Today is Trinity Sunday. It is on this day that we celebrate the Holy Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We can trace the origin of this celebration back to our 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, whose first act as Archbishop was to ordain that the day of his consecration should be held as a new festival in honour of the Holy Trinity. Today, in church we say that we worship and glorify the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we sing hymns of praise to the Trinity.
These confident and open expressions of our faith stand in contrast to the elements of privacy and secrecy that we find in the New Testament. These elements demonstrate that the path to the formulation of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was not one filled throughout with the proclamation of the glory of God but fraught with debate, critique, and uncertainty. It is this rocky path that evokes a powerful response by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading as I shall reveal. Powerful because the aim of John’s Gospel is to affirm the glory of God.
With this in mind, let us then reflect upon today’ reading. John tells us that Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus in the night time rather than the day time for a private discussion to find out more about him as he is curious to know more about Jesus as a teacher who has come from God. We are not told why Nicodemus comes in the night. It might imply secrecy but it may be because John wishes us to view him as being in the dark until he has moved towards the light of faith.
Nicodemus sees himself as a fellow teacher with Jesus but Jesus is one who can do signs and this, Nicodemus concludes, means the presence of God. In his Biblical Commentary, Jerome suggests there may be an influence here of Jewish legal tradition as in this tradition ‘the agent is like the one who sent him’. This powerful conclusion may account for the privacy of their discussion as such a position would bestow on Jesus an authority that might not be accepted by the Jewish leaders. If not accepted, then that would put all parties concerned in danger.
This element of privacy, though, is then blown apart by Jesus in his response to Nicodemus. Blown apart in his openness about his fate as ‘the Son of Man’ ‘who will be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’. Jesus says to Nicodemus that he speaks of what he knows and testifies to what he has seen. Nothing hidden here and this openness, with the exception of the furtive arrival of Nicodemus, is characteristic of John’s Gospel as opposed to the secrecy found in the remaining Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus urges his disciples to keep his divinity secret. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus orders and commands his disciples ‘not to tell anyone’ of the suffering he is to undergo as the Son of Man.
In John, though, we have the opposite. Throughout his Gospel, John writes that Jesus is divine, pre-existent and identified with the one God, talking openly about his divine role with seven ‘I am’ declarations of his own: ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the gate for the sheep’, ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life and, finally, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’.
These statements are bold and open but, as today’s Gospel reading makes clear, they require an understanding of what is meant by baptism as it is baptism that gives them their full meaning. Jesus teaches Nicodemus that their meaning rests in our ability to see the Kingdom of God and we cannot have that vision without baptism. If you are to enter the Kingdom of God it is not just to be born of the flesh but to be born of the water and the Spirit. I would add here St.Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he writes that with our spirit we are children of God, then heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. We have just come through Pentecost when we thanked God for the gifts of this spirit: wisdom, peace, healing, fruit and breath. All this made possible through baptism.
In spite of such awe inspiring statements, Nicodemus has not heard enough to be persuaded, and still asks the question: ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus reprimands him but then produces a resounding response for Nicodemus in what will be the climax of God’s loving purpose for mankind. He says that the Son of Man will be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. We are not given any reaction to this final affirmation by Nicodemus but we can see in the later texts of John’s Gospel that he is at least sympathetic to Jesus and after the Crucifixion we learn that he brought myrrh and aloes to wrap linen cloths around the body of Jesus. As this was done in daylight we could say that he has shifted from the darkness of unbelief towards the light of belief.
Let us hope and pray, particularly while the pandemic hovers around us, that we too can remain in the daylight in affirming the presence of God in our lives, as we do upon this Trinity Sunday.