John 3:1-17, Divine Birth through Faith

[May 31, 2015] Today is Trinity Sunday, which in our current church calendar falls on the Sunday after Pentecost. Jesus, having suffered and risen from the dead, ascended to “the right hand of the Father” and poured out the power of the Holy Spirit on his qahal, those in Israel who had gathered to him as Israel’s Messiah: Israel’s uniquely anointed prophet, king and priest: Israel’s Savior. Those who gathered to the One whom God anointed became themselves anointed—to carry out the work which he (the Messiah) would now do from his position at the right hand of the Father. That work consists in multiplying him, initially by calling every child of Eve into the Messiah’s ever growing qahal (the gathering to him).

(I assume that you understand the nature of metaphorical language and how it was used in Biblical discourse, and won’t stumble by taking what is “mythological” discourse literally. For example, while Jesus’ death and resurrection are facts that happened at certain places on certain dates (however much the event of the resurrection defies comprehension), what happened at the ascension cannot be understood literally as a physical rising up, nor the “right hand of the Father” is not a physical location, and so on. You get this, I hope. So let us move on.)

Thus on that day of Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks on the tenth day after the ascension and fiftieth after Easter—the day following the week of weeks that began with the offering of the first-fruits in the Temple—when the Spirit came upon Jesus’ gathered believers, others gathered to them. After Peter explained to them what they were witnessing, they asked Peter, “What are we to do?” Peter replied, “You must repent, and every one of you must be baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Literally he said you must be baptized “on” the Name of Jesus, meaning, “on the basis of” his Name, that is, the revelation of him.

We baptize, per Jesus’ instructions (given in Matthew 28:19), into the (singular) Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who become believers of Jesus are baptized into the revelation of God as the Trinity. God, as revealed by the Gospel, is Triune, Three yet One. God-ness is not three but one. Divinity, the divine nature, the essence of God is unique and holy, and one: indivisible into parts. Yet God is three Persons: not simply as revealed in time but eternally. Indeed, the oneness of the divine nature is what makes God three persons: God is the relationship of the three, each person being inseparable from their relation to the others: their relation defining their personhood. Not only are each mutually related in free, outgoing and active love, but, being one, each inhabits the others: they co-inhere.

This revelation is Christianity. Those who deny it are Christians in name only. This is the faith of the catholic—meaning, “according to the whole”—church (Jesus’ qahal), for the church too is one, by the Spirit. This is certainly not to disparage those who deny the Trinity, for the kingdom of God is not limited to the church but is active in all humanity, and indeed in the creation itself, and God does not reveal to anyone all that God is doing to accomplish the divine purpose. However, when they call themselves Christians, those within the catholic faith refer to them as heretics: a terrible word because of its history of persecution, often of those who actually are righteous and holy by those who claim themselves to be righteous. “Heresy” simply means party-spirit: a “heretic” is one who puts him or herself on the outside of what is whole. The word, hairesis (meaning “a thing chosen”), has the connotation of a school of thought or party of one’s choosing. A heretic is a divisive person, one who promotes dissension. It is, therefore, a word altogether too easily abused. The majority use it to bully and expel those who disagree with it and to control by fear those within its ranks, from whom its leaders demand conformity. And so in the context of the church, it has become a useless term. If we choose to use it, we can all too easily abuse others without being aware of doing so.

Nevertheless, and that being said, the revelation of God’s triune nature does ontologically define the gathering of Jesus. Those who come to him are baptized into this Name. Not all who come to Jesus understand the faith in which, by virtue of their coming to Jesus, they are participating. Not all who come to Jesus have the generosity of charity to recognize their fellow believers. The “whole” therefore, as Wycliffe noticed, is therefore invisible, because only God can judge the heart. Yet it is visible, in a different sense, wherever “the faith” is explicit. In terms of the kingdom of God in the noetic sphere, those who profess the faith of the church are the church and God deals with them accordingly—in judgment, in mercy, and grace. It is not therefore inconsequential whether one professes the faith. It puts one under this particular umbrella of God’s judgment, the judgment of Christ, wherein one can also know the particular grace of his self-revelation.

