John 3:1-17 Common English Bible (CEB)
3 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit[b] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.[c] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One[d] be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
It is Trinity Sunday. We have heard the good news that the promised Holy Spirit has fallen upon the church, empowering and inspiring it to carry the good news of God’s love for the world. The focus of Pentecost is on the Holy Spirit, who is to accompany the church on its movement out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Trinity Sunday serves to remind us that this venture is a Trinitarian one. You don’t get one member of the Trinity without the other two being involved. Each person might have a specific duty affixed to their person, but even in their separateness there is oneness.
The reading from the Gospel of John is not an explicitly Trinitarian text, at least you won’t find a nicely laid out Trinitarian formula in the passage, but if you read the text from a Trinitarian vantage point you will see present here the activity of the God whom Christians understand to be Triune. The passage itself is rich in possibilities. You have Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus about the possibility (or impossibility) of being born anew. Nicodemus, like so many of us, thinks in literal/material ways, while Jesus thinks in spiritual terms. Nicodemus is trying to figure out how a person can get back in the womb in order to start over. That’s not what Jesus has in mind. There is a physical birth, but there is also a spiritual birth (a second birth). Being born of the Spirit means putting one’s self in the hands of God’s Spirit, who “blows wherever it wishes.” In my book on spiritual gifts, I have pointed to our relationship with the “unfettered Spirit.” The Spirit of God is not one to be controlled or manipulated. We can cooperate, but not control. That’s good news!
John also invites us to consider the role that God’s “only son” plays in the story of salvation. We are told that God loved the world (kosmos) so much that God gave or sent the Son into the world so that all who would believe in the Son might be saved. From this passage we see that both Son and Spirit are involved in God’s work of salvation. Those who believe in the Son will receive eternal life—that is, be born of the Spirit.
If we understand salvation in terms of being born of the Spirit, and that this is accomplished in and through the Son, we must also posit who the agent of this is—that would be God. What we see here is what theologians often call the “economic Trinity,” that is the Triune God whom we encounter in God’s activities. As theologian Joe Jones puts it:
Trinity is fundamentally about saying that the God of Israel has become incarnate in the creaturely otherness of Jew—named ‘Jesus’ and located in first century Palestine—for the salvation of the world through the Spirit. When we say ‘economic Trinity’ we are reminding ourselves of this specific narrative history of God’s self-identification. [On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times, p. 126].
Being born of the Spirit is a result of God’s loving determination to share with us eternal life, and it is through the Son whom God sent that this occurs. It would appear that the manner of this work of God involves the death of Jesus, for he is the one lifted up. God sends the Son (and the Spirit) for the purpose of redemption, not condemnation. Now it’s true that there is a flip side to the message of redemption. Those who receive the gift of grace are welcomed into the kingdom. As for those who do not believe, they have made the choice to receive condemnation. John takes the onus off of God and puts it on the one who resists.
For many of us this is a problematic element to the story. We welcome the message of being born of the Spirit and that God, in God’s love, sent the Son to express God’s loving invitation to share in salvation. We’re just not sure about the flip side. My own response is to read this passage in light of a larger vision of salvation, wherein God restores all humanity, indeed all of creation, to relationship with God. One can, I believe, see this in two ways—one that allows for transformation in this life through relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit that brings a fullness of life, while understanding that ultimate experience of kingdom life is a gift of God. It is true that there are many references to judgment in Scripture. But there are also many references to God’s grace and love that exceeds our own ability to respond. Turning again to Joe Jones, who speaks of Salvation in three forms, we can see how this works:
All persons are saved in God’s atoning and reconciling work in Jesus Christ (Salvation I). Christians are those who gratefully acknowledge this and strive to live by the Spirit (Salvation II). This living by the Spirit makes a real difference in a person’s life and is reason enough to witness before all humans to the wondrous things God has done on behalf of all. Christians also hope that all humans will ultimately saved by God’s sovereign resolve to be gracious and to gather all into God’s own eternal life (Salvation III). [ On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times, p. 122].
The invitation offered by Jesus to Nicodemus is to be born of the Spirit (born anew) and experience the love that God reveals to the world in Jesus. There is in receiving this grace the opportunity of living a transformed life, for the word of salvation is present both in this life and the life to come. This is a message worthy of Trinity Sunday, wherein we encounter God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother of us all.