Because of technical problems with the internet connection at church, I can’t post sermons from there for the time being. So, before heading off to church, I thought I would post my Trinity Sermon. In previous years I have answered the question, “Why do we say the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday?” This year I tackle the question, “Exactly what does the Trinity do for us?” And I do it by explaining what Jesus is talking about when he says, “The wind blows.” With thanks to Dr. Weinrich of the Fort Wayne Seminary for the thoughts contained herein.
Any time you translate from one language to another, you lose something. It’s like photocopying a picture. While the image comes out pretty well, some of the fine detail is lost. There are even websites devoted to the comical results of repeated translations from one language to another. Fourscore and seven year ago, becomes “Before our ancestors and the score function.” Different languages think differently. And if you have someone who is especially interested in what we might call word play, as the Evangelist John is, then you have problems when you try and go from Greek to English. The most famous example is in the first chapter, where John says, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Or does he say, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.” Overcome or understood? They both make sense in the context, but you can only translate it one way. Various translations take different paths. But both words are true. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can not understand, nor can it overcome, the light. Light always wins out when brought into a dark place.
John three has a similar problem. There are a lot of words that just don’t go from one language to another without losing something in translation. Whole books have been written on the subject, but for today, a look at one little section with just a couple of words will bring into focus the beauty of Jesus words, and will help us to understand the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.
Nicodemus has come to Jesus. Jesus is an itinerant preacher and teacher. Nicodemus is a powerful Pharisee and a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, not of flesh, but of spirit:
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
This is all good baptismal language. Born of water and spirit. Being born, not of flesh, that is, according to this world, but of spirit, that is, of God and his kingdom.
And then it seems that Jesus tells a parable. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” You see, you just can never tell about the spirit. You never know when or where it will move you. It’s like the wind. Mysterious, showing up here and there, blowing hard or soft. Who knows what it’s doing or what it’s really made of. These verses give the spirit an air of mystery. And we hear them and are tempted to think, “Gee, if only we were a more spirit-filled church. If only we had some sort of excitement, some sort of … something, instead of the same old thing. Then maybe we would be able to do more, be more effective somehow. Have a bigger influence in our community.” And we are tempted to look at those churches that seem to be more spirit focused.
But there’s a problem with understanding Jesus words this way. And the Greek here helps us see things that are lost in the English translation. In English, it sure sounds like we have a discourse on the work of the spirit that is interrupted when Jesus all of a sudden starts telling parables about the weather. But in Greek the word for Spirit is Pneuma. We get the word Pneumonia from it. An infection in the lungs. A problem with the breath, the air. So, when Jesus is talking about the Spirit, the Greek uses Pneuma. Born of water and the Pneuma – the Spirit. And now, when Jesus starts talking about the weather, guess what word is used for wind? Pneuma. The same word that Jesus has been using over and over again for Spirit. Suddenly he means wind? Perhaps Nicodemus would have understood it that way, and it makes a certain amount of sense from Nicodemus perspective. As Jesus says to Nicodemus two verse later, “You do not understand my words.” But it really makes no sense from Jesus perspective to think that he is talking about wind. All of a sudden he uses the same word to mean something totally different, and then at the end of the verse says “So it is with everyone born of the Pneuma” – but now it means spirit again?
What if it always meant spirit? Well, then you have “the spirit blows where it will.” Doesn’t that say the same thing? But again, the Greek word for blows is “pnei”. It’s the verb form of pneuma. It can mean blow, in the case of wind. But if it’s referring to the spirit, it can also mean breathe or inspire. The spirit breathes where it will, and you hear it’s sound.
Sound is the second word that might not be quite right. In Greek its Phon-e From which we get phonograph, telephone. It means sound. But it can also mean voice. The Pneuma – the spirit does the spirits work, it breathes or inspires, and you hear the voice, but do not know where it comes from or where it goes. That is, you hear the voice of the spirit, but you do not recognize the voice of the spirit.
What is Nicodemus hearing, but not hearing at this point? He is hearing the voice of Jesus. And yet, he is not understanding what Jesus is saying. Remember last week, Pentecost, Jesus told the disciples that the work of the spirit was to bring to their remembrance all that he – Jesus – had said. Today we hear Jesus telling Nicodemus, you are hearing the voice of the spirit, but you do not recognize that you are hearing that voice, and you do not understand what I am saying. You do not realize what the work of the spirit is.
And what is that work? To direct the hearer to the word which Jesus speaks, and to show Jesus himself to those who hear. It is in Jesus that the father is seen. That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says born again, born of water and spirit. Not according to the will of the flesh, but born of God. And that rebirth happens in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. That rebirth is given in your baptism. And in that Baptism you are given the name of the Holy Trinity. You are bound to that name. As Jesus says to Nicodemus, You are made a part of the kingdom of God. But what is that kingdom? Jesus says near the end of the reading. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This lifting up is done in the death of Jesus. He is lifted up, that is, crucified. Jesus himself tells the Father right before his crucifixion, “Father the hour has come, glorify your son that your son may glorify you.” The only reference to a kingdom of any sort in John’s Gospel is in front of Pilate. My kingdom is not of this world. And then, John alone mentions the sign above Jesus on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.” Jesus has been crowned with thorns, he has been given the purple robe of royalty, with which the soldiers mocked him. He has been declared a king. Now he is lifted up, that is exalted, on the cross. That is the kingdom of Jesus. When you are baptized, you are baptized into the death of Jesus.
It is not only the content of the church’s preaching, but the substance of your life in Christ. Crucified. That is the glory, the kingdom that Jesus offers. It’s not what the world sees as good and glorious. The world wants a Jesus that can promise you good things, that can give you wealth, happiness, whatever your heart desires. The world wants to see a church that is powerful, that is exciting, that has fire and drama and great crowds and fireworks and those sorts of worldly signs of success. Jesus offers the cross. And the work of the pneuma – the Spirit is to bring the cross to you, through the phon-e, the voice, the word of Jesus.
The picture on the cover of the bulletin shows God the Father offering up his son for the sins of the world, with the Spirit descending. That is the Holy Trinity. Bringing you Jesus for your salvation. The Father offering his son for you. The Son giving himself into death as he submits himself to his father’s will. The spirit bringing you the word of Christ through the preaching of the Gospel. And God, Father, Son and Holy spirit, claiming you as his own through the washing of water and the word, putting his name on you and making you his own.
Blessed be the holy Trinity and the Undivided Unity. Let us give glory to him, for he has shown mercy unto us. This is most certainly true.