“A Matter of Life and Death”
Sunday, May 31, 2015
Today is Trinity Sunday…a festival day on the church calendar. It is the Feast of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is also the only Sunday in the Church Year when we celebrate a doctrine rather than a event in the life of the church. The term “trinity” does not appear in the Bible. We use it to describe an understanding of God that grows out of many biblical passages and the teachings of the early church. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity was not formally articulated until the Council of Nicaea in AD325.
Often when this Sunday rolls around each year we spend time talking about this challenging doctrine as we try to find ways to explain what it means. The images we use are mostly inadequate. We end up by saying that this is a mystery that we must certainly believe by faith. It doesn’t really matter how God exists, what matters is that God does exist. This year I want to take a different approach. Today’s text from Paul’s Letter to the Romans offers us an opportunity to talk about the Holy Trinity and how it affects our Christian lives.
The references to the persons of the Trinity are clear in this passage. Crying “Abba, Father” and the image of “children of God” represent God the Father. As children of God, we become heirs with Christ, God’s Son. And talk of the Spirit flows throughout. The language and imagery Paul uses clearly points to a complex God-head that contributes to the evolving understanding of a Trinitarian God. What makes this text significant for Trinity Sunday is the way that it calls us to understand our relationship with this complex, Trinitarian God. I think that understanding our relationship better helps us to comprehend the complexities of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The way Paul explains it leads us to believe that this truly is a matter of life and death.
The first thing I want us to notice about the Holy Trinity is that it describes a perfect relationship. Genesis 1:26 says: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” This is no accident; this is confirmation that God’s identity is more complex than we can imagine. It does not say that there are multiple Gods; rather it suggests that God transcends our human understanding and exists in multiple forms within a single God-head. It is impossible for us to fully understand what that means, but it is sufficient for us to see God as relational. God exists in relationship – with God’s self and with us. Using God’s own being as a model, we can better understand how important relationships are. We have always been intended to be in relationship with God and with each other. Separation is unnatural.
Something else that stands out for me in this relationship may sound silly to some people,
but I think it is worse considering. There has been a lot of talk over the past twenty-or-so years about using male pronouns for God. I think we need to realize that when we refer to God as Father in the church and in our prayers, we are not assigning a gender to God. We are speaking of God in a most intimate way, affirming the closeness of our relationship with God. It is not about noticing God’s gender; it is about embracing God’s love as our Creator, our parent, our life-giver. God exists in a spiritual realm where gender is irrelevant. The Bible is filled with imagery for God that is male, female, paternal, and maternal. These images are used to promote trust and love for God; not put God in a box defined by our image of a physical body for which God has no use. God is God, father and mother, brother and sister, Redeemer and Spirit. Now, while you wrap your head around that and decide whether to brand me a heretic, let’s move on to the idea that our relationship with God is a matter of life and death.
This text from Romans talks about God as father and refers to us as children of God and God’s heirs. Then we hear about Jesus, God’s Son, and the concept that we are joint heirs with him if we share in his suffering. Then we hear that we are being led by God’s Holy Spirit because of this “spirit of adoption.” There are two things we need to notice here.
First, the idea of adoption needs to be clarified. In Roman culture, an adopted person gives up all rights to their old life and family. They gain all the rights of a natural-born child in their new family. It is this idea that under-girds Paul’s message here. When we accept God’s offer of grace and become followers of Christ, we are adopted into God’s family and we gain all the rights AND responsibilities of a child of God. We are supposed to give up our old life – die to a life of sin – and take up the new life of Christ. This is truly a matter of life and death…Moving from the death of sin into a life of grace and mercy. One of the benefits of full adoption as a child of God is having the presence of the Holy Spirit within us to reassure and encourage us. There will always be times when we do not feel much like a child of God. There will be times when we don’t feel like we are living a new life. The Holy Spirit is here to remind us of who we are and whose we are.
The other thing we need to recognize is that our adoption comes with responsibilities. Paul is telling us that those who are “in Christ” can and should put to death “the deeds of the body” and live as children of God. In other words, we are supposed to become who we truly are as followers of Christ. To live according to the flesh ends in death, while living by the power of the Spirit leads to life. Living according to the flesh means giving in to transient self-interest at the expense of others. It means ignoring the presence of God in the world. It means indulging those “creature comforts” designed to please ourselves with no thought of God or other persons. It is a metaphor for the human tendency to seek and possess all that brings immediate satisfaction to one’s self without considering a spiritual perspective. This type of selfish living leads, not necessarily to physical death, but to a spiritual death that prevents us from being who God intends us to be. In our context, this has to do with priority and motive. It is not a bad thing to have success or money or other blessings in this life. But, these things become sinful when you forget the giver of those gifts. The sin comes in keeping everything for yourself and ignoring the will of the God who provides everything for you to steward. God gives to see what we will give.
The complex concept of the Holy Trinity sheds light on our relationships with God and with each other. And our human relationships help us to know God better. Maybe that is why we celebrate this doctrine of the Trinity…we need to understand our relationship with God better. When we see God in the role of “parent” we can begin to understand how that works by thinking of the way human parenting works. With our own children we show absolute, unconditional love. It doesn’t really matter what they may do wrong in life, we love them completely. When our kids mess up we ache for them and we look for ways to correct them and help them to do better in the future. This is the nature of discipline. On a much larger scale, God loves all humanity with absolute, unconditional love. No matter what we may do or say, God continues to love us and seek the best for us. When we get it wrong, God also has a plan. God’s heart breaks for us when we are in trouble or in pain. God looks for ways to correct our behavior, to discipline us. At the same time, God seeks to comfort us and help us find a better way forward.
As I said earlier, human metaphor is never adequate to explain the Trinity, but it helps me grasp what it means to be a child of God. That God loves me defines my value as a human being, independent of what others may think. Knowing that God wants the best for me gives me the courage to do what I think God wants me to do. The reality of God’s mercy and forgiveness takes the sting out of the corrective discipline God offers when I make a mistake. I think it is vital to our fulfillment as followers of Jesus to understand and embrace this relationship with God as our eternal parent. This understanding leads us from death to life. This relationship saves us.
Trinity Sunday reminds us to consider again the idea that we are created in God’s image – imago Dei. If God exists in this perfect relationship with God’s self, then God must expect a similar relationship with us. We are expected to seek to live in relationship with God, rather than die in relationship with this world in which sin tempts us. When we seek this perfect relationship with God we realize that God expects a lot. God expects us to love as he loves; forgive as he forgives; do as he does. When we choose to embrace God’s Son Jesus and open our hearts to receive God’s Holy Spirit, we commit to becoming who God intends us to be. This lesson of life and death is a theological lesson. This is about recognizing that God actively pursues us and offers us the most life-giving relationship imaginable. It is about knowing that the physical life we experience right now is not the end-game. Our ultimate goal is to transcend this life and live in perfect relationship with God for eternity. When Paul talks about suffering with Christ he really means that suffering as a disciple arises out of our loyalty to Jesus in all circumstances, despite the risks. This matter of life and death may come with temporary discomfort, but it results in the perfect relationship between you and God. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.