Now, in the time that’s left, let us consider John 3:1-17. John, though not one of the Twelve, was a close disciple of Jesus and the companion of his widowed mother (therefore learning to see Jesus through her eyes). He wrote his gospel decades after Matthew’s gospel had been circulating and Luke’s following it. Mark’s gospel was more recently added to their testimony, as Peter’s attestation to their unity. John lived in the central hub of what was Paul’s apostolate, though Paul too was martyred twenty-five years or so before John wrote. So when John composed his gospel, it was after long and careful reflection on the faith. He wrote as one who had accompanied the revelation of the Word from the beginning, and who, together with Mary, reflected deeply on its meaning.

At the heart of the prologue, literarily the chiastic center, he wrote in poetic verse, “But as many as received him, to them he gave the privilege of becoming God’s [own] offspring, to those who believe into his Name, who were born—not of blood, nor of flesh’s will, nor of male will, but—of God”—i.e., who were given birth-to by God. Not adopted, as modern people think of it (in Greek “adoption” refers to the entitlement of sons; here the word is not sons but children—tekna). This divine birthing, then, is at the heart of this gospel. How does God give birth to that which bears God’s own face within the creation? That which is divine—eternal, omnipresent, without limit—is altogether of a different order from that which is created—in time, particular, and limited. Yet God does not look down on the created but rejoices in the created and wants to participate in it, and wants there to be a mutual participation—God also wants the creation to participate in the divine, so there can be a mutual rejoicing in each other, a rejoicing of love. How can this happen?

The next words in the prologue are: “and the Word became flesh.” Here the chiasm which enfolded itself into the central words of God’s birthing begins to unfold in the story of the gospel. The participation of God in created-ness and of creation in divine-ness begins with the incarnation, the Word becoming a creature. Divinity does not change into created-ness, nor does a human fetus change into God. That would be a pagan misunderstanding. No, divinity becomes human while remaining divine, and that which is human remains human. God, in the person of the Word, becomes human in addition to being divine. We say Jesus has two natures, though what we mean is that the Word (Jesus’ person) has two natures. The Word which is eternal now exists—in person—also in the particularity and limitation of time, space, biology, environment and society. Is this possible? It has to do with the freedom of the divine, which is incomprehensible. Who can prescribe it? We believe it is possible because it was done, and it was revealed to us as having been done.

This which is incomprehensible is actually the mystery of all that exists. Creation is what it is, from the big bang itself to its consummation, so that this can happen. Creation is what it is in order to have this potential, and the fulfillment to which this is aimed.

Well, John’s gospel, like the prologue, also winds around like a mandala towards a center and out from it again. The center is like a fulcrum so that what winds down into it is unfurled on its further side. John testifies to Jesus and the disciples abide with him (chapter 1); Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding feast, and purges his Father’s house promising to raise it on the third day (2); then he speaks to Nicodemus about the new birth; this is followed again by the Baptist’s witness (3). On the other side of the center, Jesus is borne witness to in Jerusalem (12), and he speaks to his disciples about the coming of the Spirit and the new life (13—17). This is followed by his death and resurrection, his meeting with Mary and the gathering of his disciples (18—21), all in chiastic symmetry, with the unfurling of the fulfillment on the further end.

Details aside, John 3:1-17 is marvelously perspicacious. Verses 1-8: “In truth I tell you, you must be born from above.” How is one born from above? Verses 9-17: everyone who believes into the Son—who will be exalted on the cross—will have the divine life in him (presently). The passage continues on to verse 21 and forms a balanced chiasm, but we leave that for another time.

Why is this the passage for Trinity Sunday? It is the Father who gives us birth (like a mother) by sending the Holy Spirit into our spirit (our vitality), to dwell and gestate in us as eternal life, through the incarnation and death and resurrection of the Word (the Son). I wonder if you can catch in this the birthing of God into creation, the Son by the Father, duplicated in us by the Spirit, so that all creation begins to be transformed into what Jesus is in his resurrection. The Trinity is not a dry and artificial concept, but an attempt to describe something very wet with life, and the mysterious reality of all that is. This is really what the church is all about. A million times it gets distracted from this center, and perhaps a thousand times it betrays it, yet we are here in 2015 and the center still holds where it has always been. “I believe in one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Into this Name we are baptized.

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