his lack of understanding, we can perhaps see in Nicodemus’s bewildered question, “How can these things be?” the beginnings of a desire to follow where the new map Jesus is sketching might lead: “How can these things be for me?”, we might put it. What does it mean to follow that prompting of God the Spirit in an ordinary life? At the thanksgiving service after Gwen Wells’ funeral on Friday, we caught glimpses of that, I think. When life reached a fork in the road for Gwen, it meant committing the situation to God in prayer, and sometimes taking risks: moving to new places, new churches (including, courageously, when newly widowed); always trusting that the Spirit of God, that blows where it will, would blow her somewhere good.

God the Spirit, then, leads us into new things in sometimes surprising ways. What about God the Son? Nicodemus has called Jesus a ‘teacher who has come from God’. He’s right, up to a point. But he doesn’t have the whole picture. Jesus now describes himself as the Son of Man come down from heaven, a title from the book of Daniel. It described a character who would bring liberation and restored relationship with God to the people of Israel. That would certainly give Nicodemus rather more to chew on: he’s dealing with far more than just a teacher now.

And, good Jewish teacher that he is, Nicodemus might make other Old Testament connections here. Firstly, when Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming down from heaven and going back to it. That’s what the angels on Jacob’s ladder did in the book of Genesis. What Jesus is saying here is, again, something startling about God being beyond anything we can box off, safely compartmentalise: “The way between heaven and earth is open, Nicodemus. Through me, God is among you here on earth, doing something astoundingly new.” Secondly, that reference to the son of man being lifted up would take Nicodemus back to the Israelites’ journey with Moses in the wilderness, where a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole was God’s cure for sickness caused by the people’s disobedience, just as Jesus’ crucifixion will be the cure for the sickness of evil and sin.

God as Son obedient to his father has a role alongside that of God as Spirit. The son restores us to relationship with the Father and shows us how to live. But following Jesus the Son who does what he sees his Father doing may not always be comfortable. As one of the characters in C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe says about Aslan, the book’s Jesus-figure, “He’s not a tame lion.” Are we willing to be like Nicodemus, and risk being unsettled as the untamed Jesus leads us on in bringing God’s purposes to family, friends, community, world, including as we approach a General Election? 

God the Spirit. God the Son. And now it falls to John the gospel writer to make links between what the Spirit is doing, what Jesus is doing, and the role of God the Father. God so loved the world, says John, that he sent us Jesus. To quote Lady Julian of Norwich, whose book Revelations of Divine Love I’m reading at the moment, “God’s meaning is love.” That’s God’s character, it’s what God is, through and through. And because God is still love, the Spirit blows among us where it will, drawing us towards life and fellowship with God and a fresh start. Because God is still love, God sends Jesus to restore our connection here, now with the Father. To trust that God, and commit to following his Son Jesus, is to live in a new way that is the outworking of ‘eternal life’ here, now.

Nicodemus seemingly disappears off the map before John tells us of God’s love for the world. But this puzzled Jewish teacher does appear later in John’s gospel, protesting that Jesus should get a fair hearing when arrested, and finally helping Joseph of Arimathea embalm Jesus’ body after death. Perhaps, then, the love of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit flowing out into the world was enough to draw him forward, however gradually, into God’s new realm? To persuade him to take his courage in both hands, step out across the landscape and into the journey of walking with and being known by God, not just knowing about God?  The wild, creative Spirit of God, Jesus the one sent from heaven, and God the loving Father have charted that landscape for us, too. With their map in hand, will we journey on, like Nicodemus?