Sermon: "Wholly Mystery, Wholly Love, Wholly Relational: The Holy Trinity" June 16, 2019

5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

5:2 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.

5:3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,

5:4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,

5:5 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.
— Romans 5: 1-5 (NRSV)

Sing into our ears, O Spirit, the holy word of life.

Tell us who we are and to whom we belong

so that we may live with gratitude for all that you have done. Amen.

 It is a somewhat strange thing, Trinity Sunday.  God as three-in-one is a doctrine of the church – a way that we, the church through history, have done our best to attempt to express the fullness of God in our limited understanding.   A summary, so to speak, of the witness of Scripture to God’s unfathomable love incarnate in Jesus Christ and experienced and celebrated in the community of faith.[1]  So, do we preach on a doctrine?  Well, no.  But, well, yes.  Because really, every Sunday is Trinity Sunday – we are always reaching to a greater, deeper understanding of the mystery of God, and as we do that, we cannot help but bump into the Holy Spirit, into Jesus, into God: the Mother/Father of us all.


So, for this particular Trinity Sunday, the church gives us this reading from Paul to the new church in Rome.  Now, Paul may not have intended to develop a theology of the Trinity, but throughout the book of Romans, he speaks about having peace with God (5:1-11), being united with Christ (6:1-14), and living according to the Spirit (8:1-17).  All of these expressions of God were already moving, and these first Christ-followers were learning how to relate to all three, as one.


And when we look specifically at this passage, it is easy to see why the church selects it for this Sunday – we have peace with God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  Kind of sums it up.  Alright, I guess it is a short one then, someone go get the kids from downstairs, Ill meet you outside for lemonade.


Kidding aside, it is quite helpful to talk about the Trinity because we have so much that we can learn from a God that is three-in-one.  One of the most basic, and I think, beautiful things of our understanding of God, is that fundamentally, God is community.  God is not God outside of relationship.  God in God’s very own immanent, eternal being, is an activity of mutual self-giving, a community of sharing, God is a “society of love.” (Augustine) Trinitarian Doctrine describes God as self-sharing, other-regarding, community-forming love.  1 John reminds us that "God is love" (1 John 4:8).  It's not just that God loves, it's that God is inherently love through the loving relationships that God consists of.

And because God gives us an example of mutuality in relationship, it shows us Love that is united but not smothering, that maintains unity and diversity at the same time. God shows us Love that is coequal rather than hierarchical. That allows the other to be fully other.  The Trinity gives us a model for how we are to build our relationships, as those who are made in God's image.


Now, if we are to turn back to our specific passage we learn even more about God and our relationship with God.  It is a short but packed full selection of Scripture, starting with a therefore, which propels us back a little bit before we can move forward. 


Paul has just reminded his listeners that through resurrection, Jesus broke the chain of death that began with Adam, the chain of death which is: separation from God.  He urges that those who have come to know and follow Jesus, are to live according to a new chain of life – not groping for self satisfaction, but assured of God’s presence.[2] 


“Therefore,” the writes, “since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through Jesus” – let’s pause here.  Justification is traditionally a judicial term – it means free from the charge of being guilty.  So, in this case, Paul is saying that we are free by our faith; that is, we are at peace with God through Jesus, and he goes on to say that it is from Jesus that we have access to this “grace in which we stand.” (v. 2)


Now, oftentimes, we read this and think (or have been taught) that it is our faith in Jesus that justifies us, sets us free.  But I want to open something up here.  There is a funny little preposition in Greek that changes this understanding.  Ek.  It means “out of” (dikaiothentes ek pisteos).  This same sneaky preposition pops up in Romans 3:26, which is often translated “God justifies one who has faith in Jesus.”[3]  But, it just isn’t quite right.  Because that little ek implies the causality of the justification.  Let me explain: it shifts where the responsibility lies.  So, instead of “God justifies one who has faith in Jesus,” it reads, “One is justified to God through Jesus’ faith.”  This actually is in keeping with Paul’s understanding, as he later in Romans 5:19 states, “by one man’s obedience all will be made righteous.” 

Ok Ingrid, why does this matter?  Aren’t you talking semantics now?  Or are you just showing off your Greek skills? 

