The gospel for Trinity Sunday about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-17) is part of a larger narrative arc about baptism and transformation that began in chapter 1 with Jesus’ own baptism. The theme continued onwards with Jesus’ discussion with the woman at the well and his talk of living water and the alteration he made in her life in chapter 4.
While the practice of baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit had begun by the beginning of the second century, when the ancient book the Didache describes baptisms, the doctrine of the Trinity was only codified at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Yet the patriarchs of the church had only to look at the first chapters of John to see constant reference to the presence of the three persons.
In the gospel for Trinity Sunday a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. came to Jesus by night and said to Jesus, “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.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus had recently driven the merchants and money changers from the temple, where they had set up shop with the permission of the high priest, so Jesus was already under suspicion as a subversive. Nicodemus may not have wanted to be seen with Jesus because of the problems this association would have created for him, particularly with the high priest, so he came by night.
Nicodemus is a complex character. As well as being a leader of the Jews but coming secretly, so as not to be seen, we know that he respected Jesus and had interpreted his work as ‘coming from God’. Later in the gospels he argued with the Sanhedrin that Jesus had not been given a fair hearing, (John 7:50-51) and, after Jesus’ death, he took spices to anoint Jesus’ body after it had been taken from the cross. (John 19:39). He seems to have been attracted to Jesus and prepared to risk his status to associate himself with Jesus, but at the same time, did not fully commit to becoming a disciple.
When he spoke, Nicodemus began with a title of respect, Rabbi. Then he said, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God... While he had come by himself, his use of the plural pronoun we indicates that he and others had discussed Jesus’ activities and teachings. The word we also signaled that he spoke as a representative of others. It seems that they had talked about and recognized the source of Jesus’ signs as things that could not have been done apart from the presence of God.
Jesus replied to Nicodemus in a way that, at first, appears to be a non sequitur but is, in fact, a direct response, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The phrase very truly calls special attention to the words that follow. It is a verbal cue to the listener to take the next thought to heart. In this gospel passage, Jesus used very truly three times.
The Greek word anothen has both a spatial sense… from above… and another, temporal, sense… again. Some translations use born again from above to capture the full meaning. But Nicodemus, focusing exclusively on the temporal sense of ‘born again’, said to Jesus, “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.
As with human birth this “new birth” would similarly be a gift of two parents, but this time of water and Spirit. The new form of life comes from two essential elements: one physical water and the other, invisible, but nonetheless real, Spirit. The birth metaphor is significant. Birth is not something one chooses, but a shared gift of parents.
Jesus described the born again from above parentage as water and the Spirit. Water and the Spirit were both present at the creation of the world, when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2) The Aramaic word for Spirit, rucha, which Jesus would have used, can also be translated as “breath”. New life begins with the first breath. Recall that in his first post-resurrection appearance to his disciples Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20: 21-22)
The prologue to John’s gospel began the narrative arc of this story of re-birth with the words, to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
Jesus’ words about water and the Holy Spirit reflect his own experience of baptism when John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove,. … The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)
The experience of baptism transformed his life. In John’s gospel, the story of Jesus only begins with his baptism by water and the Spirit. It is as though the human birth and the time before being born again from above, is not worth mentioning.
Jesus then added that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit…visible, common, essential water and divine, invisible essential Spirit. Only as the gospel unfolds does Jesus describe this rebirth and entry into the Kingdom of God in more detail, with a focus on love for God and neighbour in a way that involves self-sacrifice. God’s Kingdom would be something that his disciples would hope for but misunderstand as a kingdom on earth.
Jesus continued by elaborating on the nature of the gift of re-birth. 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.” The wind-Spirit seemingly comes from nowhere. It is unseen but we experience it and know that it is real. Throughout nature, wind and water are ‘dance partners’. Winds sometimes bring rain, but also dry rain-soaked ground. Wind blowing over waters makes them shimmer with light.
The gospel concludes with one of the most famous, and profound, lines of scripture, 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. The Son’s mission was the whole world, not just Israel. As water and the Spirit combined the visible and the unseen, so ‘believing in’ Jesus would involve mind and body, words and deeds.
Then Jesus added a phrase that could be read as a reference to his recent act of driving merchants from the temple as well as emphasizing the world-wide scope of his mission, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.