Trinity Sunday, Year B
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. and I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out. " Then 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!"
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh– for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The Gospel text for today comes from John 3:1-17. We have dealt with the later portion of this text in Lent. Today we reflect primarily on the Pauline text for the day from Romans 8:12-17.
It is not for nothing that Trinity Sunday occurs after Pentecost Sunday for until the Spirit is given to us, until God’s self-revelation, we are basically clueless about the nature and character of God. Given the Spirit, however, our Romans text clearly implies that there is a trinitarian existence that we participate in (as we also saw last week in our Pentecost reading from the Fourth Gospel). This existence, according to Paul, is characterized not simply as some sort of trinitarian mysticism (although it may well feel mystical) but is concretely expressed in the way we conduct ourselves in this life.
Paul speaks of putting to death that which is ‘sarkic’ (fleshly) in our existence and that putting to death occurs in our physical reality, our somatic existence, our bodies. One instantly thinks here of all of the Christian manifestations of self-flagellation. Paul, we think, is misunderstood at this point. The larger argument and flow of the letter to the Romans does not seem to move in this direction. Christians are not called to beat themselves up and adopt a ‘woe is me attitude.’ The reality of the brokenness of our existence has been amply testified to throughout this letter. There is the brokenness of the relationships of Jew and Gentile in chapters 1-3, 9-11 and 14-15. Paul Minear, Mark Nanos and others have pointed out the potential sociological possibilities of this reading. Robert Jewett has argued that the letter to the Romans functions in an ‘ambassadorial’ manner as Paul is collecting funds for the Jerusalem church. All of these readings are not mutually exclusive but they all in one way or another demonstrate the chasm that exists between the Jews and the rest of the world. Clergy are by now familiar with Paul’s desire to see these relationships reconciled.
Furthermore, it would appear from the argument of chapters 5-8 that this brokenness can also be found deep within us. So it is both external to us in our relationships with others and the creation and internal to us in our relationship with ourselves, and of course, with God. We will focus here because until we have found peace within it is extremely difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to find peace with one another.
We recall (Romans 6) that in our baptism we have died and risen with Jesus. Why is this theology of the cross necessary? Wasn’t it enough that God told us how to act in the Law? Shouldn’t we follow what God has already said in the Law? Paul’s view is that while the Law set forth principles of relationships (cultic, inter-personal and communal), because it remains outside of us externally directing our actions it is powerless to stop us from violating its commandments and prohibitions (8:1-4). Why is this so? The Law regulates our existence apart from our thinking, our minds. Paul is clear to point out several times in this chapter but more so in 12:1-3 that it is our minds, our way of thinking that is in need of transformation. “Everything has changed but our way of thinking.” Einstein said this but we think Paul would concur.
What then is the relationship between our thinking and our somatic existence? It is this: our thinking controls our relationships (our somatic existence). If our thinking is off, or poor, or misdirected then so will our relationships be correspondingly broken. There is way too much ‘stinking thinking’ (A.A. slogan). On the other hand, there is a healing of our minds that takes place in the gospel. Repentance, we recall, is simply the changing of our way of thinking about God and hence about others and ourselves.
This change in our thinking does not come about as the result of education, although education may facilitate this change by bringing us into contact with ways of thinking we might not have previously considered. Nor does effort change our way of thinking. How many times we have tried and failed and tried and failed again to ‘be good people.’ Neither can the Law effect a change in our thinking. This is not because it does not contain wisdom but because it is still external, oriented to the pillars of culture (see the Introductory Essays), prohibition, ritual, commandments.
Consider this: In America (where we live), and presumably in your environment as well, it is the function of the laws perpetuated by the governing authorities to order your existence. You are told how to drive, when and how much to pay taxes, what you may or may not say to your neighbors, how you must act in your social relations. How do we know what to do when we travel to a new country? Well, we learn fast that laws differ and that we are expected to obey the local Law. In modern civilization, the ‘rule of law’ is the norm not the exception, whether that society is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, socialist, capitalist or communist. It is the Law(s) that determines how we may or must act. If you don’t believe this, just go around breaking some laws and you will soon experience the consequences.
Christianity has long struggled with the place of ‘Law’ in the Christian life, but unlike Paul and the vast majority of the apostolic church, Christianity has placed the Law front and center. This is particularly evident as the church developed following the ascension of Constantine to the throne. The juxtaposition of the Hebrew Scriptures with Roman law would ultimately bring forth the modern judicial system. Protestants chide Catholics for their adherence to law (canon law, moral law, cultic law, etc) yet seem to be unaware that they too have missed the point. The debates following the Reformation about the place of the Law in the Christian life were only possible because neither Luther nor Calvin were able to see clearly on this subject. Although followers of Paul, they simply could not follow Paul in this direction instead opting for the post-Augustinian solution, an admixture of law and gospel. The relationship of law to gospel has been debated clear into the twentieth century and now beyond.
