The Spirit of Lent: (Re)Birth

Spirit of Lent copy
Click here for the audio version of this sermon.

A man once told me that cooking is like chemistry you can eat. I’m not sure where he picked up the phrase, but the idea has stuck with me, especially when I am trying something new in the kitchen. I enjoy cooking and part of that enjoyment comes from the fact that I never have an absolute sense of how things are going to turn out. Many of my culinary endeavors are a mad combination of rigorous adherence to the recipe and odd experimentation. But sometimes, there are elements of the unintentional that happen, those things that happen and leave you scratching your head.

One of my favorite things to eat is chili. Doesn’t matter what time of year it is, I can enjoy a hot bowl of chili with cornbread crumbled into it and cheese layered on top of it. Chili is usually easy to make even for a novice chef because it only has a few basic ingredients: ground beef, red beans, tomato sauce, water, onion, and chili powder. There are recipes which add to and modify portions of these things, but these are the only necessary ingredients. I want to dial in on the word necessary here because it plays a large part in the following story.

As a teenager, I decided I would learn to cook. Part of it had to do with my mom taking a summer job and me being at home during lunch (there are only so many sandwiches that one can eat before the idea of a sandwich gets boring), and part of it was just innate curiosity about whether I could learn my way around a kitchen. After a few years, I was passable at making breakfast items like varieties of eggs, frying various meats, and the like. I could make vegetables on the stovetop or hamburgers and hot dogs, but since I had always liked chili, I decided to try making that.

I got all the main ingredients in and at that point I remembered my love of spicy things. I decided not only to make chili but my own version of ‘five-alarm chili,’ a beast of a soup capable of destroying taste buds and nerve endings from the lips to the stomach. I had the ground beef, the tomato sauce, the onion, the beans, the chili powder, and the chilies. The chilies were special: Grown by relatives and strung up to dry out until there was nothing left but skin and seeds. Things looked good for this foray into making chili—for about five minutes. That was the amount of time it took for the minimal amount of water and fluid content of the sauce to evaporate. I left the room with the lid on to let it simmer (on high, no less) and came back ten minutes later to find it had a tiny bit of water in the bottom and had set up into a hard cake-like substance that had more in common with a stovetop casserole than a soup. Not only that, but I had not really measured the chilies, deciding to ‘eyeball’ the amount, if you will. My parents, good sports that they were, had a slice with me.

My parents lasted one bite. In my stubbornness, I managed two. It was too hot, too dry, and bore no resemblance to any chili that was worthy of the name. The problem, of course, was water, that most crucial of ingredients for any soup. I had not added nearly enough water to the mixture to begin with, and as a result, it cooked out in no time at all, leaving behind a hellish lump that Beelzebub himself would have had a devilish time swallowing.

In our scripture reading today, we find the Pharisee Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night and apparently, missing an ingredient. Commentators speculate the reasons for his nighttime foray, from coming to test Jesus’s theology to having to avoid the suspicions of others. Whatever the reason, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and begins by recognizing the work that Jesus has done in his ministry thus far. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”[1] Depending on how you take the motivation for the visit, Nicodemus could be buttering Jesus up or genuinely complimenting him. In either case, Jesus responds directly to the statement. “I assure you unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”[2] Born anew? I remember the first time I heard this phrase as a teenager and thought something akin to what Nicodemus was thinking. You can’t be born again if you are already born.

Jesus answers, “I assure you unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.”[3] Like most religious speak, phrases like born anew/born again need context for understanding. In this case, being born anew connects to the idea of seeing God’s Kingdom. I believe this means that we cannot truly be a part of what God has done, is doing, and will be doing until we are born anew, changed from what we have been into something new brought out of us by the Holy Spirit or being born of the spirit.

This is the work of the Holy Spirit, drawing us, teaching us, that we may be born anew. The Spirit seeks to initiate faith in us, to nurture faith, and to bring faith to its fruition, to “perfect us in love.”.[4] Consider our passage. Nicodemus comes seeking to understand Jesus and his ministry, to see “what he is about.” As Wesleyans, we believe that the Holy Spirit works in us from the moment of birth to lead us to Jesus by something called prevenient grace. This is what I believe Nicodemus is experiencing as he travels to Jesus by night. Faith comes to fruition in something we would call justifying grace, where by the Holy Spirit we are led to see ourselves and lives as they are and make a change, turning to Jesus. The Holy Spirit then begins the process of perfecting us in love or sanctifying grace, where we learn how to live as Christ lived and be as Christ was and is, being born of both water and the Spirit.

