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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Trinity Sunday 06/03/2012

Nicodemus is the featured character in today’s gospel reading and he’s a good character for us to think about on this day when we honor our high school graduates; we can learn some things from him.  In thinking about him though, we do have to read between the lines a little bit because we don’t know a lot about Nicodemus.  What we do know is that he was a Pharisee and while that is a term that has taken on somewhat negative connotations when we hear it because Pharisees were often the ones trying to trap Jesus in various ways, that negative view of the Pharisees wasn’t the case in Jesus’ time.  The Pharisees were religious leaders, keepers of the traditions of Judaism, well educated, probably involved in teaching, probably called on to settle disputes that might come up relative to religious laws, the lawyers of their day.  So while we don’t know for sure exactly what Nicodemus’ role would have been as a Pharisee, he was without much question a leader in the community, a well respected man about town. 

So what was he doing, having this late night rendezvous with Jesus who was not a well respected man about town, at least not well respected among the kind of people that Nicodemus hung around with?  What was Nicodemus up to?  I suppose that it could be that he was commissioned by the other Pharisees to go see what he could find out about Jesus, a part of their plot to get Jesus, but if that were the case Nicodemus wouldn’t have to go under cover of darkness.  Going at night as he does it seems like he doesn’t want anyone to know about this meeting so I don’t think he’s just gathering information they can use against Jesus.

Curiosity could be a factor; Jesus did have a reputation so it could be that Nicodemus just wanted to find out more, to see what all the fuss was about, because there was a fuss.  Curiosity was probably part of Nicodemus’ motivation but I get the idea that it was more than just wanting to find out what everyone was talking about.   It seems like Nicodemus thought that maybe his fellow Pharisees were wrong about Jesus, that there really might be something about Jesus that was worth knowing and experiencing.  It’s that kind of curiosity that makes Nicodemus a rather compelling character who we can learn from.

Here he is, a religious leader, trained in the traditions of his faith, someone who others might come to for answers, yet with enough humility to acknowledge that maybe there was more.  As settled and knowledgeable as he was in his tradition, he apparently didn’t assume that he had it all figured out.  He had heard enough about Jesus that he couldn’t just dismiss him as the troublemaker and blasphemer that the prevailing wisdom said he was.  Nicodemus was able to acknowledge that maybe he didn’t know it all, that maybe he didn’t have all the answers.  Nicodemus was open minded.

For young people graduating from high school, preparing for college, that’s good to remember.  As much as you know or think you know, there are always things you don’t know and that’s true even with things about which you think you know a lot or at least enough.  The humility of Nicodemus is worth paying attention to.  He knew what he didn’t know.

He had every reason to be dismissive of Jesus, condescending toward him, but instead Nicodemus came to Jesus, curious but not really knowing what to expect and what he got from Jesus probably surprised him or at least it did if he was looking for straight answers because he really didn’t get any.

In a manner typical of John’s gospel Jesus doesn’t give straight answers, he often doesn’t even give answers that appear to have much to do with the questions asked.  What he does is answer with questions or images that can be frustrating because they don’t provide the absolutes or the certainty that the questioner is seeking or that those of us who read the questions many years later are seeking.  What Jesus does in this conversation with Nicodemus is to awaken his imagination with poetic words about the wind and being born again and being born from above.  They’re not images that provide the kind of answers Nicodemus or we might want, but what Jesus’ answers do, if we let them, is move us closer to understanding the reality of God, a reality that can’t be proved by scientific means, but can only be experienced. 

At first Nicodemus could only hear Jesus’ words as literal which wasn’t going to get him very far, but while we don’t know for sure how all this played out, it would appear that Nicodemus left Jesus that night having begun a relationship with him.  His journey with Jesus wasn’t over just because he didn’t get it right away.  He does show up two more times in the gospel, once among his fellow Pharisees offering a mild defense of Jesus against their accusations and again following Jesus’ crucifixion bring spices to anoint his body for burial. 

The images Jesus left him with that night apparently had an effect because at some point Nicodemus figured out that life isn’t all about straight answers and that too is a good thing to remember.  It’s important for all of us, but particularly for the graduates, don’t lose a sense of wonder and imagination and curiosity that lets you wrestle not just for scientifically provable facts, but with the ambiguity and mystery of life, the ambiguity and mystery of God.  Contrary to what some might tell you, sometimes that’s where the deepest truths and answers are found.

Speaking of the mystery of God, today, in addition to being graduation recognition Sunday is also Trinity Sunday, a Sunday on which we consider the central doctrine of the church, the doctrine of the Trinity which is the doctrine that makes an effort to describe God in light of Jesus.    When you were all confirmed a few years ago you confessed your faith in God described as Trinity in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.  I would repeat today what I think I said then, that making that confession didn’t necessarily mean that you accepted, believed and understood it all lock, stock and barrel because I’m not sure anyone does.  After all, the Trinity represents an effort to explain that which can’t really be explained.

Martin Luther said, “To deny the Trinity endangers your salvation but to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”  He also said “The Trinity should be adored, not explained.”  That difficulty in explaining and comprehending all the three in one, one in three stuff, three distinct persons but one God causes some to want to scrap the doctrine altogether because no one really understands it; but I’m not ready to go there.  I’m more in line with Luther’s comment about adoring rather than explaining.  The poet Billy Collins makes much the same point as Luther in a poem he calls Introduction to Poetry in which he expresses his frustration in teaching students how to approach a poem.

I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the
author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.

We don’t have to tie the doctrine of the Trinity to a chair with a rope and torture it.  Like Luther said, we can adore it, hold it up to the light like a color slide and marvel at the beauty and mystery of it, we don’t have to beat it with a hose to find out what it really means, but instead we can waterski across the surface of it and wave at the image of God we see on the shore.  You might note that the Bible readings for this Trinity Sunday including the Nicodemus story don’t do any explaining but instead they’re all images and glimpses of the glory, the majesty and mystery of God.

Another thing that should be said about the doctrine of the Trinity is that we need it; we need a place to begin the conversation about God, and for Christians this doctrine gives us that.  By including this Sunday in our liturgical calendar we say that we honor and respect the tradition we are part of.  It’s OK, in fact it’s good to probe and explore and look for new insights like Nicodemus did, but you have to start somewhere.  The Trinity provides us with a starting point, a foundation and with anything you talk about, a good foundation is important.  You can’t build and you can’t probe more deeply without a foundation.  This Sunday is a reminder that our faith is not a free for all, believe anything you want faith.  We’re on a journey yes, and there’s lots of room to explore on that journey, but it’s a journey pointed toward the God the church fathers described as Trinity.

So, for the graduates today, but for all of us really, know what you don’t know and what you can’t know, be humble and ask questions and use your imagination as you probe for insights into that which is mystery, respect the wisdom and the foundations of the tradition you are part of.  Part of that tradition and foundation is right here; it’s a good place to be.  We may not have all the answers you’re looking for, but remember, Nicodemus probably didn’t think Jesus had the right answers either; but he did have the right questions.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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