From the second century church to the present, we find that Christianity cannot seem to exist without some relationship to Law. Mores the pity, for the New Testament is clear that we are set free from the Law, not by denigrating the Jewish Torah (how much anti-Semitism there is in the churches!), but by recognizing that in the new covenant the Law is placed in our hearts. This is not to be equated with some Freudian super-ego (although it can be misunderstood and experienced as such). Rather, the solution, for Paul, is the presence of God active within us and living in us consistent with God’s own internal character. Or christologically we may say it is Christ obeying the Father in and through us. This is the direction of Paul’s thought. This is the change in our thinking to which we referred earlier. And this is the point of Paul’s discussion of the Holy Spirit.
We recall that both Luther and Calvin were uncomfortable with those in their time that had suggested such. They were called ‘spiritualists’ or ‘enthusiasts.’ And they were hunted down and exterminated. Of course, Catholics have long shunned these types as well. Why is this so? Because the church, in its brokenness, needs law to control its members. Yet, no single New Testament author seems to move in this direction, even the Letter of James.
Is the Holy Spirit then an internal law? No. God is not law, God is love. The Spirit is the presence of God to us. Simply put, if we are aware of God with us, we will know how to live and act in love. If we are not aware of this we need an external law to tell us what to do. Have you ever wondered why so many people ask clergy, ‘Pastor, what shou
ld I do in this situation?” Clergy can be secretly fond of being in this position for it gives them a ‘legal’ authority over others. Christians do not seem, for the most part, to be aware that they need no external law. Rather, Christians are to be led by the Spirit that comes from the Father through the Son. We have been rather afraid of this throughout the history of the Church because we sense that without Law there can only be licentiousness. This is not the case. Following Jesus or being led by the Spirit may in fact lead to a ‘breaking’ of the law or external codes. We see this in the Gospels in Jesus’ life. There is a following of Jesus that will always appear to be outside the norm of the Law and it is frightening to those who have made the law central to their Christian life. For the Christian, however, doing God’s will is not an impersonal obedience to an external Law, it is a personal obedience to a loving, caring, saving God.
The Spirit is not a quantifiable reality; therefore, the Spirit cannot be controlled either by the academy or the Church. Neither can culture or cultural law control the Spirit although it may attempt to do so. Our personal relationship with Jesus has its own internal dynamic of obedience or listening. This is the point of Paul in Romans 6-8. We are brought into an extraordinary relationship with the trinitarian God, before whom we live, in whom we find all meaning, to whom we render thanksgiving, love and our wills, and through whom we find ourselves living redemptively. This is why Paul can make the argument he does in his letter to the Galatians, a thought process repeated here in Romans.
What does all of this have to do with mimetic theory? The major (to this date) interpretation of Paul from a mimetic theory perspective has come from Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross. Hamerton-Kelly’s thesis generated a lot of heat when it first came out and some thought, incorrectly, that Hamerton-Kelly was being anti-Semitic in his case (we had the opportunity to observe this personally at the 1993 AAR/SBL meeting where some, in publicly discussing the book, lost all sense of decorum and became nasty). This is not true. Hamerton-Kelly simply pointed out what we also have been saying, namely that for the Christian, the Law belongs on the side of negative mimesis. This is not a denigration of the Jewish Torah. It does however recognize the limitations of Torah and its relationship to the cultural mechanisms of Law in the ancient world, which ultimately stem from the mimetic scapegoating mechanism.
In order for us today to preach peace, we must move beyond peace within the confines or limits of law. For example, the recent Palestinian peace plan proffered by the White House is grounded in certain requirements for both Israel and the Palestinians. If the requirements are met, supposedly the people of Israel and the disenfranchised Palestinians will then live in peace. The Bush administration will find out to their chagrin that this may work as a potential short term solution but in the long run, the agreement as ‘law’ will not stop the hatred or bitterness experienced on both sides, a hatred which will lead to other mimetic conflicts in the Holy Land and ultimately more violence and victimization. Why? Because law is powerless to stop mimetic aggression. It may contain it for a season, but it cannot halt its spread anymore than laws against murder stop people from killing one another or laws against theft stop people from cheating on their taxes. You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Such is the case with law. It is an illusion, an artifact of our sin. It may tell you what to do but it is powerless to make you do it, consequences not withstanding.
