Born of the Spirit
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
June 11, 2006
Scriptures: Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption. When we cry “Abba! Father! ” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” — Romans 8:14-17
” Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.'” — John 3:5
Recently I have been thinking about the importance of worldviews, what the Germans in their incomparably grand language call, “Weltanschaaungen.” I have been trying to imagine what it would be like to live in the world that I think the majority of us in Western culture now inhabit, the world of chance. To be sure, there are interim, statistical regularities, but there is no grand purpose in terms of which we may plot our path and succeed on the journey of life, by leading a life that successfully fulfils its purpose.
Therefore, the controversy about intelligent design in the teaching of biology is not entirely political; it reflects the existential concern many of us feel about the trivializing of human life in a worldview without purpose. The view that we all came into being by chance, that is, by an evolutionary process that is not at all, in any way, guided or even remotely influenced by a purpose or goal, surely makes an enormous contribution to the consciousness that life has no meaning, that my own little life is vain and void. One can say that a scientific theory is not a worldview and not intended to influence anything so general as a worldview, nevertheless, in our cultural context science has enough prestige to shape that view decisively. I must break off here because I do want this sermon to be about the teaching of biology in our schools, so let me simply say that somewhere in their education, perhaps in their churches, we hope that our children have an opportunity to become aware of the cultural context of the science they learn and its limits as well as its promises, and to appreciate that a scientific theory need not be a worldview.
I remember well the moment when my immensely distinguished doctoral professor, W D Davies, stood by the well in the yard of Gov. Vallejo’s house in Sonoma, sighed and said to me, “If this life all there is then it is all absurd.” After WW2 what then was called “Existentialist” philosophy and literature drummed into us that life is absurd, and why not, after Auschwitz? I remember buying season tickets to off-Broadway when we lived in NYC in the early sixties, and being cured by that experience of further interest in current plays. How many ways can there be to say, “Absurd! Hopeless! Nasty, brutish and short! ?” In those days we at least tried to use words cogently to say these things, now the very words have taken leave of their senses, and the word “absurd,” might as well be the growling of a dog or the snuffling of a sow. Players and their plays and movies frequently have so little to say that they rush their characters into the sex act so that we can share in the grunting, crying, panting and grinding of what now serves for deep intimacy and profound communication. The Weltanschauung of chance is that life is deeply pointless, that we are born, we live and then we die. Anything more than that is dreaming and pretending, unsupported by the facts. There is nothing to say and nothing to do, except to grunt and grind through endless entertainment.
I have tried to imagine how it would feel to live in such a world and I have failed. By now I have been ineradicably taught, and I have deduced and induced and tried out in experience, a worldview that I can no longer successfully stand outside of and observe. It is the worldview expressed in the well-known saying of Jesus in our Gospel passage, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).” Life has a purpose: to share the divine love for the world, to identify with the divine son in his suffering and glory, and to enter triumphantly into eternal life.
This is a deeply satisfying purpose, and its satisfaction is lodged not at the level of rational propositions but at the level of the spirit. We do not understand the love of God as a biologist understands evolutionary theory – thus the severe limitation of the analogy I drew earlier- but rather we know it as we know the love of our mother for us when we were children, and the care of our lovers for us when we are adults.
And thus we come to the Spirit and the spirit. We call that level of our consciousness on which we apprehend and experience divine and human love, the spirit. It is a vague word for a vague concept, but, even so, it is one of the few truly important words we have. We use it to point to that dimension of our experience that is most personal and most intense. In our spirit we know ourselves directly, without the mediation of a mirror, and we know God intimately. The human spirit is the level of consciousness where we interface with God. Listen to the Apostle, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…(Rom 8:15-16).” It is my experience that when I pray the Lord’s Prayer, the opening ‘Abba, Father’ which is how I usually pray it, opens me immediately at the level of spirit to the presence of the Spirit, and I am awed in the awareness that I am praying just as Jesus prayed and thus sharing his experience of the Spirit. I have come to the conviction that the essence and the fullness of Christian prayer is in these few words that share with Jesus his surrender to God, “Abba, may your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done.” He prayed those words at all times of his earthly life, and especially when he walked the way of the Cross. This total surrender to God is Jesus’ strength and his divinity, and he offers us the opportunity to share it. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear not evil, for Thou art with me,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 23), and in those words he prays the prayer of Jesus, and of every Christian as we go our appointed way through this world and into the next.
This opening of the spirit to the Spirit is the heart and soul of our human significance. By it we know that we are infinitely loved and precious, so precious that the Spirit of love sustaining all things gave of itself to heal us. The Apostle understands this perfectly because he understands the alternative so clearly. There is only this either/or: either the Spirit of the trusting child or the spirit of slavery sunk in fear. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall again into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption in which we cry ‘Abba! Father!'(Rom. 8:15). ”
To be born of the Spirit therefore is to be freed from the burden of slavery and fear. Slavery is a metaphor here, but fear is a direct reference to something we all know well. It has many symptoms – waking up with that stone in the stomach, being preoccupied with imaginary disasters that my come, feeling sorry for oneself, simply being terrified that no one will take care of one, and ultimately the fear of death. Fear is the hardest thing to handle because it is built into our being as dependent creatures, and we know that if the one on whom we depend lets us down we are totally bereft. This feeling is the basis for the extreme condemnation of traitors, friends and loved ones who let you down. Dante has the two great traitors of history in the deepest pit of hell, Brutus who betrayed Caesar, and Judas who betrayed Christ.
As for the metaphor of slavery, Paul uses it to make the point that with regard to fear we are as slaves, unable to be free of it, and that the Spirit of Christ can and does set us free from this bondage when his Spirit touches our spirit at the point deep in our consciousness where the two interface.
To be born of the Spirit is the metaphor at the head of this sermon. John tells us that those who are so reborn behave like the wind, not showing where their new life comes from nor where it is leading them (John 3: 7-8). Birth from the Spirit is mysterious like our birth from the flesh, and the symmetry does not end there. As once we came forth from the womb, born of the flesh, and then in this life experienced through faith and baptism the interface between spirit and Spirit in this life, so we shall come forth from the tomb, born of the Spirit into eternal life.
We end with this great Orthodox prayer to the Spirit, which sets out his virtues and graces; “O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth , who art everywhere and who fills all things, Treasury of blessing, and Giver of life, come and abide in us; cleanse us from all impurity and in your goodness, save our spirits.”