Don’t be like Nicodemus – or Aristotle! by Pastor Noel

May 27, 2018, Trinity Sunday B


      Aristotle put our world into ten categories. He said that the highest, most important category was things. Down the list a bit is relationships.

      For Aristotle, a tree is more important than how we treat our neighbor.

      A rock is more important than love.

      I hope that you don’t believe that, but it does seem to be reality in our scientific age, and some of the church bought into it long ago.

      Our lives are full of things. We often base our worth on the things that we have.

      Things are factual, real, touchable, recognizable. I take photos of things all the time. A bird, a flower, a tree, a turtle. Things. Tangible. Rational.

      Relationships are not that easy.

      A thing is a thing all by itself. A relationship needs at least two people.

      Relationships are not tangible. They are based on feelings, and we cannot always control our feelings. Relationships take work. We have to consider the other, not just ourselves. Irrational.

      Considering the other is not as easy as looking at a tree, or a bunch of words on a page.

      It’s the difference between looking at a realistic photograph and an impressionistic painting. The difference between reading the newspaper and reading poetry.

      We want it to be like the newspaper, but Jesus shows us that God is more like poetry.

      We can see that in our readings today.

      “In the year that King Uzziah died” sets this story from Isaiah in a real time and place.

      The rest of the story is not fact so much as poetry.

      How do you describe an encounter with God? Words fail. Only a vision will do—and the language of visions has to be poetic.

      And the canticle we read—nothing but poetry can give meaning to this praise of God.

      And Nicodemus. His name means “victory to the people.” But he is concerned with victory for the religious standards.

      He hears what Jesus says with ears tuned to a newspaper. He can only hear the literal, factual, words. He misses the poetic and mystical meaning of Jesus’ words.

      Jesus is talking about a new reality, a new way of relating to the holy (to God). Nicodemus can only hear the impossibility of being literally born again. Even though Jesus probably didn’t say “again.”

      The author of John’s Gospel likes the interplay of light and dark. Jesus is always the light.

      Nicodemus comes to him in darkness and stays in that darkness even though Jesus offers him the light.

      Jesus shows God’s love that is not judging but is opening eyes and hearts to living in the light of love and mercy, compassion, forgiveness…grace.

      Nicodemus can’t see the light. He can’t come out of the dark to be transformed and born anew. He stays in the flesh and can’t receive the Spirit.

      Jesus is not saying that flesh is bad or evil. It is how we were created by God.

      He is saying that living in the flesh means turning away from the Spirit and the life of light in Christ.

      Nicodemus is the right person for us to read about on Trinity Sunday.

      The Trinity is a complex theological idea. It has been made more difficult and complex by the centuries of theological discussion about it.

      The church has been mansplaining the Trinity (if you’ll pardon my using that expression) for way too long.

      We’ve been trying to find the perfect “three in one and one in three” example so everyone will understand.

      That hasn’t worked very well.

      I’m sure that you all remember my sermon on this Sunday last year—right?

      Well, in case not, there is one word that, to me, explains the Trinity. Perichoresis. It’s a Greek word that describes a cosmic dance.

      Father, Son, and Spirit, or Creator, Redeemer Sustainer, if you prefer. God, in all the ways we know God, is leading a dance throughout Creation.

      This dance is the flow of God’s love that moves in and around us all. All of us are invited to join.

      Got two left feet? Can’t dance? Don’t worry. Just as there are many ways to show God’s love, there are many ways to join the dance and make that love come alive.

      Joining the dance is not about finding clever ways to describe the Trinity. It is not about using our brains at all. Joining the dance is about being open to finding God’s love in our lives. Joining the dance is living that love for others.

      Richard Rohr has said, “The people who know God well—mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.”
So joining the dance is letting go of the rational, thing-oriented part of our brain.

      Joining the dance is reaching out our hands to the God whose hands are always reaching out to us.

      Joining the dance is accepting the love that God fills us with. It is irrational. It is mystical. It is grace.

      The irrational, free lunch, amazing, wonderful grace that is ours. The God-filled, light-filled, life when we step into the flow of the dance of love.

      Our rational side cries out no! There is no free lunch. We have to earn God’s grace. And our rational side would have us walk away like Nicodemus and go back to being good religious people.

      Robert Capon wrote, “Even to this day, grace remains hard to swallow. Religiosity and moralism go down easier than free forgiveness.”

      Here’s an example of how we often approach God’s free gift of grace. It’s how Nicodemus dealt with Jesus’ invitation.

      Driving here today the car ahead of me was going to take an exit. There was a long, open, lane to the exit. The driver put on the blinker and then straddled the line between the driving lane and the exit lane, all the way to the exit. They couldn’t fully commit to being in the exit lane.

      Nicodemus couldn’t commit to the new way of life with God that Jesus offered. He wanted to stay with the familiar, literal, way of religion. He couldn’t step into the dance of love and community.

      Newspaper minds think that it’s easier to live in the darkness like Nicodemus than to step into the light.

      Hearts filled with grace embrace the light, show it and share it. Nicodemus couldn’t do that.       Don’t be like Nicodemus! 

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details