The hope for a positive mimesis lies in the gift of the Holy Spirit to us. The Spirit is the ground of our positive mimesis because the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. As such, we then, following Jesus, are also called children of God, are also filled with His Spirit, and more than that, we are heirs of a great and glorious future where God reigns in peace. And this is the point of Trinity Sunday.
Kasemann puts it eloquently: “The christological relation of the Spirit finds expression in the fact that Christ as the prototype, as in Heb. 2:10ff, creates new sons (sic) for God, i.e., bearers of the Spirit…..What is at issue here is not the relation of idea and reality but the maintaining of the new life against temptation.” Commentary on Romans
Bearers of the Spirit. This is truly a most marvelous phrase to describe the children of God. This Spirit has its antithesis in ‘a spirit of slavery.’ As earlier in chapter 8 where The Spirit is about Life contrasted with death, so we may see an intimate connection between the incarnation of 8:1-4 and the giving of the Spirit here. As reflected in both the Lukan and Johannine Gospels, the incarnation, atonement, resurrection and giving of the Spirit are all aspects of one reality, Jesus Christ.
Paul apparently knew a bit more about Jesus than some in the last several centuries would tend to give him credit for. His use of the Aramaic term ‘abba’ has its origins in Jesus’ spirituality. Paul uses it here, and in Galatians 4, precisely where he is contrasting divergent perspectives. The Spirit is the Spirit of the Abba given to humanity, first representatively in Jesus, then through Jesus sent to us to whom witness is borne, and thus witness is also rendered to our deepest self that God, our ‘dada’ calls us his kids. Just like Jesus.
Most commentators observe this christological focus on the Spirit, but it seems to have gotten lost in the church. We muse that the reason God is so amorphous in people’s experience is that God has no human face. In the interpolated version of the creed, the Spirit is sent from the Father and the Son (filioque). This means that there is a double procession of the Spirit, or perhaps implying a congress of the Father and the Son on a joint venture. The Eastern church and the earliest liturgies, however, have no filioque and rightly so, for they recognize that the Father sends His Spirit to us through the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit sent through Jesus from the Father bears the image of Jesus by virtue of being sent through Jesus. We know Jesus; thus we know the Father and The Spirit. More so, we are known and in being known, loved by our Father.
Note: We think that manuscript evidence supports the reading ‘adoption’ (huiothesias) as a parallel to the use of ‘douleias’ in the previous phrase.
We have been in a deep sleep. We dream of life as family, vocation, church. We spend most of our time marking time waiting for the future to happen. Bad things happen. We sin, we hide, we cry. We are hurt by others close to us. And we hide and cry some more. Many struggle day by day, living paycheck to paycheck, fighting often over trivial details. Our dreaming becomes too often nightmarish. God does not feel present but far, far away. What light there is feels distant too. Life is too much like The Matrix. Who are we? What are we here for? Who are we supposed to be? Where are we? And we ask in our despair, “Is this all life is about?”
Then we are awakened to see our Father, the very sight of whom sends our spirits soaring. And we remember who we are, Children of the Heavenly Father. (Do you know the lovely hymn by Lena Sandell?)
We live in two worlds, the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. The world of the spirit also contains its conflicts. As the prophet saw, the battle that is unseen is just as real as that which is seen. The path to the world of the flesh we know well, we have trodden it to a well-worn state. The path to the spirit is not simply an interior journey, although that is half the story. The path to the world of the spirit also has an external referent, the creation. Through the gifts of the creation we see the benevolence of the Father who meets each one of our needs as they arise. In the world of the creation we are provided for. Our Father knows our needs before we ask. Thus there can never be a Christian Gnosticism. We cannot separate that which God has joined together, the physical and the spiritual. Nor can we say that the world of the spirit is for the few, by virtue of its secret knowledge. It is available to all.
To participate in the world of the spirit requires the use of faith, a sort of sixth sense. Just as you are ‘required’ to use your eyes when you see or your ears when you hear, so faith is the mechanism by which we sense and experience the world of the spirit. This may sound a bit mystical for some, and too new-agey for others, but if we do not have the ability to speak of ourselves (and hence, others) as children of God we really don’t have much to talk about. Unless we are being transformed from ‘glory to glory’ how can we bear witness to the One God who works in us and for us and on our behalf?
