Trinity Sunday, SJE, 26 May, 2024

“Have you been born again?”

I confess to finding myself aligned with Nicodemus this morning. Not because the notion of being born again is a foreign concept, but because I have an uncomfortable relationship with one interpretation of what being ‘born again’ means.

I’d been a terrifically insecure and shy child and adolescent, bookish, serious, a target for bullies and high school social life was hellishly confusing and I could never ever figure out what role to play to fit in with what particular group – and fitting in is rather important when you’re 15. Some of my friends were getting born again and had started a Christian fellowship. I was already an Anglican Christian, with a deeply active sense of the mystery of God, so I joined them to learn what it was to be born again. I found a tight community of teenagers, a community who prayed together early each morning before class, who shared some things about our struggles, and who were united in a sense of dedication to something more serious than what those around us were into – after all, we were into God! I found an antidote to loneliness in the security offered in this community.

It also took a Lot of work. I mean a Lot. Because to be born again was to conform to strict discipline and behaviours that were decidedly Not what teenagers are supposed to get up to. Some of you will breathe a sigh of relief, as I suppose my parents did when they realized that they didn’t have to worry about me going out partying. But I’m also talking about the normal stuff of figuring out how to be authentically one’s own self.

I had found the security of an identity within a community whose discipline, as I gave myself over to it, saved me from the pesky work of dealing with body, mind, and feelings – dealing with growing up, in other words. It was my duty to follow this passage from Romans to obey the church elders’ vision for what I would do with my life: go to bible college, get married and raise children were pretty much how discipleship was defined for me, and I obediently submitted. The church elders lectured me me that I was in a spiritual struggle with ‘the flesh’ because I couldn’t shake my desire to go to university and to maintain a relationship with my friends and parents – who weren’t of the born again group. Life according to the Spirit looked a whole lot like life according to what the church elders expected. There you go. A functionally heretical reading of Romans 8. I’d somehow swallowed that being born again meant two things: subsuming my identity into a particular group, and that group required conformity.

Everything kind of collapsed when by my early 20s I experienced the fact that it was a most inhumane way to live, always to be subsuming and silencing the stuff that makes me, well, me. And I realized that I was human after all, and more than that, that it was ok with God that I was human. What we bow down to, what we worship, is what we become like, and with forty years of hindsight I can see that I was bowing down to the balm, the refuge, and the illusion of security, of being accepted as a member of a community who could give me a strong identity.

You see, I’m uncomfortable, like Nicodemus, but for different reasons.  

Was this what it truly meant to be born again?

This is Trinity Sunday and a good day to ask ourselves to what God is it that we bow down? We bow with the seraphim at the Holy One whose name cannot be spoken, whose grandeur and sovereignty as the creator of all that is has even shaped our very selves, bodies, minds, and souls. We bow down to a Lord of life, Jesus, who truly became human and lived a life outpouring in welcoming kindness, who met people over meals, on the streets, in the marketplace, in homes, where he took them into his own heart and healing and community happened. We bow down to the Holy Spirit, and more – as it’s the Holy Spirit who makes us to pray in the first place. We bow down because the Holy Spirit breathes into us the humility and loving guidance that opens our eyes to see all there is in God – and in God’s creation – to be bowed down to.

We bow down to, and we become like, the community of the Holy Trinity, in which each of us is empowered to be whom God has created us to be with all of our skills and desires and things that delight and frustrate us,  as whole people caught up in a community within a Body of Christ that does not demand conformity but rather, like Jesus, meets us where we are and offers us space to engage our questions, in a communion of the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to the activities of God in our midst. This communion of the Holy Spirit, reaches to us and pulls us daily into this spiritual communion in which we are not alone, but neither are we swallowed up into some conformist identity. Like the very Trinity itself, three distinct persons, we are actually called to live the colourful diversity God themselves creates over and over in this world. In this communion we are brought together into a unity of listening for God, discerning God’s presence with us here, and being sent together to respond in love to the many little and big calls of the Gospel in our daily lives.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think this being born again is a matter of receiving a magical entry key into the kingdom so that I can retreat into that place of eternal security away from the winds that blow me around in daily life’s struggles, and where I don’t need to be affected by other peoples’ struggles, either.

No, Jesus tells Nicodemus that those who see the kingdom of God are born of the Spirit. Being born of the Spirit means we are graced with the gift of what I like to call sacramental imagination, to be able to see God’s real presence in the world.

We have this gift of the Spirit here. Where have we looked around and seen the kingdom of God, the reign of God? Look around here at the activities within this parish, the outreach from it, our expressions of our hopes for the future. Each time we recognize a moment of grace – a chance for contrition when we’ve messed up, the warmth of comfort offered in our grief, the delight in a toddler rushing up to take communion, and even each time we see the necessary mess and pitch in to repair and tidy and feed people from St. John’s Kitchen, kingdom work! – each time we recognize a moment of grace we are seeing something of the reign of God. And each time it is the Holy Spirit birthing us over and over, individually and together in community.

We are born of the Spirit. What does it mean to really take this in, and to know that the Holy Spirit has given us eyes to see the kingdom of God active within our world, in our selves and souls and bodies, and in our communities right here right now? Each time we pay attention spiritually to the life of our community, asking ourselves what is God up to here, it is as though we are continuing our rebirth together.

(I opened my reflections telling some tales of an insecure teenager. Insecurity is not the possession of teenaged girls alone – existentially it’s the human condition for we limited mortals, and in anxious times especially there are all sorts of forces that work to capitalize on our fears. There are certain desires for security for which we need to fight with passion and commitment, against food insecurity, housing insecurity, medical treatment insecurity, employment insecurity, safety against abuse, harassment, violence. Basic human rights stuff. And more. And there are also desires for security that we might want to keep in active discernment.

The insecurity that comes from projected fears of the future – which is a definition of anxiety – can solidify fear of otherness and anxiety about loss in particular.)

Our place of true security is that place where we are lifted into the very life of God within the very stuff of our lives. In that place – which can be either the contemplative stuff we do personally or the exuberant stuff of worship, for example – in these places we are centred to ask ourselves the practical and spiritual questions together about the future of our life in ministry and mission here at St. John’s

Who has God created us to be? What are the gifts here amongst us we can share with each other and with the neighbourhood?  Whom is Jesus leading us to meet, as we follow him amongst the poor? Where is the Holy Spirit birthing us now, to be, anew? What are the pains in this new birth? Who are our midwives?

What if to be born again is actually to be born of the Spirit who opens us to see the reality of the Kingdom of God in our midst, that activity of the Holy Trinity within the world creating, healing, repairing, forgiving, and the loving presence of God in Christ with us. What if to be born again is to be born by the Holy Spirit over and over again, as Jesus says, as the wind blows: to always being reopened to a new chance, a new forgiveness, a new imagination. What if being born again is about rediscovering that our ultimate security is in God, our creator and our home, our beginning and our end. God has a vision for human flourishing… for God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, not to condemn the world but out of love so that all may see and enter into God’s reign of justice, peace, mercy, and healing. For this and all God’s gifts, we say thanks be to God. Amen.