Preached on Trinity Sunday, May 31st, 2015 at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside.
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
“So then, brothers and sisters, we are in debt—but not to the flesh…” (Romans 8:12)
Today, as perhaps you know, is Trinity Sunday. A wonderful, if not tricky, feast in the Church year. Tricky because preachers can often be lured into trying to explain or articulate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. While this has its, I hope obvious, merits, I will not attempt such an articulation here this morning. I want to focus instead upon the wonder of the Holy Trinity–that God’s very own life and love is open to the world, to you and I. We can see this visually depicted in the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev. Much could be said in contemplation of this icon but the one thing I want to note is that the circle which the three figures form is not closed, but open. There is space there at the table where the chalice sits.
“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh–for if you live according to the flesh, you will die…For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”
To be adopted into God’s family then, to find our place at the table of the Triune God so-to-speak, is the opposite of being enslaved. Enslaved to what? To the “flesh” or, we might say, to sin. We often think about sin in terms of personal guilt or culpability and thus there is the need for forgiveness, for the verdict to be rendered innocent. While this is certainly true Paul draws out another aspect of sin that is more central in his writings. You’ll notice, for example, that Paul hardly ever frames sin in terms of guilt and he hardly ever mentions forgiveness. Rather, what we see in Paul’s letters, is an understanding of sin and evil in terms of that which exercises force (6:14) and thus enslaves (6:6, 15-23).
And, from evil’s power to enslave one needs to be set free. We see a figure for this in the life of Israel who were themselves enslaved in Egypt. The Lord heard their cry and liberated them from their oppressors, leading them through the Red Sea and through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night towards the promised land. And if you know the story you know how often Israel complained and wanted to give up and go back to Egypt where they had been in slavery. But at the very heart of their liberation was God’s summons near the start of the book of Exodus: “Israel is my firstborn son. Let my son go that he may worship me,” (4:22). That is to say, the Exodus from Egypt opens up space for Israel to truly live as God’s children.
This points to the greater reality of what God has done in Christ. In His unconditional love the Father sends the Son who assumes our enslaved human nature and in dying on the cross Christ Jesus extinguishes this old nature entirely (Romans 6:6). And in his resurrection from the dead Jesus reconstitutes a new humanity which is set free from the powers of sin and death. As followers of Christ, sin no longer has dominion over us for our lives have been caught up into Christ’s own life by the Holy Spirit who has bound us wholly to our risen Lord. That is to say, humankind’s liberation from our enslavement to sin, in Christ, has opened up space for us to truly live as God’s children. But how does the reality of what God has done in Christ for us, begin to become the reality of what God has done, and is doing, in us by the power of the Holy Spirit?
Just as Israel’s liberation from slavery involved their crossing of the Red Sea so also our liberation from sin and death involves a passing through water: baptism. “Do you not know,” writes Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6:3-4). In baptism by the power of the Spirit, we are joined to the very life of Christ who died and rose again, and in this way we are liberated from the powers of sin to new life in Christ—life as God’s sons and daughters. This is what John means when he writes of being born again, of being born by water and Spirit (John 3:1ff). God pours His very Spirit into our hearts to lead us in the way of Christ unto everlasting life. And just as the Israelite mothers and fathers brought their children with them through the Red Sea so we bring our children with us through the waters of baptism into the freedom of Christ.
Next week during the 10:00am service little Emily and Madeline will be brought forward by their parents and godparents to be baptized. And as we gather around the font together we will witness something familiar, yet quite simply astounding. What’s going to happen to Emily and Madeline when we do this is they’re going to be made, by adoption, sisters to Jesus. By God’s grace they will become daughters of God in a very special way. We aren’t going to see all of this happening of course, except in the water and oil, but it’s really happening.
And this very same thing is true of all of you who have been baptized—God has joined our life to Christ’s, has set us free from the enslaving power of sin and death by the Holy Spirit, and graciously leads us by this same Spirit into a new life of liberty as sons and daughters of God. In just this way the love of the Triune God flows out into the world, transforming us and empowering us to share God’s love for the world with the world. This is an awesome thing, indeed. Remember that as you leave here today.
Yet, all is not rosy for the sons and daughters of God. “So then, brothers and sisters…when we cry “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
In Christ we have indeed been liberated from slavery to sin and adopted into God’s own family, yet our deliverance and adoption also has a future tense. Later in Romans Paul will write of our waiting for adoption and liberation (8:22-24a). That is to say, our adoption as God’s children is in the realm of the “now-and-not-yet”. We are God’s children and yet we are part of the world which still awaits its ultimate liberation at Christ’s return. We know this well, don’t we?— the tension and pain of being a people who live in hope. The waiting, the present suffering, the creeping power of sin which seems to be ever crouching at our door. This is why Paul exhorts us to, by the Spirit, “put to death” the deeds of the flesh as we live into God’s new world. Saying “no” to the power of sin as it encroaches in our lives is a kind of “putting to death” by which the Spirit leads us into life. This is hard, but the life of Christian freedom as God’s children requires just such struggle.
Even still, brothers and sisters, the Triune God has begun something very wonderful in you, indeed. And I do mean begun, for having been freed from our enslavement to sin we owe our old lives nothing at all and are invited rather to live as slaves of righteousness. And having been made God’s children we are invited to live as God’s children, in God’s new world. And the same God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who began this good work in you will bring it to completion. Amen.