So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.* 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”* 8The 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.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.*
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
There are times I've had trouble learning stuff. In first year High School, I simply could not understand algebra. I was in despair by the end of the year, but in the second year it clicked, and then I could not understand why I'd had all the trouble! I suspect something about my ability to think abstractly had grown.
But I have a second kind of trouble learning stuff. I'm talking about the trouble I've had learning the theology of the Holy Trinity, for example; it won't 'stick'. I understand, to some extent, what the writers are saying, but I forget it almost as I turn the page. Worse still, there has been nothing in my forty something years as a Christian that has attracted me to want to turn the page back and read it all again, for the fourth or fifth time. I know I won't remember. Why does this central doctrine fail to engage me?
I received an insight into this from a conversation with a colleague. RoseMarie told me that someone in her congregation commented that "the place is different when you are in the room." There is something about her spirit which enlivens the place, and changes its "feel," or nature.
Robert Hamerton-Kelly says, "We call that level of our consciousness on which we apprehend and experience divine and human love, the spirit." I wonder if I have correctly remembered what RoseMarie had told me. Did the person say to her that "the place is different" when you are in the room, or was it that "we are different" when you are in the room? I'd like to think it was the second; I might go with that as I tell this story in future. Because what happens, I think, is that the people's consciousness of who they are changes when RoseMarie is in the room. There is a different spirit in the place.
On a very simple level, we might notice two things. Firstly I have said the people's consciousness changes. I'm suggesting that what's going on if we are in the room with RoseMarie is that it is not my consciousness, or Fred's consciousness, which is being changed, but our consciousness. Certainly, in John 3, when Jesus says to Nicodemus, "You must be born from above,” (3:7) you is plural. Not you-Nicodemus, but you-all church. The plural you is not simply a Johannine swipe at the Jewish leadership which Nicodemus represents. The nature of faith; that is, the nature of trusting and meeting God is deeply affected by the plural.
In fact, Marianne Zahn says
Here is all you need to know about the Trinity: the God we worship exists only in relationship, in the eternal communion of three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. This means that we cannot be Christians alone, because if you do not experience life lived in relationship with your community, you can never really know Jesus. You may follow his teachings, you may be a wonderful person, but you will not be Christian, or at least not a Trinitarian one. And that would be heresy. It might not cost you your job or your life, but it will cost you the experience of being fully human.
As I have begun to suspect, she is warning me it would cost me something of my sense of God, if I were to withdraw from church. God will not withdraw from me, but if I "step out of the room" of the church, despite all its failures, I also step out of a key place that allows me to recognise and participate in "the stepping into my life" of God.
The second thing about RoseMarie's entry into the room is that we would never say that RoseMarie's consciousness changing presence is in the room without RoseMarie! The one thing I can remember from college classes about Trinitarian theology is that "any external work of the Trinity is the work of all three persons." Or, as James Alison puts it,
ad extra [towards the outside] all the activities of God are single. So there is no difference between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit acting ad extra. If we recognise the Spirit doing something, we are recognising God – who is Father, Son and Spirit – doing something. The only distinction – if we can talk about a distinction – is in the ‘inner life’ of God. Ad extra, there is only one acting out – we are monotheists, not tritheists. It’s not three persons turning up and treating us differently: it’s one Protagonism into whose inner life we are called.
The room is not changed because RoseMarie sends something into it; it is changed because RoseMarie herself enters the room. And it is not the room which is changed, but us. The Spirit is God herself coming to us.
We can see here, if we have been affected by such teaching, that the idea of "the spirit" as an extra blessing, is extraordinarily misleading. To have "received the spirit," as it was preached in some settings I knew, was about possession and superiority. It was a sort of abstraction, a making of God into a thing. To seek to possess RoseMarie would be a mistake— and dangerous!
So I wonder if my problems with understanding the theology of the Trinity don't stem from the fact that I have learned to ask, "What is the Holy Trinity?" when I would never ask "What is RoseMarie?" When I wonder at how things change when RoseMarie enters the room, I ask, "Who is she?"
I am certainly intrigued to know how it is that RoseMarie enables us to be different; how she relates to us; what is it that she does among us which allows us to see each other in another way, and relate to each other in another way. But the truest way to those questions lies in asking, "Who is RoseMarie?" It is only in knowing and meeting her that I finally begin to understand what is happening to me. In fact, as she knows me, I know myself more fully.
Everything human is about relationships. To think about me without my relationships, or to think about RoseMarie apart from our relationship, is to be abstract. It replaces us with x and y, impersonal place-markers in non-human probabilities. God is not some principle, or abstract idea. God is inviting me to be in relationship. So the question which grips me, and the learning which 'sticks' is not "What is the Holy Trinity?" It is "Who is God? How can I relate to God?"
