Last Sunday one of the youth who is very active in our youth group sat down next to me and asked me kind of wistfully, “Muthah+, do you ever have times when God seems very far away?” And I said, “Yes. In fact, often in my life God has seemed very far away. It is like looking at God through the wrong end of binoculars.” She then said, “I don’t like it. I like it when Christ is close.” And I told her what faith was about was staying faithful when God isn’t that close. It was like a light had gone on behind her eyes. She immediately knew what was going on in her life. “What do you do to get that closeness back?” she cried. “God will return when you need a taste of the Holy. You can do nothing to regain God’s closeness, but stay close to the worshiping community. That is what it means to be faithful” I said. “The Spirit blows where it wills.”
My young friend was experiencing what it means to come down from the high of knowing Christ intimately. And while I would love it if she could continue in that comfort of her ‘born again’ experience, we all know that we don’t live there.
The story of Nicodemus is one that has been appointed at least three times this year. And this discourse from the Gospel of John contains probably the most famous verse of Christianity: John 3:16. There are those today who would say that this verse contains all that needs to be known about Christianity. If you are sick of seeing John 3:16 scrawled on buildings, or messaged to your phone, or on placards at ball games, you should be. The use of this passage to hit people over the head belies the whole meaning of these verses in the context of John’s Gospel and the development of the universal Church. It also belies the whole of the Christian message of welcome and embrace because it usually invites people to a theology of exceptionalism and privilege rather than Christian hospitality.
Nicodemus goes to Jesus under cover of darkness. Nicodemus is a leader in Jewish circles and he didn't want to be seen conferring with this upstart rabbi from Galilee. He was a leader of the Pharisees, one of the various political/ religious parties in Jerusalem that had been at odds with the Sadducees for over two hundred years. The political climate in Jerusalem was as toxic as ours is today but there were just more political parties. He has evidently heard Jesus speak because he knows that truth rings in Jesus’ words. And Jesus responds to him by saying more or less: “you couldn’t understand what I say as truth if you had not been given the grace by God to understand.” He tells him that people must be born again and of course, Nicodemus doesn’t get it.
Much is made of being 'born again' today in our need to extract commitment from those who would follow Christ. Some denominations demand re-baptism or multiple baptisms. Some Christians have to have ‘born again’ experiences in order recognize the power of God’s truth in their lives. It requires a turn-around change in their lives. And once they have had them, they go on to evaluate other’s ‘born again’ experiences to see if others ‘measure up.’ I am thankful that neither of our two traditions has tumbled into that kind of exclusivity.
Jesus’ point is often lost in the rush to note that it is that personal experience of the Holy that motivates us to action. And the point of Jesus’ discourse is that we must be willing to be moved by that incredible presence of God, must be brought to our knees by the overwhelming grace of forgiveness and and activated to action by the ever-sustaining manifestation of Holy One. Jesus' point is to remind us that it is the Holy one of Israel that needs to be experienced so that we are brought to a sense of awe and thanksgiving that permits us to trust one another.
What the parties of first century Israel had forgotten was that God was the one who was in charge, not the political parties of the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Roman Empire, the Herodians, not the Zealots. It was the God of their ancestors that they had forgotten.
Since the return of the exiles from Babylonia, the people of Israel had put a veritable fence around the Ten commandments that excluded those to whom they were to witness. Israel was supposed to be the ‘Light to the Nations’ of God’s love, but they had made their faith so exclusive that others could not worship at the Temple any longer. They had formed ways that shunned even other Jews who had not had their experience of exile. It was not done out of meanness but as a way to ‘protect their faith’ as a way to preserve their experience of God’s presence. It was done in order to conserve or preserve their faith like they had known in Babylon. They had had a ‘born-again’ experience in exile. They had endured slavery in Babylon by codifying what it meant to be a Jew. And when they returned from exile, those who had stayed in Jerusalem or Galilee couldn’t possibly be as faithful as they had been in exile.
