“You must be born from above”, said Jesus. “The wind blows where it wills. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit… Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony… Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Some of you will appreciate that I have departed from the day’s appointed reading today to speak on this passage from John 3 today, but it is a special day, and so I took the liberty of choosing a rather special passage – one that has been playing on my mind a lot lately, and one that I suspect will be familiar to many of us here – a passage that I have known from my youth!
Indeed, I have a feeling that when I was sent to Sunday School as a child, John 3:16 was probably the first memory verse I managed to hold on to successfully (most likely at the enticement of receiving a lolly) and now, all these years later, after 20 years of blood, sweat and laughter in this place, I find myself coming back to this same verse, though it no longer reads as it did to me as a child.
The verse is part of a dialogue, of course, between Jesus and Nicodemus – a Pharisee (a ‘ruler of the Jews’) – who came to see Jesus at night. Biblical experts like to tell us that the Gospel writer’s reference to the night is symbolic of Nicodemus’ ignorance, but I suspect too that it also reflects the simple fact that Nicodemus would not have wanted his mates to know that he was meeting with Jesus, for Jesus was a controversial figure, so far as the religious establishment of the day was concerned, and Nicodemus was very much a representative of the religious establishment.
Nicodemus represented the old way of doing religion, and I think in some ways he represents old-time religion in all its forms – Jewish and otherwise. And I do believe that the Gospel writer intends us to see this early encounter in the ministry of Jesus something that is archetypal of the inevitable confrontation that takes place between old-time religion and the radically new approach to God that Jesus embodies.
‘You must be born of the Spirit, Nicodemus! The wind blows where it will, and so it is with the Spirit. Open your eyes and see what God is doing!’
And it’s interesting because it almost sounds like one of those dialogues you inevitably have with your teenager sooner or later- ‘hey dad, get with the times. Times are changing and things aren’t like they were when you were growing up. There’s a new spirit in the air, so get with it. Loosen up, old man!’
And in many ways the dialogue is just that! Nicodemus has a wonderfully strict and complete understanding of just where God starts and where God ends. Jesus challenges all of that. ‘The wind blows where it will’ He says! Nicodemus believes only what he reads in the Bible, but Jesus says ‘we testify to what we have seen and heard’! Nicodemus is a disciple of Moses and the law, and Jesus know about all that too, but He seems to take an entirely different slant on it!
I don’t know what comes to mind for you when you think of Moses, but I can tell you that the first thing I think of when I think of Moses is Charlton Heston on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, and I suspect that it was the same image that came to mind first for Nicodemus too (though not with Charlton Heston of course).
Others might remember Moses differently. Perhaps for some of you the first thing you think of is Moses striking the Jordan with his staff and the waters parting, or perhaps you think of him standing up before Pharaoh, saying, “Let my people go!” For in truth there were many great scenes from the life of Moses, for Moses was a truly great man who did many great things. And yet he was also a man who did some really bizarre things, most of which aren’t remembered so readily, and surely one of the most crazy things he ever did was the incident with the snake on a stick!
It’s recorded in the book of Numbers (chapter 21) just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about. The people were dying from snake bites so Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole and (apparently) whoever looked at the snake recovered! I know this sounds like voodoo or witchcraft of some kind, and hardly anything like Biblical religion which normally detests all graven images. Even so, God works in mysterious ways, and this way seemed to work for God and for Moses at the time, though I’m not sure the incident even made it in to the Cecil B. De Mille classic.
Mind you, if you know your Bible well, you know too that after they recovered, the Israelites held on to the snake, gave it a special name and started worshipping it, so that King Hezekiah, many years later, eventually had to destroy it (2 Kings 18:4). But it seemed like a good idea at the time – crazy, yes, but a good idea nonetheless!
Anyway, the point I want to make is that both Nicodemus and Jesus knew about Moses, though I suspect that for Nicodemus, Moses was more associated with the parting of the sea and the exodus and the receiving of the commandments, whereas the only reference Jesus makes here to Moses is with regards to the snake incident, and indeed, if there’s a connection between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of Moses, Jesus suggests that the point of connection is going to be the snake!
Now I’ll leave that with you in all its ambiguity, except to say that it illustrates well, I think, the extent to which Jesus and Nicodemus, on the one hand share the same religious tradition but, on the other hand, we pick up here that Jesus’ way of doing religion in really quite radically different from the ways of the establishment.
The snake illustrates the issue, but the core point of departure is really in their understanding of how God works in the world. For Nicodemus, religious realities are black and white. You know who God is and what God has done and what God is going to do because you can read about it all in His book! God has given us his inerrant Word, and with that word having been given there is really nothing else to say.
Yet Jesus’ approach is entirely different. ‘We testify to what we have seen and heard’, says Jesus, and there is an openness here to what God is doing in the world. Indeed, “the wind blows where it will” says Jesus. “You don’t know where it’s come from and you don’t know where it is going next, but you can’t mistake its presence when it is blowing.” And this is the point of departure between Jesus and Nicodemus, and this is the point of departure between Jesus and so much of what goes under the banner of ‘religion’, and this is the point historically at which the Christian faith has distinguished itself from other religions of the world – in its openness to the ongoing movement of God in the world, based on an understanding that we are dealing with a living God who is still capable of surprising us!