For blokes who've been brought up insulating themselves from relationships for safety's sake, meeting God really is to be born anew. It is to be plunged into a new reality which is not about the safe knowing of abstraction or the engineering of answers, but is about immersion into relationships which change and remake us. Being changed is the vulnerability which we Aussie blokes walled off at all costs, in order to survive. Somewhere in Manhood, Steve Biddulph talks about watching his small son visibly change from carefree animation to a kind of survival toughness on the walk to school each day.
John 3 is true. We need to be reborn to transcend our insularity and enter deeper relationships. For us blokes, this change is so profound, so hard to receive, that we often remain as child-men, as so many women can attest. How liberating for us blokes if we can hear the following verse in truly Trinitarian expression:
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. (3:8) There's a pun here fellas: the word for wind is the same as the word for spirit. But there's more going on. Spirit is the word for God: God blows where God chooses. You won't know where and how— God does what God does. But you will be born. You will find depths to relationship you never imagined. Because God "so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." Which means God so loved the world that you will find a quality of life which is completely different to the dog eat dog of the pub, the footy and the office— leave alone school. It won't get old.
I remember accompanying my dad to a sheep market one mid-week. And I remember my astonishment that he was greeted by the men there with warmth. Indeed, they appeared to look up to him! My astonishment rendered me speechless— what kind of existence was this, that you could be among equals, not on-guard, and even be admired!?? And I knew, inarticulately, but so deeply that I have never forgotten, that I had climbed down from the truck and walked across to the stockyard mentally shoring my defences, as he was strolling over to his friends. This is eternal life, life of a different order. How I desired to be in that place, in that different life.
The finding, or, more properly, the receiving of this life— it is given to us— is no simple change of mind or act of will on our part.
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? … 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
We are not kind to Nicodemus. True, his asking if one could "enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born" reflects his incomprehension. But it does double duty; it is sarcasm and scepticism, and hopelessness and pain, as much as ignorance. How can I, old, disillusioned, damaged, begin again? How can I be enlivened? How can even I be accepted, be part of the group, be… someone, have… a place? How can I be at home in the world instead of a victim, or instead of being forever anxious of losing my status, or instead of feeling there is no meaning, and no place to be?
It's not just incomprehension tinged with hopelessness to which Nicodemus bears witness. There is something deeply oppositional within us, some great fundamental gap between God and us. As Jesus says, "What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit."
I grew up as one of the designated victims in my group. When I left home, and even as a senior high school student, I began to escape that. I was in places where the group had found someone else to use as their outcasts. And then I found that once you are not the victim, you need to find some other reason to live, some other purpose. Things are not enough; we need relationships to be human and to feel human. I had to learn how to be a friend, and how to do relationships. And then I found that relationships
always end up going bad on us. All our relationships go sour, especially since they end in death. (Paul Nuechterlein)
This is the root illness of humanity which the church calls Original Sin. So many relationships deteriorate into violence. If we are lucky, they "go sour," rather than violent. Yet we only have to remember the absolute grief and pain of our childhood loves and relationships breaking up— even if no one hit anyone— to wonder if what we might call souring is really a muted violence to which we have become toughened and desensitised. Some relationships find a circuit breaker which enables them to continue in a denatured form: a common hatred, a common enslavement to a cause, one person lording it over the other. I wonder if the apparent fading of the first flush of a relationship is not really a carefully managed insulation or preparation to protect us from what may follow.
My relationships broke up, or never really got started, because I wanted to own them and control them; that was my violence. I craved being loved, and… I insisted on being safe. But so as long as I wanted to be the loved one, but insisted on being the one safe in control— as long as I desired the lovability of my friend— to be like them, but wanted to own him or her, to force them to love me— things fell apart, or became denatured; that is, always less than they could have been.
And in those places I was like Nicodemus: "How can anyone be born after having grown old?" How can there be any other way of being? How can I be safe and be loved. How can I let go of myself and be loved, but not lose myself? What— in the terms of my boyhood— whatever will happen if I get down from the truck, and walk over to the stockyards, and the men do not love me?
That day I climbed down from the truck, I was preparing to hate back. The shoring up of myself was the pulling on of armour for battle. So you do not love me? Well, you are nothing. You are common, vulgar, provincial; you are a hick. And I knew exactly whom you were like, because I had already formed my list from among those on the neighbouring farms who had not loved me right. I could do nothing to you, yet, but you were my victims. In places with plenty of guns we know what happens as these children grow a little older.
There are only two possible modes of desire in John: hatred and love. Love, as we have seen, is the pacific imitative self-giving towards death which is creative of life. Hatred is the rivalistic distorted desire which ties a person ever more furiously into persecution, death and murder ‘without cause’. The one is the mode of desire proper to the Father, the other is the mode of desire proper to the world. (James Alison The Joy of Being Wrong pp192-3, quoted by Paul Nuechterlein.)
My desire for love was distorted even as a little child. Hatred is relationship born of flesh; love is relationship born of spirit. They are worlds apart. As Alison says, a few words before the quotation above, "the involvement in persecution and victimization by which the world maintains its order is the same as not knowing the Father."
