May 26, 2013
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
5 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.
It seems that too often recently we have arrived at our Sunday sermon text with our hearts heavy with the news of the week – the Sandy Hook shootings, the Boston bombings, the Oklahoma tornado, the loss of a child in our church family – and discover, sometimes surprisingly, that the Bible offers us the words we needed to hear.
I find again and again that the Bible is where my despair and God’s gift of hope meet.
Paul writes densely, so in just these five verses a lot is said, more than we can cover in one sermon.
This text is assigned for Trinity Sunday, which is always the Sunday after Pentecost. That makes sense to me because all the players, God, Son, Holy Spirit, are on the field, so to speak – they always were really but now it is official.
Nowhere in the Bible do we find the word “trinity” and yet it is clear from this passage and others that this is the shape of God, the form of God. We see here the three expressions of God – Jesus opening the door for us to God, the glory of God, and the Holy Spirit filling our hearts with God’s love.
In Matthew 28:19 Jesus instructs, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But the trinity is a difficult concept. There have been great debates in the church (the church universal) about what exactly this means. Turn to your neighbors and share with them how you picture the trinity. What did you come up with?
Perhaps you’ve heard the analogy that God is like ice, water and steam – three forms of the same substance. A confirmation class I taught at a church when I was in seminary came up with this image – that God is like a bracelet woven together from three different kinds of precious metal (like gold, silver and bronze).
The Trinity has been described in terms of the three movements of God, the three roles of God, the three persons of God – and each of those comes close and each of those falls short. Sometimes it is easier to say what God is not – God is not three separate people (right, we believe in one God), God is not one person doing three different things (like someone who is a dental hygienist, a sister and a gardener). We experience the each aspect of God uniquely but yet that is not really true, because each portion of God makes it possible for us to experience the others.
My favorite term for understanding the trinity is “perichoresis.” It comes from Greek meaning “envelopment” or “going around.” Hilary of Poitiers, who was a bishop about 300 years of after Jesus’ time, wrote that the idea is that the persons of the Trinity “reciprocally contain one another, so that one permanently envelopes and is permanently enveloped by, the other whom he yet envelopes.”
Basically, God is a dance, and a dance so exquisite that you cannot tell where one person ends and another begins.
What I find with the trinity, is that if I think about it too much, my head hurts. It is a mystery. I expect, that in end, when we stand before God, “lost in wonder, love and praise” we will say to ourselves, “of course, that is how it works, that is what it meant.” For now, here is what we can take away from the trinity.
First, God is still mysterious to us, even if we have been in this faith business for a long time. It is gift to us to know that there are still mysteries in this world. God is still a mystery and that means we can never say that we have God all figured out – we can’t say that. We have not cornered the market on understanding God. Faith becomes deeper and richer the deeper you dig, and the longer you are at it.
Second, the trinity means that God is working in ways beyond our imaging or comprehension. What God is up to in this world exceeds our ability to see it all.
Third, there are just some things in life that make so much more sense if you experience them rather than explain them.
There is this scene from the movie Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan, and in the movie the unbelieving scientist Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, is in conversation with this young seminary student (I think) Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey.
And she is questioning his belief in God (this is my memory of the movie which I haven’t seen for many years) and she says something to effect of “prove to me the existence of God,” and he replies, “Did you love your father?”
And she replies, “What?” “Your dad. Did you love him?” and she replies, “Yes, very much.” And he says, “Prove it.” Some things we just experience rather than explain, and that it how the trinity works.
One blogger I came across shares the story that his young son used to yell out from his room, “Dad, can I come sleep with you?” and he would yell back, “Yes, but bring your own pillow.” And he says that is how it works with God.
He writes, “Some things should not be excessively explained or predicated on rational understanding. They can only be experienced. To explain sometimes diminishes or even eliminates the experience. Imagine what it would have been like if when Randy called out, “Dad, can I sleep with you?” I responded, “Can you first explain our relationship?”
Parents do not do that to their children, neither does God. The deepest and most profound truths of our lives are not provable facts. They are, rather, relational, personal, and intimate. They offer experiences and meaning not explanations and understanding. . . . The early church teachers spoke about the Trinity as perichoresis, the giving of one’s self and the receiving of another that happens in a dance. Perichoresis is the dance of love between the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. . . . This choreography of love cannot be contained. It spills out and flows beyond the three persons. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
The trinity is our invitation to dance too.
Back to the passage. We get here good news in two movements. We hear right away that “we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”
That word justified is another solid theological term that requires some unpacking. Justification, simply put, is that we are brought into God’s family, we have been reconciled, the gap between us and God has been closed forever.
Eugene Peterson is the Message paraphrase of Romans 5 gets at this, “By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”
How many of you forget your passwords to websites? Happens to me all the time. I have about five different ones. I used to have this system where I would use certain ones for certain kinds of websites, as in I had a serious password for serious websites, and a not serious password for not serious websites – but then I had to sit and think about whether I would have considered the website a serious one or not. Not a perfect system.
And then websites upped their standards and passwords had to be 8 letters long with at least one letter and one number and one capitalization – so my whole system went out the window.
All this is to say that I spend a lot of time typing in passwords, hoping I’ve got the right one this time.
One commentator writes, “Paul wrote for a world in which people were desperately trying to find the passwords that would give them access to God. Some thought that careful obedience to the law of Moses was the key. Others thought that civic virtue was the key. Still others tried to placate God by the breadth of their knowledge. Paul’s astonishing claim is that there is only one password we need to remember: Jesus Christ and that in Jesus Christ everyone has access to grace.”
It is through Jesus that we gain access to this justification, this adoption. So that’s the first movement of the good news.
The second is that this justified life is a mix of peace, and hope, and suffering and love. Paul makes sure that we don’t confuse God’s love with a promise of a life free from suffering. Paul says that we boast in our sufferings.
That word “boast” can also be translated as “rejoice” or “exalt in.” But the idea Paul is trying to convey is not that we rejoice because we are suffering, we rejoice in the midst of suffering. Suffering does not produce rejoicing, but it cannot squash it either. One commentator writes, “Why is pain so much a part of our existences when the Scriptures are replete with promises of the joy that should characterize the Christian life? Suffering is a companion for many, both individually and collectively. Suffering can erode trust in the world, life and God. Yet, if we look at it aright; if we are willing to trust the message of suffering, to learn from its lashes, so to speak, then the gifts that suffering brings into our lives are of incredible richness. Many who have suffered significantly will say that they would never have chosen the life of suffering if the choice had been available to them, but now that they have endured the trial, they are a better or more complete person for it. Not everyone will say this, to be sure, but many will. And I think that is what Paul is getting at in these last few verses. Suffering can deepen us, giving us words, feelings, friends, and an attitude towards life that is at once grateful and humble.”
Difficulties or not, we stand in grace, now and always. And it is because of grace that we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. I don’t know about you, but every day I need more hope. Thank God, there is an unending supply.