Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15 Trinity Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert 22 May 2016
Everyone needs three significant relationships. We need a parent-figure, who cares for us, protects us, gives us direction, and advice. We have this in our parents, and as adults, we often look for a mentor figure who can play that role for us after our parents are gone, or after they have ceased to be people who can provide that kind of support. When I was growing up and particularly in my teen years, I looked to my piano teacher, who was a little younger than my mom, but had kids my age, for advice. She could get me talking about stuff that I was less comfortable saying to my mom or dad. She helped me grow in faith.
We also need a friend who walks the road with us, shares our experiences. Sometimes this is a brother or sister. Sometimes it is a spouse. Sometimes it is a very close friend or adult son or daughter. This is the person in your life who knows what you are thinking and feeling, who knows you better than you know yourself and can anticipate what you are going to do before you do it. That’s how well this person knows you. This is a person who is like you – your partner, your life companion, your soul-mate.
Lastly, we need a person who is a confidant. This is the friend you go to, when you have conflict with your mentor/parent figure or your spouse/best friend/companion. This could be a grandmother or grandfather, an aunt or uncle, a counselor or pastor, comforting friend, who may not share all your experiences, but who knows how to listen to you, and gives you plenty of space to talk. This person is not so quick to advise, like your parent or mentor would. This person nudges, doesn’t correct like your sibling or spouse or child would do. This person lets you reach your own conclusions. This is a person you deeply trust.
Now as I have been talking about three separate roles, you might be saying to yourself, “Well, sometimes my parent/mentor listens really well and lets me reach my own conclusion. Sometimes my spouse is my best confidant, the person with whom I share everything. Sometimes my counselor gives advice.
This is true, relationships are not purely one thing or another. It’s similar to trying to understand the Trinity. We get into trouble if we say, God the Father is defined as the parent, protector, guide, creator. Jesus Christ is the brother, savior, the one who walks beside us, sharing our experiences, and the Holy Spirit is the counselor, the advocate, the one we can trust. It is just not that pure and separate. God is one and God is three, all three, performing all these aspects of relationship. God the Father is God the Son is God the Spirit. And God the Father is not God the Son is not God the Spirit. And God is neither male or female, but both male and female are created in the image of God, so we use both masculine and feminine pronouns for God because it helps us think beyond “big man in the sky” which is a very limiting notion.
Romans 5 is one of a few passages in the Bible which name all three persons of the Trinity, and it is one of my favorite passages.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
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.
3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
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.
John’s Gospel explains life in mysterious language. It doesn’t try to tie everything up in a neat package – always hard to do with concepts as deep as Trinitarian theology. So in today’s Gospel lesson we will hear the mystery of how the Spirit gives all that is Christ to us, and how God the Father gave all is God to Christ. So we are left with this amazing notion that we are filled with all the fullness of God, so we can trust God to give us grace and peace as we endure suffering and build the character that leads to hope, not a trivial hope but a hope born in the challenges of life.
"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (NRS)
Let’s look more closely at Romans to see what Paul is showing us about trusting in the Trinity. (slide) Paul is explaining how we can trust in the Triune God, because we know that suffering is taking us all the way to hope. Paul starts with the faith/the trust that gives us peace with God. Our relationship is put right with God by faith, by faith in the place of adoption Christ has given us by grace. That with a graced relationship of peace, we have hope of sharing the glory of God. After speaking of the hope of glory, then Paul also says, we have hope in our sufferings, and can rejoice or boast in them, because of the power of God at work when we endure suffering in such a way that it builds our character.
On Tuesday night Rev. Elmarie Parker, mission coordinator and communicator for Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, shared with us amazing stories of all three branches of the church coming together (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) to support one another, and how God is using the suffering of persons even to bring together Muslims and Christians to care for people in need.
