You can’t understand the Trinity, but you can experience God as Trinity. That is the work of the Spirit, and He is the focus of today’s Gospel: the account of Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in John 3.
The Spirit is the executive arm of God. Where the rubber hits the road. God works in his world and in us by his Spirit. Jesus is present with us by his Spirit. Jesus lives in us by his Spirit. We know God as Father by the Spirit. We know the love of God in our hearts by his Spirit. We are equipped to serve God by his Spirit. The Spirit enables us to pray. Like Winnie the Pooh’s jar of honey, it’s the Spirit all the way, from the top of the jar all the way down to the bottom.
In particular, the Christian life begins with the Spirit. Hence what Jesus says about being born again/from above. We need a new beginning.
He explains it like this: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”.
Flesh does not mean skin and bones. It means what we as humans can do in our own unaided strength. God is Spirit and ever since the Garden of Eden we’ve been estranged from him. We are flesh and not spirit. If our relationship is to be restored, the initiative must come from him: we are powerless to achieve it in our own strength. The Spirit must come to us and do something new and fresh in us which ignites a spark and brings us into a living relationship with God. Until that happens we’re not able even to see, let alone enter, the Kingdom of God. Until the Spirit comes we are wandering in the dark.
To illustrate, here is the story of writer Paul Kingsnorth. As a teenager he became an atheist who loved nature. Nature became his God. In adult life he became an environmental activist…
… Working for NGOs, writing for magazines, chaining myself to things, marching, occupying: Whatever you did, you had to do something, for the state of the Earth was dire.
Activism is a staging post on the road to realization. Dig in for long enough and you see that something like climate change or mass extinction is not a “problem” to be “solved” through politics or technology or science, but the manifestation of a deep spiritual malaise. Even an atheist could see that our attempts to play God would end in disaster. Wasn’t that a warning that echoed through the myths and stories of every culture on Earth?
I went searching for the truth. And so, I looked east. On my fortieth birthday I treated myself to a weeklong Zen retreat in the Welsh mountains.
As the years went on, Zen was not enough. It was full of compassion, but it lacked love. It lacked something else too: I wanted to worship.
I joined my local Wiccan coven… My coven used to do its rituals in the woods under the full moon. It was fun, and it made things happen. I discovered that magic is real. It works. Who it works for is another question. At last I was home, where I belonged: in the woods, worshipping a nature goddess under the stars. I even got to wear a cloak… Until I started having dreams.
Then, one night, I dreamed of Jesus. The dream was vivid, and when I woke up I wrote down what I had heard him say, and I drew what he had looked like. The crux of the matter was that he was to be the next step on my spiritual path…
My wife and I were out to dinner, celebrating our wedding anniversary, when suddenly she said to me, “You’re going to become a Christian.” When I asked her what on earth she was talking about, she said she didn’t know; she had just had a feeling and needed to tell me…
Suddenly, I started meeting Christians everywhere: strangers emailing me out of the blue, priests coming to me for help with their writing. I found myself having conversations with friends I’d never known were Christian, who suddenly seemed to want to talk about it.
One evening, I was sitting in the kitchen of the house in which our coven had its temple. We were about to go in and conduct an important ritual. As we got up to leave, I felt violently ill. I was dizzy, I was sick, I was lightheaded. Everyone noticed and fussed over me as I sat down, my face pale. I had an overpowering feeling that I should not go into the temple. I felt I was being physically prevented from doing it.
After that, there was no escape. Like C. S. Lewis, I could not ignore “the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
I was at a concert at my son’s music school. We were in a hotel function room, full of children ready to play their instruments and proud parents ready to film them doing it. I was just walking to my chair when I was overcome with a huge and inexplicable love, a great wave of empathy, for everyone and everything. It kept coming and coming until I had to stagger out of the room and sit down in the corridor outside. Everything was unchanged, and everything was new, and I knew what had happened and who had done it, and I knew that it was too late. I had just become a Christian.
He was baptized in January this year in the freezing waters of an Irish river.
The flesh gets you nowhere. Only the Spirit of God brings us to God.