Typically we read from the NRSV translation of scripture, I wanted to read a few verses from the New International Version (NIV), specifically verse three, before I begin today’s message. “Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’”
It is on this verse in particular I want our attention to focus. Jesus is speaking about the Kingdom of God, he is speaking of the experiences that one must have in order to be born again, to embody the Spirit here on earth. Jesus speaking of God and Spirit is always an appropriate place to start a sermon, especially on today – Trinity Sunday.
Speaking about the Trinity is no easy task. I grew up in a church where we sang about the Godhead three in one often and closed the time of offering with the doxology every Sunday, singing from memory, “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” or “Creator, Christ, and Holy One.” But how often do we really delve deeply into the mystery of the Trinity? It is not easy to unpack all of that in a single sermon, I mean, I could, I am seminary trained, but we’d have to set aside at minimum an hour for me to talk, and another hour of questions from you all, and honestly, I’m already counting down the minutes until I’m done talking so I can get to our lunch after the service. So, let’s agree to not unpack it all today. Instead, I want to concentrate my energy on the importance of the Trinity, the importance of God, Christ, and the Spirit. And why we need them all.
I honestly struggled to come up with a title for this sermon. Maybe that’s too much transparency, but I just had to get that off my chest. The title you see in your bulletin this morning was after days of racking my brain. It’s not creative, but it is clear and to the point. I usually prefer a little more of an elusive approach, but, well, you see what the result is: THE TRINITY.
Originally I wanted to call this sermon “ALL TEA, NO SHADE.” This phrase is popular and commonly used in Black communities and has transitioned it’s way into the vernacular of young folks across ethnicities. And as with most popular phrases in this day and age, it has become a meme. This meme was circulating the internet years ago at rapid pace and still floods the screens of tablets, laptops and cell phones to this day. It is simply a picture of Kermit the Frog, sipping some scalding hot Lipton tea from a white mug. Classic. To use this meme correctly, one must be presented with information that does not seem to add up. I’m not going as far to say that the information presented is false, it is just that the information given does not seem to address all of the facets in the given situation or discussion being had. Once you realize that something is not adding up, you then proceed with the meme and continue to give truthful incite from your perspective – that is the tea. Tea can also be defined as the truth. And just like tea that is too hot, sometimes the Truth is hard to swallow and sometimes it even hurts.
This text begins with Nicodemus believing and proclaiming to Jesus that God must be with him “[f]or no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3.2b). He is acknowledging his known understanding of Jesus as person and as divine who performs remarkable signs and speaks of a new and different understanding of law and sacred text. In typical Jesus in the Gospel of John fashion, Jesus accepts this statement while simultaneously pushing this law maker’s understanding. “Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’” Jesus was serving some tea. Nicodemus thought he understood it all, but Jesus knew that there were parts that he needed to learn and understand. He shared more information, more truth.
When we are given glimpses of truth, naturally we want more.
“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’” This particular phrase was not common in the 1st century. People didn’t talk like this then, and few talk like this now – it just wasn’t common. This is obvious because the reply of Nicodemus reads perplexed. Nicodemus asks for clarifications. What does it mean to be born again? How can someone be born again once she has grown old? Surely one cannot enter the mother’s womb a second time? I am no scientist, but I am sure that you can quote me, one cannot enter the mother’s womb a second time – especially after growing old. I think of my mother, who stands tall at 4’11” and I towering over her at 5’2” and could not even imagine the pain I would cause her to feel by just asking her to carry me up a flight of stairs. So, the thought of a literal rebirth- woah. Yeah, never. Impossible. I see why Nicodemus was so confused. Though we can laugh at Nicodemus the literalist, let us reconsider his perspective. Nicodemus was not trying to undermine the authority of Jesus, he had just acknowledged him as teacher. He was searching for Truth. He was searching for Big ’T’ Truth. The kind of truth that helps one through an existential crisis. The kind of Truth that challenges us and our way of thinking. Nicodemus was searching for fidelity in the actions and the words of Jesus.
Jesus says that one must be born of both water and Spirit. It is not just one piece, both are necessary. We experienced this last week. It was Pentecost and we had a baptism. We had both water and Spirit and the representation of flames through red banners and streamers dancing through the sanctuary. Matthew 3.1-11 speaks to Jesus’ own baptism. The final verse of the passage, John the Baptist states that “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire.” There are so many moving parts. When I think of the Trinity, this is the visual that comes to my mind. Jesus being baptized by a prominent faith leader of his time, the skies tearing apart, revealing a single shining light onto the Son as he rises from the water, a theophany, a physical representation of the presence of God through the Holy Spirit, and God’s voice booming saying, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus continues to explain to Nicodemus that just as the wind blows in many directions, so does the Holy Spirit. The Spirit cannot always be seen, but that does not mean that it is not present. Just as the wind is not seen, we can still feel it. Sometimes the gust is strong and catches us off guard, and sometimes it is a chill that leaves bumps on our arms and causes the hairs to stand on end. This is how Jesus explains the Holy Spirit. It descends upon us and moves us to do more. It is not a tangible aspect. In fact, I have never seen it. But I’ve felt it. When the Spirit comes over me, I physically feel something bubbling within me, and the voice of God guides my words in the direction to glorify and not make light of, and I am reminded by the proclamation of Jesus that I am called to speak this word. We all have convictions. And we have all been called by God to do something with our lives. Jesus explains this call, this movement of the Spirit using the analogy of the wind. I have heard one professor describe the movement of the spirit as a football stadium filled with people during the final seconds of the game. The home team is only yards from scoring and everyone is holding their breath, begging for the touchdown needed to win the game. And the moment comes when the ball just crosses the line and is still in possession. Everyone jumps up. Some people cry. Some people speak and the words aren’t comprehendible. Strangers are hugging. The announcer is in shock. The players in disbelief and humbled as they throw helmets aside to hug one another. That’s the Spirit. It’s overwhelming and fully expressive.
