One of the very first things I noticed about Nebraska when I moved here twelve years ago – in addition to the oppressive sky and the militant grasshoppers – was the pervasive wind. On our second day in Lincoln, I remember stepping onto the driveway and being smacked head-on by a gale-force wind that nearly knocked me off my feet.
I’ve never liked wind. All the blustering and blowing and out-of-control feel of it makes me uncomfortable, even a little queasy at times. The wild, unpredictable nature of wind scares me; it makes me feel small and powerless.
At first glance, the reading for Sunday seemed pretty straightforward. When Jesus explains the requirements for entering heaven to Nicodemus, he mentions only two. “I assure you,” he says, “no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5).
Sounds black-and-white, right? To enter heaven, you need to be baptized (born of water) and you need the Holy Spirit. This is what I was taught as a child: I received the Holy Spirit at baptism and was saved.
However, in typical Jesus-fashion, he complicates matters in the next few verses when he introduces the notion of wind into the equation:
“Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life,” Jesus says. “So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” (3:6-8)
What seemed to be a very specific, exclusive process for gaining admittance into heaven a moment ago has now been exponentially broadened with Jesus’ mention of wind. The Greek word for spirit, my Bible’s footnotes explain, can also be translated as wind. So, Jesus seems to be saying, “The Spirit blows wherever it wants. You might hear it, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s going next. You can’t explain it, and you can’t control it.”
The problem, Jesus tells Nicodemus, and us, is that we want to explain it.
We want a nice, neat equation to explain who will get into heaven and how exactly they will get there. We want the “this plus that equals heaven,” and we want to be able to determine who’s in and who’s out based on certain criteria.
Frankly, we like it this way because it’s easy, and because it comforts us to know we’ve met the criteria for entrance into eternal life. Baptism plus the Holy Spirit equals my admittance into heaven – I’m good!
But Jesus tells us it’s not quite that black-and-white, not quite that knowable.
Think about the qualities of wind again for a moment. Wind is pervasive – it blows wherever and however it wants, touching everyone and everything in its path. Wind has no boundaries; you can’t contain it or limit it or even escape it, and you are powerless in its face. These are the qualities of wind that frighten and overwhelm me, but these are also the qualities of the Spirit that make it so mysterious, powerful and inclusive.
I love this about Jesus. He takes what looks like a simple, black-and-white equation – “Do this and that and gain entrance into the Kingdom of God” – and he turns it on its head. He tosses wind, the unpredictable, wild, all-pervasive wind – the Spirit – into the mix, and suddenly our nice, neat definition of who gets into heaven and who doesn’t is now a muddled, mixed up mess, beyond rational explanation, beyond any limitations or definitions or boundaries.
It almost doesn’t make sense, right? Until, that is, we realize we’ve been seeing much too small.
It almost doesn’t make sense until we realize that Jesus’ way is so much bigger, broader and inclusive than our black-and-white, got-it-all-figured-out-with-the-one-right answer way.
You’re thinking too small, too limited, Jesus tells Nicodemus…and us. You need to be born again to see, born again into my bigger, broader, all-encompassing everlasting life.
Questions for Reflection:
So what do you think about the Spirit as wind in these verses? Does your understanding of the nature of wind help you understand the Holy Spirit a bit better? Do you think there are certain requirements for salvation?
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