Being born of water and the spirit is central to the Wesleyan understanding of the Christian journey. In the United Methodist pamphlet, By Water and the Spirit, we find,

Through the work of the Holy Spirit—the continuing presence of Christ on earth—the Church is instituted to be the community of the new covenant… Since the Apostolic Age, baptism by water and baptism of the Holy Spirit have been connected (Acts 19:17). Christians are baptized with both…

In his own baptism, the Spirit comes to rest on Jesus. As the church comes into being as the body of Christ, the Spirit continues to rest on the body of Jesus as we take up the ministry he began. In our baptism, the coming of the Spirit is acted out, reacted to, and lived into, though much of it is a mystery to us who are experiencing it. We have water, symbolic of our natural birth and the Spirit, symbolic of the new birth. We are bound together, our spirits individually, as we are bound to the Holy Spirit.[6]

Jesus expresses this to Nicodemus, although the Pharisee does not quite understand. This, however, comes to fruition at Pentecost, and throughout Acts and the early church, the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit link inextricably. Where there is a baptism of water, such as the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 or the house of Cornelius in Acts 10, there is a baptism of and presence of and in the Holy Spirit of God.

The new birth, however, does not have to be tied to baptism or the moment of baptism. Consider the story of John Wesley’s conversion. After a failed bid as a missionary priest to the new colony of Georgia, Wesley returned to England, dejected, despondent, and uncertain. He entered a prayer meeting one evening at Aldersgate, still reeling emotionally from the experience when something happened. In his words, “

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.[7]

Wesley was baptized as a child and yet had not had an experience of the Holy Spirit such as Aldersgate until May 24, 1738. As Jesus says in our passage, “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Maybe another way to say it is, “… that breath and wind are central images the Bible uses to describe the Holy Spirit suggest that the Holy Spirit is a wild, unpredictable character…”To confess God’s spirit is to acknowledge that the world is not under our control, nor is that of any other creature, system, force, or thing, for everything is breathed by God.””[8]

In and through all of this, the Holy Spirit flows, the singular ingredient that offers the answer to and becomes the source of our sanctification, supplying through himself the illumination of our souls as we seek to find the truth of our creation and existence.[9] For most of us, we miss this. Our faith is based on things taught to us and our beliefs are little more than the intellectual capital that we are given for our soul to spend while seeking God. Yet it is the Holy Spirit—the breath and wind of God, the creative force of Genesis, the small voice to the prophet, the dove of Jesus’s baptism, and the fire of Pentecost—that is our true connection and assurance of connection to God.

When we miss this, when we miss the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives in favor of a dogmatic expression of faith, we are making a spiritual chili without the water. Our faith becomes unmovable, unchangeable, ungrowing. We are nothing more than a list of things to do or not to do rather than a new life stirred into the great soup of the church. We lose our opportunity for the Spirit to work in and through us to flavor the greater church with the gifts and graces given to us.

As children of the new birth, may we all find ourselves filled with the breath of God, the wind of the Spirit. May the Spirit lead and guide us to deeper depths of faith, pointing others to those depths, as our spirit and the Spirit of God within us bears witness to their spirit.


References

Campbell, Ted A. Methodist Doctrine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011.

Casey, P.M. “Culture and Historicity: The Cleansing of the Temple.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 1997: 306-322.

Coloe, Mary L. “Temple Imagery in John.” Interpretation, 2009: 368-381.

Domeris, William. “The ‘Enigma of Jesus’ Temple Intervention: Four Essential Keys.” HTS Teologiese Studies, 2015: 1-8.

Haenchen, Ernst. John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 1-6. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Hauerwas, Stanley, and William H. Willimon. The Holy Spirit. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. Working Preacher: Commentary on John 2:13-22. 03 08, 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2377 (accessed 02 26, 2018).

Mathews, Kenneth A. “John, Jesus, and the Essenes: Trouble at the Temple.” Criswell Theological Review, 1988: 101-126.

McGrath, Alister E., ed. The Christian Theology Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Sanford, John A. Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2000.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. Working Preacher: Commentary on John 2:13-22. 2018. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3575 (accessed 02 26, 2018).

Sloyan, Gerard. John: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Lousiville: Westminster/John Knox, 1988, 2009.

Spong, John Shelby. The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.

Sussman, Adrienne. “Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the ‘Tortured Artist’.” Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, 2007: 21-24.

Wesley, John. The Journal of John Wesley. Independent/Amazon, 2010.

Willimon, William H. United Methodist Beliefs. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.

Wright, N.T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York: HarperOne Publishing, 2006.


[1] John 3:2

[2] John 3:3

[3] John 3:5-6

[4] (Willimon 2007, p. 30)

[5] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/by-water-and-the-spirit-full-text

[6] (McGrath 2007, p. 205)

[7] (Wesley 2010, Kindle Loc. 1140-1143)

[8] (Hauerwas and Willimon 2015, p. 46)

[9] (McGrath 2007, p. 191)

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