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Experiencing the Trinity

A sermon on John 3:1-17 and Romans 8:12-17.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash]

It’s Trinity Sunday! The Sunday that almost every preacher I know dreads to preach because…it’s Trinity Sunday!

Theologians spend their entire careers trying parse out how to explain the essence and significance of the doctrine of the Trinity, without accidentally committing heresy, so how in the world are we supposed to do that in 10-12 minutes on a Sunday morning?

But I ran across a poem this week that gave me a radically different perspective on my task, so I want to share it with you. The poem is by Chelan Harkin from her book, Susceptible to Light. It goes like this:

"The worst thing we ever did

was put God in the sky

out of reach

pulling the divinity

from the leaf,

sifting out the holy from our bones,

insisting God isn’t bursting dazzlement

through everything we’ve made

a hard commitment to see as ordinary,

stripping the sacred from everywhere

to put in a cloud man elsewhere,

prying closeness from your heart.

The worst thing we ever did

was take the dance and the song

out of prayer

made it sit up straight

and cross its legs

removed it of rejoicing

wiped clean its hip sway,

its questions,

its ecstatic yowl,

its tears.

The worst thing we ever did is pretend

God isn’t the easiest thing

in this Universe

available to every soul

in every breath"

I don’t know what inspired Harkin to pen these lines, nor do I know the theology (if any) to which she subscribes, but her words were an invitation to me to shift my view on what my task is on this Trinity Sunday. My seminary training urges me to try to explain the trinitarian nature of God. This poem, encourages me to invite us all to experience it. And once I made that shift from explanation to experience, I got excited about preaching this Trinity Sunday, because – actually – this ancient teaching of the church CAN do exactly what the poem calls us to do: to bring God out of the clouds back into the immediacy of our lived experience.

In fact, the whole idea of the Trinity emerged from the experiences of the church, in dialogue with our sacred texts.

It came from praying, as Jesus taught them, to a Father God, and experiencing how Jesus prayed along with them.

It came from feeling the wind of the Spirit blow through their lives and recognizing in this breath the guide that Jesus had promised would come after he was taken.

It came from the way that the early church experienced God practically, essentially WITH them in this world, rather than isolated in a Temple, or removed from them in heaven.

The Trinitarian God is a God who joins us in this life. The SALT Commentary for this week puts it this way:

“rather than an esoteric picture of God ‘up there’ (too often the [Trinity] doctrine’s reputation today!), the teaching’s quite practical upshot is to cast a vision of God ‘down here and everywhere,’ creating, redeeming, and sustaining creation at every turn, with every unfurling leaf and blossom. In short, the doctrine is ultimately about a world saturated with divine presence, and a God ‘in whom we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).”[1]

So, what if this understanding of an intimately accessible relationship with God is what Jesus was getting at when he talked to Nicodemus about “being born of water and Spirit”? What if he wasn’t trying to distinguish earthly life from heavenly life, but rather trying to unite them? What if, when he asserted that he testified to what he had seen in talking of both earthly and heavenly things, he was saying: “God is not removed in some far-off heaven. In me, you have heaven and earth united.”

Jesus had not merely “come from God,” as Nicodemus suspected. In Jesus, God was come to him, and to us. And if that is what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, what does that mean for us? How do his words make God accessible to us, in the here and now of our earthly lives?

To answer that question, I have to appeal to two of the metaphors from today’s readings (what is a Trinity Sunday sermon without a few metaphors, right?)

The first is Jesus’s description of the wind. As I shared in last week’s Pentecost sermon, the Hebrew word ruach means wind, breath, and Spirit. In the same way, the Greek pneuma which is translated in the first part of verse 8 as “wind” is also the word used later in the verse and throughout the Greek New Testament for God’s Spirit.[2]

Through the Spirit, God lives with us in the world, but it is important to recognize the way in which the Spirit moves among us. “The (pneuma) 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 (pneuma) Spirit.” (John 3:8). The triune God lives and moves among us as the wind. We can feel God tugging on us. We can hear God’s voice whispering in the wind, or in the breath of our neighbor, or in our own spirit. We can absolutely recognize God’s presence… even though we don’t understand either the origins or the final destination of God’s movement. It’s not our part to try to define or control God. It’s our part to respond to the whisper and the tug. To trust the senses that call us to follow God’s guidance.

The second metaphor is perhaps even more experiential than the sensory wind: it is the metaphor of family. We all have experiences of family from which to draw in understanding the way in which God is with us in a relational way (although some of these experiences are better or worse than others).

Jesus focuses on the identity aspect of relationship when he talks with Nicodemus about a second birth.

Birth is our entrance not only into life, but also into familial relationships. Our family is our first identity, and the second birth that Jesus describes reflects an affirmative identity in the family of God.

The reading from Romans takes this even farther, affirming that we have “received the spirit of adoption,” the Spirit’s work in our lives gives us a new familial identity. This experience of adoption was different in the context of ancient Rome than it is today. While adoption is still a powerful act of love and welcome, it does not have quite the same sense of a fundamental change in status that it had when Paul was writing.[3] In his context, formal adoption – an adoption that involved the rights of an heir – was not a common experience. It was more akin to a working-class person winning the lottery!

Through adoption a person without citizenship rights in the Roman empire could become a citizen, with rights and property that were otherwise utterly inaccessible. Adoption was just not a way to find homes for parentless children (or children for childless parents). It was a social arrangement by which either children or adults could be granted status and inheritance that moved them into a different realm of society.

Thus, the spirit of adoption is about a relationship that changes our lives. Being in relationship with the Triune God, who is present on earth, with us, in our daily lives, changes our lives.

And, because of that, I now understand for the first time why Trinity Sunday is the Sunday that launches us into the season of “ordinary time” in the church calendar: because being in relationship with the Trinity changes our ordinary time.

The poem that I shared at the beginning of this sermon lamented the eviction of God from “everything we’ve made a hard commitment to see as ordinary.” Well, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that the ordinary is exactly where God belongs.

Speaking to us with the urgency and uncontrollability of the Wind.

Changing our identity with our adoption as heirs.

Present with us NOW, and not just in some future heaven.

Thanks be to God.


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