Yesterday afternoon we had the privilege of witnessing the marriage of the newest additions to our church family. I am pleased to announce that Zach and Alex were united in the covenant of Christian marriage in this sanctuary at that time.
Traditionally, this time of year is wedding season. The days are longer, the weather is warmer, and the green in the gardens, fields and forests is more abundant. In fact, it seems everywhere we look, we the conditions and signs of new growth, which makes this season an especially appropriate one for weddings. For weddings represent to us new growth in the form of a new life together, the promise of children, the formation of a new family.
There is an old teacher in Israel. His name is Nicodemus. He is a public figure, admired and envied by all the important people. What makes him stand out in his circle, however, is his interest in Jesus. It may be hard for us to imagine it now, but Jesus was a nobody compared to Nicodemus. He did not have influence. And if he had a reputation, it was not a positive one, at least among the ruling class. But Nicodemus sees something in him. There is something about who he is, about what he does, that prompts him to investigate. How could Jesus perform these signs about which Nicodemus was hearing unless God were with him? He is intrigued. He wants to know more.
Parenthetically, let us note here that, regardless of what we may think about old Nicodemus, this is a healthy impulse. Throughout his Gospel, John tells us vivid stories about how people came to faith in Jesus. This is in accord with the purpose of his writing: he tells us that he writes these things so that we the readers may come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that, by believing, may have life in his name (John 20:31). Almost without exception those people in John’s stories begin tentatively. They have questions that need answers, and so they risk entering into a dialogue with Jesus.
How important this is–and remains–for us can be seen from the following example. There was a woman who went to her friend to tell her about her relationship problems. The friend listened empathically. When the woman finished venting, the friend asked her: “Are you two still talking?” The friend sensed that as long as the couple kept the dialogue going, there was still hope for the relationship.
So it is, it seems to me, in our faith relationship with God. God is not put off by our questions. On the contrary, he welcomes them. It is only when we no longer go to him with our questions, when we no longer keep the dialogue going, that our faith relationship is weakened and in need of repair.
So Nicodemus enters into a dialogue with Jesus. Perhaps that was why he came to him at night in the first place. He imagines that it’s then that Jesus will be free from distractions and able to give him his undivided attention.
But the dialogue does not go as planned. Jesus’ response to him is unexpected. His interest is not in discussing the source of his miraculous signs; but rather the reality of Nicodemus’ relationship with God.
God creates people. It’s implied in the Nicene creed we will recite later this morning “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of all that is, seen and unseen.” But God also recreates people. That is, in his Son, Jesus Christ, God comes to give new life, hope and renewal to people. Jesus wants Nicodemus to know this. That is why he tells him that he must be born from above. There is no symbol more powerful than that of birth to convey this truth. Nicodemus is an old man; he has long since left infancy and childhood behind him. He came to talk to Jesus about matters of concern to old men, not about matters of concern to young married couples ready to have their own family. And yet Jesus talks to him about new life in the language of birth and, by implication, children and family. From Jesus’ point of view, it’s never too late to undergo this new birth. We are never too old.
Of course, all this sounds utterly outrageous to Nicodemus. How could we expect otherwise? How does one enter into his mother’s womb a second time to be born? But, of course, Jesus is talking about a spiritual reality. We the readers know this. Already at the beginning of the Gospel this reality is announced. “To all who received him [that is, Jesus], to all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
We heard about this power last Sunday, the Day of Pentecost. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…” The Holy Spirit is the power that enabled the disciples to witness to Jesus, to proclaim what God had done through him. The Holy Spirit was powerfully at work in the preaching of the gospel and in the conversion of those who responded to it then. Our expectation is that the Holy Spirit will continue to work powerfully in the preaching of the gospel and in those who respond to it now.