This is a phenomenon in religion that affects all faiths and all eras. Often our spiritual experience is so personal and so particular to us that we have difficulty understanding the gift of faith in others. Even John Wesley couldn’t really describe his “curious warming of the heart”. He understood that spiritual experience to be central to faith. But it was those who followed him who codified Methodism. John and Charles Wesley were Anglicans until the day they died. Our two churches were only separated when the rules got in way.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the experience of the Holy is universal and until one has it one is just jumping through hoops—one is just living on one’s acquired knowledge of God rather than that ‘curious warming of the heart’ But I also know that there are those who have never had this "knocked from your horse" type of spiritual experience. They have always known the presence of the Holy in their lives--like my young friend. I refer to these people as "once born" because they have known all their lives the power of the Divine. The Spirit blows where it wills.
In her recent book “Christianity after Religion”, Diana Butler Bass tells us that recent polls of the American population tell us that approximately 92% of Americans have had some sort of ‘spiritual experience’ in their lives, yet less than 40% of them identify that as a ‘religious experience’. And a growing number of people 40 and younger are finding more spiritual support outside of our churches than ever before.
When I stand back and view our churches—it matters not what denomination or even our non-denominational mega-churches, we are all doing it, -- we have put fences around what it means to be Christian. We find ways of making people go through hoops to get married, get baptized, receive communion or whatever. We claim ourselves to be welcoming but make it difficult to follow the service, sing along or we have arcane worship practices. We demand that people think the way we do, or believe certain things to be a part of us. And if we don't expect a commonality of belief, we throw road blocks in our worship. If you haven’t been to an Episcopal service recently it requires usually 3 different books, a service leaflet and “Episcopal Calisthenics”. We want the people who come to us to experience the faith the way we have and so we do all kinds of things to help them have the same experience. But the “Spirit blows where it wills.” And at this time in history, we do not know either where it is blowing from or where it is blowing to.
We did nothing to have the spiritual experience that has drawn us here. It was all gift of God. That is what grace is. We can’t manufacture that experience for people to have the same kind of spiritual experience that we have had. But we must come to the place where we can trust those who have had different experiences of the Holy to be our brothers and sisters even when they articulate that 'curious warming of the heart' differently than we do.
We cannot save the Church. Christ has already done it. But the future of the Church is going to look very different from the one we have now or the way that it has been for past 500 years. And given what we have been experiencing in the Church for the past decade, that may not be half-bad.
Nicodemus knew that the deadlock in his faith needed to be addressed. He knew that Jesus was speaking was Truth. What we don’t know is what Nicodemus did. Did he return and plot against Jesus? We don’t know. Did he return to follow Jesus? We don’t know. We do know that it is in this incident that the exclusionary rules of the ruling Jewish parties were seen as baseless and rooted in fear and control. They were not rooted in the Holy Spirit. And yet this very passage is often cited as the grounds for creating those same exclusionary rules in our present day.
Last week we celebrated Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. If we are to truly accept the Holy Spirit in our lives to motivate the living out of our baptismal vows, we need to allow the Spirit to move where it wills. Shortly you will have a new pastor. He will be new and have all kinds of new ideas for your congregation. And there will be things that you will want to keep the same. And I would suggest to you that the Spirit is saying to us today that compromise is a blessed part of Christian living.
Compromise must become the name of Christian living today. I know that there are those who find places in Scripture that move us to polarization, but I can tell you from over 40 years trying to live the Christian life—the way that we tell people about Jesus is through loving one another. And in order to love, we must compromise. We must demand of ourselves that we live in the Light of Christ’s love rather than in the darkness of maintaining our customs and comfort.
The Spirit will blow where it wills. But we must be willing to feel the freshness of that breath, to revive our drooping spirits, to remember that spiritual experience that drew us to faith. And like my young friend, see Christ once-again in the light of that Spirit-flamed experience that moves us to proclaim his love. AMEN