Trinity Sunday: context

TrinityHoly Trinity Sunday is celebrated on the first Sunday following Pentecost in most of the liturgical churches in Western Christianity. It is a solemn celebration of the belief in the revelation of one God, yet three divine persons. It was not uniquely celebrated in the early church, but as with many things the advent of new, sometime heretical, thinking often gives the Church a moment in which to explain and celebrate its own traditions; things it already believes and holds dear. In the early 4th century when the Arian heresy was spreading, the early church, recognizing the inherent Christological and Trinitarian implications, prepared an Office of Prayer with canticles, responses, a preface, and hymns, to be recited on Sundays to proclaim the Holy Trinity. Pope John XXII (14th century) instituted the celebration for the entire Church as a feast; the celebration became a solemnity after the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.

In the shadow of Pentecost and the dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit, the following week seems a place to fitting place to pause, as it were, and place it all in a context of salvation history. Perhaps that is why the second reading was selected and says it so well: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (2 Cor 13:13). It ties together the first reading and psalm which point to the working of God before the coming of the Christ as well as our gospel reading, a short passage from the John 3:16-18:

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

While it seems a fitting set of readings, the gospel passage itself is but a small portion that sounds as though a capstone-like statement of the role of Jesus in our salvation. But the capstone is part of more cohesive scene within the Johannine narrative. These verses comprises a single, cohesive scene (with a key introduction) and should be studied as a single unit.

John 2:23 While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. 24 But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, 25 and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus answered and said to him, “How can this happen?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this? 11 Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. 12 If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (the gospel for Holy Trinity Sunday)

19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. 21 But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

Context. The fuller story begins at the end of John 2 where we encounter the gospel writer’s closing statement (vv. 23-25). What seems clear is that a lot more than the temple cleansing took place during Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem for this first Passover festival. There is the one recorded sign at Cana; otherwise the record is silent. Yet, the evangelist, while recording no details, goes on to write “many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.” Even though many began to believe in Jesus, “Jesus would not trust himself to them.

These verses suggest that Jesus did not yet see a clear basis for an enduring relationship of faith with the people. They were enthralled by the signs, but Jesus knows they will always want one more – there will always be one more thing in the way of commitment. Only later does Jesus express the bases of that lasting, committed relationship: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father”   (John 15:14–15).

Jesus well understands human nature (2:25) – and that is perhaps the overriding narrative of this section of the Fourth Gospel: the response of human nature in coming face-to-face with the Messiah. The majority of John 3 describes Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish leader Nicodemus – a prestigious man “in the know” forms one response. John 4, the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, points to a different response of human nature.

One way these verses are connected is the double “we know,” uttered by Nicodemus in 3:2 and by Jesus in v. 11. The first person plural, “we,” indicates that both are representing groups – perhaps the distinction between Jewish and Christian leaders, perhaps the subtle difference between thinking that Jesus is just a “teacher who has come from God” or that Jesus is the one who has “descended from heaven,” who will be “lifted up,” and through believing him one has eternal life – the difference between Jesus as a human teacher or the divine savior.

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