Trinity Sunday, Year B, Trinity Parish, Clarksville, May 26, 2024

“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”(Jo. 3:6).

“I’m spiritual, not religious”: pundits tell us that when people say this they’re taking an anti-dogmatic and anti-institutionalist stance. In other words, they are allergic to precise definitions of who or what God is (if you have to use that word!), and uncomfortable being affiliated with “organized religion.” Put positively, people who are “spiritual, not religious” are open to the transcendent, to the possible existence of the unseen, and of realities that defy rational explanation, which gives them lots of common ground with Christians.

Well, today it’s Trinity Sunday, when we draw attention to the Church’s worship of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: a feast that depends upon the confident and definite expression of who God is. It’s also Trinity Parish, Clarksville, and we are largely surrounded by “church people,” folks who have made an institutional commitment to this community of faith. As to “organized religion,” the thing that the spiritual, not religious folk are worried about, that reminds me of the old joke: “If you don’t like organized religion, you’ll love the Episcopal Church!”

So today I’m preaching to the choir, as it were, to people who are spiritual and religious. Mind you, we shouldn’t be too hard on our friends who are spiritual, not religious: at least they are open to realities that go beyond themselves. For a lot of people, the word “spiritual” is just a placeholder for something that is not really true, or even for something that is unreal and unrealistic: what used to be called a “fairy tale.”

What underlies the whole thing is the idea that what is “spiritual” is over there, and what is observable, definable, and quantifiable (the actual world) is on the other side of the chasm. Spiritual and actual are things of a different order, different categories entirely; apples and oranges that don’t really add up. By and large, from this perspective, the spiritual and the tangible just don’t mix.

But witness our reading from Isaiah this morning, the vision of God and the call of the prophet. Spiritual realities are revealed here in the vision, erupting into the actual world. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Is. 6:1). “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is. 6:3). In the vision, God reaches out to speak to Isaiah, manifesting his glory in the world, and calling the prophet to his service. Isaiah recognizes the gap between God’s glory and his own unworthiness, but God bridges the chasm between spiritual and actual. “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ’Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me’” (Is. 6:8). Spiritual reality takes definite form in the call of Isaiah.

But what Jesus says in our Gospel today takes us to a whole other level. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jo. 3:6). At first hearing, you might think that Jesus is pitting the world of spiritual realities and our human reality against each other, and setting up the two in opposition; a little bit like the formulation, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

But notice also that the two formulations are parallel, like lines of poetry: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jo. 3:6). What comes first is the flesh: the parallel lines telling us that if we want to understand what it is to be born of the Spirit, we first need to understand what it is to be born. Jesus isn’t setting up the two in opposition: spirit and flesh are related; they correspond to each other. Not only are there spiritual realities, but God the Spirit works through what is observable, definable, and quantifiable, in order to reveal them.

Christians believe there is no chasm between the spiritual and the actual. What is spiritual takes form in and is communicated through what is observable and tangible: that is, in flesh. Earlier in John’s Gospel we hear, “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jo. 1:14). And as Jesus says later in the Gospel, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (Jo. 6:54). It’s the spiritual taking form in and being given to us in things we can actually taste and touch.

It’s the sacramental principle of the outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, as it is given to us in the water of baptism, and in the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Today a group of our fellow parishioners will reaffirm their baptismal vows and receive the laying on of hands by the bishop in confirmation. God the Holy Spirit will work through prayer and the tangible touch in order to communicate grace. We believe that’s how God works. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jo. 3:6). Spiritual reality is taking definite form today, as we all answer the call of God.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee