Many people might look forward to a sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity as much they look forward to a trip to the dentist. I can offer you some crumb of comfort, should you need it. A grateful member in a congregation I once served said to me ‘We can understand your sermons, not like these theologians’. Of course I was crest fallen – because I wanted, unusually perhaps, to be a theologian. But I was also disappointed because I somehow sensed that if everybody could understand every word I was saying, then I wasn’t being a very good theologian at all.
I know that there’s little point in being obscure and difficult for the sake of it – and that’s definitely not what I want to be. But I do understand and know that there is something about talking about God that’s inevitably going to be difficult, that’s not quite going to make everything clear as day, that’s certainly going to involve ‘telling it slant’ as Emily Dickenson would say, because the great mystery of God defies the categories of our speaking and our understanding. There are things we just cannot know, or cannot know fully .. yet. The great saint Augustine once said, ‘If you understand it… it’s not God.’
And some of the ways we often think about God do fail really because they are just too simple; you know, the old man in the sky, the God who can be persuaded to do our bidding if we pray hard enough or say the right words, the God that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in.. that kind of God is not God….
When it comes to faith or to so many things that are profoundly important, you can’t just say everything plainly and straightforwardly because we find ourselves at the edges of what language can bear. Plain speech is fine for shopping and business, but of limited use for love, for example. To speak of God and the great mysteries of life, we find ourselves having to use words – but not in the way we usually use them. So, if this is the Sunday when we say ‘today we’re going to talk about God’ of course it’s likely to be difficult.. Because it’s difficult to say the really important things. When Jesus commissioned his disciples he told them to go and baptise and make disciples – to be teachers, to talk about God. That’s an incredible commission to have. It’s not an easy one. But it’s well worth the adventure.
I still remember vividly to my shame a mock O level exam in which I completely missed the fact that a poem we were asked to write about was metaphorical. I took it literally and completely missed the point. But having done it once, I never did it again. And a new world opened up to me.
Nicodemus made that same sort of mistake. He took Jesus literally when Jesus was speaking metaphorically. Nicodemus wanted things to be simple and straightforward and of course they aren’t always. And so, of course, he missed the meaning. Nicodemus had heard enough about Jesus to make him think that he ought to visit him and find out more. He was, as it happens, a bit of a theological VIP himself and had a reputation to keep, so he decided to go at night. But almost from the beginning the interview went wrong. Jesus told him that what it all boiled down to was that you had to be born again. Nicodemus was used to reading some pretty obscure theological books, but he couldn’t make head or tail of this thought at all. How could anyone be born after they had grown old? How were you supposed to pull that off if you were pushing sixty-five? How could he get into his mother’s womb a second time and be born again, when some days it was hard enough to get into work or into his underpants? Nicodemus simply said, ‘How can these things be?’
Nicodemus didn’t get it. And, frankly, if you’re not really keen on metaphor and poetry, symbol and sign, if all you want is plain speech, then John’s Gospel is not the one for you. Nicodemus might have done better to apply for a part in one of the other Gospels. But before we berate Nicodemus too harshly, we might recognise that we can all be a bit stupid when it comes to understanding what Jesus was saying – and indeed that we all have to be humble about our own cleverness when it comes to the deepest mysteries in life. Nicodemus isn’t the only one to have taken this phrase and drawn a rather odd conclusion. Jesus has often been misunderstood. And I’m quite sure that in many senses I still misunderstand more of his teaching than I understand it – and that it will take me more than my short lifetime could possibly be to get beyond that. And the older I get the more I see that knowing what you don’t yet know might be more important than hanging on to what you think you do know for grim death.
Nicodemus was the kind of man who had the equivalent of a doctorate and half a column in Who’s Who, but he hadn’t got it yet. He was still creeping about in the dark. But could it have happened that as he talked with Jesus he did find something that changed his life so radically that the only way he or anyone could really describe it was like a new birth? Could it be that whatever Nicodemus found or did not find in this halting conversation with Jesus, that there was something to get his heart beating – in a way he hadn’t felt for a long, long time? Could it be that he discovered in meeting this amazing and astonishing person that there was more to life than discussing even philosophy into the night and that suddenly the faith that he had thought about so much became something he could feel deeply too? Did he find that there’s all the difference between talking about God and being changed by God? Did he find that what he’d thought would be an interesting conversation turned out to be something that changed him forever? You might not have reaslied that by the time we get to the end of the Gospel of John we discover that when Jesus was dead Nicodemus went along with Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb, not in the dark, but in broad daylight. It was a risky thing to do, but he was now the kind of person who knew it was worth it.
I think there are ways of using the language of Trinity that could be Nicodemus moments for us. We might start by thinking it’s all absurdity and nonsense, angels on pinheads and paradoxes to do in the holiest head. But sometimes we might glimpse just a flash of what this extraordinary language is trying to say – trying to say at the very edges of what it’s possible to say – that God is a mystery of love, of mutual, co-equal, dancing love – the kind of love that you will know if you’ve ever lost yourself in love for another human being and been willing to die for them and yet made alive by them. And on a day like today when we try and screw up our eyes to see what we know we cannot see, this is not dull even if it’s obscure – but it’s always amazing. A writer called Wendell Berry once wrote that ‘The mind that is not baffled is not employed.’[i] That’s so much so when it comes to theology.. We talk about mysteries. There are mysteries like an Agatha Christie story or mysteries like a Rubik cube or a cross word, when you can unscrabble the mystery and work it out. But then there’s a mystery like the face of someone you love, that you just can’t stop looking at, and you never ‘solve’ it – but the mystery and the joy get deeper. That’s the mystery that’s most like the mystery of God… and you don’t solve it, you enter it, you let yourself be folded into it. That’s what the mystery of God is like.
To talk about God as Father, Son and Spirit is to say above all that the mystery of God was revealed in Jesus Christ, that he was ‘of the same stuff’ as the God who created us. The dying man on the cross shows us what God has always been like. The Spirit that comes to us is at one with the Jesus who walked the earth.
We are newborns in the world God is bringing into being. We are like Nicodemus, who finally did see that even the place of death could be the place of the newly born. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but may have eternal life. This is the Gospel. It’s never been fully understood even by the cleverest of the archbishops of Canterbury, or even by our own theologians in the URC, but I’m enjoying giving my life to the attempt and all of my being, heart and soul to the welcoming of the Trinitarian life of God wherever it may be found. Thanks be to God, Amen.
[i] Berry, W. Standing by the Word, 2011, p.205