*Sermon preached on 16 June 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton. Perhaps not one of my better ones, but such as it is… read on!
Letter to the Romans 5:1-5 (New Revised Standard Version)
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Gospel of John 16:12-15 (New Revised Standard Version)
(Jesus) “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
As noted by an Episcopalian priest and former lawyer [Marsh, see note at end of sermon], “try to define the Trinity and you end up with nonsensical math in which 1+1+1=1. Or you hear bad and, most often, heretical analogies: God is like an egg and the three persons are the shell, the white, and the yolk of the egg. The Trinity is like the three musketeers, all for one and one for all. At best,” he writes, “we are left confused and at worst we decide this whole Trinitarian thing is outdated and irrelevant. How can words ever describe or capture the beauty and mystery of three lives shared, given, and received? How do you talk about three persons giving themselves to each other so completely that they live within one another, not losing themselves but finding their true and complete self? Words fail. Some things, like the Trinity, cannot really be talked about. They can only ever be experienced.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the Father and the Spirit and their relationship. “It is not a lecture about the Trinity. He does not describe what they are but rather, HOW they are…they are in complete relationship. All they have is given, received, and shared. Nothing is withheld. Nothing is secret. All that the Father has is Jesus’. All that Jesus has is taken by the Spirit and declared to us. We are included in the life and love of the Holy Trinity. All that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have is being given and made available to us. Nothing is withheld. Nothing is secret.’
WHY I BRING THIS UP
In just five verses, the reading from Romans this morning, stunningly brief given Paul’s usual expansiveness, he writes of God, of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit – not as an attempt to explain the full intricacies of each, but how the activities of each ensure the transformation of our lives. In this we experience peace with God, through Jesus Christ, and God’s love poured out through the Holy Spirit.
But how do we put our minds around these concepts, ones that have challenged theologians over the centuries? With a dose of humility, perhaps we should turn to the words of Jesus, when he lifted up a child and spoke of how children perceive the kingdom, saying “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 18:3-4]
No wonder then, I think of the boy, all of six years, who walked in by himself, while I was setting everything up for a morning devotional before VBS started. It was the late 1980s and my church was supporting in partnership the VBS held down the road at the Methodist church. At that tender age, everything shows on a child’s face, and his was especially downcast. It seems he had done something wrong and upset his mother. Miserable for hurting his mom’s feelings, he just could not be consoled.
Soon enough, the small sanctuary filled with kids and teachers. I had set up an enormous ladder, with a block and tackle suspended at the top, between the legs of the ladder. A rope went around it all and came to the floor where another block and tackle was hooked to a concrete block. You know, those 80-punders, as opposed to the lighter weight cinder blocks. And I spoke of how sometimes we think we’re on our own and try to solve things as if that is true.
I called the young fellow up and asked him to pick up that cinder block, by trying to lift it with that block and tackle that was hooked to it. Like most boys, he put everything into it, after all, everyone was looking. One corner finally lifted off the floor before he had to let it crash back. He tried a second time and fared no better. I noted that the block and tackle hooked to the concrete block was like us, and that’s how life works when we live as if we’re on our own. We try. We put everything into it, but sometimes the problem is too great for us and we just can’t send it flying.
Dejected, he started back toward his pew when I asked him to come back, and asked him to now pull on the rope, the one looping up around the other block and tackle at the top of the ladder. He braced himself, thinking it would be like before, and then pulled with all his might.
The concrete block shot straight up into the air, a good three feet off the floor!
He stared at it, his mouth open, unable to comprehend how he had done such a thing. He let it down and then pulled it into the air again, just to prove to himself it was no fluke. I then explained how that ladder is kind of like God’s love – over all of us and all of Creation, and that Christ is like that block and tackle above. In that moment I had a brain blip, quickly caught by one observant child who called out, “What about the rope?” Before I could answer, from the other side of the sanctuary another child called out, “That’s the Holy Spirit!”
Kids understand, often better than we adults. Jesus was right about that.
Paul says, “We boast (also translated as “rejoice” or “exalt”) in our HOPE of sharing God’s glory.” The New Revised Standard text added “sharing” to the text to clarify what it means to hope in the glory of God, having peace with God through Jesus Christ. I think that day, a young boy experienced that kind of boasting in the hope of sharing in God’s glory, as he went back to his seat glowing, the rest of the morning happy. He still had it the next morning when he ran in the church to tell me his mom had forgiven him.
Yet, we have to realize that Romans doesn’t end with a “fairy tale” type “living happily ever after” ending. Sin and suffering do remain a part of life, sometimes so acutely so that in chapter 8, Paul will reassure us that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God.” The life of the justified is thus one that is a mix of peace, of hope, of suffering, and always of love.
I think this is an important point. Because we can easily fall into the trap of thinking, when confronted with circumstances of suffering, that somehow it must always mean a spiritual failure on our part. Sometimes, it is the sins of others. Sometimes, well, there is just mystery. It may be difficult for us to understand this, living in a society in which folks believe as long as they check all the boxes, they should expect to be treated fairly. But doesn’t that fall apart when bad things happen to good people?
In Romans 8, Paul will say “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us” [8:18], as we rejoice not only in the glory of God but also in our sufferings. The message is not that we rejoice because of suffering, but rather we rejoice in the MIDST of suffering. Suffering does not produce rejoicing, but neither can it end it.
What Paul is assuring us, is that the power to withstand is ours – because of the very work of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Even though we baptize in the name the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as has been done from the earliest days, and instructed in Matthew 28:19, explaining the fullness of the mystery that is the Trinity has humbled the greatest of theologians. Maybe we just make it too hard, missing the language of peace, of hope, and of suffering that is far more concerned with God’s actions than with describing God’s essence, and glimpses of how God, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit interact with one another in order to act on our behalf: Peace with God that comes about through Jesus Christ. God’s love is poured out into human hearts through the Holy Spirit. All given when we cannot act on our own behalf (as Paul writes in verse 6, “while we were still weak”) – that we may know the full expression of God, who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us.
For additional reading, I would suggest “What Is the Doctrine of the Trinity?,” by Matt Perman, 23 January 2006. It make be accessed at:
Pastor’s Note: “Life, Love, and Dancing – A Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, John 16:12-15,” by Rev. Michael K. Marsh. Dated 30 May 2010, accessed on 14 June 2019, at https://interruptingthesilence.com/2010/05/30/life-love-and-dancing-a-sermon-for-the-feast-of-the-holy-trinity-john-1612-15/