Holy Trinity

Trinity Sunday presents preachers with significant challenges.

May 30, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 5:1-5

Trinity Sunday presents preachers with significant challenges.

Reference to the Trinity is itself enough to cause the eyes of many contemporary Christians to glaze over with befuddlement as they wonder where such a concept came from, why it continues to be important, and what it could possibly have to do with them. Attempts to explain too much in too little time can yield leaden, didactic sermons that sink right to the sanctuary floor.

The texts assigned for Trinity Sunday do not necessarily simplify the preaching task. However much they point toward the development of the church’s teaching, they do not easily lend themselves to a contemporary illumination of the unity of and distinction among the three Persons. Yet sustained reflection on these texts may yield a word about the Trinity that is also a word on target for the present.

Romans 5:1-5 is a highly compressed text, in which almost every word presupposes the argument that comes before or anticipates what will follow. “Justified by faith” looks back to Paul’s claims in 3:21-26 that it is Jesus’ faithful death that liberates humankind from the grasp of power of Sin. The “hope” of God’s glory introduces the discussion of hope that will return in a powerful way at the end of Chapter 8. What is best known in this passage is perhaps the crescendo (the stair step argument) of verses 3-4, where Paul moves from suffering to endurance to character to hope. Much here is important homiletically, but for the purposes of Trinity Sunday we look at what is said of each Person and then at how Paul’s comments come together.

Of the first Person of the Trinity, Paul writes “we have peace with God.” (As the note in the NRSV indicates, there are manuscripts that read, “let us have peace,” but even if that is the earlier reading, it is clear that peace with God comes about by God’s initiative, not human achievement.) While this expression is often passed by rather quickly, it is provocative. If “we have peace” with God, then Paul seems to suggest that the opposite situation is possible, the situation of not being at peace with God. Just a little further on, verse 10 says that “we” were once God’s “enemies.” The enmity exists, not just because human beings themselves acted badly toward God, but because they were captives to the other side of a conflict, slaves of Sin and Death (as becomes clear in the remainder of Romans 5 and in Romans 6).

Verse 2 refers to the glory of God. The NRSV translates, “we boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God,” but the Greek says nothing of “sharing” God’s glory. Instead, as in the Old Testament, God’s glory is God’s presence as in Exodus 24:16; 40:34; Psalm 56:6 (to take just a few examples). It can even refer to God’s triumphing presence in the face of God’s enemies (as it does, for instance, in Exodus 15:6-8; Isaiah 2:10). That connotation of triumph is not far from Romans, especially in 8:31-39, where Paul dramatically insists God is “for us,” so that the opposition of a whole host of enemies will come to nothing.

Verse 5 speaks of God’s love being “poured into our hearts,” a statement that can be read as nothing more than sentimental effusion. Given the larger argument of Romans, however, which focuses on God’s powerful deliverance of humanity from powers of Sin and Death, God “love” is something more like the fierce love of a parent determined on rescuing a child in trouble than a romantic valentine trimmed with hearts and flowers.

The second Person of the Trinity is mentioned only once in this passage, when Paul writes in verse 1 “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The context allows us to fill out what is meant by “through.” The end of chapter 4, which leaps from Abraham to the present, identifies Jesus as the one who was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” The remainder of chapter 5 unpacks both statements. Jesus’ death is the means of humanity’s reconciliation with God (verses 6-11) and indeed, the means of overturning Adam’s disastrous disobedience (verses 12-21).

The Holy Spirit also is referred to only once here, the first explicit reference in the letter. The Spirit is the agent through whom God’s love is poured into human hearts, and the Spirit itself is given to human beings (verse 5). This brief comment will be expanded upon in chapter 8, with its passionate claims about the Spirit’s work of intervening on “our” behalf as we stumble even to pray.

Not surprisingly, these comments reveal little that can be employed to understand the Trinity in and of itself (that is, the ontological Trinity). The notion would probably have been strange to Paul, who is far more concerned with God’s actions than with describing God’s essence. Instead, what the passage provides are glimpses of the ways in which God, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit interact with one another and act on behalf of “us” (without any particular worry about naming the “we,” although see 4:24). Peace with God comes about through Jesus Christ. God’s love is poured out into human hearts through the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is given “for us,” presumably the Spirit is given by God. All of these actions of the Triune God are actions on behalf of humankind.

We can take that a step further if we allow ourselves a peek at what follows in verses 6-11 (and the rest of the letter). The Trinity’s actions on behalf of humankind take place because we cannot act on our own behalf (“while we were still weak,” verse 6). Our need is such that only God in three Persons can redeem us. Here, proclamation of the Trinity becomes provocative, since 21st century Christians remain convinced that “we” can help ourselves, that “we” have no need of assistance from God or anyone else.