Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-18
What we gradually begin to see as we grow older is that the rules of the world don’t always apply equally to everyone. Some people are set up to succeed, while others are held back by their race, their class, where they were born, or the mistakes their parents or grandparents made. We are beginning to take notice that people of color are disproportionately punished by our criminal justice system. We know that the sexual orientation of some people has kept them from enjoying the same legal freedoms and privileges of others. We can see how the zip code in which a person lives can dramatically change their education level, income and even their health. We are hearing how people whose gender expression falls outside of our expected norms have a much lower life expectancy due to higher rates of violence and suicide.
This is the world in which we live. We may be appalled, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we can’t really say we are surprised. For those of us lucky enough to pass for what we call “normal,” the world can be an easy, pleasant place to live; but in order to be “normal,” we have all learned to hide and change those things about ourselves that are different or “wrong;” we have to suck them in and tuck them away like we tuck in our bellies at the beach to look more like the people in the magazines.
Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone can hide what is different or “wrong” about themselves. Not everyone has the right color skin, the right spouse, the right job. Not everyone can afford to live in the right school district or have the right body or drive the right car. Not everyone has the privilege to be the kind of person the world considers “normal;” some of us will forever be called “tranny” or “thug” or “white trash” or “illegal.” For those among us who can never pass as normal, the world is a much harsher place.
When John talks about the world, this is the place he’s talking about; not the whole earth at large, not creation as we know it, but specifically the world that we have created and segregated by race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability level and gender expression. According to Jesus, God looked down on this world—and God loved it. God loved it so much, that God sent God’s only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
John 3.16 is perhaps the best known verse in the entire bible, which makes it all the more tragic that we have so completely misunderstood it. We think that to “believe” in Jesus means to hold a certain opinion about who he is. We think that this verse is a kind of litmus test, separating those individuals who hold this opinion from those who do not. What we fail to understand is that Jesus is not using any singular pronouns here: belief is not about religious affiliation, but about whether we trust the world’s vision for reality, or God’s.
It becomes clearer if we listen to the next two verses. Jesus continues his thought by saying, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Jesus was not sent to separate the Christians from the Heathens, but so that this whole, broken world of ours might be saved together. Neither God nor any other divine power condemns us for our belief or lack thereof: there is no need to condemn us because we have already condemned ourselves by offering our allegiance to the world and its divided, polarized, bigoted system of isolating and dehumanizing people rather than following God and living as we were always intended to live.
Jesus comes to show us another way, to introduce us to the Trinity. “Trinity” is the mysterious and incomprehensible concept we get from experiencing God as three persons—Father, Son and Spirit—and yet one being. We can’t begin to comprehend what it is, but what it means is that community is a fundamental aspect of God’s identity—it is so fundamental to who God is that we see God in community with God’s own self. God chooses to be known through community. God enters into understand with us and with creation, and creates community among us. By entering into community with us, God draws us into the divine community among God’s own self—the community we call Trinity. God invites us into that divine state of loving relationship shared among the Father, the Son and the Spirit; or perhaps shared between the Father and the Son in the Spirit… (honestly, the details are a little fuzzy).
Like I said, we’ve all been being taught how to survive in the world since the moment we were born. Those lessons are ingrained in us; they have made us who we are: what is born of the flesh is flesh. The only way to begin to imagine the world any other way and living according that reality is to die and be reborn; to give up goods, honor, child and spouse, even life itself to begin again. Now Nicodemus’ question doesn’t seem so silly. How are we supposed to do this? Is it possible for any of us to completely unlearn what we have been taught our entire lives? When every fiber of our being is telling us that “those people” are dangerous, that we must protect ourselves from them, make them “normal” and “acceptable” like us before we can safely love them, how can we overcome our nature? Can these old dogs really be taught new tricks?
That’s precisely what Jesus does. Anybody here can tell you that one of the fundamental rules of the world is not to mess with somebody who is carrying a bigger stick than you are. In Jesus’ day, nobody carried a bigger stick than Rome, and he went toe-to-toe with the Empire and was killed—exactly as we’ve been taught to expect. What happened next, though, was completely unexpected: even though he died, he still won. We created this world of ours to protect us from death—from scarcity, from powerlessness, and from being forgotten—and we trapped ourselves in a system that works great for some but that eats others alive. By submitting himself to the rules of our world—by being lifted up—he shows us that this whole system is a farce: our rules don’t protect us, they only condemn us. He also shows us that the only way to escape this hell of our own creation is to die—die and be reborn of the Spirit.
This is how God is saving the world—not by promising us a sweet by-and-by, but by pulling us out of the harsh system we created and teaching us to live a new way: a way that does not separate us or dehumanize us or label us as “less than” or “wrong.” Instead of assigning worth based on our income or our life choices or how well we fit with some imagined “normal,” God chooses to assign worth based on the fact that God has called us each “Beloved Child,” and teaches us to love one another in the same way.
We celebrate the idea of Trinity today because that is how God is saving us: by entering into holy community—into Holy Communion—with us. In becoming flesh, God’s experience is enriched; by being among us, Jesus experiences our lives in a new way. If that is true for God, it is most certainly true for us as God’s beloved children. In God’s community—God’s kingdom—our lives will be enriched by being in communion with the very people the world teaches us to hate and revile and fear. God is teaching us to willingly and joyfully give up our goods, honor, child or spouse to, to lay down even our lives to join in this communion of saints. Turns out, God can teach an old dog new tricks.