Trinity Sunday B –The Rev. Claudia Merritt
Trinity Sunday (B)
June 3, 2012
St. Paul’s, Richmond
Our Gospel this morning might be referred to as “a meaty text”. By that preachers mean there is way too much there and it’s tough to know where to begin, and being John’s Gospel, it is very heady and theological. We have Jesus talking about being born again, descending and ascending to heaven, the Spirit, heavenly things, earthly things, Moses, and finally God’s profound love for us. Wow! An entire year at seminary!
There is, however, a glue that holds all this together. It is a conversation between two people, and more specifically it is a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. All the theological reflection may or may not speak to us. Maybe we understand it all and maybe not, but we do get Nicodemus and where he is coming from. And we do get our desire to turn to God.
Nicodemus appears three times in John’s gospel--he must have spoken deeply to the faith community surrounding John. This morning is the first time we meet him. The next time he appears is in chapter 7 defending Jesus to his fellow Pharisees. Finally, toward the end of John, we meet Nicodemus bringing spices and helping Joseph of Arimathaea bury Jesus; in fact it is Nicodemus who performs that final act of love anointing Jesus for burial.
Nicodemus is important! He is all of us.
This morning we hear how he encounters Jesus at night—in the cover of darkness. Nicodemus is a leader in the religious establishment. He is supposed to have it all together. Right? People would come to him for answers to their questions of the spirit. He is the successful modern day executive or lawyer or doctor, well known in the community. He is admired and perhaps even envied. It looks to the outside world as though he lives a perfect life in a perfect neighborhood with perfect children. In a crisis he has the answers. Even his peers listen when he speaks.
We all know people like this.
Who would suspect that underneath the public veneer, Nicodemus’ world is shifting, that his spirit is disquieted? In the dark when our defenses are at their lowest, when we think we are safe, the turmoil and questions in our lives bubble over. Darkness becomes Nicodemus’ friend. In the darkness of night his truest yearnings appear and in the cover of darkness he, like so many of us, seeks God. Too often our life in the light and our life in the dark diverge. Our souls and our roles part company.
How many of us live our lives one way during the day, in the sunlight, and then go home and live another life in the protection of darkness? The older person who spends an entire day trying to maintain the appearance of normal cognitive function and come evening sinks exhaustedly into the place where memories are no more? Or the person who fights overwhelming sadness or anxiety day after day, and when the evening comes, cries far into the night? Or the person whose sexual orientation, if it were known, would keep him or her from total acceptance and love; that is until the night comes and it is safe to be true to him or herself? The cover of darkness opens us to our deepest selves. It is the place of our soul’s wrestling, the place where we find God next to us and the place where we feel God’s absence most acutely.
And so it was for Nicodemus. He had witnessed Jesus teach; he had heard his stories; he had seen him heal hurting people. He knew about lives transformed. “But what about me,” thought Nicodemus? “I am a man who tries to live faithfully; why isn’t life making sense any more?” His inner voice asks. In his crisis this faithful Jew, this leader of the religious community, somehow felt he could trust Jesus with his struggle: the gap that exists between our nighttime truth and our daytime practice. He asks the question that lives beneath the questions all of us ask in the safety of darkness: how can transformation of life, how can rebirth happen for me? How can this life I have so carefully constructed over so many years with so much effort be reborn into a life of wholeness that gives me more peace and more joy and more love? I suspect Nicodemus was weeping when he finally approached Jesus with his question, weeping with relief that the unsayable had been said, weeping with fear that there would be no answer, weeping with grief over what his life had lacked, or over what he might be about to lose. This is how many of us approach God. We come to God is just this kind of disquiet and pain.
Jesus answered Nicodemus with a love for him that wanted nothing but fullness of life for him. He saw in him his struggle and he saw how much he had risked to come to him. He said, “You must be born from above. The Spirit blows where it chooses . . . you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.”
Jesus is reminding us that we are not the agents of our own transformation. The growing harmony between our true self that appears in the cover of darkness and the life we show the world in the day is not born of earthly things. It is only God who can transform us through love. We cannot will the return of fading memory or the banishment of depression and anxiety. We cannot will our sexual orientation nor can we will people to love us as God made us. We cannot will ourselves to like the people we are called to love. We cannot will our spiritual growth. Even at our most determined and stubborn, there is little we can truly will. Rather it is the Spirit blowing/breathing that brings life to our struggles. It is the Spirit of God before us, beside us, around us, and within us that blows us closer and closer to God.
Jesus doesn’t really tell us how this happens. Throughout their conversation Jesus never give Nicodemus the formula for change. We don’t see a man outwardly different from the one we saw at the beginning of the story. Nicodemus may have gone away dissatisfied and confused. But did something happened. The Spirit did blow where it chose. Simply encountering Jesus, simply letting God love us irrationally does change us. We are made more whole. We do find a deeper peace and more joy. We do experience and share a more profound love. Nicodemus was changed. The frightened struggling person we first met risked his life defending Jesus to religious leaders and then tended him after the crucifixion. He was no longer the Pharisee that went to see Jesus in the cover of night. The Spirit breaths where it will and Nicodemus is reborn.
Our encounters with God in the darkness of the night change our lives in the daylight.