Grief endured has a way of separating us from differences that are superficial or trivial. This is not always the case, of course. Sometimes in moments of grief, we obsess over trivial matters, but grief endured bravely, trusting in the Trinity, should and can lead us to character. What is character? As David Brooks says in his book, The Road to Character, the pattern is this: One must go down to go up. People need to “descend in to the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character.”
Think of new parents, waking up in the night, never having time to take a shower without the potential wailing of a kid, pressed to keep being patient with a crawler who is cute but keeps pulling all the books off the shelf and throwing all the green peas and Cheerios on the kitchen floor. What happens to the character of those young parents? Well, usually they become suddenly more appreciative of their own parents. Wow, mom. Wow, dad. Never realized what you had to go through with me. Thanks.
Think of the character building activity of being bullied. If you’ve had people make fun of you, pick on you, you have the opportunity to build strength. Teens, if someone is picking on you, know that they do not define who you are. You are defined by how you react. If you can stay strong in being who you are, you are growing in character. Think of the loss of a job, Adults. You grow by figuring out you are more than the work you do. You might feel betrayed or disappointed, you may be temporarily crushed by it, but you learn to be sensitive to others who have lost jobs and confidence in themselves and institutions. Other griefs, like the death of a family member, build empathy in us, like nothing else. I remember that after losing my father, I was far better at responding compassionately to those who parents died. Some deaths are deep and complex griefs which take us through a long valley in the shadow.
Suffering produces endurance because suffering is hard work. Suffering takes every ounce of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual energy we can muster. Suffering can produce collapse or resignation.
Suffering can produce bitterness and envy, but it can also produce endurance in those who keep doing the hard work of grief and self-examination. It is clear in a race that the one who quits running is not building endurance. No, it is the one who keeps going, perhaps pausing, but never stopping. It is the one who sticks with the new walking regimen, the new morning prayers or evening devotions, that endures, that builds character. Those who are caught in profound grief or despair just need to keep getting out of bed every day. It is the very practice of enduring suffering that builds character.
David Brooks speaks of the blooming virtues of a young person who has lived with nothing but success and the ripening mature virtues of someone who has experienced more difficulty and developed depth of character. “They have waged an internal struggle against their sins and emerged with some measure of self-respect” (Brooks, p. xvi) The person who has not had that struggle with becoming, and claims to need no forgiveness is suspect for being immature in character development.
But as we turn to God, trusting in the Trinity to surround us in love, as we depend on God, more than ourselves, or trust in God’s power in ourselves, hope grows – both the hope of sharing the glory of God and the character born hope born of suffering endurance. We all want to be filled with hope. But hope comes to those who have built character by enduring hardship. Later in chapter eight, Paul says, “hope that is seen is not hope.” Hope is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. Why is hope able to sustain us? Because of the peace that is ours in Christ Jesus, because of the love that God gives us through the Spirit. Because this Triune God of ours, is coming at us, moving through us, transforming our lives in the dance that is grace.
This grace-filled dance we have with the three persons of the Trinity, gives us ample opportunity to be filled with peace and love. But we sometimes think that avoidance of suffering is the key to happiness. No, Paul says, we are content, even glad, boasting of our sufferings because we know what an opportunity for growth they provide.
I would never say to a grieving person, “Now you should be thankful for all the ways you can grow in character and build hope by enduring this sadness.” I would never say it was God’s will that the flight traveling from Paris to Cairo this week went down because it was God’s will for their family members to grow in their ability to endure suffering. No, but in that tragic circumstance, it is God’s will for that suffering to turn to hope.
I reckon God knows we need character more than miraculous protection sometimes. I believe God wants us to suffer with those who suffer, as did Christ, such that we grow together in love and peace, such that we cannot be completely content when we know others are hurting. You cannot provide hope for someone. You can only provide loving care, which helps them to endure the trial and grow in character toward hope.
So when something bad happens, it is important to ask, how will I or they endure? Whose support is needed? What three people representing the love of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit will help you endure and come out of the struggle trusting the Trinity, as a person with deep and resilient character and abiding faith.