Above, Beside, and Within

John 3:1-17
Trinity Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Prayer: Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, into your womb of new birth, where we will truly become like Christ, nourished by this heavenly food of your truth and presence.

I have a growing affection for the Trinity. I know that may sound strange. You see, for many of my years in ministry, I simply avoided discussing the Trinity. It was too confusing and I thought I needed to be able to explain it. But now I tend to enjoy pondering this dance of love, this Trinity which is beyond my understanding, this One-in three and three-in-one beyond my grasp.

I am coming to appreciate that the mystery of the Trinity is not so much riddle as it is a reality that is simply beyond our human comprehension. It is a reality which we may begin to comprehend, but ultimately we must embrace this truth through worship and believing and living as children of God. “It has been said that mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim. The common wisdom is that if you talk about the Trinity for longer than a few minutes you will slip into heresy because you are probing the depths of God too deeply.” David Bennett, http://www.churchyear.net/

The Trinity is best described in the Nicene Creed. Essentially the Trinity is the belief that God is one in essence (Greek ousia), but distinct in person (Greek hypostasis). Now that word “person” which we sang in the first hymn, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” makes for some confusion. The Greek word for person means “that which stands on its own,” or “individual reality,” and does not mean the persons of the Trinity are three persons, like when we speak of three human beings. So it means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct but not divided. While they are also completely united in will and essence.

Take the analogy of your two eyes. The eyes are distinct, yet one and undivided in their sight. Another illustration to explain the Trinity is the musical chord. Gia will play a C chord for us. The C, the E, and the G are all distinct notes, but joined together in one chord. As one chord, the sound is richer and more dynamic, than the three notes played singly. If one note is left out, there’s a lot missing. The fullness of the chord is not there.

Each member of the Trinity intermingles with one another like the sounds in a chord, which produce overtones and harmonics. With the Trinity, each member has a distinct roles in creation and redemption, which is called the Divine economy. For instance, God the Father created the world through the Son and the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters at creation.

So if we try to say that God the Father is the Creator, and God the Son, the Redeemer, and God the Spirit is the Sustainer, it is not quite a complete description, because all three were involved in creation, all three are involved in redemption, and all three are involved in sustaining us in life and death. And all three together are one. Yet it is tempting to try to understand the Trinity in terms of function or mode.

In today’s scripture, the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, we hear about all three distinct realities of the Trinity. This story confronts us with a God seeking to be born within us, a God who is above us, breaking into our human life as a God with us to save us. The story also demonstrates the human desire to understand what cannot be explained in rational terms.

Let us now hear the Word of the Lord from the Gospel of John.

Nicodemus appears three times in the Gospel: the first is when he visits Jesus one night to listen to his teachings (John 3:1-21) as we just read; the second is when he appears to defend Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:45-51); and the last follows the Crucifixion, when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the corpse of Jesus for burial (John 19:39-42). It seems that by the end, Nicodemus has experienced the new birth, the being born from above of which Jesus speaks.

While there is no formulaic definition of the Trinity here, (that came through the Church later) you can see in this passage the Holy Spirit, the Womb of life, giving birth to God’s children. You see the Father begetting and sending the Son, and the Son testifying to the Father and to the Spirit.

Let’s think about how the Triune God is above us, beside us, and within us. How the endless circle of God’s love is for the salvation of the world.

Nicodemus was challenged to consider his need to be born from above. To have someone above me means I’m in a humble, submissive position. Those above me have power over me. They have authority and my respect. I believe all children of God, all people are more content when they recognize they are not in control, not masters of their own destiny. We need a God who is above us, beyond us, far superior to us in every way. I must admit that most of the language in Westminster Catechism does not inspire me, but this does: When it speaks of the meaning of the 1st commandment – having no other gods, it says that the duties required of us with that commandment are the knowing and acknowledging of God to be the only true God and our God, and to worship and glorify God accordingly; by thinking, meditating, remembering,highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring,fearing; believing God; trusting, hoping,
delighting, rejoicing in God; being zealous for ;calling upon, giving all praise and thanks, and yielding all obedience and submission to God with the whole self; being careful in all things to please, and sorrowful when in anything God is offended; and walking humbly with God. (Westminster Larger, #104)

Perhaps we have under-emphasized the God who is above us, the Immortal, Invisible, God only wise, in light, inaccessible hid from eyes.

Our generation prefers the companion God. What a Friend We Have in Jesus. To have someone beside me to have a companion, one who goes with me, one to whom I talk and listen, who experiences what I experience, who understands my life. The same God who is above us is among us in the Christ, who was from the beginning, who brought divinity to earth, and took our humanity to heaven, wherever that above, beyond place is. God so loved the world, that God could not help but live with us, among us, sharing our joys and sorrows, living and dying for us, that we might live and die in the Lord. We need a parent, but we need a brother and friend. In the image on the screen one can see the dual nature of Christ – the human-divine unity in one person with two complete natures. Christ is the perfect friend, being just like us, but also being more than us, he lifts us up to a higher plane.

Christ might seem the singular hero of this passage as he illumines the curious Nicodemus. Martin Luther called John 3:16 the Gospel in miniature. But notice that John 3:16 reads “God so loved the world that God gave the gift of the Son. And when the Resurrected Son prepares to ascend, he promises the gift of the Spirit, and the dance goes on.

And so the Trinity is not complete without the One whom Christ called our Advocate. The Spirit. We have a parent above and a Christ who is above us also. We have a brother and friend beside us in Jesus, who is called Immanuel, God with us, and we have a Holy Spirit intertwined with our spirit. To have someone within me is a intimate union. It is the Spirit of God working in us to draw us into the very heart of God. It is that Spirit whispering to our spirits that we are children of God, loved by God, called to be God’s faithful people. It is that Spirit whispering peace to us when we wait for a pathology report, when we lose yet another job, as Jo Allison did, or when struggle to raise our kids, not knowing all the right answers to today’s problems.

God so loved the world that God did not desire to condemn the world but to save the whole world. Through the wonderful and mystery work of the Trinity, I believe God is laboring to save the world. We are not rewarded, loved, saved for our believing, but our believing is an act of trust. It is a relational bond of intimacy, of commitment, of devotion, facilitated by the Spirit. To say our believing is irrelevant is to cheapen grace. To say God’s forgiving love is contingent on a verbal affirmation of belief is to nullify the gift of grace. We are participants in this covenantal relationship of love with a Triune God, whose very identity is communal in nature.

My dad died 8 years ago this week. He was the volunteer youth director at the Faison Presbyterian Church for many years. One of the hallmarks of his leadership was the way he insisted that we teens treat each other with dignity. Every Wednesday night, in addition to Bible time and prayer time, we would have circle time. Someone in the group of about 15-20 high schoolers would be called to the center of the circle where nothing but affirmation could be lavished upon them. This was a challenging exercise for teens, who are much more comfortable making fun of each other than thinking of a creative expression of praise for their peers. It was terrifying and wonderful to be the one trapped in the circle of love. It was a powerful yet awkward act of trust.

The Trinity is the circle of love out of which we cannot step. The God who is above us, beside us, and within us, wraps us securely in a boundless embrace. To believe is to have open eyes to that circle of love, to stop trying to turn away from it, to rest in it, grow in it, be filled by it for loving service to others.

I’d like to close with a poem by John Donne:

Batter my heart, three personed God; for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me and bend Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new. I, like an usurped town, to another due, Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end; Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captivated and proves weak or untrue. Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain, But am betrothed unto your enemy: Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.