"But how???" cries Nicodemus. How else can I live? How can I be born of Spirit?
The Senior Master in my final two years of High School was my chemistry teacher. He sang. He played guitar. He wrote songs. And he let us into his life. Geoff Boyce lined the old earthen cellar where he lived with dyed hessian— terribly cool in the 70's. He formed a youth group, he mentored us as a small choir; he took us to a rock concert.
We all wanted to be Geoff, and he was big enough not to play favourites. He did not let us triangulate him. He taught some of us guitar. He used to give me rides to the city on weekends, yet I learned, years later, how much regard he had for one of the kids I had regarded as lesser. All of us felt we were special. I realise now that he gifted us with himself. He answered to Nicodemus' cry "How??" by saying, "I am here. I like you. Trust me as a friend." He mourned with us when a classmate was killed in a car accident.
I suspect that for some kids he was just a teacher, and they walled themselves off as usual. But the offer was always there, to any of us. To those of us who trusted him, he showed a different way of being. He expanded our understanding of what it meant to be alive. He was our salvation in a small town. He was a Christ to us.
In answer to Nicodemus' plea, the other way of life is here with us, and rebirth into it is always here on offer. It can be found in the trusting of Christ, and if not consciously trusting in him, in the embracing and imitation of the way of Christ which someone else leads us to desire. It leads us to discover we can live without controlling. There was something about Geoff's love of us which reflects what Alison finds in Paul
a completely non-possessive orchestration of multiplicity; an ability to keep many many different things [— even us kids— ] alive and shining happily, together. Not getting on top of each other, not binding each other down … rather contrary to our day to day experience, there is no spirit of rivalry – that being St Paul’s principal grief with the churches. But the whole point of the Holy Spirit is because it’s the Creator, there’s room for everyone to be who they are.
It meant we kids began to be able to see another spirit; that is, we were introduced to another way of being, rather than being enslaved by the world of hatred. I have Alison's text in italics:
Other spirits— what Paul calls born of flesh— displace people when they move them. If you’re possessed, you become less who you are: you are ‘taken out of yourself’, you are no longer rational, free, etc etc. You find yourself acting out of the strange part as if under the control of someone else. And indeed, I was defined by others, formed by their needs, reactive to them. Even though I hated what they had made me, and was determined not to be the victim, that very reactivity meant I was forever defined— displaced— by them. I lived out the role they— the group we call the mob— had chosen for me. The point of the Holy Spirit is that unlike other spirits, it moves without displacing, so that it is ‘more you’ who is doing something, if you are doing something ‘in the Spirit’. It’s actually more rational, more logical, more emotionally healthy, and you are ‘more than who you thought you were’, because you are being created, and the Creator is not in rivalry with you – other spirits are in rivalry with you.
Before the lectionary verses from Chapter 8 of Romans this week, Paul says
we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7)
This spirit which possessed me, my way of being, was what Paul calls "a spirit of slavery" in the reading from Romans 8 this week. I was enslaved—the language of Paul is true, not histrionic. I was living "according to the flesh," living the always-tending-to-hatred life of a rivalrous person. It was a way which was, and is, founded in violence because it consists of winning over others, and causing them to lose.
The "apple" of Genesis is an unnamed fruit which we traditionally identify as an apple the Greek for apple is malon, which is rather close to malus, which means bad in Latin. The eating of the fruit is a condensed image of Adam and Eve in rivalry with God, seeking victory over God, because they are unable to believe that God wants all-good for them. They cannot perceive that not eating from the tree is for their benefit; the serpent convinces them that God is hiding something from them, keeping something back. The fruit of this is bad indeed! (I gain this from Nuechterlein's comments on the Genesis story.)
As an imitation of Christ, Geoff was all gift to us. In the poverty of my being it felt that there was nothing he held back. He was not seeking to win at my expense. There was enough for my mates Roger and Keith and Robin, and the rest, and for me. There was no scarcity of love. I was freed— I had received— a spirit of adoption… I knew that here I was safe. I no longer had to be on-guard, always ready to defend and hate back. I became an heir to hope. I began to know his way of being was the way to freedom.
Very slowly, I learned that this way of being had its own conditions. It is a way that suffers with the Christ; that is, this is a reality into which a Nicodemus cannot be fully born until he is prepared to die. He cannot escape the enslavement of wanting safety, cannot escape the enslavement of the violence that must be done to others to remain safe, unless he gives up on safety. Whereupon he slowly discovers that death has no power at all. It does not constrain him.
In the Geoff Boyce of his particular life, each Nicodemus discovers God has come to him "in flesh," incarnate. There is not a what which he has discovered, but a who he has met. And the deep patient presence that draws us into love becomes visible. It is more than a Geoff, more than my father, deeper than my mother. I do not understand. I meet.
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!