Text Study for John 3:1-17 (Pt. 5); Holy Trinity B, 2021

5. The Wind, the Word, and the Womb

Now, to clean up a few loose ends…First, have you made your contribution to workingpreacher.org yet? During their May fund drive, your gift is matched dollar for dollar.

Now, on with the show.

Last year, we had terrible luck in growing tomatoes in the garden. The plants we purchased came fully equipped with tomato yellow leaf curl virus. The disease devastated the plants, and we never harvested one fruit. We were determined to find a way to avoid a repeat performance this year.

We planted tomatoes from certified seed and began their lives indoors. All has gone remarkably well (so far), and we suddenly had nearly 40 brave little vines bending toward the light and sucking up water and nutrients. We studied “hardening off” the seedlings and have put them outside to get stronger. They continue to respond well.

The hardening off process allows the new plants to adjust to the variations in temperature, moisture and humidity that don’t happen indoors. More than that, they are gently buffeted by natural breezes. In the process, the stems strengthen, and the baby plants are prepared for adolescence. The wind is a necessary part of the maturing process and provides the stress required for strength.

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

Yes, it’s a labored metaphor, but it works for me. The Wind is necessary for maturity. It strengthens the stalk for real life and further growth. Part of the Spirit’s job is to make Christians “anti-fragile”! The Wind blows where it chooses, and we can observe the effects – the waving vines and the sound as the Wind passes. The Wind comes and goes as the Wind chooses and leaves that mark on those who are children of the Wind.

The Wind of the Spirit blows up our assumptions, blows down our walls, and blows into our hearts. This is not to destroy us but to build us up into all that God has made us to be. Jesus makes it clear that the Wind is where it begins. But the wind blows only the life to which the Word testifies and the Womb bears.

The Word speaks only with the Breath of the Wind that blows life into bones that are dried out and clean cut off. The Womb delivers the life that drives the Wind and begets the Word. The Wind creates the breath-giving trust that hears the Word which calls us to the Womb of New Creation.

The Wind, the Word, the Womb – this is the experience of the Trinity in John, chapter 3. The philosophical analysis of the interior and exterior workings of the Trinity will wait for another few centuries. In John, the Wind of the Spirit creates the breathed-in trust called faith that hears the Word of the only-begotten Son who calls us to the Womb of Eternal New Creating.

“The reference to the Spirit here needs to be situated within the larger portrayal of the Spirit’s activity and character according to John,” Karoline Lewis writes in her commentary (page 47). Our attention should be drawn, she continues, to John 20:22, where the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples and gifts them with the Holy Spirit. The reference to the Spirit here in John 3:5, Lewis writes, is “literally about becoming a child of God, a new creation, a new created identity, rebirth, that encompasses being born again, anew, and from above” (page 47).

In a week when we remember the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the white supremacist pogrom of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, we white Christians are called to wrestle with the source of our identity as humans and as Christians. What will it take to disentangle that Christian identity from the cement overcoat of whiteness, both as individual identity and as systemic reality? Do we actually want to disentangle the one from the other? If we do, we will surrender our illusions of mastery and control.

“The image of the wind/spirit (pneuma) in 3:8 points to the danger of defining life and restricting possibilities according to what we can know and control, writes Gail O’Day. “Nicodemus cannot know the whence and whither of the wind; yet the mystery of the wind does not diminish the wind’s power and reality. The wind blows where it will, and our part is to hear the sound of it, not to attempt to dictate and control its comings and goings. As is true of the wind, ‘so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ We can no more control and contain Jesus’ offer of new life than we can contain the wind. We can embrace the offer of new life and be born anothen, or we can spend our days in resistant amazement, weighing the odds and the costs.” (O’Day article, page 58).

Spending our days in resistant amazement, weighing the odds and the costs — ok, that’s an irresistible sermon quote. Or it would be if it didn’t hit quite so close to home…

“Traduttore traditore,” says the old Latin proverb. “The translator is a traitor.” This wisdom is triply true when it comes to Christian theology. Our theology, if it is creative, honest, and deep, always borders on blasphemy. Words cannot and dare not capture the Word, any more than we can bottle and distribute the Wind. So, we always dance on the knife’s edge of poetry when we dare to speak of the Trinity at all. The double and triple entendre of artistry in the Gospel of John weaves poetry and prose to achieve an approximation of awe and wonder.

Theology without humility is idolatry (and I think humility without theology is idiocy, but that’s another story). If we know something, objectively and conceptually and intellectually, we can delude ourselves into believing we control it. Preaching without penitence is criminal arrogance. Instead, we should sit with Job periodically and confess that we are dust and ashes in the presence of The Eternal Mystery.

Trinity Sunday, therefore, is no day to delineate a doctrine or to celebrate the feast of a theological fetish. Instead, Trinity Sunday is the festival of epistemic humility, the liturgy of those “lost in wonder, love, and praise” (Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” – see Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #631). I think Wesley’s text is a non-negotiable for Trinity Sunday, although I would consider singing the first two verses in reverse order – leading off with the Breath, “end of faith as its beginning…”

Epistemic humility is rooted in the kind of god we profess to worship. This is the question Douglas John Hall raises in The Cross in Our Context (among other places). When we Christians talk about “God,” which “God” do we mean? “Where deity is concerned,” Hall asks, “is our foundational assumption that of power or that of love?” (page 77). I read the gospel text for Holy Trinity Sunday through the lens of that question.

If we live in the places of power, position, privilege, and property, we are likely to pledge our allegiance to the God of power. “When religion is brought into the center of political power and caused to serve as the spiritual guarantor and cultic legitimator of the powers-that-are,” Hall writes, “the natural or psychic propensity to link God with power is given a new and subtle twist. God, then,” Hall continues, “is no longer merely the transcendent force behind the ever-changing scene of existence but an eternal sovereignty reflected in and radiating from the throne of earthly might and authority.”

This the god, for example, who is “worshipped” in the proposed “God Bless the USA Bible.” I encourage you to read the article by Shane Claiborne, Doug Pagitt, Lisa Sharon Harper, Jemar Tisby, and Soong-Chan Rah on religionunplugged.com for more details.

The God of power over love requires that we come to the Divine throne and demonstrate our worth and our worship in order to remain in the Divine presence. If we live in places of vulnerability, displacement, oppression, and want, we are likely to see God as the one who suffers with us.

Can we relinquish our addiction to the power-loving god who ratifies our hierarchies and hegemonies? Can white Christianity untangle itself from supremacist, triumphalist, imperialist ideologies and become once again the community that follows the Crucified God? I am sure the answer is “yes” on some macro scale, but I am not nearly so confident about the responses of particular denominations and faith communities, including my own.

Trinity Sunday allows us to remember and declare that God’s Love for the world comes in the shape of a cross (John 3:16). “If the crucified one is truly representative of the God by whom faith believes him to have been sent,” Hall writes, “then, however ponderous the transcendent power that reason and religion have attributed to deity, the Christian god must be seen as a suffering God” (page 85).

That Love reveals what God is like for us (John 1:18). Hall quotes one of Paul Tillich’s best lines in this regard (with apologies for the male-dominant pronouns). God “showed us His heart,” Tillich wrote in describing Luther’s theology, “so that our hearts could be won” (page 85).

And that Love blows through the cosmos, creating new life wherever that Love chooses.

References and Resources

Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bridwell/detail.action?docID=1303715.

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/22.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R. “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel.” Word & World 8/1 (1988), pages 53-61. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/8-1_Spirituality/8-1_O’Day.pdf.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.

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