Text: John 3:1-15 (16-17)
Today we are celebrating the feast of the Holy Trinity, the Sunday from which the remaining Sundays in the year all draw their names. From here to the end, we are in the Trinity Season. A moment ago we confessed the faith of all Christians: we believe in one true God, who exists eternally in three persons. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and yet, there are not three gods but one God. There is no way, this side of Eden, that we will fully understand the doctrine of the Trinity; we humbly confess that this is how the Lord reveals Himself to us in the Scriptures. Even last week we heard our Lord say, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him…” and, “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14, English Standard Version)
The Christian Church has observed Trinity Sunday since at least the 1300s, but our Gospel reading today comes from before that. When the pope declared that this Sunday must be observed, the German church did observe it, but kept the original Gospel reading – the one we heard today. Although it doesn’t speak directly about the Trinity, it does speak about something equally as confounding: the basis of our salvation. In the text, we heard our Lord’s teaching to Nicodemus that those who see the kingdom of God are not those who enter by flesh and blood, but those who are born of the Spirit. Thus, the Lord brings us into His kingdom through His life-giving Spirit.
That this should be, was somehow incomprehensible to Nicodemus; at least in the beginning of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit tells us at the end that Joseph of Arimathea, along with this Nicodemus, buried our Lord. They exercised their faith in Jesus by showing Him great love with a burial in a new tomb. As yet, though, Nicodemus has a ways to go. The Spirit tells us by St. John that Nicodemus came to speak to the Lord under cover of night. Nicodemus was a member of the Pharisees and, moreover, a leader among his people. The party of the Pharisees was a movement of lay people who were very concerned with living righteous and holy lives. This, on its own, is a good goal. However, these people who sought after holiness sometimes became preoccupied with it and even became confident in their own good works for salvation. Nicodemus said to Jesus, “‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” (Jn. 3:2-3)
At first it seems like our Lord is on a different wavelength, as if He is giving an answer to a question Nicodemus didn’t ask. Remember, though, Nicodemus is a Pharisee. Throughout the Gospel, the Pharisees butt heads with Jesus over how one enters the kingdom of God, how one is saved. The Pharisees held that one entered heaven based upon personal holiness exercised in observance of God’s law and good works. To put it crassly, those who went to heaven were those who put in the work. Moving outward into an idea common among the Jews of Jesus time, it was also held that those who desired to go to heaven, first, had to be a descendant of Abraham. You became a descendent of Abraham by either being born that way, or becoming circumcised if you had been born a Gentile. Jesus saw these mindsets present in Nicodemus and turned everything around, saying, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (vv. 5-6) In other words, salvation is not based on something in us. Salvation is something we are brought into by the Holy Spirit.
This idea confounded Nicodemus, which he voiced at least twice, wondering how this could be. How could it be that salvation is not based on something we do, when everything else is, or at least seems to be? We human beings are geared to think this way. We have been since the Fall. Isn’t this a common idea, that human beings are generally good, including in spiritual matters? Some people who may not believe this might at least believe that humans are neutral and capable of being good spiritually; good enough to make it to heaven. What do the Scriptures say on the topic? St. Paul says, “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy…” the list goes on. (Gal. 5) Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt. 15:19)
In a different context, Martin Luther said that to see if these things apply to us we should take our hands and stick them in our shirts. If we should find through that experiment that we have flesh and blood, then these words apply to us. They apply to you; they apply to me. St. Paul said to the Corinthians that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 15) He means that we, who have been born since the Fall, are in the flesh. That is, we live according to the desires of our flesh. We fight, lie, lust, hate, steal, covet, are disrespectful and apathetic. We were this way from before our birth and if left unchecked remain so oriented our entire lives. Should we then, like Nicodemus, expect to see the kingdom of God? Should we expect to be forgiven?
This is where it gets incomprehensible, you see, because we are forgiven; we are citizens of the Jerusalem above. We confess that we are sinful and unclean, no doubts about that. We also confess the greatness of God’s love for us. This is how the Father has loved us: He sent His Son into the world, so that it might be saved through Him. The Father sent Jesus into this fallen creation so that by His work alone, the world might be saved. What was the work that He did? Jesus perfectly obeyed the Law of God in every point. He honored it by word and deed, He loved both God and neighbor with all His heart, soul, and mind. Then, He showed the greatest love ever, by bearing the hate-filled and sinful deeds of all creation in His body on the cross. By His perfect life and sacrificial death, Jesus merited for the world the forgiveness of sins.
Those who receive forgiveness are not those who work for it, who presume to earn it by their behavior. They don’t receive forgiveness who are simply born into historically Christian families. Those who receive the forgiveness of sins are those who are reborn from above by the Holy Spirit. Those who receive forgiveness are those who are brought by the Spirit to believe that Jesus was lifted up just as the serpent was lifted to up, to save those who look to Him. When someone is brought to believe this, they are reborn to live no longer according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. They receive, according to the Scriptures, a heart of flesh in place of a stone one, and a desire to do God’s will rather than just their own.
This is just as incomprehensible to our human flesh as is the Trinity, that we are saved not by works but by faith. We who are gathered here today, whether in person or online, have exactly what the Scriptures say. According to our own nature, we have nothing but sin and death. And, yet we confess that we have been reborn through the Holy Spirit. We have heard the Good News preached, and the Spirit has brought us to new life by faith in Christ. We were made new even as children through the washing of Holy Baptism, the water and the Word. This confounded Nicodemus at first, but in the end he knew it to be true. Those who enter the kingdom of God are not those who work for it. We are brought into the kingdom by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word.