It matters because it speaks to where our reconciliation with God is initiated.  This is not about our salvation by way of us accepting Jesus Christ as our Personal Lord and Saviour –

though we do and he is

– it is that our entering into right relationship with God is the consequence of Jesus’ faithful obedience to God in his life, death, and resurrection. 


So when we hear, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have obtained access to the grace in which we stand,” (v. 1-2) we can hear, “through Jesus and his faithful obedience we are reconciled to God and have access to God’s free gift of grace.” 

God initiated the action – our justification by faith is not through our acceptance of, or faith in Jesus, but is in our active response to Jesus’ faithfulness in our living in God’s way.


Paul then takes a sharp turn into suffering.  The Scripture reads, “we also boast in our sufferings,” which may sound a bit strange, it means to hold one’s head high in hard times.  Remember, Paul is writing to Romans who are steeped in an honour-shame culture; public shame was to be avoided at all costs.  In that worldview, one would never boast in their sufferings, because it was a sure sign of God’s displeasure.  

And like most things related to the teachings of that Jesus, he takes the cultural norm and flips it on its head.  Rather than being deterred by its oppression, suffering, affliction, the church is to stand up, shoulders back, head high.  For Paul, suffering was an opportunity to double down on the newly understood relationship between God and Humanity; Jesus opened up the flow so that we can have love peace with God through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  So stand tall, he says to these folks shirking in their shame and fear, stand tall he says to us in our shame and fear – give thanks!  Give thanks, for you are winning where it really matters – you are reconciled to God.


To give thanks for and not be ashamed of our hard times, our failures, seems like a pretty big stretch – both for the ancient people Paul was writing to, and to us.  We work really hard to make ourselves look just so good on the outside – our Facebook pictures of happy family vacations, our manicured lawns, our put together outfits.  Paul encourages us to be real.  And this isn’t just about getting real with God and ourselves, it has some rather practical consequences.


In practice, getting real and in public deflates our suffering – bad things happen, we live in a broken world, but when we are able to give thanks in the mess, we are able to catch a glimpse of grace, a glimpse of God in the midst of it all.


Now, Paul carries on to say that suffering builds endurance which produces character which leads to hope and hope is of God so suffering brings us to God.   Which I get - for many of us, myself included, pain has been the gateway to faith through which we have walked, and a stairwell to deeper and deeper relationship with God.  .  But let’s be careful and clear here – I do not believe in, and Paul is arguing against, the notion that God is the cause of our suffering.  Remember, that was common in these times, and is a line of thinking still amok around us – if you are suffering, you’ve done something that made God mad (think of Job) but our Scriptural witness – Jesus on the cross -  and our lived experience tells us that God is in the midst of, not the cause of, our suffering.  Paul is pointing to the gifts of God that are present in their suffering to dispel this false notion of God as punitive. 


God as a community of persons - the Trinity - assures us that we can love and be loved under exceptionally challenging circumstances.  And also, ordinary grocery shopping, bill paying, lawn mowing circumstances.  God does not reserve our spiritual transformation to the after world – it is a process that we are in the midst of right now, in the gruelling and in the gorgeous.  Not because of something we have done or not done, but because of something God has done and is still doing.  And because this three-fold one God is at work in us and the world right now, everything, everything is dripping with Holiness – it gets all over us and we track it wherever we go.[4]


The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity has, perhaps, at times been used as a tool of sure-ness, right-ness; after all, we humans love a sure thing, we like to get things right.  But of course, we cannot – we do our best with bananas and hard-boiled eggs, and long argued church documents. It is a statement, a concept that tries to communicate or express the character of God, as love in relational, self-giving action.  This is not end-all theology[5] but rather an invitation for us to recognize that we abide in the Holy at all times, pointing us toward the great mystery that is God.  A God that is as broad and deep as the whole cosmos, as particular as Jesus, and as invested in us as the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] This, along with many other beautiful descriptors of the Holy Trinity are thanks to Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), Ch. 4.

[2] Thoughts sparked by Amy Jill-Levine, Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York, Oxford University Press, 2011), 262-263.

[3] See also 3:22, 3:30.

[4] Dripping and tracking metaphors are courtesy of Michael Jinkins.

[5] Some thoughts here are sparked by Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary.