born of the Spirit
“Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:7-8
There are a lot of bad analogies for the Trinity. Whenever people take a stab at explaining how God could be three persons – Father, Son, Spirit – and yet still be one God, it seldom goes well. Here’s a sampling of the attempts: God is like water that exists in three states – solid, liquid, gas. Or like an egg – the shell, the egg white, and the yoke. Three parts, one egg. Or a three-leaf clover. Or a tree – roots, trunk, branches. You get the idea.[i]
This morning I’m not going to get tangled up in knots trying to explain the Holy Trinity. That’s probably more work than one sermon can do anyway. But I’d like to zoom in on one part of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. Many of us are more comfortable thinking about God as Creator – or perhaps God as Parent. We can maybe wrap our minds around God becoming human in the person of Jesus. But the Holy Spirit? We’re not sure about that one.
The biblical images for the Holy Spirit usually come in three varieties: fire, a dove, or wind (sometimes breath or other kinds of air). At our New Jersey Synod Assembly a couple of weeks ago, we were all set to use several of those images. My friends on the worship planning committee hauled altar candles and a paschal candle to the site. (The paschal candle is that big candle beside the font that we light during baptisms and on other special Sundays.) And on the night of our dinner, someone had filled big balloons in the shape of white doves and tied them to many of the chairs around the room so they were floating in the air over us.
But we ran into some problems. For starters, the hotel wouldn’t allow any open flames. So we couldn’t actually light the candles, and having all those candles up there without flames just seemed too depressing, so we tucked the candles away in a corner. And then, throughout the dinner and the next morning, I watched as, one by one, the white Spirit balloons met a sad fate. A few lost their helium and started to drift drunkenly toward the ground. One was pulled down to a lower level and tied securely to the back of a chair so it couldn’t float any more. Still another balloon was stuffed under a table.
I have no idea why people felt so hostile toward the balloons, but the whole thing felt pretty close to how we usually respond to the Spirit. We don’t want that Spirit roaming wildly around the place. We want to tether it, control it, nail it down. We can’t stand the thought of a Spirit that is moving, a Spirit that is on fire. That kind of Spirit is too dangerous. That kind of Spirit might spread from one place to another without our permission.
Whatever brings Nicodemus to Jesus in the middle of the night, he ends up having some questions about the Spirit. Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born from above. Another way to translate that phrase is to be “born again.” Nicodemus is understandably confused and presses the point. You can’t return to your mother’s body and be born again, can you? What Jesus says doesn’t clarify the matter very much: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus goes on to say that “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus seems to understand how much we’d like to control the Holy Spirit. He knows we like life to be predictable. He knows we don’t like to take risks, certainly not the risks that come with speaking and living our faith. But Jesus doesn’t really give us an option. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” That’s us, born again in baptism. Born of water and Spirit. So it is, Jesus says. So it is. That we are born again to a new life – that part is certain. But where it leads? We do not know. The wind blows where it chooses. We have no idea where and when it might shake us up.
On Thursday night I sat in one of the top rows in the balcony of a church in Washington, DC that was filled to overflowing. We were listening to an impressive line-up of preachers, including Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, whom you may have heard recently give the wedding homily for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Hanging from the ceiling of the church right in front of me were long red ribbons. I assumed they were left there from the congregation’s celebration of the Pentecost last Sunday.
Bishop Curry was laying it out for us. “Love your neighbor,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.” He went on, getting louder and louder and challenging us with the truth that loving our neighbor is not just a sentimental feeling. He said: “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino, your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor. That’s why we’re here.”
As Bishop Curry became increasingly impassioned, I watched the air move through those red ribbons. They started swaying more and more. Something is happening, I thought. The Spirit is moving.
And then this happened. A bird appeared out of nowhere and perched on a beam near the ceiling of the church. It startled me at first. I watched it flit around for a while and realized that it, too, embodied the Holy Spirit. We couldn’t control where that bird came from or where it was headed. But there it was, moving freely and surprising all of us.
Think for a moment about what unsettles you right now. It might be something in your own life – an unresolved relationship, a new professional opportunity, a concern for a friend. What might the Spirit be moving you to do in that situation? It might feel risky, but so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
What unsettles you about our world right now? What most fires you up when you think about it? More school shootings? People who are hungry in a world with plenty of food? Immigrant children separated from their families? An opioid drug crisis ensnaring people in addiction? What might the Spirit be moving you to do? It might feel daunting, but so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
We might very well ask the question that Nicodemus does: “How can these things be?” When we live a life of faith that question is going to come up a lot. How can these things be?
But as people of faith, we don’t just ask “How can these things be?” We ask, “How can we respond?” How can we follow God’s ways of justice and mercy? The Spirit blows in and around us not just to unsettle us but to inspire us. Inspire us to help in the ways that we can. To change systems that keep people hungry and poor and afraid. To pray with our hands and our feet.
May we live and love as the Spirit moves us to do – even when it surprises us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