CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: How We Get Here from There
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
- John 3:1-17
Sometimes we talk as if the Trinity is the problem, when the opposite is true: The Trinity solves the problem.
We would very much like to keep Christianity simple. It is about just one thing: Jesus. We try to keep our eyes on Jesus, walk with Jesus, follow Jesus—that is all we need. All we have to do, as Jesus himself says in John 3:16, is believe in him, him alone. And yet, here comes that strange Christian doctrine of tri-unity, which turns one into Three but says three is still One, and asks us to take all of this as an essential matter of faith. How can this be anything but a needless complication?
But as Jesus’ famous after-hours chat with Nicodemus shows us, the complication is already there. Especially after the Ascension, when the full import of Jesus’ words about being “lifted up” becomes clear, the problem is staring us in the face. We want to follow Jesus—but he’s not actually here in front of us anymore. Where did he go, and how in the world do we get there from here?
Only the Trinity solves the problem.
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Of course, Christians wouldn’t say that our doctrine of a Three-in-One God is merely an attempt at explanation, a kind of “best guess” at what’s going on in the Godhead based on the evidence available. We would say that, above all, it’s true: God always and everywhere truly is, in nature and in action, one God in three united Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we have arrived at that truth, not because it’s explicitly stated to us anywhere in Scripture, but rather because it’s the only way to make sense of what is there in Scripture, in passages like this. And, what’s more, it’s the only way to make sense of the predicament we find ourselves in when we turn from Scripture to our own lives.
We can start where Nicodemus starts: with the hunch that Jesus, the wonder-worker who seems to come out of nowhere, “has come from God.” And our encounter with this one who has “descended from heaven” creates in us the same desire that Nicodemus has, the desire, as Jesus himself puts it, to “see the kingdom of God.” We sense the intimacy between Jesus and God, and we want to occupy the same intimacy ourselves.
There’s just one problem, Jesus says: We can’t. In our current state, in our current position, we can’t get there. Again, this problem becomes painfully obvious after the Ascension, when Jesus is literally lifted “up, up, and away” before our very eyes. We’re left down here, wondering with those first disciples how we’re supposed to follow Jesus now, asking, with Nicodemus, how in the world we, too, can be “born from above.”
Our problem can only be solved by factoring in yet one more element in the equation, this mysterious Spirit Jesus mentions. Only by being bound together with this Spirit in a watery rebirth can we be bound together, as we desire, with Jesus and his Father in the kingdom of God.
* * *
Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus will call the Spirit the Comforter (John:14:26, KJV), but already here in John 3 we begin to see the depth of comfort the Spirit offers those who long to be with God, and in God. Indeed, the whole doctrine of the Trinity comforts us, testifying to the truth of a God who does not live alone but in communion, who does not leave us alone either, sending first the Son down from heaven to point us to the kingdom and bestowing next the Holy Spirit to draw us upward after the Son into the very embrace of God.
And, perhaps best of all, being reborn in the Spirit we find the embrace of God has already enveloped us here, that the kingdom of God is not only “up there” but is coming “down here” in our midst, taking root in the wake of the Spirit’s exhalations.
We do not find in this mystery the solution to all our problems, nor the answer to all our questions, but we do find a way to move forward, a way to keep following. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Philip Zoutendam is the curate at St. Titus', Durham.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus