Trinity Sunday B
May 25, 2015
The Trinity Sunday B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 3:1-17 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 6:1-8 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 29 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 8:12-17 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 23 (Lord’s Day 7)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions
I wonder what Nicodemus was thinking about when he walked home that night.
My guess is that it wasn’t the Doctrine of the Trinity! Yet this is the Year B passage assigned for Trinity Sunday 2015. So what did he ponder? No clue. John doesn’t tell us. That’s ironic seeing as, according to John’s reportage at least, Nicodemus was the first human being on earth ever to hear what has gone on to become the most famous Bible verse in the world: John 3:16.
Today people parade John 3:16 around as though it were some kind of a magic formula, the mere sight of which printed on a bedsheet and displayed at a baseball game, affixed to a car via a bumper sticker, or posted on a front yard billboard will lead to some kind of conversion. And it may be that upon reading this most famous capsule summary of the gospel that any number of people have been moved closer to God on account of it.
But if anything like that happened for Nicodemus, we are not told. He simply disappears from the narrative after John 3:12 (he actually speaks last in verse 9 but verse 12 is the last time Jesus refers to Nicodemus in the second person). This is what has led to the conjecture that possibly the dialogue with Nicodemus ends prior to that famous 16th verse and so we should remove the quote marks from around verses 16-21 and accept these as John’s own musings on the meaning of what Jesus had said to Nicodemus.
That idea is probably not right but be that as it may, the fact that such a theory can be concocted at all is due to the odd fact of the disappearance of Nicodemus from this chapter. The last thing we hear him saying is, “How can this be?” which is not exactly a ringing indication that he ever came to grasp what Jesus was saying. A question asked out of sheer befuddlement is not exactly the way most of us would want to be remembered! But at this juncture in John, that’s the last thing we get from Nicodemus (and even though he will re-appear in John 20 at the burial of Jesus, he does not speak there and so this question, fraught with confusion, really is the last word recorded in the Bible from this teacher of Israel).
But let’s assume he heard everything Jesus said through verse 21 and let’s assume that he thanked Jesus for his time and then shuffled on back home through the darkened streets of pre-dawn Jerusalem. What on earth (or in heaven) could have been going through his mind? Did he realize that Jesus was referring to himself through all that talk about God’s Son? Did he have a clue that Jesus was pointing forward to the sacrificial death he would endure on the cross? Did he ever really “get it” when it came to that metaphor of being “born again” or did he find the image as silly as when Jesus first uttered it (and which, in turn, led Nicodemus to poke a little fun of Jesus’ rhetoric by trying to envision a fully grown senior citizen re-entering a woman’s uterus)?
We don’t know. What we do know is that if Nicodemus went home a saved man—and if his later appearance in John’s gospel at the burial of Jesus indicates that he had come to love Jesus—it was not because he had managed to figure it all out on his own. After all, if Jesus managed to make anything clear in these verses it was definitely the idea that salvation is not about what we know, what we do, what we manage to accomplish in our lives. Seeing the kingdom of God is a sheer miracle, a miracle that is actually far more stunning than what would be required actually to stuff a grown man back into his mother’s womb! That would just be a parlor trick. The real spiritual re-birth of which Jesus spoke requires far more effort on God’s part. It requires a person to come to see the world in the upside-down terms Jesus always used when he talked about his kingdom. A person had to be re-born to the idea that humility and kindness are far more valuable than pride and brazen efforts to promote oneself, that the meek and lowly and quiet of the earth are of far more value than the bold and the lofty and the noisy of the earth.
Above all one had to come to the insight—and it is not an insight human logic could ever manufacture—that when God came to save this world, he did so by depositing a humble little baby into an animal’s feedbunk out on the edge of nowhere in this world. And if that idea was not startlingly radical enough, there was the other thing Jesus directly mentions in this passage; viz., salvation will come by paradoxically looking at an emblem of the very thing that terrifies us the most in this world: death. Just as the Israelites had to look at a bronze image of what ailed them to get healed, so all people would have to look at a bloody instrument of execution to find eternal life.
Christus Paradox is the title of a choral anthem and hymn that captures the both/and surprises of the incarnate Son of God. Within himself Jesus has all the majesty of the Triune God and all the humility of a lowly human being from a modest family. Christ is, as the hymn tantalizingly puts it, “the everlasting instant.” There is a whole lot of mind-blowing theology in that combination of everlastingness and a temporal instant but it is, in the end, no less mind-blowing than everything else Jesus had said in John 3.
And if on his way home old Nicodemus could grasp something of that paradox—and find in it the joy of his life—then it wasn’t because he was so smart as Israel’s teacher. It was because he had been born again of the Holy Spirit. And if that happened, then Nicodemus knew something else—he’d spend the rest of eternity savoring and marveling over the things Jesus said to him that dark night. But he’d never tire of reflecting on all that. Not ever!
Neither has the church ever since.
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Frederick Dale Bruner frames up the famous John 3:16 verse this way, highlighting the GREAT import of these words:
God = The greatest subject ever
So (much) = The greatest extent ever
Loved = The greatest affection ever
The world = The greatest object ever
That He gave his one and only Son = The greatest gift ever
So that every single individual whoever = The greatest opportunity ever
Who is entrusting oneself to him = The greatest commitment ever
Would never be destroyed = The greatest rescue ever
But would even now have a deep, lasting Life = The greatest promise ever
Creation itself sprang from a bubbling overflow of God’s love. Like a shaken-up bottle of champagne, so also God’s love within the Trinity was so effervescent, so richly pressured and full that sooner or later the cork had to explode out and when it did, a river of sparkling love gushed forth and sprayed everywhere. Creation is that overflow of love. God wanted to share the life and the love he already had so exquisitely among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Greek theologians of the Trinity in the early church liked to talk about what they termed “perichoresis,” which is a Greek word meaning in essence the interpenetrating dance of love shared by the three persons in the Godhead. Whereas in the Western tradition of the church we have tended to depict the Trinity as a triangle, the Eastern church has always preferred a circle. The Trinity is like an ever-moving circle of dance in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constantly and forever move in and through one another in perfect bliss, harmony, and self-forgetful joy. The three persons of God are so invested in one another, so interested in one another, so caring of one another that although three persons they form just one God. They have been serving each other from all eternity and finding holy joy in that loving co-service.
So it is no surprise that at some point those three persons decided that so great was this love, so focused was this love on the other, that they wanted an entire universe of others with whom to further share the love. God was under no compulsion to create anything. Yet it is just so like God to want to create, to want to share the love. God’s motivation to create the world is similar to what motivates us to invite as many friends as we can to the wedding of one of our children or to an anniversary celebration: we want to widen the circle of our own love and joy; we want to share the grand event with those who are close to us. Something very like that was what brought about creation in the first place: the love of God within the Trinity bubbled over in a desire to spread the joy around. “Let us create some more creatures so that we can then invite them to our holy party!”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions
It was the year King Uzziah died.
Or, it was the year President Kennedy died.
Or it was the year 9/11 rattled the world to its core.
It was the year when things fell apart, when foundations were shaken, when the markets crumbled, when all that had once been familiar now seemed long ago and far away.
It was the year King Uzziah died.
It was a bad time, a shaky time, a frightening time. It was so for also Isaiah. But then suddenly Isaiah, probably as preoccupied by this world’s news and events as was anyone else in Israel back then, had his vision wrenched to heaven. On the one side was King Uzziah and the rest of what constituted normal, everyday life in this world. It all seemed large and important until he saw God high and lifted up, and suddenly Isaiah found all of his perceptions and priorities re-aligned.
Suddenly he felt unworthy, unclean. And when he looked around him at the rest of his society in the light that was streaming at him from God’s throne, he knew that the rest of the world was likewise unclean, messed up, tawdry, and sinful. So he confessed. He cried out the truth of his condition. And God forgave him. God cleansed him with fire and then gave him a job to do. It wasn’t the world’s happiest assignment, by any means. Isaiah had to tell the people they were done for. But God predicts up front that they won’t listen. They won’t listen because they refused to see their lives on the same scale as God’s grandeur. They refused to let themselves be made to feel small and lowly and tawdry.
Trinity Sunday is a day to reflect on just who it is we encounter in worship each week, and why that divine encounter with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit informs everything we do in worship. It is not something about which one can finally be very casual. There’s awesomeness here. There is grandeur here. And so worship makes room for times of awe-inspired silence and humility. Thus, most every week we take time for Confession and Assurance. We don’t do it to induce guilt. We don’t do it because it’s just something we’ve always done. Nor is it something which we would simply drop if some survey revealed that most people think it’s a downer which gets in the way of the kind of worship people prefer these days.
We take time to confess because when we glimpse the true God of all holiness and then look back at our lives in that light, we see things that are wrong, out-of-sync. It’s perhaps a little like someone’s asking, “Do I have any lint stuck to the back of my suitcoat?” Sometimes in answer to that you have to say, “I can’t tell–step over here into the light so I can see.” And when the person does so, then the lint you couldn’t see before shows up. So also here: once you step into the light, things show up no one had noticed before.
In Isaiah 6 it was the year King Uzziah died, but once Isaiah sees God on his throne, you don’t hear about old Uzziah again! New things have now literally come to light, new needs have been discovered, new priorities set. That is at least in part what worship should do for us. We don’t come to worship just to have our so-called “felt needs” met but also to find out just what our needs really are! We don’t come to chum around with the God we want but to encounter the true God in ways that make us into the kind of people God wants!
Our weekly time of confession is a way to acknowledge not only that we are not always as good as we should be. It is also a way to acknowledge the difference between God and us in ways that help us to aspire to live in God’s light. Our society, of course, is pretty good at making us feel unsatisfied. The entire advertising industry very nearly depends on its ability to make you feel shabby because your email connection isn’t digitally optimized for the fastest speed or because your lipstick isn’t shiny enough or because your car can’t drive straight up the rocky side of a mountain the way the newest Mazda SUV can.
We don’t mind having our TVs bombard us with reminders that we need to upgrade our lives. Oddly, though, in recent years some have resisted church services which include calls to confess our sins and so to become more like the God whose grandeur challenges us to become different people. Some today don’t mind if Revlon tells them they could look prettier if they tried, but they don’t like worship services that suggest the need for confession and so reform. But so long as we live on this side of the new creation, we cannot encounter God without some sense of Isaiah’s “Woe is me!” coming over us.
This is by no means the only feeling we experience in worship–it need not even be the dominant one nor the one that lingers when we go home after the service. But if it is missing completely, then one could legitimately wonder just what God is getting encountered in worship: the one Isaiah saw, high and lifted up, or the one we have fashioned for ourselves, low and manageable within the scope of our little lives on this earth?
Trinity Sunday, and a text like Isaiah 6, is a fine chance to be reminded of such dear and holy truths.
If you have ever visited or lived in Europe for a while, you know how remarkably compact it is. When I lived in Germany years ago, it was easy for me to do things like hop on a bus in Essen, Germany, on a Friday evening, travel on the bus for a few hours, and then arrive in Paris, France, where I’d spend the weekend before going back to work in Germany as usual on Monday morning. Hop in a car in many places in Europe, drive in any direction you want for about three or four hours, and you may very well find yourself in a completely different country. Britain is smaller yet. It takes only a part of day to get all the way from London, England, to Edinburgh, Scotland.
All of that contributes to some humorous misunderstandings when European friends come to North America for visits. Occasionally Europeans spending the day in Chicago may propose that the next day they would like to pop over to San Francisco for a little look around, perhaps swinging through Houston on the way back to see what Texas is all about. British writer N.T. Wright used to experience this a lot when his family lived for a while in Montreal, Canada. They, too, had British visitors who would propose impossibly long trips in the mistaken impression that North American geography was as compact as Europe’s.
So Dr. Wright bought a map of Canada which had an inset labeled “England on the Same Scale.” So on the side of the big map of Canada British visitors could see that the whole of England was smaller than the province of Ontario alone. But just imagine the reverse, Wright once observed. Suppose you were in England with the same kind of map showing “North America on the Same Scale.” If you had a full-size map of Britain with a same-scale map of North America on the side, you’d have to fold out that other map and then just keep on folding it out and out and out until it filled up most of the room (and so dwarfed the map of England to which it stood in same-scale comparison).
Something like that happened to Isaiah one day. Something like that needs to happen in each worship service we hold, too. In many churches, the sanctuary may well be one of the larger rooms people visit all week long. But most church-goers are pretty comfortable in their own church–they’re accustomed to it, not blown away by its size or grandeur.
But at N.T. Wright notes, what if while we were casually looking around at one another in the sanctuary one week someone suddenly showed us “God on the Same Scale”!? What if someone could flip up half of the roof the way a child’s dollhouse may open up on a hinge so that we could glimpse the God of all glory, high and lifted up? Such a vision would likely unmake us, rattle us, make us feel small and puny and tawdry after all. That was Isaiah’s reaction. Everything else in the world, everything else in his life, everything else that had previously been occupying Isaiah’s mind shrank down in comparison to the vision he had of God on his holy throne.
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 29 is a hymn of praise to the God of creation. It’s a rather “noisy” psalm that the poet fills with the sounds of praise, thunder, wind and even the sound that earthquakes make. It’s a psalm that the psalmist also fills with vivid images of angels around God’s throne, flashes of lightning, twisted trees and skipping countries. So it’s the kind of psalm whose reading its preachers and teachers might enhance through sounds and images.
It seems as if the psalmist is peering into God’s heavenly “throne room” as he writes this lovely psalm. After all, he calls “mighty ones,” perhaps, as James Limburg suggests, the heavenly beings that surround God’s throne, what we sometimes call angels, to lift their voices in praise.
So the poet doesn’t just, as she often does, call worshipers to praise the Lord. She also summons both heavenly and earthly creatures to join in a cosmic choir that praises the Lord who creates and cares for them. The call to offer that praise seems to play a central role especially in Psalm 29’s first verses. After all, the psalmist repeats that call three times in the first two verses alone.
Verse 10 lends evidence to the suggestion that God’s heavenly throne room is Psalm 29’s backdrop. After all, it refers to the Lord’s sitting enthroned over the flood. It also speaks of the Lord as “King forever.” This gives credence to an understanding of this psalm as not just a hymn of praise to God the creator, but also as a polemic against Israel’s neighbors’ religions.
After all, the “neighborhood” in which the psalmist’s Israel lived was no less spiritually confused than the world of the 21st century. The Canaanites, for example, thought of their Baal as the god of the storm. Psalm 29, by contrast, asserts that Yahweh, the God of heaven and earth, is the God who not only rides on those storms but also rules over them. In fact, the psalmist mentions the Lord’s name 18 times, as if to emphasize by sheer repetition that it’s the Lord, not other gods, whose majestic power rules over creation.
So while Israel’s neighbors thought of floods as persistently threatening creation, the psalmist insists that God is the boss of even floods. God’s Israelite sons and daughters recognized God as the One who’d promised after the catastrophic flood never again to allow such an inundation to wreak such havoc.
It’s not easy to understand to what the psalmist refers when he calls the whole creation to give “glory” to God. After all, the word, kabod in Hebrew, connotes a kind of heaviness or abundance. So, for example, clouds can be kabod with rain and hail is kabod. However, when the Scriptures use the word kabod to describe God, they often, says Limburg, imply weightiness, splendor, majesty and magnificence. So by calling it to give “glory” to God, perhaps the psalmist is calling the whole cosmos to join together in praising God’s majesty.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the psalmist as sitting at the edge of a lake as she writes this psalm. Perhaps at first she’s surrounded by an eerie calm, maybe in that kind of green-grey light that sometimes precedes storms. However, slowly, almost imperceptibly the western horizon takes on a darker hue. Clouds begin to dash across the sky. The wind slowly morphs from a gentle breeze into a howling gale that raises whitecaps on the water. Flashes of lightning and bursts of thunder bunch more and more tightly together. Suddenly sheets of rain sweep the psalmist toward cover.
Thoughtful readers can hardly miss the sense of wonder that fills the psalmist as he contemplates all of this. However, his awe stems not from the mighty storm, but from the majestic Lord whose glory the storm displays. In that way, Psalm 29’s imagery evokes that of William Cowper’s moving hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way:” “God moves in a mysterious way, / His wonders to perform: / He plants his footsteps on the sea/ and rides upon the storm.”
The psalmist’s sense of wonder at God’s majestic work in creation offers preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their responses to dazzling natural phenomena. To what do rumbles of thunder draw their attention? To the beauty and sometimes fear they may evoke? Or to the God who somehow “rides” on them? Do we hear in the winds that sometimes rattle our windows and shake our trees just disturbed air? Or do we somehow hear the voice of God calling us to worship the Lord?
Of course, it’s not easy for materialist citizens of the 21st century to think about God’s voice as thundering or flashing lightning. Certainly even modern people recognize that God’s voice that called all things into being and shook Israel at Sinai is “powerful” and “majestic.” But does God’s voice really break cedars, make whole countries to skip like calves, shake deserts and twist trees? How do we think about what seems like Psalm 29’s “pre-scientific” understanding of God’s voice’s work in creation? This psalm can almost sound like childhood claims that thunder is the sound angels make when they’re bowling.
So might we think of this assertion of God’s mighty voice in creation as another part of Psalm 29’s polemic against Israel’s neighbors’ religions? After all, their gods couldn’t speak (or hear, as Baal’s prophets learned at Carmel). The Lord of heaven and earth alone is able to speak. And speak that God does, whether in Jesus Christ or, to the psalmist’s’ contemporaries, in rumbles of thunder. God speaks, whether in God’s Word, or, to the psalmist’s contemporaries, in gusts of wind. In a psalm that’s full of voices, none speak louder or more commandingly than the Lord’s.
All this speaking invites all in God’s temple to respond by crying “Glory!” That temple may be God’s temple in Jerusalem. It may refer to God’s “temple” that is God’s creation. Then the “all” who cry “Glory!” would refer to every creature. Or God’s “temple” to which verse 8 refers may allude to the temple that is God’s throne room.