We posses a double awareness, that of our existence in the flesh and that of our existence in the Spirit. Didn’t Luther say we experience life ‘simul justus et peccator?’ By affirming our existence in the spirit world we are given the opportunity to follow Jesus, thus marking a break with the world of the flesh, the world of anxiety, the world of fear, the world of power, greed and corruption, in short, marking a clean break with the world of sin, death, and the devil. It is life on another plane, it is another dimension entirely, it is living at its best.
We are bearers of the Spirit, and thus, more so, bearers of the Holy Trinity. God is as present and active today in us as he was in Jesus and his followers. God is active; all
we have to do is wake up and open the eyes of our heart.
For a lot of Christians I know, Jesus is quite different from ‘God’ (the Father). That is, many have not yet made the connection that if we are to speak of the revelation of God in Christ we must confess that God looks like Jesus, acts like Jesus, talks like Jesus, heals like Jesus, forgives like Jesus. On Trinity Sunday, the challenge is not to make clear a complicated subject; the challenge is to help our hearers see that God is not different than Jesus, Jesus is not different than God, ‘Jesus and the Father are one.’
We can do this by observing that the apostolic writers did not have an abstract definition of God that they then applied to Jesus. For these writers, Jesus had changed everything they thought they knew about God. In short, Jesus transformed their theology and it is this transformation we seek as we preach the gospel today. I frequently remind my students that while most ask “Is Jesus like God?” the New Testament asks “Is God like Jesus?”
I have been learning a lot, lately about the place and power of prayer in my life. That may sound startling coming from someone who has been a pastor for 13 years, but there you have it. It startles me, too.
It goes back to the discussion of Romans 8 that Michael undertook above. “When we cry Abba, Father, it is that very spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The nature of Trinity has become clearer and clearer to me as I have learned to cry “Abba” and with sighs too deep for words, offer my brokenness as prayer. The “sixth sense” Michael describes above is not something I employ, it is something revealed as I surrender, as I offer the object of my prayer in abject trust.
And then, in the midst of that moment of trust, Trinity is revealed. Not the complexity of the nature of “being” three in one. The language of “ousia” is, for us at Preaching Peace a language that leads inevitably to violence. Trinity is revealed narratively.
As I surrender the world to God in prayer, I discover a God who surrenders the power to yield change to me/us. And I may only manifest that power is my surrender and powerless cry to God. This power is not manifest just a new variety of ethical decision making, but real power, power to move mountains, to inscribe laws of love on our hearts. I encounter this God in Jesus, who, surrendering himself to God in love, did only what he saw his Abba doing, and became the author and model of a new way of potentiating the Spirit in the world, by not seeking to do anything at all.
It is in the mutuality of surrender that the Spirit moves, and the potential to end “stinking thinking” becomes available. It is in this mutual surrender that Jesus set free among us the Spirit that has gradually, ever so gradually, torn down the battlements of all that is “sarkic”, of the world. There is real and frightening power in this surrender. Real because can make possible the imitation of Jesus, make possible the “greater things” he said we’d do in his Name. Frightening because it promises real change, a way of relating to ourselves and our sisters and brothers that is foreign to us, and frightening because in it’s power, it leaves me no retreat into “I can’t.” In fact, “I can’t” is precisely where I’m called to start.
It is in this narrative, active manner that the Trinity is made manifest to us in prayer that cries out in utter devastation and trust, a Trinity of surrender that renders us dust, and in that moment refashions us into the new creature of whose type Jesus was the first.
Some Sermon Thoughts:
Okay, now, how do I preach this???
I wonder how the first human who kicked the dung of a buffalo off her feet and into the field felt when that part of the field became the greenest and most productive?
It will be easy for our hearers to hear any talk of the power of the Spirit as yet another obligation. Even I suggest as much with all that talk of the “frightening” nature of the power available through us. That, I suppose, is the last of the old “sarkic” mind speaking.
What is much more likely to be heard as good news is the news that the very thing we most fear, are most likely to hide, even from ourselves, is our greatest asset. It is the very powerlessness to change ourselves or the world that leads us to the place through which God makes available to the world the power that has been surrendered to us. No, that’s too long a sentence for a sermon.
It is in my “I can’t” that “
;God can.” Not just “I can’t fix it,” but “I can’t imagine the right fix.” And in that surrender it is not I, or we, who are defeated, but the Enemy, the Principalities and Powers, that for whom surrender is an abomination.
Our hearers all feel powerless in the face of a world they can neither change nor accept as God’s will for us. Some few may already know what I am just learning, that this powerlessness is their greatest gift. The rest of us are just now shaking the dung off our feet. This year, I will preach the gift that seems so distasteful.