Thursday, June 11, 2009

Flesh and Spirit

The Gospel for Trinity Sunday is John 3:1-17

A week ago today, we rejoiced to be in the gracious grip of the missionary Spirit of God. Our Bishop preached with apostolic zeal. You can see that we put our best clothes on and wore red. Six remarkable teenagers were confirmed, and our very own Madeline was received into this branch of Christ’s Church.

Today, we’re ready to celebrate how the Spirit moves the Class of 2009 at Williams, and their families, and their faculty to draw whole the circle of four years of demanding work and exhilarating accomplishments and precious relationships. These four years have seen the hallowing of endless hard work—pages read, papers written, exams survived, practice endured—hallowed by the gaining and giving of insight, perspective, respect, empathy, awe, intimacy, community, compassion… Each senior we know and love can add to this list of gifts and achievements of the spirit gained here in this fertile valley.

So it may be with some degree of argument that we hear John’s Gospel today, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We may not find that true to our experience. There is endless crossover between those two columns and all they contain. And doesn’t a religion of incarnation teach us to expect that crossover?

For sure, but here Jesus is rattling the firmament of a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a man so Establishment that he comes to our Lord’s campfire only under the cover of night. And there we see him painted chiarascuro, his darkness heavy against the sharp light that meets him. His darkness is made of fear. His robes of authority hang heavy on him, but he will not let them slip from his broad shoulders that carry the burden of leadership, not even when Jesus invites him to be born again, to slip naked out of those robes and be baptized as Jesus once was, that day at the muddy Jordan when he and many hundreds of ordinary people went waist-deep to let the Spirit of the prophets write God’s law upon their hearts.

Jesus takes off his gloves and fights for Nicodemus’s soul. “You see things black and white,” he seems to say, “You rule and judge the community by laws that let you say, ‘This is pure, and that is impure. This one is righteous, and that one unrighteous.’ But I say to you that what draws you to me in those signs you admire so much, is how I touch the earthly and free it for the heavenly. You can’t do that. Not until you lay down your rule of law and authority and, naked of all claim to power, let God have you, flesh and spirit. Then you will serve the Spirit. You think you do now, but you’re serving the flesh.”

Here is a good Gospel for Trinity Sunday, when the Church lets its jaw drop in amazement that the completeness of God should require us. Should delight in freeing our flesh so we may rise, born again in Spirit and truth. Should break open our darkness of slavery and fear and draw us into light, make us children of light. That the fullness of God should be pleased to dwell in the rebirthing of human beings, one by one.

And that these are the shoulds that matter. Not the shoulds that we, like Nicodemus, carry on our shoulders. Not the shoulds that make us debtors to the flesh, requiring us to keep doing what others have done in the past, keeping us slaves to standards and habits and burdens that do not fit the children of God now.

But that God should give us a spirit of adoption. Like those Roman Christians, we are stunned to hear that by baptism into Jesus Christ, we are made his apostles to the world, “that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…”

“For God so loved the world as to give his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”