The lyrics from our benedictory for today come from the words of A Celtic Blessing. The words of this blessing are: “May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back; may the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rain fall soft, upon your fields; and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His Hand.” I’ve seen these words on posters and paintings. These words are both uplifting and encouraging.
Within the blessing, there is one phrase that is particularly relevant to our gospel reading this morning: May the wind be always at your back. In our reading from John, the Spirit is described as the wind. So, if the wind is at our back we are traveling with the Spirit. The wind as Jesus says, blows where it will. So, we have to be keen to changes in the direction of the Spirit. If we’re not careful, we can end up walking into the wind. We can end up fighting the Spirit. It is the Spirit that helps to transform us. If we fight the Spirit, we fight our own transformation.
All of us from time-to-time will fight the Spirit. I resigned from my last corporate job when I was 48. I was confident God was calling me to do something other than getting Marlboro smokers to switch to Camel. I was pretty sure I was supposed to go to seminary, but I really didn’t want to. Going to school at 48 was not in my plan. Instead, hoping to answer my sense of call, I taught high school science for two years. Teaching high school was rough – particularly the first semester. I had students climbing in and out of windows. By the time the 4th semester rolled around, the students were becoming more like the enemy. I knew it was time to move on.
Those two years though were important in my formation. They framed the next three years of my life as I went through divinity school. What I found was that we’re going to meet resistance to our well-intended efforts if we’re following the Spirit or not. So, going against the Spirit can easily be confused with the resistance we’ll meet when we do follow the Spirit. That’s what happened with Jesus. It happened with Lincoln and slavery. It happened with Gandhi and India’s struggle for independence. It happened with Dr. King.
In my own case, separated from my family, 50 years old and living on a loan, I woke up every morning that first year of divinity school asking myself, “What are you doing here?” I always got the same response, “You know why.” That’s not the response I got when I was teaching. To be honest, when I was teaching, I was afraid to ask the question. I kind of knew something wasn’t quite right.
So, the obvious question is how do you know the difference? How do you know if you’re fighting the Spirit or if you’re fighting resistance to the Spirit in the world? For me personally, it’s a combination of conscience and fear. Many times in my life, my conscience has told me to take action. Many times I have not taken action, because I’m afraid. In those instances, I’m bucking the Spirit. Faith is not based in fear, but trust. That doesn’t mean you won’t be afraid and anxious. You will. I think Jesus was afraid and anxious when he went into the Garden of Gethsemane. He trusted God enough, though, to know it would ultimately come out alright. Ultimately, that’s what the faith calls us all to do.
We have some say, then, in whether we follow the Spirit or not. The issue is whether we will indeed allow our lives to be transformed by God’s possibilities. In both our readings, God calls human beings forth to become a new people. In this process of becoming a new person, we form a new community. Abram – at the ripe old age of 75 – moves from Turkey to Canaan. He completes the trip his father, Terah had begun from Ur – near Baghdad – many years previously. In John today, Jesus calls us to live as new creatures in a new creation. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Said differently, if we follow the Spirit we will indeed experience this new community, the kingdom of God.
To set out on something new is a fearful endeavor. Yet, if we fail to follow God’s leading we may indeed find ourselves walking into the wind. Such resistance is not new in life of God’s people. In the Bible this resistance is often referred to as hardness of heart. We as Christians affirm we are to live as new creatures in a new creation. However, we are often fearful in the face of that call. So, we find ourselves being tugged between two poles. We yearn for wholeness in every aspect of our being. We yearn to be reborn as Jesus describes today as children of God. However, we often offer resistance – the second pole – to that wholeness because of fear. The meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus dramatizes these two poles.
Jesus offers new life to Nicodemus. In the Greek the word translated “anew” or “again” has two meanings. This word also means “from above”. Jesus use is in both senses of the word, both again and from above. However, Nicodemus is confused. He asks a question that reflects a human constraint, “Can a person enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born?” In essence, Jesus’ response tells Nicodemus that not only can we be born again, but we can be born from above. In being born from above, we are indeed born anew. In our being born again, we not only experience a new life, but we also are able to experience a new community, the kingdom of God. So, not only are we born again in time, but we are also born from a new place – the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus still isn’t buying it. He asks Jesus, “How can this be?” All of us ask this question when faced with things we don’t understand. These words are ones that I myself asked as I went through the discernment process and divinity school. We must remember God is a mystery. We will never understand all there is to know about God. Some things we just have to trust and accept. This is what Jesus meant when he asks Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Jesus insists human life will be determined not by blood or our self-will, but by the will of God.
Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ question with the image of the wind/spirit. In Greek, the word for “spirit” is the same word as “wind.” Jesus points to the danger of defining life and restricting possibilities according to what we can know and control. None of us knows from one minute to the next which way the wind will blow. Yet, the mystery of the wind does not diminish the wind’s power and reality. The wind – like the Spirit -blows where it will. Our part is to hear the sound of it, not to attempt to dictate and control its comings and goings. As is true of the wind, “so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” We can no more control and contain Jesus’ offer of new life than we can contain the wind. We can embrace the offer of new life and be born anew and from above. Or we can spend our days in resistant amazement, weighing the odds and the costs.
It is this offer of new life that Jesus gives us all. To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined by human will, but by God. To accept this new life is to accept eternal life. Death becomes a passage to new life. This new life begins when we accept the mystery of the Spirit as our guiding force. So, the resurrection begins when we accept the Spirit. The resurrection begins with our new birth from above. In this we become a new creature.
The Spirit of course enlivens not just human beings but organizations – including churches. Churches – since they are comprised of human beings – can also resist Jesus’ offer of new life. Churches have to be sensitive to changes in the direction the Spirit is blowing, too.
A few years ago, I attended a seminar on church revitalization. The seminar was given by a UCC pastor who had taken a small, dying church in Dallas, Texas and turned it into one of the largest in the denomination. A couple of things from his talk have stayed with me. First, by his definition, about 75% of all UCC churches were dying. Of course, the UCC is not alone in this. All mainline Protestant churches are struggling for attendance. He went on to say that we tend to be stuck in the 1950’s and that if the 1950’s ever come back, we’ll be in good shape. So, as a whole, we have not been riding the winds of the Spirit. Then he said something that has really stuck with me. He said, “You can’t resurrect a dying church. However, you can give it a new birth.”
The question becomes, “Is this church open to the movement of the Spirit?” Clearly, Heidelberg was born of the Spirit. We have survived much over the course of our 120 plus years. With a church that is as old as ours, some may view our current struggle as the death throes. However, I believe we are now in the labor pangs. I believe we are in the process of giving birth to something new. The challenge for this church is much like the one facing Nicodemus and each of us individually. We can accept Jesus’ offer of new life or we can resist.
If we let fear dictate our actions, if we let our anxiety guide us, we will find ourselves fighting the spirit. Fear is not of God. If we let fear dominate us, we will fail. God brings us peace and hope, not fear. God moves though – just like the wind – in mysterious ways. We must be particularly sensitive to the movement of that Spirit. We may find ourselves led in ways we cannot anticipate or expect. We need to be open to these possibilities. The Spirit can and will lead us to a re-birth. Will we follow the Spirit or will we resist?