I don’t know what led Nicodemus to visit Jesus in the middle of the night in our gospel story for today. The text never really makes it clear. However, I am pretty confident that that visit did not go as he expected. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, an important leader in the Jewish community; and even only three chapters into John, Jesus has already made a name for himself as a popular folk preacher who turns water into wine and hangs out with John the Baptist. Perhaps Nicodemus came to learn from Jesus, or to try to persuade him to reconcile with the other religious leaders. But he never actually gets to the point of his visit or even asks Jesus a question. He starts off his visit by affirming, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” We know. ‘You tick all the boxes: you do signs and wonders, you definitely know your scripture, and oh man, that water into wine thing was just awesome! Nobody could do that stuff apart from God, so God must be with you.’
But before he can continue, Jesus says, ‘Hold on, partner. I’m going to stop you right there.’ Then he takes a sharp left turn into a conversation Nicodemus was clearly not prepared for. Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus is taken aback by this statement and responds by asking the obvious thing you or I would probably ask, which is: ‘How is that even possible? Like, what are the mechanics of that? Are you suggesting that we somehow crawl back up into our mothers’ wombs and come out again??’
But Jesus says again, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” And he goes on at length about the movement of the Spirit in wind and in water. Jesus does not seem to be at all impressed with the orderly way that Nicodemus and his colleagues have decided that Jesus is, indeed, a legitimate teacher with authority. Instead, he urges Nicodemus to look for deeper truths. He invites him into the movement of the Spirit, to embrace the mystery of not knowing where it comes from or where it goes. Jesus testifies about earthly things in order to point to heavenly things. He talks about things that can’t just be abstractly taught or professed, but that must be lived. No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again of the Spirit.
Even after Jesus ‘explains,’ I still find myself asking Nicodemus’ question. What does this mean? What does it mean to be born again or to be born of the Spirit? Even though I have a fancy piece of paper now that says on it that I know about such things, I still wonder. For many of us – myself included – the language of being “born again” calls to mind a specific kind of evangelical movement. These movements emphasize individual encounters with the Spirit and the individual choice to accept Jesus Christ as one’s “personal Lord and Savior.” As Lutherans, this really isn’t how we understand our relationship with God at all. We confess that it is God who chooses us, God who draws closer to us and knits us together in community, into the body of Christ. So I asked God again and again as I was trying to write this sermon: What does it mean to be born again, to be born from above, to be born of the Spirit?
And as I asked God this question, something funny happened: I got Nicodemus’d. The more I tried to pin down a solid answer, the more God seemed to respond to my orderly, logical questions with something of the Spirit: in this case, a song. I kept hearing the words of our hymn of the day repeating themselves in my head over and over:
Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun –
the interweaving of the Three; the Father, Spirit, Son.
The universe of space and time did not arise by chance,
but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.
Instead of giving me some brilliant, theological insight into the Spirit that I could dazzle you all with, God invited me to dance. God invited me, as Jesus invited Nicodemus, into something moving and dynamic like water or wind. The song paints this beautiful image of God dancing, the holy community of the Trinity spinning and twirling in a cosmic dance that spirals out to include all of creation.
In our gospel reading, Jesus invites Nicodemus to take his place in that divine dance, to let himself be moved by the Spirit. And even though Nicodemus walks away from that conversation in confusion, there is clearly something of that rhythm that catches hold in his heart.
You can see it when Nicodemus shows up again a few chapters later. In chapter seven, he is sitting with the rest of the Pharisees, who are arguing with the temple police about what to do about Jesus. Jesus has been healing on the sabbath, walking on water, calling himself the bread of heaven, and causing division among the people. The rest of the Pharisees want him arrested and thrown into jail. Out of nowhere, Nicodemus suddenly stands up and defends Jesus. He insists that Jesus deserves a fair hearing. I think he probably surprised himself by this action! A few chapters earlier, he didn’t even have the courage to meet with Jesus in daylight; now here he is standing up for him! In public! Even as he is mocked by his peers among the Pharisees, you can almost hear that divine rhythm that has started to take root in Nicodemus’ heart.
It’s as though Nicodemus has taken his first few, hesitant steps into the dance. The Spirit moved him to stand up for someone else whose voice was being marginalized, guiding him into action.
Come, see the face of Trinity, newborn in Bethlehem;
then bloodied by a crown of thorns outside Jerusalem.
The dance of Trinity is meant for human flesh and bone;
when fear confines the dance in death, God rolls away the stone.
Nicodemus makes one final appearance in John’s gospel, and it’s after “fear confines the dance in death,” as the hymn goes. In chapter 19, after Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea go to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Let the boldness of that act just sink in for a second. These two disciples were once terrified even to be associated with Jesus by their own people. These two go to the Roman governor to ask for the body of Jesus – a convicted and executed criminal – so that they might give him a proper burial. Wow. The rhythm of the Spirit had clearly worked its way deep inside both their hearts. Jesus had inspired them both with a fascination and a wonder that led them to do extraordinary things. Their new birth in the Spirit moved them to a completely selfless act of compassion: the profound act of caring for Jesus in his death.
Nicodemus probably still didn’t totally understand what had happened. Centuries of Jewish and Christian writers after him spilled gallons of ink just trying to tell the story. But this isn’t really a story about understanding. It’s not a story about dense, theological doctrines. It’s a story about opening up our hearts to the Spirit. It’s a story about being invited into the dance of the Trinity and letting ourselves get swept up in its rhythm, lost in wonder and fascination. It’s about letting that rhythm move us into acts of love, acts like standing up for those on the margins, showing compassion for our neighbors, and caring for those who have no way to repay us.
I think that we are all called to emulate this sort of conversion of Nicodemus, to let go of our need to have cut-and-dried answers for everything, our desire to put God in a box. We are called to open ourselves to mystery, to let ourselves be moved by the Spirit even though we don’t know where it came from or where it is going. We are called away from certainty and concrete facts toward wonder and imagination and love.
You have probably experienced moments of this at different points in your lives. You get caught up in wonder and find yourself doing things you never expected to do. I feel some resonance with Nicodemus’ story in our refugee hospitality ministry, for example. The Spirit moved this congregation to take up caring for people we don’t fully understand and who can’t repay us, to experience the wonder of connecting with people very different from us with just a few simple acts of love. The divine rhythm of the Trinity works its way deep into our souls and moves our feet into the lives of our neighbors through ministries like our mobile food pantry, through our ecumenical and interfaith partnerships, and even through our daily encounters with the people in our community.
We are invited to join wholeheartedly in the dance of the Trinity. We are invited to reach out to God with our imagination and with our questions and our wonder and with all that is in us. We are invited to let ourselves be moved to acts of love and words of witness. And even when our words and actions still fall short, we are still invited to dance.
Come, speak aloud of Trinity, as wind and tongues of flame
set people free at Pentecost to tell the Savior’s name.
We know the yoke of sin and death, our necks have worn it smooth;
go tell the world of weight and woe that we are free to move!
• • •
“Within the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun,
we sing the praises of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.
Let voices rise and interweave, by love and hope set free,
to shape in song this joy, this life: the dance of Trinity.”