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Text: John 3: 1 – 17
“We are debtors,” says Paul, “Not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
This verse often gets weaponized against LGBTQ people: “You care too much about the body; you’re giving into sinful bodily desires.” There’s an unfortunate stereotype that Christianity is just a religion about who gets to do what with our bodies: who gets to sleep with who, who has bodily autonomy. In debates over abortion, LGBTQ rights, even as far back as slavery, one of the theological justifications for oppression has always been, “This is only happening to your body.”
It was a thing told to Indigenous peoples; “we’re only hurting your body, but we’re saving your souls.”
The idea that we aren’t really our bodies is kind of weird, when you think about it. How did we come up with that idea? Everything we do, we do with our bodies; everything we experience—see, hear, taste, touch, smell—we experience through our bodies. How did we arrive at the idea that our bodies aren’t our “true selves,” and that we have to leave the body behind and embrace only the spirit? Why would God put us in bodies if bodies didn’t matter?
Where did we come up with the idea that our bodies were sinful? Everyone has one, everyone feels the same basic physical impulses, so why did we decide they were bad? Who benefits from that? Why is eating and drinking, reasting, sex . . . why are these all condemned as “pleasures of the flesh?” It isn’t as if there’s a group of people who don’t feel those things who use that message to oppress others; we all feel these, so why would we listen to anyone who says it’s a bad thing to have a body?
But, Jesus says, we must be “born of the Spirit.” Born from above. Born again. But, Paul says, “we are indebted not in our bodies but in our souls.”
“How can a person be born again,” asks Nicodemus. For John’s Christian readers, the immediate comparison to baptism would have been made. As I have said before, baptism was thought of in the early church as a second birth; the waters of the baptismal pool were like the waters of the womb; one body went down and another came up according to the thinking at the time. Jesus never says, “Baptism,” but the first Christians would have immediately understood “Baptism” to be the answer to Nicodemus’s question.
But Baptism didn’t actually physically change you, and people would have understood that. A symbolic change, and symbolism is important. So the implication is you can say you’re born again, like many Christians do, you can say you are baptized, you can say the Holy Spirit has entered your heart, but you have to show it by your actions. You have to start doing things different; you have to start loving differently.
God loved the world with a body, the body of Jesus. “For God so loved the world . . .” It’s right there. God reached out with hands of healing, touched, hugged, embraced the world.
The Holy Spirit, when She is truly felt, changes us. She ignites in our hearts the fires of love that cannot be put out. When we’re transformed, we will stop navel-gazing and worrying about what’s going to happen to us, and simply ask, “What can we do to help others?”
You know, I’ve tried preaching the doctrine of the Trinity before, and the conclusion I’ve come to is it’s an idea best expressed in liturgy, not in preaching. “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you,” etc. Hymns and prayers, not in dry preaching where I will only tie myself into knots. God is one, God is three, three = one. No, it doesn’t make sense; that’s part of the point. It’s a holy mystery.
The United Church, generally, used to sing the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” every single week. Maybe singing it this morning has given some of your flashbacks. Oh God, not again. I don’t recommend using the same hymn every week, but at the same time singing that meant that every service began with an invocation to the trinity, the same way Catholics begin every mass with the sign of the cross “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
United Church minister Catherine Faith MacLean called the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, “that quiet Presence across the United Church of Canada.” At the same time, it’s too easy for God to become fragmented in our minds; divided into three separate parts of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and then I guess what many of us think of as the “real God” of the Father/Mother. I think this, is, unfortunately what happens to a lot of us. We put the Trinity out of our mind because it’s too confusing.
That’s part of the wonderful mystery of God, though, that She is beyond our ability to shove into neatly defined doctrines. And so, when we try to express our understanding of Him, all we can do is speak in paradoxes and riddles.
One way to think of it, though, that might be helpful, is what’s called the economical Trinity; different experiences of what God does. When I use the words, “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,” this is what I’m getting at.
Another is to think of the relational Trinity; the relationships between the Father/Mother, Son, and Holy Spirit mirror our relationships. A common theme in Christian mysticism throughout history has been to draw the parallel between the Trinity and the Holy Family: Joseph is the Father, Mary is the Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the Son. This way of thinking has been used to enforce patriarchal values, but it can also be used for liberation.
As theologian Daniel Migliore writes, “Christian social ethics is […] grounded in trinitarian theology. The Christian hope for peace with justice and freedom in community among peoples of diverse cultures, races, and gender corresponds to the trinitarian logic of God. Confession of the triune God radically calls in question all totalitarianisms that deny the freedom and rights of all people and resists all idolatrous individualisms that subvert the common welfare. The doctrine of the Trinity seeks to describe God’s ‘being in love’ as the source of all genuine community, beyond all sexism, racism, and classism. Trinitarian theology, when it rightly understands its own grammar, offers a profoundly relational and communal view both of God and of life created and redeemed by God.”
In other words, we can be a diverse peoples of different nationalities, religions, genders, races, and other identities, but we can also be one. Just as God is three diverse and distinct persons, but is also One.
. . . I will leave you to do the connection on your own. You’re smart people; you can connect the dots yourselves.
On Thursday, it was reported to the CBC that the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc had discovered that there had been a mass grave at the Kamloops residential school; 215 children were buried there.
That children died in the residential schools is not news; stories of mass graves emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and, largely, the white people of Canada said that they were exaggerations, that the numbers of dead children weren’t that high. An average of 2-3 dead children for each year the school was open. In what other school would that be acceptable? The nearness of it, and the extent of it, hits hard. It is as if we discovered a Nazi concentration camp in our backyard and, in a way, we did.
That school was run by the Catholic Church, but the United Church did also operate schools; in BC they were mainly up the north coast; Haida Gwaii, Lax Kw’alaams, those sorts of places. And I’ll never forget in first year seminary, reading a report done by some United Church women visiting a school and being appalled by the conditions—the sanitation, the harsh discipline, the mould—and the administrators and higher church officials just didn’t care.
We, the white church (and I know there are members of our churches who are not white, but that aside), cannot reconcile with our indigenous brothers and sisters unless we truly, deeply, repent.
Mainline churches used to run residential schools; evangelical churches run conversion therapy camps. It is genocide; genocide is not something only goose-stepping soldiers in Hugo Boss uniforms do. And, unfortunately, we have told ourselves the lie that that’s not us. Not Canada; polite, nice, wonderful Canada. Not the United Church; the progressive, accepting, inclusive United Church.
And until we renounce that lie—that it isn’t us, that it was of another age—we will never be able to reconcile.
Penance, being truly repenting, is about accepting consequences. The stories of the horrors of the past will never stop until we are actually ready to listen to them. Until we are ready to stop saying that the church is only a place for spiritually uplifting messages. Until we are ready to turn. Until we are ready to be baptized by the Holy Spirit, born again, and accept the destruction of the old flesh that was privilege, racism, and wealth.
Until we do that, we have no share in the Kingdom of Heaven. Until we do that, there is no reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Until we do that, we will be debtors to the flesh, and not free in the Holy Spirit.
God, help us to turn, that we may be born from above, born again, born of the Spirit. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; our Mother, Friend, and Comforter; the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of us all. Amen.