Sermon for Trinity Sunday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In his nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus establishes the sine qua non of what it means to be a Christian. My temptation when encountering this text again earlier this week was to preach about a debate being held in some quarters of the church over Communion of the unbaptized- something for which some dioceses and clergy have expressed support in recent years, but which I, frankly, cannot reconcile with the historic teaching of the church. Instead of wading into that controversy, though, I’d like to talk about Baptism more generally this morning and in particular how it relates to our Trinitarian theology.

This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus will be familiar to some, but what precisely Jesus means has been interpreted in different ways. Some have suggested that “being born of water and the spirit” isn’t necessarily about Baptism at all. Apparently there is some water involved in the physical process of child birth. These people suggest that Jesus is here distinguishing physical birth (with its concomitant water) from spiritual birth (some sort of charismatic “anointing” as a pentecostalist might say).

I don’t buy this argument, because the context of the passage in John suggests an explicitly Sacramental focus in the first three chapters of the Gospel. Jesus is baptized by John, he turns water into wine in Cana at a wedding (that’s two Sacraments—Eucharist and Matrimony—foreshadowed in one story), and then he meets up with Nicodemus. I would contend, then, that Jesus is most assuredly talking about Baptism here.

Others have taken the story to indeed refer to Baptism, but to suggest a very different idea about the Sacrament than what the Church has always taught (and here I get a bit polemical, for which I apologize, but I want to be clear about what we believe). This began with small groups of sixteenth century reformers known as Anabaptists and gained popularity in evangelical and fundamentalist sects in the last two centuries. These would claim that for Baptism to be effective the baptizand must believe. Whether this simply means granting cognitive assent to Christian truth or having some sort of spiritual experience, such sects would reject infant baptism.

This position comes, I believe, from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. First, it assumes a disconnection between water and spirit which the Greek can neither support. More importantly, though, said interpretation makes a mistake in how it understands Jesus’ insistence that one must be “born anew”. Some translations read “born from above” and others read “born again”, which is the standard translation cited by opponents of infant Baptism. All these translations are technically correct. The Greek word anōthen could mean “born again” or “born from above”. Nicodemus mistakenly assumes it is the former, and those who teach so-called “believer’s baptism” make the same mistake as Nicodemus. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ confusion is one of correction. “No, Nicodemus, I didn’t mean that you had to be ‘born again’ exactly,” he might have said, “but that you need to be Baptized.”

So, the rebirth (or regeneration) is not a discrete experience symbolized by Baptism. It is, rather, the actual, objective effect of Baptism. Though a small child may not know precisely what’s happening (indeed, though even an adult cannot fully grasp the nature and importance of the great mystery of this Sacrament), God does, and we all, regardless of our understanding, receive the grace of the Sacrament, which is the forgiveness of sins and inclusion in the Kingdom of God.

Today is Trinity Sunday, and I’m going to break the tradition I’ve established over the last few years of introducing a complicated theological concept with a funny Greek name (though surely some of you remember my previous Trinity Sunday sermons on perichoresis and kenosis). Instead I want to conclude by saying how the mystery of the Holy Trinity relates to Baptism. It is obvious enough that we baptize in the name of the Trinity, but why?

If there’s one point about Trinitarian theology I repeat ad nauseum it is that the fundamental reality of the Trinity is not about a division of labor, but about a relationship of love. It’s not that the Father does some stuff (create the world, say) and the Holy Spirit does other stuff and the Son still different tasks. The whole of God is active in the work of God. The reason the Trinity matters is because it means that God was Himself a relationship before all worlds and, even more exciting, God is a relationship in which we are invited to participate. This is a relationship we maintain our whole lives through prayer and acts of loving-kindness and (most especially) through the Sacraments. It is, however, a relationship which has its beginning in and for us. Perhaps this isn’t language everyone is comfortable with, but it’s language I’ve become comfortable with: we have a life-long love affair with the living God, and that love affair begins at Baptism. Treasure that relationship. Nurture it. And support those who, through Baptism, are caught up in it, too.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.