The passage in today’s text ends with a very familiar scripture, John 3:16. Let’s all say it together (KJV): For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. If you stuttered, you don’t know your bible well enough! Just kidding!
This verse has been drilled over and over into the minds of children and new converts everywhere. The origins of this being the chosen scripture can probably be found in the handbook of early missionaries centuries ago. Having a verse learned, recited and engrained in the minds of followers was in hopes that all who claimed to believe knew the nuts and bolts of Christianity. But to reduce a religion to a single verse, or line, allows for a lot to go unnoticed. This verse is packed with a lot of information, and without thinking too hard, we can become numb to the true hardness of that text. We become numb to the fact that we just stated, “God gave his only begotten son…” Giving of the son to this world and knowing that it would result in a violent death on a cross. This is what we quoted by memory, and with no realization of the heaviness that it bears. The loss of a child at any age. That’s tough to swallow. But we didn’t think about it that way when we recited the verse. We’ve become so numb to a violence because it was reduced to a tag line and nothing more.
Last Sunday, Pentecost, May 20th was also the birthday of Mike Brown, who would have been 22 years old. Four years ago, this young black man, days after his high school graduation was shot and killed by police officers. He was shot with his hands up. I have been to several protests and rallies against police brutality. In one protest in particular there was a leader, and the leader would shout, HANDS UP! And the crowd would respond DON’T SHOOT. Four years ago, the police shouted to Mike Brown, “HANDS UP.” Mike Brown responded *with hands raised* “DON’T SHOOT!” He was shot several times. Witnesses surrounding the area were in shock. Could not believe what happened. Could not believe that they just witnessed the last moments of this young man’s life. The hysteria that overcame that community, his family, his friends, his mother, the feeling that black mothers across this country felt, the heightened pressure of having to protect your sons, as if the death of Trayvon wasn’t enough to scare every black parent. It’s the reality in this country. But many people didn’t remember his birthday. Or many of us forget the countless number of black men, women, trans people who have been murdered for following the law or simply living their lives unbothered. We’ve become numb to it. Numb to the violence.
Honestly, as a black community we’ve had to laugh to keep from crying. The meme of the white woman on her cell phone, (aka BBQ Becky) calling police because she saw two black men enjoying themselves, barbecuing and minding their own business, that meme, that humor, is a coping mechanism created by black America in response to the numbness that the rest of America has developed. Having to face the adversity and nonsense you all put us through, you’d laugh to keep from crying too. In the words of Donald Glover, “this is America.” America has become numb to the violence. Mindlessly quoting social leaders of the past, mindlessly quoting scripture. Or mindlessly posting on social media, but refusing to look in the mirror or have those difficult conversations with friends and family. Numb to the violence. It’s the truth, it’s the tea and it’s piping hot, but you have to swallow it, it’s the reality you’ve helped to create.
Sometimes the truth hurts, y’all. It cuts us deeply and causes us to question many things, systems and structures that are in place. That feeling is also the Spirit, calling us to do. The Spirit cannot always be conflated with good feelings and sunshiny skies, but it can be defined as the urgency behind our actions. It motivates us to go and do in the world.
The outrage that the entire black community across the country has felt as a result of all this unjust killing with equally unjust rulings that have followed has caused a stir. This community, my community, has known about these systems for centuries and now this stir, this movement of the Spirit, is calling people to stand up for what is right and to be planted firmly on the right side of justice in the face of adversity. The Spirit is moving here, in this space – but are you listening? What is it calling you to do?
Today’s passage ends with, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” This verse, is a great synopsis of this story. Nicodemus knows and trusts that Jesus is derived from God – even calling him rabbi, calling him teacher, a high status in their culture. But it is in this verse, that Jesus breaks it down, and spills the tea, he says, I am not here to condemn the world, but it is through the example of my life, death, and resurrection that the world will be saved. Y’all it is not just because God, sent his only begotten son, but it’s also because the Spirit was present. From the moment he was baptized, and the skies tore apart revealing the heavens and the Spirit descended like a dove, to the moment Jesus spoke to Nicodemus telling of the Spirit moving him to action, to when he selflessly died on a cross for people he had yet to meet, to his resurrection and to this very moment when we hear about this stir, and we feel it inside of ourselves – the Spirit was and is present. Let the Spirit stir within you, let yourself feel both the joy and the pain, listen to God’s call on your life, and follow the radical example of Jesus. You need all three, that’s why the Trinity is important. That’s the tea.