Fill the hearts of your faithful

A Sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Amen

She sat in my office for the first time. Her head down and barely making eye contact. I had been with others like her and she was frustrated and confused. She was someone who came to college with a dream that was not going to be realized. Despite big warning signs, she didn’t want to admit to, she kept doing what she had been always been doing. It wasn’t until her advisor suggested that she visit me in the Career Center that she took her first step towards acceptance. She sat in front of me; her eyes cast down as I told her that her GPA was not high enough to get her into medical school. She questioned how it could be because she had done well in high school AP Biology, but her high school performance didn’t translate into a strong college performance. Her main question was, “Will I be able to find a career?” Of course she would, but at this point in her life, she couldn’t see beyond the defeat.

Often if students are at a point where their grades won’t allow them to fulfill their dreams – or the dreams of their families, they are paralyzed. They have worked themselves into a hole so deep; they can’t see any hope or light. Often they haven’t dealt with failure like this and they are not only paralyzed but feel alone. They don’t have the tools to do it themselves; they need the love and support of their families, friends, professors and even their career counselor. By the time they reach me, they most likely have exhausted all their avenues, nothing has worked. They probably aren’t even sure that I will be able to help them – and maybe I can’t, it truly is up to them.

I have come to understand that I feel what I can only describe as the presence of the Holy Spirit when I meet with students. I often can hear the Spirit speak through them, in their voices. I feel the Spirit when I listen in silence, as they share with me what is going on in their life. I listen, giving them a safe and confidential place to lay it all out on the table. I gently ask questions that they have never been asked before, helping them to think outside the box. In their confusion, and frustration they desperately look for a clear and concise path to follow.

Nicodemus may have felt the same confusion and frustration that my student felt. The world as he knew it was unraveling and he sought out Jesus alone and at night, hoping to gain some answers to what he was witnessing and perhaps feeling. A Pharisee, a man of authority and power, coming to Jesus for answers took courage. During Jesus’ short ministry, the Pharisee’s and Sadducees were threatened by him and his new teachings, to be seen with Jesus would have threatened his position as a man of the law.

But Nicodemus must have held some respect for Jesus because he didn’t approach him with a haughty attitude, but with respect and politeness.

"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."

So the stage was set for what we call in the academic world, “a teaching moment,” an opportunity to explain something to someone – because they are ready to listen. But there was great confusion as Nicodemus tried to absorb Jesus’ words.

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus was hearing the words literally – he wasn’t willing or was just paralyzed – as was my student – to think beyond what was right in front of him. How can we go back into our mother’s womb to be born again he asked? He was trying to get his head around what Jesus was saying – trying to make the words make sense – and he missed the point that Jesus was trying to make.

Jesus was saying – in a rather indirect way – being born anew means being open to hearing the spirit, letting it enter your heart, to change you, to begin anew and become more like Jesus. Preacher and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor explains it as, “.taking God into you and giving God back to the world again, with some of you attached.” (Home by Another Way, pg. 149).

There is great mystery in how the Holy Spirit works in and around us. And today, on Trinity Sunday, we are reminded of our Christian doctrine defining the Trinity as the Father, Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit. All distinct and of themselves, but all are one. It is the Holy Spirit that allows all to interact together in concert as well as individually. And so that night little did Nicodemus know that God was reaching him through his conversation with Jesus and his heart was being touched by the Holy Spirit.

This was something that was not a part of his understanding. Don’t forget that as a Pharisee, he saw himself as entitled to enter the kingdom of heaven based on his lineage, and if he followed all the laws. (over 600 of them!) I don’t think when Nicodemus approached Jesus he was thinking about a relationship with God by the Holy Spirit working through Jesus. Despite Nicodemus’s confusion – almost childlike grasp of the conversation, Jesus continued on, using wind as a metaphor to explain how the spirit would flow in, around, and through Nicodemus.

The 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."

While Nicodemus might have grasped the image of wind – not seeing it but hearing it – he still struggled with the concept. His questioning was not feared by Jesus because Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand the Good News more than he wanted to chide him. Perhaps part of what Nicodemus was beginning to learn – ever so slightly – was that he wasn’t in control – as he couldn’t control the wind. The mystery of the holy is just that, a mystery, and he would have to come to accept that mystery. To trust Jesus with what he was sharing.

But clearly something was stirring inside Nicodemus because we know he later challenged (ever so mildly) his fellow Pharisees during Jesus’ trial and he was one of two who prepared his body for burial. Nicodemus did come with an open heart and through his conversation with Jesus that night, he began to be transformed. We will never know how the transformation evolved in Nicodemus, but his actions during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion were noteworthy and somewhat brave.

Some may point to a single moment when they were “born again” – just as it may have been for Isaiah in today’s Old Testament reading when he heard and answered God’s call with “Here I am, send me!”. But for me, my moments with the holy are just that, moments - that build on each other and deepen my love and understanding for Jesus and God.

Nicodemus was looking for a clear and concise answer, something tangible, and something to hold onto, just as my student was when she sat with me in my office this past year. But Jesus didn’t make it simple or easy to grasp. He challenged Nicodemus and us to live into being born again over and over, so that with each experience, we will be formed more like Jesus, to grow, change, and stretch into what God dreams us to be.

As we ease into the slower rhythm of summer I am giving you your summer assignment. Just as I ask my students, I ask you to think outside the box – by asking yourself, how will you be born anew? How will the spirit work inside you? Take this time to prayerfully wonder – reaching out to Jesus and asking for His guidance. Nicodemus was not “instantly” changed, but the spirit was working inside him. It will be the same for you– but first you must be open to change, you must be willing to listen. Something may be stirring inside you beyond your greatest imagination. It may excite you or it may frighten you. Whatever the feeling, listen to what God might be telling you in your discomfort or your excitement. Lean on and into Him – he awaits you with open and loving arms.


—Nancy Hennessey
June 3, 2012