Trinity Sunday, Year B
“Born OK the first time,” the bumper sticker read.
Many who read it likely wondered what it meant. Of those who knew what it meant, many of those were likely offended. A small handful of people knew what it meant and chuckled. Born OK the first time, no need to be born again. All is well here. I admit to being in the third category of people named above. I knew what the bumper sticker meant and I chuckled. A Presbyterian growing up in the South, I’d run up against being asked, “Are you saved?” or “When were you saved?” multiple times. I’d even been asked if I had been born again. Nope. Born OK the first time. Saved a few thousand years ago with Jesus’ death and resurrection. All is well. Nothing to see here. Thanks (no thanks) for asking.
I stand by my Presbyterian response to the “Are you saved?” question. I lean toward the Study Catechism’s answer to question 38: “Will all human beings be saved? No one will be lost who can be saved. The limits to salvation, whatever they may be, are known only to God. Three truths above all are certain. God is a holy God who is not to be trifled with. No one will be saved except by grace alone. And no judge could possibly be more gracious than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” I appreciate Calvin and predestination, painful as it is to read sentences like these: “We call ‘predestination’ God’s eternal plan by which He has determined what He wanted to do with each person. For He did not create all in like condition, but He ordains some to eternal life, others to eternal damnation, so according to the end for which a person is created, we say that he is predestined to life or to death.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541 French Edition)
Perhaps all is not well, but, clearly, the limits of salvation, whatever they are, are known only to God and determined solely by God. That’s the gift, really, of our Reformed theology. Salvation is unearned, works righteousness a foolish notion, our making a decision for Christ pure hubris. Jesus says, “I chose you, you did not choose me.”
But here we have Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, seeking Jesus out in the night because he knows there is something powerful and important about this teacher sent from God who performs remarkable signs. The descriptors of each character in this story are worth noting. A Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews who calls Jesus by the title Rabbi, one who has come from God, evident through the signs he does. These descriptors are correct of each, but both lacking as well. Nicodemus cannot fully see the kingdom of God, religious leader though he is, he mistakes Jesus for an earthy Rabbi rather than the Messiah, the Son of God, not just from God but of God. Nicodemus, Pharisee, leader of the Jews, is not yet a disciple of Jesus Christ because of his lack of vision, his inability to call Jesus not just Rabbi, but Lord. Born OK the first time, but blind from birth. Unable to see what’s here. Unable to see who is here, right in front of him.
That’s what is at stake in this exchange. Nicodemus lacks the vision to see the kingdom of God come to earth and standing right in front of him. The ability to see precludes the confession of faith and that vision comes through submitting to the power of the Spirit and the water. The Spirit blows where it wills. The agency belongs to God, but let’s give Nicodemus his due: He gave in to the promptings that brought him to Jesus that night, promptings that will continue until we read of Nicodemus joining Joseph of Arimathea at the time of Jesus’ burial. “Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with spices in linen cloths, a according to the burial customs of the Jews … and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:39-42). Nicodemus, it would seem, has come to see Jesus differently than he did in the middle of the night. Nicodemus, Pharisee, leader of the Jews, follower of Jesus, his understanding of the Rabbi so changed that his understanding of himself is transformed as a result, so radically new and different it might best be described as being born again.
The question is not “Are you saved?” but instead, “Do you see?” It’s like those drawings that contain an old couple and a young woman — even when we know both images are there, usually we can only recognize one or the other and willing ourselves to see the one we don’t never works. Instead we must simply continue to look, be patient and open to the possibility that there is more than what we first observed and allow the image to appear as if from out of nowhere, always there but only now can we see it.
Rabbi, teacher from God, Jesus. That’s who and what we see in the dark of night. Powerful signs that get our attention and move us closer to the One performing them because we are curious and want to know more. That’s all we know. We don’t yet see the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Lord, our Lord. The winds of the Spirit have gotten us this far, but the water and the Spirit still need to work on us more. Jesus says we must be born again and we take that literally and don’t understand. We wonder what in the world he is talking about. We leave confused by this Rabbi, a teacher who should make things clearer, not muddy the waters. We are born OK the first time, after all.
Yet we can’t stop thinking about Jesus’ words, the signs, the power of his presence. Something even emboldens us to speak up to those in our own circles on behalf of Jesus. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, says to the chief priests and other Pharisees who want the temple police to arrest Jesus, “Wait a minute, that’s not how our laws work.” Nicodemus sees that justice is being perverted by his tribe and he does one of the most difficult things there is to do: He stands up to his own friends, leaders and colleagues. He stands up for the very one they want to condemn. He says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” To which his fellow Pharisees respond: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”
Nicodemus did search and what he saw, what he is beginning to see, might be so radically different that what he expected, what he previously thought he knew, it could be characterized as a new birth.
The question for us on this Trinity Sunday is not: Are you saved? But rather: Do you see? What we see reveals if we have indeed been born again and how we describe Jesus, and therefore how we understand ourselves, makes our new vision evident to others. Rabbi, teacher from God, Son of God, Messiah, Lord of all, my Lord and Savior, the one for whom I will stand even at the risk of losing my closest allies and friends, even at the risk of my own life because I am not only or primarily a religious leader, but a follower of Jesus Christ. Born OK the first time, but through the water and the Spirit born again, now able to see the kingdom of God right in front of me, all around us, never absent from us. Everything to see, here.
- Have you ever been asked if you were born again or when were you saved? How did you respond? What is the value of thinking of salvation as incumbent upon our making a conscious decision to follow Jesus? What is the theological danger in that approach?
- In our Reformed understanding that salvation is through grace alone, faith alone, do we risk losing accountability for our actions and the way we live? If there are risks to understanding “personal salvation” as reliant on our making a choice, what are the theological hazards of election and predestination?
- How does your faith in Jesus Christ make a difference in your daily living? Is it evident that you have been born by water and the Spirit?
- Have you experienced a radical experience of “new seeing”? A conversion experience? What happened? How did your life change as a result?
- Nicodemus is named three times in John’s Gospel: the text appointed for Trinity Sunday, again in chapter 7:50-51 and finally in chapter 19:39-42. Read each of these passages. What do you make of these descriptions of Nicodemus? Do you see a progression in his understanding of who Jesus is? How has your understanding of Jesus evolved?
- How does this text from John inform your understanding of the Trinity?
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