Feast Day: Trinity Sunday
Readings: 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)
Trinity Sunday is a wonderful, if not tricky, feast. Tricky because preachers can sometimes be lured into trying to explain or articulate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Some of you will know that we explored this in our Lenten series on the Apostles’ Creed and while it has its merits 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 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.”
In these words from Romans we learn that the opposite of being spiritually enslaved is to be adopted into God’s family, to find our place at the table so-to-speak. 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. While this is certainly true Saint Paul famously draws out another aspect of sin. You’ll notice, for example, that Paul hardly ever frames sin in terms of guilt and he hardly ever actually 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 slavery, 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 enslaved. Nevertheless, God is faithful and 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). In other words, so long as Israel is enslaved they cannot possibly live as God’s children. In order to truly live as God’s children they need to be liberated from Egypt.
As I said this is a figuration of the greater reality of what God has done in Christ. In unconditional love the Father sends the Son who assumes our enslaved human nature and in dying on the cross 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. Just as Israel’s liberation creates the space for them to truly live as children of God so too our liberation from sin in and with and through Christ creates the space for us to truly live as children of God. But how does this reality of what God has done in Christ for us begin to work itself out in us?
Listen to what Saint Paul has to say about baptism elsewhere in Romans: “Do you not know 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 other words, just as Israel’s liberation from slavery involved their crossing of the Red Sea so too your liberation from the powers of sin and death involves a passing through water. Sin no longer has dominion over all you who have been baptized into Christ. The Holy Spirit has taken you and grafted you onto Jesus Christ. You are now in Christ and he is in you.
I love the end of that quote from Romans I just read: “so we too might walk in newness of life.” In the waters of baptism the Holy Spirit has given you a new life as a child of God! This is what Jesus means when he speaks of being born again, of being born by water and Spirit (John 3:1ff). Every human creature has a natural birth. But in order to be set free from sin for life with God we are in need of a second birth whereby we become sons and daughters of God not by nature but by grace. The grace of the Holy Spirit poured into your heart to lead you in the way of Christ unto everlasting life.
Welcomed thus into the family of God, God nourishes us with his very self. I noted at the start that in Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity the circle is not enclosed but is rather open at the spot where the chalice is placed. This is the cup of wine that we share in the Eucharist each Sunday. Or, rather, this is the cup that God shares with us. It is, of course, the faith of the Church that by the Holy Spirit the bread and wine of the Eucharist become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we come to the altar rail we come to receive Christ, the one who shares the very life and love of God with us and gives us a seat at the table of the Holy Trinity.
This is wonderful indeed. Yet, Saint Paul continues with these sobering words: “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 been liberated from slavery to sin and adopted into God’s own family, yet our deliverance and adoption also has a future tense. Only a few verses later in Romans Paul will write of our waiting for adoption and liberation (8:22-24a). That is to say, while we are indeed God’s children now we remain part of a world which still awaits its ultimate liberation at Christ’s return.
We know this well, don’t we?—the tension and pain of living in hope. The waiting, the present suffering, the creeping power of sin which seems to be ever crouching at our door. This is why Saint Paul exhorts us by the Spirit to, “put to death” the deeds of the flesh as we live as God’s children. Saying “no” to the power of sin where it shows up in our daily lives is a kind of “putting to death” by which the Spirit leads us into life. This is difficult 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 the power of sin you owe your old life nothing at all and are invited rather to live as children of God, for that is what you are. And the same God who began this good work in you will bring it to completion. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.