We all sat around the table, brainstorming about this year's Pentecost service. It was my second meeting of the day; I think I had already reached my quota. Now like any good Methodist church, we have committees. But, as we are better than your average Methodist church in so many ways, we don't just have committees, we have sub-committees of committees. And this was one of those.
Ruach, we call it. From the Hebrew for "Breath." It is our "creativity-in-traditional-worship" group. As we were determining what to do about our classic Pentecost opening, which usually features people speaking in different languages and occasional wind noises, one word took center stage for a moment. It was the very name of our committee. Breath. Wind. And I had one of those 'doh moments, because I knew an offertory by that very title, a very windy contribution by our very own Marteau, a piano piece that had stirred many positive comments, in fact. And that just recently. Because I had just played the piece not three weeks ago. Nuts. Can't do it again, now, can I? Would have gone with the theme too, but I didn't know that three weeks ago...
And you could say that on that occasion I wasted it on a very off-label interpretation of the morning scripture passage.
I sometimes have little to no idea what our pastor is going to do with a passage of scripture--it depends on the pastor and their schedule and whether we are planning ahead very far that month or not, but I should have known better because I have never heard a sermon on the 3rd chapter of John that had anything to do with the wind of the spirit.
That chapter is much better known as the "born again" passage. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night and asks what he needs to do to receive eternal life, and Jesus tells him to be "born again." Then, he explains what being born of the spirit means, and uses the wind as a metaphor. Nobody knows, he says, where it comes from or where it is going.
For those few who have noticed, the Bible is a very contrapuntal book. There are verses which appeal to particular minds, and verses which appeal to very opposite minds. This often leads not simply to different emphases but to very different interpretations. This can lead to fights. But the easiest thing to do with the less popular options is simply to ignore them altogether.
In the John passage, it is the "born again" part that receives the emphasis. And not in the curiously amorphous way that Jesus defines it. People often long for solidity, definition, and certainty. So naturally, being "born again" has to mean something very specific. There is now a procedure for being born again, a sect you can join of persons who consider themselves born again (and other Christian groups not, of course), and you are supposed to know the date and time of your second birth, and be absolutely sure of your eternal salvation because any ephemeralness on any of these points means it doesn't count. It is a sort of copyright, owned by the people who have staked out this territory and made it the most important thing that Jesus said. Apparently loving God and your neighbor (Jesus said those were the most important in the synoptic gospels, which do not include John) doesn't lend itself to creating a religious trademark the way being born again does.
Then there is the wind, that strange image (not that the wind has an image--that is sort of the point) that Jesus uses to describe the workings of the spirit. Nobody knows where it comes from. You can't bottle it and sell it. You can't hang onto it. You don't get to decide who gets it. Praying a particular prayer is not guaranteed to cause it to blow. You can't own the wind and pass pieces of it out to your disciples. The wind, said Jesus, "blows where it chooses"--not where you choose, or when your choose. You can see why this has never been very institutionally popular. It is not something you can control, or determine. It is not a very good metaphor for those who want power, or control; in fact, that was probably the very point that Jesus was making.
How do I get saved? someone asks. Here, say this prayer. Read this tract. Take these pills and call me in the morning. Or, just wait and watch and hope the wind blows. I don't know about you, but I've never had anybody try to sell me any version of Christianity by the second method. They are always peddling a formula that works on demand--at least, we think it does.
Next week our pastor will be preaching a sermon about "leaving control." I wonder what it will be about. I don't think he really knows yet, though I've heard him talk about it a little. But control is an interesting thing. It dominates religion--rules, formulas, the way to get saved. It dominates even in charismatic churches, where the spirit is supposed to catch you and cause you to speak in tongues. If you don't speak in tongues, people look at you funny. Something's wrong. As if it is not acceptable that the wind is simply not blowing that day, or at least not in your direction.
We can't seem to stop making a bargain with life, and wanting it to be on our terms. But the wind won't do what we want, usually. And Pentecost...is about that wind.