May 22, 2016, Trinity Sunday
Trinity Sunday is a truly unique day in the Christian Year, because it is the only Sunday designated to contemplate a doctrine of the church. Every other Sunday is about a story—some piece of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the beginnings of the Church. But today we don’t have a biblical story to consider, we have a doctrine. And a very complex and convoluted doctrine at that.
You can look up the early writings and the information on the church councils—particularly the Council of Constantinople in 381–if you want to learn more about the Trinity. You’ll find explanations of the many heresies that emerged, all the people who were excommunicated because of their faulty Trinitiarian theology, and the final orthodox position of three persons, one substance—homoousias.
You’ll find all of this in the church history texts, but you won’t find any of it in the Bible. All the parts of the Trinity are mentioned in scripture, to be sure, but there is nowhere in the Bible that clearly lays out the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
Which makes this an interesting Sunday to try and preach. And means we end up with irritating texts– like this one from Romans 5 that seems to talk in circles. But, these verses mention God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, so they get slapped into the lectionary for Trinity Sunday.
The problem is, Paul does not—nor is he trying to–explain the doctrine of the Trinity here—or anywhere, for that matter. He is not a seminary professor. He is a pastor. And this text is not an academic article, it is a letter—a pastoral letter to the church in Rome.
In his role as pastor, Paul wants people to understand how they—how we—can relate to, and be in relationship with, God. Particularly, Paul wants people to understand the ways they can be in relationship with God now, on the other side of Jesus’ resurrection—which is why Christ and the Holy Spirit get thrown into the mix.
I’m sure Paul means well, but the way in which Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit play into our human relationship with the Divine is pretty hard to explain. The passage basically ends up being a lot of great terms stuck together by random prepositions—and if you have ever learned a foreign language, you know that prepositions are some of the most slippery and imprecise forms of speech. And there are 14 prepositions in these 5 verses.
So what, exactly is Paul trying to say here? In preparing for this sermon, I actually highlighted all of the prepositions and then sketched out a diagram. [diagram]
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. . . .
because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
How all the moving parts interact here gets a bit murky. But the overall message is clear; Paul leads with it: we have been justified. Not in the sense that excuses have been made for us, but in the sense that we have been brought into right relationship with God—we are at peace with God.
Because of that right relationship, we experience God’s love and we stand in God’s grace. I love this image—not that we are given grace when we mess up, but that we stand in grace. God’s grace surrounds us always—it is part of the air we breathe.
I love it . . . unless I think too hard about grace. Or until I get to Paul’s little treatise on suffering in the midst here. Suffering may at first seem out of place in this context, but of course it isn’t.
Just as God’s love and grace are part of our lives of faith, so too is suffering. So Paul writes: “but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.”
When these verses are presented as straight forward and preachy, they can be used to minimize people’s suffering. (“What doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger.”) Or—even worse—they can be used to encourage people to remain in situations in which they suffer, for the sake of building their “character.” (“God is testing you and forming you through your abusive husband.”)
These simplistic interpretations of the text ignore Paul’s context. As a pastor, Paul is deeply aware of the presence of suffering in the lives of those who follow Christ. He can talk about love and grace and hope all he wants. But he can’t ignore the suffering. The Christians in Rome faced persecution because of their faith; Paul himself was jailed and beaten and eventually killed for his faith. As Christians—as human beings—suffering is not something we seek out, but it is something that is likely to come.
Will we experience God’s love? Yes. God’s hope? Yes. And suffering? Yes. The love, the hope, and the suffering are all part of the grace in which we stand.
Flannery O’Connor may have understood and presented this reality more starkly than any other modern theologian. “This notion that grace is healing,” she writes, “omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring.” Before grace heals it cuts.
If you’ve read any of O’Connor’s short stories, you know that her characters often bear out this awkward juxtaposition of grace and suffering:
The self-righteous grandmother whose killer says of her, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”)
The atheist who plans to seduce a Bible salesman but instead is herself lured into the barn loft by the salesman who runs off with her prosthetic leg. (“Good Country People”)
The proper Southern lady who is horrified by a vision of black people and “white trash” dancing their way into heaven while respectable people like herself trail behind. (“Revelation”)
All of these characters are, in the beginning of their respective stories, quite comfortable in their grace-less lives. They believe that they understand the world and their place—their elevated place—in it. And then the sword of truth cuts them deeply before they experience the grace that can begin to heal them.
Grace is nice and soft when we sing about it in four-part harmony, but the reality of it is not always so pretty.
Even as the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are interconnected and interdependent, the suffering and love and hope in our lives are somehow all a part of the grace in which we stand.
There is a Celtic symbol called a triple spiral that has come, in Christian circles, to signify the Trinity. Jan Richardson writes, “In the Celtic triple spiral, there is a space where the three spirals connect. It is both a place of meeting and of sheer mystery.”
There is mystery at the heart of the Trinity—in the ways that we can be in relationship with the Divine through Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.
There is mystery at the heart of the grace in which we stand—in the ways that grace is experienced through love and hope and suffering.
This mystery is, in itself, part of the grace.