Nicodemus is someone we only hear about in St John’s gospel. And he is an intriguing figure. We know that he was a prominent person in Jerusalem – religious and political leader, a Pharisee like St Paul, someone learned in scripture and theology. He was probably quite an old man and a wealthy one. But he was clearly fascinated by Jesus and he was the sort of person who asked questions and was open to review his deeply held convictions.
And we know what got his attention in the first place, because St John actually tells us. It was that famous moment when Jesus, an obscure carpenter’s son from Galilee – a stranger and outsider, with no credentials or status – comes to Jerusalem and creates mayhem in the Temple precincts. He picks the eve of the most holy festival, Passover, and makes the sort of dramatic protest that would be the envy of such modern movements as Extinction Rebellion.
As St John tells it, Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives the sacrificial animals and the money-changers out of the building, saying: ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place’ Other gospel writers say he used equal force but stronger language – turning over the tables and accusing the stall holders of making His Father’s house a den of thieves.
It was this act that seems to have piqued Nicodemus’ curiosity. Rather than seeing Jesus’s behaviour as something he could just discount, he saw it as, to use his own words, ‘a sign that indicated the presence of God.’
Then Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night – probably not out of fear or embarrassment but because that was then the traditional time of the day for religious discussion – and calls him rabbi, ‘teacher’, and begins to question him. In the conversation that follows he hears about the idea that it is possible to be born again of the Holy Spirit and is told what has become one of the most celebrated summaries of what Christianity is about:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him – or has faith in him, or trusts him – may not perish but have eternal life.
There is a lot in that Gospel reading to think about, but I just want to note three things. Both Jesus and Nicodemus agree that the truth and wisdom come from God. They have no difference of opinion concerning God as the originator and creator of all things. But where Jesus fits in and the role of the Holy Spirit there are matters for further exploration.
Today is, as you will have noticed, Trinity Sunday, a day when there is an ancient tradition that clergy do their best, using skilful or bizarre analogies, to explain the doctrine of the Trinity – how what appears to be three things: God, the Father, God, the Son and God, the Holy Spirit, are actually one thing. The oddest example I have come across recently is the one where God was compared to a hairdryer. That should be obvious. The Holy Spirit is the warm air, Jesus is the electricity, and God the Father is the entire dryer! But all this seems to entirely miss the point, and it confuses as much as it enlightens.
The Christian experience of God is threefold. God meets us in three ways. We acknowledge this whenever we worship together and whenever we pray individually. Nicodemus was tentatively exploring that with Christ himself. He could sense something of God in Jesus’ prophetic act in the Temple but he is struggling with the idea that God can work great changes within himself – hence his confusion about being born again.
The God who is Trinity is glimpsed by Nicodemus as he seeks to make sense of who Christ is and what he means. Like us, he was stumbling around in the dark, if you like; groping towards the God who was coming to meet him, the God who loves everything he has made and who shares our life and walks with us and can be experienced in our hearts and guts. God met in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is the one who can overturn our expectations and bring profound truth and great depth to our lives.