Divine Relationship

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Here’s my rule-of-thumb regarding the Trinity: People who say they understand it aren’t to be trusted. I mean, well, the Trinity is, quite frankly, more than just a little beyond our comprehension and understanding. Which is why we lean on metaphors and analogies, from the Desert Fathers (you remember, the two Gregorys and Basil) comparing the members of the Trinity to the source of light (Father), the light itself that illumines (Son), and the warmth when you feel the light (Spirit) to Augustine’s Lover (Father), Beloved (Son), and the Love shared between the two (Spirit). That’s the best we can do, Working Preacher, stretch toward a reality beyond us with whatever linguistic devices at our disposal in order to give us a sense, even just a hint, of what’s really going on.

Which means, I think, that trying to explain the Trinity in a sermon is a really, really bad idea. Among other things, doing so risks giving the impression that doctrine is important for doctrine’s sense. That is, whether it’s the Trinity or Christology, soteriology or eschatology, what matters isn’t actually the doctrine itself or who proposed and agreed upon it or when that happened and all the rest. What matters is the experience of God witnessed to in Scripture that it seeks to make available to us.

And in both of the ancient analogies we just referenced it seems that the heart of the matter is about community, and even more the relationships that make up a community. In the first it’s the various properties of light that, while we can name them independently, cannot actually be separated in experience. With Augustine it’s even easier, as he chooses love itself as the central metaphor by which to understand God, the love shared in relationship.

So to preserve a Trinitarian sensibility — even if only nominally ☺ — three ideas for preaching on this Sunday that do not involve explaining (or even necessarily naming) the Trinity, but that seek to draw our hearers into the relationship and community the Trinity enjoys and expresses.

1) Isaiah. Set the scene — it’s the Temple, the place where God lives. And not God understood as the Prodigal’s adoring father, but the God whose name is too holy to say, the one who’s being holds the cosmos together and whose unmediated presence is too great for mere mortals to endure. Think climatic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark when the ark is opened and calamity unleashed on those looking in. (My Brainwave colleague Rolf Jacobson argues, in fact, that the Seraphs were actually crying out not in melodic song but in the agony it was to be so close to God’s unmediated holiness.)  And so Isaiah is naturally, understandably, and quite correctly pessimistic about his chances when he realizes that he is in the presence of the holy Lord. And yet Isaiah does not perish but rather is sanctified — set apart and in this way made holy — in order that he may announce the Lord’s promises to the people.

This is a popular reading at ordinations. Maybe it was read at yours. You can understand why — calling and all that. But why can’t we claim it for the rest of God’s people as well. Why not imagine that moms and dads have a holy calling, that bus drivers and waitresses are called by God, that nurses and teachers and volunteers and accountants and students have also been sanctified for the work of the Lord. In fact, when’s the last time you told your people that they have, indeed, been set apart — marked at their baptism — to bear the presence of the Holy God into the world. Sometimes that presence is creative — nurturing young minds or creating hope through word and deed. Sometimes that presence is sustaining — keeping all the systems that govern our lives working efficiently and effectively. Sometimes that presence is healing — caring for those the world has forgotten or reaching out to someone in need. But however it takes shape, that presence is the presence of the Holy God of Israel who is also the father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we are all commissioned to bear that creative, sustaining, and healing presence into the world.

Romans. Ready to have your mind blown? Then read this passage aloud, but slow down, way down, to emphasize the unfathomable claim Paul makes: the Spirit bears witness “that we are children of God, and if children then also heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.” Did you hear that? We are not called children of God in the everyday sense of, “Yeah, well, isn’t everyone a child of God?” No, Paul is saying that we are children and therefore heirs — those who stand to inherit all that is God’s. And, not only that, but co-heirs with Christ, sharing the riches of God’s goodness and love with Christ. Excuse me, but I don’t remember dying for the sins of the world, or living a sin-free life, or enduring temptations, shame, and brutal agony for the sake of the kingdom. So how did I come to be considered a co-heir with Jesus? Because God just did it. God, that is, treats us exactly as if we were and are Christ. It’s the old formula — sometimes called “the happy exchange” — that I’ll never quite understand or believe, but can nevertheless give thanks for and try to live: Jesus became like us so that we could become like Jesus, not through any effort or accomplishment of our own but simply because it pleased God to treat us as God’s perfect, beloved, and holy child. No wonder Paul says we haven’t inherited a spirit of slavery; indeed, knowing the favor we enjoy in and through Christ, how can we not make bold to dare great things, expect great things, ask for great things, share great things?

John. Nicodemus and the world’s most famous verse for the third time this year, I believe. Where do we go this time? How ’bout focusing on the audacity of God to claim us in love without asking our opinion ahead of time? Jesus is clear: God loves the world. Period. Moreover, Jesus did not come to judge the world but to save it. Period. And this kind of love is hard, frankly, to comprehend. Which is why Jesus doesn’t make this a matter of our figuring it out. Trust me, trying to grasp God’s salvation makes Nicodemus’ effort to puzzle out how an old man can enter the womb again look easy. But thankfully for us, the Spirit blows wherever it wants, calling even those as unlikely as us to hear God’s word and believe. Sometimes this is called the doctrine of election which, let me emphasize, should not be confused with predestination. Because whereas predestination gets caught up wondering and worrying about who and when and how, election emphasizes that God makes choices, that God makes decisions, and that God has made a choice and decision for you and for me and, according to these verses, for all the world. God, that is, wants desperately to be in relationship (sound familiar?) with all of us and will stop at nothing to accomplish that. (And the cool thing about election is that it happens every time you preach the word and tell people God has chosen them!)

So there it is, Working Preacher, the Triune God is on the move once again. So look out! Because this God who blows like the wind is still looking for people as unlikely and even unwilling as you and me and all of our people to adopt as God’s own children and send out to bear God’s presence to the world God loves so much. Thanks for your work in preaching this word and then standing back to watch the electing — and electrifying — work of the Trinity continue!

Yours in Christ,