This Sunday, which is Trinity Sunday, we learn about the effect of this power. It makes those who respond to the gospel into God’s own children. This is trinitarian reality, one that we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday. Out of his great love, the Father sent his Son into the world, that those who receive him become God’s own children by the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we turn to our first lesson, we find the Apostle Paul making this very point. When we placed our faith in Christ, and were baptized into him, we received the Holy Spirit. This is not a spirit of slavery that leads to fear; it is the Spirit of sonship, the Spirit of daughterhood, that leads to intimacy and trust. This is captured in the word “Abba,” which little children in the Apostle Paul’s day addressed to their fathers. It is a term of endearment and intimacy and trust. The nearest equivalent in our own language is the word “daddy.”
Children who are secure in the love of their parents are free from fear. They are totally devoid of self-consciousness. They run around and play, and don’t care who’s watching. Sometime in adolescence that comes to an end. We become self-conscious. We care about what other people think of us, especially the popular people. Perhaps this is the real reason why Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night. He does not want the important people to see him associate with their social inferior, because he cared about what they thought about him.
Jesus offers to Nicodemus, a new possibility, one in which he can be free from those hang-ups. In short, Jesus is inviting him to be a child again. Not to do over again his relationship with his mother. But to enter into a new relationship with God. Before meeting Jesus, Nicodemus knew God as the Almighty, the Sovereign Lord of the universe. God is those things, to be sure. But those things point up the vast distance between God and us. But after meeting Jesus, Nicodemus could have known God as Father, to have known an intimacy and trust in his relationship with God he never knew before. At least Jesus opens up that possibility to him. If Nicodemus were to seize this possibility, he would have lived into a freedom that he had not known since he was a child.
In our lessons we hear about a God who wants to relate to us, not as a master to a slave, but as a Father to his children. A slave has no permanent place in the household, but the children remain always. When we are united with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through baptism and faith, we become members of the family of God. Secure in the love of our Father, we too can live in freedom. We can live in confidence that our prayers are heard, because they are addressed to a Father who concerns himself with our needs. We can live with the sense that we belong, because there is always a place at the family table for us. And we can live with hope for the future, because the inheritance of the Son is ours too, because we have been adopted into the family, made siblings with him, and siblings with one another.
All this is too wonderful, to mysterious to comprehend, but it is what the gospel on this Trinity Sunday proclaims to us today.
Celebrating our adoption as children of God reminds me of something Richard Lischer wrote in his book The End of Words. He tells of stories we can never tire of telling or hearing—and the story about how we by the Spirit get to call God “Abba” should be one of those stories:
“When the adopted child repeatedly asks her parents to recount the events surrounding her adoption, the story must remain the same. And woe to the one who introduces omissions or changes in the sacred formula. “And then out of all the babies in the orphanage you chose me, right?” Could parents ever tire of telling that story? Would they ever dare substitute another for it? If telling God’s story strikes us as repetitious, that is because it is. It is repetitious the way the Lord’s Supper is repetitious, the way a favorite melody or gestures of love are repetitious, the way the mercies of God that come to us every morning repetitious . . . Such stories do not entertain, they do something fare better. They sustain. They do not inform, they form those who share and hear them for a life of faithfulness.”
In summary, it would be hard to talk about ourselves as the family of God if God were not triune. Put otherwise, only as we affirm God as a Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—can we talk about ourselves as God’s children.
We mentioned that we are going to be reciting the Nicene Creed this morning. First, let us sketch some background. The early church struggled over the biblical witness to God’s self-revelation and had to work out what it believed. In the fourth century, there was a priest in Egypt named Arius who denied the Trinity, causing confusion among the churches. His bishop Alexander had to intervene. The issue became so troubling that all the churches decided to convene an ecumenical council, where they could work out what they believed concerning God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This happened at Nicaea in 325. Later, when those who opposed the church’s decision there continued to stir up trouble, the churches decided to hold a second ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381, where they further refined their belief in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
From this council we have the Nicene Creed in its final form. It is recited in Catholic and Orthodox churches each Sunday. In the Protestant churches, it is seldom used, except on the rare occasion, such as Trinity Sunday. But it has been received as the standard of Christian orthodoxy in almost all the Christian churches, including the Presbyterian Church, even up to the present day. On this Trinity Sunday we have the occasion to affirm our faith in the historic Christian faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.