Those who attended the annual ‘Smith Lecture’ recently, delivered this year by Professor Edwin Judge, will remember that this was fundamentally his thesis too – that Christianity has historically distinguished itself from the religions of the world through its openness to the ongoing experience of God’s movements in the world. Professor Judge went down a long and complex route to reach this conclusion but it is really all here in John chapter 3: ‘the wind blows where it will, and so it is with the Spirit. You don’t know where it’s come from and you don’t know where it’s going next, but you can’t deny the presence of the Spirit when it is blowing!’
And I can sense the way we religious people wince at this because it just opens the door to so much uncertainty, and it seems to strip us religious leaders of all of our pretensions to being the ones who have all the answers, and if God is really moving in ways that we cannot anticipate then how can we prevent anyone from getting up and claiming that God has revealed some new mystery to them, such that we then lose control of the entire religious community. And I’m sure that’s exactly what Nicodemus was thinking too. And yet this is the teaching of Jesus and, what I want to say this morning is that this too has been my experience over the last 20 years!
The wind blows where it will, and so it is with the Spirit. I hadn’t been here six months when my first marriage broke down, and I made a very important discovery at that time. Prior to that experience I had believed that if a believer falls of the rails, God will stretch out His hand and will try to pull the sinner back out of the pit he has fallen into and lift him back onto the straight and narrow. That had been my belief. What I discovered though, through the experience of myself falling off the straight and narrow and finding myself in the gutter (so to speak) was the God, rather than looking down on me from above and offering me a hand-up, was right down there in the gutter with me!
Right down in the social and emotional gutter – on the fringe of violence and suicide and death – I found that the wind of the Spirit was blowing, and blowing indeed with an unmistakeable force. And this has been my experience ever since. As I’ve had the privilege of wading my way through so much of the underside of our community – through fight clubs and detox centres and drug houses and homes for the mentally ill – I have found, time and time again, to my great surprise, the unmistakable force of the Spirit of God!
The wind blows where it will, and this has often been very difficult for me to accept. And I want to illustrate just two points where this experience of the movement of the Spirit of God has been very difficult for me to come to terms with.
The first is with regards to my old best friend, Richard Smith, who died some years ago now. Those who were here with me at the beginning will remember Richard, and those who knew him well knew too that Richard was a gay man.
I didn’t have a clue about these things when I was first here. My ‘gaydar’, as they say, was entirely non-functional. He was just a lay-leader here who was always trying to be helpful, and when things fell apart for me, he was the one who gave me the support that I most needed. This took the form of him sitting up with me late into the night while I drank myself to sleep some nights. It took the form of constant listening to my cries of pain and never judging me. And over time I listened to Richard’s stories too, and he shared with me about his life-long struggle with his sexuality. And I confess that I didn’t understand much and I didn’t understand why he was gay or what we were supposed to do about that, but one thing I did understand very clearly was that the Spirit of God was working through this man, despite all the preconceptions I’d had, saying that this was just not possible.
And this was the start of a journey for me into deeper contact with members of the gay and lesbian and transgender community. And I still wouldn’t claim to know much, and yet I cannot deny that wherever I have been in the GLBT community, I have found that the Spirit of God has been there too!
The other really confronting experience of the presence of the Spirit of God that I have found very difficult to come to terms with has been the one I have had through my friendship with Sheikh Mansour. Let me say it quite plainly: Even if I got over the idea that all Catholics went to Hell pretty early on, I still (until a few years ago) assumed that all Muslims were certainly allies of Satan to some extent, and I certainly did not anticipate that my friendship with an Islamic Sheikh would lead me to a fresh experience of the Spirit of God, and yet … the wind blows where it will, and so it is with the Spirit! And I actually remember quite clearly sitting in a coffee shop with Mansour some years ago and eventually saying to him, “I’m not sure what to make of this, brother, but I sense the presence of the Spirit of God in you!” to which he replied, “I sense it too!”
Now does that mean I was wrong all along and that I should now be a Muslim and everything I thought I knew about God up to that point was open to question? No, not necessarily at all, but what it did say to me in no uncertain terms is that the wind blows where it will, and so it is with the Spirit!
Friends, this is what I have learned in my 20 years here in Dulwich Hill – to put it simply, that God is a lot bigger than I thought He was! I’m not saying that I had some notion that God lived here in His holy temple and that it was my job to lead Him out into the world and yet I don’t think back then that I ever really had any understanding of the height or depth or length or breadth of the love of God, and I certainly had no appreciation of how comprehensive is the movement of the Spirit of God – moving through pubs and hospitals and prisons and detox centres and even mosques and gutters and churches too, and everywhere else that human beings are found.
The wind blows where it will and so it is with the Spirit! Breathe on us, breath of God! Fill us with your compassion, give us a heart for the weak, and open our eyes so that we might clearly see more your living presence amongst us!
Rev. David B. Smith
(The ‘Fighting Father’)
Parish priest, community worker,
Martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of three