Mysterious God (Trinity Sunday)

Sermons on YouTube…

Many of the characters in the Gospels – even some of the famous ones whose names we recognize – actually appear only once in the story of Jesus’ ministry.  Even some of the original 12 disciples are only mentioned by name in a list.  We really don’t know anything at all about them.

But in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus is different.  Nicodemus keeps popping up.  We meet him for the first time in today’s Gospel reading.  Later on, in chapter 7, he appears again during a meeting of the Jewish temple authorities.  And finally, he’s one of the last people to appear right after the crucifixion of Jesus, when John says that he joined Joseph of Arimathea (another guy hear about only once), to take the body of Jesus down from the cross and lay it in a tomb.

That’s actually a lot of times for anybody other than Jesus or one of his closest disciples to be mentioned by any Gospel writer.  In fact, Nicodemus appears more often than some of the closest disciples.  Yet for all times we encounter Nicodemus, he remains a mystery.  This is in spite of the fact that we know:

  • his name… (many of the people Jesus encounters aren’t named at all)
  • about his position in society… (he was a Pharisee, a leader and a member of the Sanhedrin – the ruling Temple Council…)
  • some of the things he said and did … (he actually even has a pretty long speaking part…!)

Yet Nicodemus remains a mystery, because some of the most important questions about him just don’t get answered, including:

  • did Nicodemus ever really become a “disciple” of Jesus?  Maybe, and maybe not – he’s never called a disciple and he never confesses Jesus to be the Messiah – and yet he’s one of two people with the guts to go and bury Jesus’ body instead of hiding out somewhere …
  • did Nicodemus ever figure out who Jesus was – he somehow knows that nobody can be like Jesus “apart from the presence of God”, but he doesn’t understand “how these things can be”; and Jesus’ answer in today’s Gospel reading honestly doesn’t seem all that helpful …!
  • why is it that Nicodemus made such a big impression that John felt the need to mention him at three different times in the story of Jesus – after all, there seem to be more significant disciples that could have merited getting the press …

Well, there are lots of theories.  But in the end, neither the Gospel of John nor any early Christian tradition can really answer those questions.  Nicodemus remains a mystery.  And probably, Jesus remained somewhat of a mystery to Nicodemus as well.  Maybe Nicodemus never did fully figure out who Jesus was.  Maybe Nicodemus never fully understood how God was working in Jesus.  And maybe Nicodemus never did understand all this stuff about the Spirit and being born from above.

Yet in spite of the fact that Nicodemus never seems to fully figure God out, John’s Gospel presents Nicodemus as somebody who never gave up on God, even if he wasn’t quite sure what God was doing.  For in spite of the fact that Nicodemus finds what God is doing in Jesus to be a mystery to him, he nevertheless:

  • was open to experiencing the presence of God in his life, even in unexpected ways in and in unexpected people… (Jesus, was, after all, not the person he’d expect to find God in…)
  • kept asking questions, even when he didn’t fully understand the answers Jesus gave him…
  • took the initiative to act, even when his actions put his reputation and perhaps even his life at risk, to keep searching for what God was doing in the life of the world…

Nicodemus, it seems, didn’t give up on God, even and especially when God and God’s works remained a mystery to him. And perhaps that makes him an especially good person to remember on this weekend when we contemplate the Trinity – the teaching that there really is only One God, but that God is revealed to us in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity was never intended to make it possible for anybody to neatly figure God out, to put God into a nice philosophical box (or perhaps 3 boxes!), or to take away the mystery of God.

Actually, the doctrine of the Trinity simply developed as a way of expressing the very thing Nicodemus recognized – that God was fully in Jesus, and that nobody could do what Jesus did apart from the full presence of God. 

And so, in reality, today isn’t about explaining God as much as it is about living in a relationship with our mysterious God who can never by fully explained or understood by us.

So what then, is this day all about for us?  We can’t fully solve the mystery of Nicodemus, let alone the mystery of God!  But perhaps the example of Nicodemus is a helpful way to look at continuing to grow in a living relationship with our mysterious, triune God.  For even when we can’t fully figure out who God is or what God is doing in our lives, Jesus invites us, like Nicodemus to be people who continue each day to:

  • be open to the presence and activity of God in ways and in people we didn’t expect… (that was the first key for Nicodemus, and that’s often how each of us experiences the surprising presence of God in our lives …)
  • be people who keep asking questions… (even if the answers aren’t there or don’t seem to make sense, the process of asking and seeking understanding is itself the path, as it was for Nicodemus, to continue to grow in our relationship with God …)
  • act in faith that God isn’t done with us… (it would have been easy for Nicodemus to figure that, after Jesus’ death, whatever God may have been doing in him was over.  But Nicodemus was one of the few people after Jesus’ death still willing to act in hope that what God had begun wasn’t over.  And when we act in whatever ways we feel moved by God to act in our world, it just may be that God is making us into people who advance the cause of hope and new life in a world that always feels like it’s dying…)

Today isn’t about figuring out or explaining God.  Instead, it’s about how God continues to reach out to us even when God seems too mysterious.  It’s about how God continues to invite our searching and our questions, even when we don’t understand the answers.  And it’s about how God continues to invite us to live into a relationship with him through Jesus, even and perhaps especially, when that relationship involves experiencing God’s presence in new and different ways.