John 3:1-17: There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “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. 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.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
And just 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. “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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer…
When I was younger, I really loved math, which you can probably tell by looking at me and the job that I aspire to do. But I really did. Which is a really polarizing statement. Because people either loved math or hated it.
Most people who love math, love it because it is orderly and predictable. There is a question and an answer that you can come to logically, and there is always one right answer. There’s a lot of comfort in that.
There is a lot of comfort in numbers. They can mark things out, quantify them, let you know what time it is, how much something is worth, what’s its size or structure. Numbers matter. They mean something.
Our world loves numbers; the obvious ones of paycheques and phone numbers, likes on social media or attendance to our events. But there are the less obvious ones that rule our lives, algorithms that run our apps and the geometry of our cities. We love to be surrounded by numbers, let numbers run our world, because there is so much dependability, there are measurable and quantifiable patterns of behaviour.
And this is not new, this obsession with numbers and the ability to quantify, rationalize, the world. Numbers are very important in the Bible. And I’m not talking about the kind of Biblical numerology that claims it can predict the end of the world, but the symbolism of numbers. The 12 tribes of Israel and the12 disciples, the 40 days in the desert and the 40 years in the desert. And of course, the number three, the Trinity.
Now, while we can definitely see this as an attempt to make sense of the world, to itemize and catalogue, this use of numbers is something more. And really, it’s what I love about math. Because this isn’t just logic and predictability, this is numerical symbolism. This is evocative and imaginative, it invites interpretation and exploration. It provokes possibilities.
This is what is so intriguing about the Trinity, that is hard to grasp and interactive in nature. That it requires us to think, to examine. That it is provoking.
And that’s not always something we deal well with. The whole of human history is really us trying to unravel the big questions about the universe, and it has proven to be a long task. Because there is so much that just doesn’t make sense. There is so much that just doesn’t fit into the patterns and measurements that we like. These experiences of a disquieting disequilibrium, when the logic just goes out the door, they are the problem and promise of God in creation.
And that’s the amazing thing about God! That God sees fit to express God’s self in ways that are dizzingly irrational and illogical. That are counter-intuitive and paradoxical. In ways that we have such a hard time with.
When I was in seminary, I had a class on pluralism, where we discussed the different ways people experience God in culture, in society, in the entangled webs of diverse human traditions. And we had this one author who was really into talking about miracles. And he spent a long time talking about how miracles are so rare, because they must be veridical experiences or veridical paradoxes, which is really just when something true does not seem to be true. They are counter-intuitive experiences. They are those rarified moments when we slip past our banal existence into a glimpse of divine reality.
But the problem with that statement is that veridical paradoxes are all around us. Some of my favourite mathematical and scientific thought experiments are veridical paradoxes. But the thing about them is that they seem rare and unique, because they are so nonsensical. It’s like a fluke. There are lots of flukes in the ocean, they aren’t rare fish. So, if you go fishing for a fluke, you’ll probably catch one.
When we start examining creation, the rules fall apart. Or at least, they don’t make sense in the ways that we think. Yet, they work. They create the miraculous diversity of life we have. Because it’s bigger than rules. It’s about relationship. God saw fit to express God’s self with three, in three, and through three. And I think this says something about God. And how we should view the Trinity. Because God likes disequilibrium. God embraces imbalance, and invites paradox. It is essential to God’s character, this place where logic and faith meet, this place where relationship and the spirit twist and turn the rules on its head.
And that’s exactly how Jesus talks to Nicodemus.
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, he asks him all kinds of questions, that I’m sure we would all pepper Jesus with. How can you be born again after getting older? How can these things be? And Jesus answers him in true Jesus style. In a way that challenges Nicodemus to move from theory to practice, from knowledge to faith. It is the undercurrent of all Jesus’ interactions, that the answer is not as simple as the question seems, because in truth, the question isn’t simple either.
See, Nicodemus is a learned man, he’s a religious leader, and he thinks he understands who Jesus is and who God is. And Jesus calls his understanding into question. Like a typical scholar, Nicodemus begins the conversation with a statement based on evidence. Jesus is obvs from God because of the signs. Hello, observation, logic, and deduction. This is as easy as counting one, two, three.
But Jesus counters him by saying, whoa there Nicodemus. You’re only getting a small part of this. Those signs, those miracles, those veridical paradoxes, are from God, yes. But no one can truly understand God’s reign without being born again in the spirit. Without God changing our way of being in the world, we cannot perceive all God’s work. We cannot get his logic without being in relationship with him.
God, the one who loves the cosmos, gives the Son, who comes not to condemn the world but to restore it, and it will be born in the Spirit. Jesus lays it out right there, this Trinity relationship, these bonds of love and trust, faith and redemption; and shakes his head at Nicodemus, because this cannot be understood objectively, it can only be lived.
When a teacher tells you that three times three is nine, that is something you can count on your fingers night and day. But when a mathematician tells me that negative three times negative three also equals nine, that is the kind of logic that feels like trust. Because the opposite of knowledge isn’t always ignorance, it can be wonder or mystery or possibility.
This is what Jesus tells Nicodemus, what he tells all of us. To truly understand, we have to go beyond what we can count on, what we can see or quantify. We have to be in the dark, because that’s where true intimacy lies. Where relationship is built. Where faith is founded. Transformation happens when I’m not in charge, when I don’t know what’s coming next; and it is only through that Spirit transformation that I can begin to grasp what this is all about.
I can’t stand up here and give you examples of what the Trinity is like, because, frankly, I don’t have one that I think encapsulates it all. But I do know this: at the heart of understanding God is relationship. God is so full of love that there has to be some way of talking about that love shared in and through profound and complicated relationships. God’s identity and character can only be explained dimly by thinking of love that is shared, and God’s essential and core being has to be a giving and receiving and sharing of love that spills out in abundance into the whole of the universe.
And that, that goes beyond our ability to count, to catalogue. It is the veridical paradox of God three-in-one, something so true that it seems illogical. Something so right that it doesn’t make any sense. But it doesn’t have to. This truth is not calculated, it’s revealed. It’s not weighed and measured, pinned down and dissected; it is only given freely as the wind, only lived, only felt.