When the Spirit Takes the Lead


I love this story about Nicodemus and Jesus…  Nicodemus is one of the few Pharisees that does not seem to draw Jesus’ ire and fire… He seems to be one of the few Pharisees open to a conversation with Jesus—rather than pre-judging Jesus and trying to trap him with questions.

Some commentators say he comes to Jesus by night so that he and Jesus can have a real conversation without the distractions of the crowds… sort of like taking the preacher out for lunch for a conversation rather than trying to do that as you shake hands at the door.

I like Nicodemus. He knows his scriptures… he teaches the scriptures… people looked to him for spiritual guidance and answers… he is trying his best to be a faithful leader and  faithful to God.

And yet, Jesus is a curiosity to him. What is he to make of this Rabbi who quotes the Bible, interprets the Scriptures in a new way. And performs signs and miracles… He knows he comes from God, but Jesus is an enigma to him…

John 3:1-17

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.


This story is given to us by the Lectionary, last week was Pentecost—the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and the church. In this story we hear lots of talk about the Spirit… more on that later. I wanted to return to the theme, just to take another swing of the bat at it… just in case you missed it on Memorial day weekend.

We are in a season of Pentecost. Some would say that we are living in the age of the Spirit… The first age was the age of God the Creator…God the father… the time when God spoke first in creation, then through the patriarchs and matriarchs  like Abraham,
Sarah, and Moses… then through prophets… After that age, there was the age of the Son—Jesus… The preacher in Hebrews put it this way:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.(Hebrews 1:1-2)

But now that Jesus has completed his earthly ministry and having returned to sit at the right hand of God in heaven… (we say that you know, every week in the Apostle’s creed)

Now with Pentecost, we are living in the age of the Spirit.

Of course if you think in a Trinitarian way… (Which is a good thing to do on Trinity Sunday)  all three are at work all the time… but now it is the Spirit’s turn to take the lead…

The story of the Spirit is a story that is told most clearly in the book of Acts.  Sometimes people call the book of Acts, the Acts of the Apostles. But it is not. This is a story of the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Luke says so much in the very opening:
“In the first book (the Gospel of Luke)  Theophilus, I wrote all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up into heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he has chosen…”

He goes on to tell them that they will be “Baptized with the Holy Spirit”… and the rest of the book is the story not of brave men and women of faith who finally got the courage and spine and wisdom to take the gospel of Christ to the world…

No, this is the story of the Holy Spirit using very ordinary men and women like you and me who listen to and follow the Holy Spirit is leading – A Spirit, they would tell you, would lead them to do things and say things they never imagined.

Much of the book of Acts is devoted to the unexpected welcoming of Gentiles into the family of God. It only happens when Peter has a dream (he wasn’t personally led to welcome Gentiles), and an experience with Cornelius a Gentile… an outsider… that leads to his inclusion. It only happens when an Ethiopian Eunuch asks Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Well, quite a lot if you kept up with your scriptures. Eunuchs were outsiders. But the Holy Spirit made room for Eunuchs.

Of course this didn’t happen without controversy—and questions like “Are those Gentiles going to be required to follow the circumcision laws that have been with us since Abraham? Won’t they have to eat kosher as described in Leviticus?”

The Holy Spirit didn’t make it easy for them.

Paul, a Pharisee of Pharisees is converted from someone who is out to kill Christians to one who is on fire to share the good news of God’s love in Christ withall the world. You can’t explain that without talking about the Holy Spirit alive and at work.

This was true for John.

Much of John’s gospel is devoted to making sure we know that when Jesus is gone, the Holy Spirit will come—to guide us, to comfort us, to teach us, to lead us, to change us.

When Jesus is gone, the Spirit comes… and we are living under the leadership and guidance of the Spirit. Sometimes it seems as if we think that God was done with us when Jesus returned to heaven… Everything that was to be said was said… and now we just have to figure it out on our own. That simply is not true according to Scripture. We have been given the gift of the Spirit… we are living in the age of the Spirit who continues to speak to us.

I like the way one pastor-scholar, William Sloan Coffin,  said it: “God did not stop speaking after the book went to press”.

Much of John’s gospel is devoted to Jesus goodbye speech… telling us that when he is gone, the Spirit will come to comfort, guide and lead us.

In today’s lesson, John is setting the stage for the coming of the Spirit… Jesus tells Nicodemus that if you want ot be a part of the kingdom… understand what God is up to… then you will have to start over… be born again… from above… born of the Spirit…

I wonder if this is as confusing to you as it was to Nicodemus and even to many of us who were raised as Presbyterians. When Jesus introduces the idea of the work of the Spirit to Nicodemus, he is confused:

He says, “How can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”

Nicodemus is still confused…
Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”
10-12 Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? [i]

May I confess to you, I understand Nicodemus’ confusion.

I remember early in my ministry serving as associate pastor for youth and mission at FPC in Bristol. It is a more conservative church… in fact, when I requested that some college students have a square dance in the fellowship hall, they refused. We don’t dance in church. (You former Baptists aren’t the only ones who had trouble with dancing!)

