Holy Trinity B—5/31/15
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Pr. Scott Kramer
Funny the things we remember from childhood. I don’t remember much but for some reason I think of toys. Some of the first toys I remember were spy toys. Those of you of a certain age may remember decoder rings, invisible ink pens. One of my favorites was a toy gun from 1964. I didn’t know anything about the Cold War but I knew that I liked this spy gun. It looked like a portable transistor radio but it folded out into a rifle and you could shoot caps to make it sound more realistic.
The world of spies is still fascinating to small boys. Grown-ups, too! In the 21st century we’re hearing a lot about cyber warfare, hacking into computers to steal secrets from governments and corporations.
Spies are nothing new. They show up in the Bible, too. Nicodemus, for example, is a powerful religious leader who appears in today’s reading from John’s gospel. He doesn’t fit what we imagine a spy looks like but he sounds and acts like a spy. He approaches Jesus at night. One of you in class last Sunday noticed that in addressing Jesus he uses the word “we”: We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. Who is “we”? Well, Nicodemus has been sent by other Pharisees who are troubled by this Jesus who has been attracting so much attention with his teachings and miracle healings.
As he listens to Jesus, Nicodemus is bewildered by what he hears because Pharisees were all about being in right relationship with God by keeping the laws of God, and they had come up with 613 laws! Jesus, however, spoke to Nicodemus not of laws but of Spirit. Laws can be pinned down but not so the Holy Spirit.
Last Sunday was the Day of Pentecost, our major celebration of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus speaks to this teacher of the law about something more important than laws. 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, Jesus says.
Nicodemus was sent as a spy. He went with the intention not so much of learning from Jesus but to see if Jesus supported what Nicodemus and the other Pharisees already believed. So what do you think? What is our motivation in coming to worship and hearing the teachings of Christ?
Many of us, like Nicodemus, are religious people. Whether or not we consider ourselves religious, all of us are likely convinced of our beliefs, sent to Jesus as “spies.” We are sent as representatives of our friends, and family, of nation and political party and economic self-interest. We are sent as representatives of our habits and beliefs. We are sent to come before Jesus as spies; we listen to see if what we hear squares with what we already believe.
The Seattle International Film Festival is drawing to a close. One of the films my wife and I saw recently was called Racing Extinction. It’s a documentary about the rapid disappearance of many animal species due to habitat loss and climate change. It’s possible that by the end of the century half of all species will have disappeared.
When confronted with what we don’t believe or don’t want to hear our human response is often resistance. We respond with skepticism, denial, choosing to ignore what’s uncomfortable even when the evidence is right in front of us. When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about things that were at odds with what he believed, Nicodemus replied, How can these things be?
And yet, something happened in this encounter with Jesus. It didn’t happen all at once but by the end of this story Nicodemus was no longer just a spy. No doubt he returned to the other Pharisees and gave them the report they were looking for but the Holy Spirit moves, as Jesus said, wherever it wants to, and the Holy Spirit was at work in Nicodemus. We know this because after Jesus was crucified Nicodemus, the curious skeptic who had first approached Jesus at night, now comes to Jesus’ tomb in broad daylight with a hundred pounds of burial spices. Nicodemus the spy was becoming Nicodemus the disciple.
Today we celebrate the Holy Trinity, traditionally called Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in modern times often called Creator, Redeemer and Spirit. We have a hard time understanding how anything can be “three and yet one” at the same time. It is mystery. Nicodemus had little patience with mystery, wanting to reduce relationship with God to a set of rules. So also we are uncomfortable with a God who will not be bound by our ideas, rules, priorities or beliefs.
Jesus speaks to this teacher of the law about something more important than laws, more important than rules. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above,” Jesus said. 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.
When Jesus spoke of being born from above he was speaking of what Paul in his letter to the Romans calls “children of God.” Children of God are not bound by a long list of laws and rules. Children of God have one rule, and one rule only, as Jesus taught: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul and with all your strength—and your neighbor as yourself. When it comes to rules, love is the only thing that matters.
But what kind of love? John writes that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. These are powerful words for our time. The Biblical word for “world” is actually “cosmos.” If God loves the whole cosmos, that includes all of humanity–but not just humanity. It includes the whole creation. If saving the world is God’s #1 mission, then saving the world is our #1 mission.
Dear friends in Christ, like Nicodemus we come before Jesus as spies. We represent our friends and family, our nation and political party, our class, race, economic self-interest, exclusive claims for sexual identity–to name but a few–listening for whatever will allow us to continue those beliefs. But laws can be stifling and oppressive. The Spirit moves according to the law of love, outside our categories and limits. The Spirit is all about conversion and transformation of hearts and minds.
God so loved the world. God so loves the whole world, the whole creation, the whole human creation–and that includes spies! But the Holy Spirit is doing its transforming work among us even now, changing hearts and minds from spies…to disciples!