From time to time I like to get on the Internet and watch really old movies and TV shows. From time to time I will watch the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. No matter how many times I watch it, their routine, "Who's on First," always gives me a chuckle.
Another of their routines calls for Bud to ask Lou, "Hey, have you got two tens for a five?" Bud says it with such conviction that the exchange sounds perfectly fair. Lou readily gives Bud the two tens and accepts the five in return. It isn't until Lou starts walking away that he suddenly realizes that he has been ripped off for fifteen dollars.
Routines like that are all fun and games when everyone is in on the secret and we know it is all just an act. The problem is that deceptions like that happen in real life and can lead to a lot of confusion and harm. One of those deceptions is related to the theme of today's service.
Every so often, someone will ask, "Where did you Christians get the idea for the Trinity? Why you can't even find the word "Trinity" in the Bible." Now people say this with such sincerity and enthusiasm that it is easy for us to get flustered and confused and begin to wonder if the doctrine of the Trinity is just a manmade idea.
Where is the fallacy in their argument? They are making the assumption that something without a name does not exist. They are saying that something is not true simply because we don't have a name for it. Is that valid? Did people go flying off into space until someone came up with the word gravity? Of course not! Gravity has been in effect ever since the second day of creation. Just because we didn't always have a name for gravity doesn't mean it wasn't there.
The same thing is true for the Trinity. While it is true that the Bible does not use the word "Trinity," that does not mean it isn't there.
Let's examine the words of Jesus in today's Gospel for example. This reading is that familiar story of Jesus' conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. One of my brother pastors has suggested that we give Nicodemus the nickname of "Nick at Night" since he came to Jesus at night. Nicodemus was honestly curious about Jesus' teachings and wanted to know more and so he came to Jesus after he finished his duties for the day and he could have a little one-on-one time with Jesus.
Now I am absolutely certain that many doctoral theses have been written about the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, but, for today, let's just concentrate on how the idea of the Trinity affected Jesus' words.
First of all, Jesus spoke of being born again. When Nicodemus expressed his confusion over this concept, Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Where would Jesus' answer be without the Holy Spirit? Here He basically says, "Stop thinking of trying to enter the Kingdom of God under your own steam. When a baby is born, it has no "say so" in the matter. The mother brings the baby into the world whether the baby wants to come or not. In a similar way, when a Christian is born into the Kingdom of God it has no "say so" in the matter. The Holy Spirit brings the Christian, kicking and screaming, into the kingdom of God. You don't have to know how it works. The Holy Spirit knows how it works and that is enough." Jesus' explanation makes no sense whatsoever unless the Holy Spirit is real.
Later on in the conversation Jesus answered [Nicodemus], "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Here Jesus tells Nicodemus how the Holy Spirit brings a Christian into the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit causes the person to believe in the Son of Man who is lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Then, immediately in the very next sentence Jesus continued, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Here Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Holy Spirit brings a Christian into the Kingdom of God by causing the person to believe in the only Son of God. In one sentence, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Holy Spirit causes the person to believe in the Son of Man and then in the next sentence He tells Nicodemus that the Holy Spirit causes a person to believe in the Son of God. These statements make a lot more sense when the Son of Man and the Son of God are the same person.
Where would this part of Jesus' answer be without the Son to come into the world and, for that matter, a Father to send Him into the world? Thus we see that this whole conversation is totally impossible without a Father to send the Son, a Son who is both God and Man and who will be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, and a Spirit who gives new birth into the Kingdom of God by producing faith in the Son. We not only learn about these three persons, but we also see the role each of them has in our salvation.
In this short conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus tells us everything that makes Christianity unique among the religions of the world. Only Christianity has a God who is a community of three persons. Only Christianity has a God who loves us enough to sacrifice His only Son to save us.
We learn something else in today's Gospel. We learn about Nicodemus. There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Later on in the Gospel of John, we will read, [John 19:38-40] "After [Jesus died] Joseph of Arimathea … asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews."
Nicodemus was an example of what the Pharisees and rulers of the Jews were supposed to be. He was not corrupt. He was doing his best to lead a God-pleasing life. He was doing his best to lead the Jews according to God's command. Never the less, Nicodemus, because of his excellent training as a Pharisee, knew that he had not kept the law as he should. He knew the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit had used that knowledge to convict him of his sin. Nicodemus was also a sinner who needed the forgiveness that comes with faith in the Son of God who was lifted up on the cross for the sins of the world.
If this noble and gentle man who actually lived up to the code of conduct of the Pharisees knew that he was still a sinner in need of God's grace, where does that place you - where does that place me? We must stand with Isaiah in today's Old Testament reading and say, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." If a man of such upright character as Nicodemus is a sinner in need of God's grace, then we too can only come before God and beg for mercy.
And we have mercy. The father has sent the Son to save the world. The Son has sacrificed Himself on the cross in order to provide forgiveness for you and for me and has risen from the dead. The Holy Spirit has shown our sin to us and then given us a new birth into God's Kingdom so that we might receive the Son's gift of forgiveness through faith in Him. Each member of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit has done His part to save us from our sins.
As far as the fact that the Bible does not use the terms Triune or Trinity, it is not important that the actual words be in Bible. What is important is that the teaching is there and it is. Genesis begins with God creating, the Spirit hovering, and the WORD through which God created. Revelation [Revelation 14:1] speaks of the 144,000 who had the name of the Lamb and the name of the Father written on their foreheads as well as [Revelation 22:17] the Spirit who along with the bride invites us to drink of the water of life. The books in between are impossible to understand apart from the teaching that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God and yet, there are not three Gods but only one God. We don't have to understand it, but we do have to believe it. Amen
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