Dick Ray, the Sr. pastor was a great colleague and mentor. One of the themes of Dick’s preaching was on Spirituality… the need to live spiritual lives… to be led by the Spirit. To be honest, it was confusing to me back then. I went into Dick’s office and said, “Dick, I have a question for you.” What do you mean when you say, “Spiritual”? I don’t remember what Dick said… I’m not even sure it made sense… but I do remember his kindness and patience.

He may well have said, “Jody, you were raised in the church… you attended Sunday School every week… you went to campus ministry… and you completed four years of seminary and you don’t know the basics?”

Well, no I didn’t. To be fair, I grew up in the time of the charismatic movement… which meant that people who celebrated the work of the Spirit were people who spoke in tongues and did a lot of faith healing… and we didn’t do that at Riverside Presbyterian Church… Oh, we talked about the Spirit in intellectual terms… but to be born from above… born of the Spirit… we left that to Pentecostals and charismatics…

Which is really odd when you think about it given our theological heritage. John Calvin… who you likely think is all a heady Christian… writing documents that can seem dry as dust to the average person… Calvin was known as the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Calvin credits the Holy Spirit with his conversion… his change of heart and mind…

He said before the Spirit of God intervened, he was devoted to preparing for the law… he was a faithful Catholic… devoted to the Pope… (His father had once served the Bishop of their Cathedral)… but then God, “by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame…When my heart was obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery… God, who took pity on me, conquered my heart and subdued it to docility by a sudden conversion.”

You could say Calvin was born from above… transformed by the Spirit working to change his heart and mind.

Calvin’s understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit is part of our weekly worship.

For Calvin the Scriptures can only be understood as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit’s help, our ego, our biases, our selfishness, our preferences will get in the way of understanding what God wants to say to us.

The prayer of illumination reminds us of that every week. This is one of the most important prayers we pray each Sunday.  We ask God’s spirit to act in our reading and hearing… For example,“O God, open our hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear what you are saying to us today.”

Here is one Calvin used: Let us call upon our God and Father, beseeching Him, since all fullness of wisdom and light is found in Him, mercifully to enlighten us by His Holy Spirit in the true understanding of His word, and to give us grace to receive it in true fear and humility.

I wonder if you knew Calvin depended on the Holy Spirit so much… a Spirit who actually transformed his thinking… changed his mind… and led him to understand God at work in a new way in his time and place… as God, through the Holy Spirit continued to reform not only him, but the church.

What Jesus wanted to tell Nicodemus is this… that in addition to your education … your knowledge… to enter the kingdom, you’ll need the help of the Spirit… You won’t understand what I’m about unless you see things in a new way.

Which is hard work for me. I don’t know about you, but I prefer my faith nice, settled, tied up and easy… but that Spirit—who Jesus told Nicodemus – was like the wind—it blows where it wills… you never know where it is coming from or where it is going… That pesky Spirit is always surprising us…

For which, I am grateful. For in the end, the work of the Spirit is a gift to us. Not all change is good… but not all change is bad either. Especially when the Spirit is behind it.

I believe the Spirit is alive and well even today. Two stories.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with the grandparents of one of our confirmands. It is not unusual these days to have a variety of denominational backgrounds represented in families. My Baptist mother married my Lutheran father and became Presbyterian. I was telling this to a Baptist grandmother and sharing the old joke about how we would all be surprised to find other people in heaven with us. The Baptist grandmother looked me in the eye and said, “I won’t”.  She was well aware that Presbyterians and Baptists and Catholics might be in heaven together. That’s not something I heard from many Baptists in my youth. That’s the work of the Spirit.

The other story  comes from a funeral. Danice Scott, a member of the Kirk, was married for many years to a Catholic, “Scotty” and I was privileged to form a friendship with both Danice and Scotty. When Scotty died I was touched by the invitation to participate in the service at St. Michael’s with my friend Father Doug. That is something you would never have heard of happening 10-20 years ago. Father Doug is so gracious and a good friend. They gave me some readings which I was honored to do. The whole time I was well aware that I was a Protestant in a Catholic service.

When the time came for communion, it was awkward because Danice is not able to take communion in their tradition… But Father Doug had such a gracious way to explain it and asked us to pray for the unity of the church and for the day when the powers that be would allow us to share communion.

When the time came for the ushers to lead the casket out… Father Doug went to the casket… and motioned me over… I thought he wanted me to join in the recessional. He was swinging the incense around the casket… he looked at me and handed the incense to me and with his eyes said, (“Your turn”)… he had not warned me of this… but I was watching. I never would have imagined this.

I was touched by that gift of love and grace… and I am telling you… it was the Spirit of God at work in Father Doug and the gracious community… letting this Calvinist who follows the guy who ripped out stained glass windows from catholic churches… letting this present day follower of Calvin, share in a holy moment. I worried that Calvin might be rolling in his grave…

But I think not. I think Calvin would be glad… that we were still listening to God speaking to us in the Spirit… opening our hearts and minds to hear the fresh word the Lord has for us in our time and place… Ready, with the Spirit’s help,  to enter the kingdom of God. Amen.

[i] Eugene Peterson translation