Yet perhaps it’s not necessary to try to delineate just who precisely cries “Glory!” After all, it’s a gasp of praise that God’s majesty squeezes out of every creature, whether in heaven or on earth. No matter who the “all” are, the psalmist calls them to join in exclaiming praise and wonder.
Yet the psalmist perhaps strikingly ends this noisy psalm with descriptions of God’s tender, loving care for God’s adopted sons and daughters. Throughout the psalm the poet talks about God’s displays of strength. Yet she ends by quietly insisting God also gives strength to God’s people. However, perhaps especially poignantly, the psalmist ends her hymn of praise to God the creator by asserting that God uses God’s strength to graciously grant God’s people “peace,” shalom in the Hebrew. After all the noise and action of Psalm 29, the poem ends with the word “peace.” Not, as one colleague notes, peace and quiet, but the “peace that passes all understanding.” The peace for which God created God’s people with God, their neighbors and creation.
Psalm 29 is the kind of psalm that almost begs worshipers to sing the stirring hymn, “How Great Thou Art:” “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder/ Consider all the worlds thy hands have made, / I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, / Thy power throughout the universe displayed; / Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; / How great thou art! How great thou art!”
Author: Stan Mast
Comments and Observations
Not many of our congregants will get excited about Trinity Sunday, because most of them think of the Trinity as an impenetrable mystery. The Trinity is a set of ideas that have befuddled theologians for centuries and, thus, leave ordinary Christians cold. With tongue firmly in cheek, one theologian put it this way. “The Trinity is a matter of five notions or properties, four relations, three persons, two processions, one substance or nature, and no understanding.”
But our text for today shows us that the doctrine of the Trinity is a matter of life. Focusing particularly on the work of the Holy Spirit Romans 8:12-17 demonstrates how the Triune God is involved in the practical issues of human life: how can we possibly live a vital and fruitful life, how can we discover who we really are, how can we relate to a holy God, how can we deal with the sufferings of life, and how can we face an uncertain future? In other words, our text describes not the inner workings of the Trinity (the Trinity ad intra, as theologians put it), but the outer workings of the Trinity (the Trinity ad extra, the economic Trinity). As is always the case with the doctrinal teaching of the New Testament, this doctrine of the Trinity is not abstract theology; it is “task theology,” theology in the service of everyday Christian living life. That doesn’t mean we can’t develop abstract theology from these teachings; it only means that Paul’s original intention was to motivate us to Christian living.
Paul’s opening “therefore” is a familiar tell tale sign that he is turning from some indicative to an imperative. As I said above, the particular indicative is the work of the Spirit. For eleven complex verses, Paul has been describing how the Spirit is active in the beginning and at the end of the believer’s life and everywhere in between. The Spirit transforms us from helpless prisoners (“Oh wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”) into liberated people in whom “the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met….” And we can look forward to the great day when “he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.”
That life changing work of the Spirit is what Paul was thinking of when he said, “therefore.” Because of all that work in us and for us, we have an obligation. The Spirit is the Actor; we are the re-Actors. But, interestingly, Paul doesn’t say that we have an obligation to the Spirit. That is surely his implication, but that’s not what he says. Instead, he focuses on the opposite, on the sinful nature. Perhaps that’s because we so often act as though we were obligated to our old sinful self. We hear people talk that way all the time. “I have to be true to myself. I have to be who I am. ‘I gotta be me, I gotta be me.’ That’s the only way I know how to live.”
No, says Paul, there’s another way to live, a better way to live, because the old you, the old desires, the old habits, the familiar ways of living have been superseded by the work of the Spirit of God. Indeed, he says earlier in Romans 6, that “old you” has actually died with Christ. So why would you go back to a dead way of life. That was you, but it’s not anymore. You have no obligation to that old self. And, I’ll tell you a terrible secret, a secret as old as the Garden of Eden. If you live in those old ways, you will surely die. That’s the God’s honest truth for all sinners.
But it’s not God’s truth for you, because you live by the Spirit. And “if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live….” Note the cooperative interaction between the Holy Spirit and us. We must be active in killing off the sins we commit in the body, and we can do that by the Spirit’s power. Paul does not say that we must kill off the body (soma, here, as opposed to sarx in the previous verses). Paul is not anti-body; he is anti-sin. It’s just that our bodies provide the occasion and the location in which we commit sin. Paul is perhaps thinking along the lines of James 1:14 and 15: “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.” We don’t have to kill off the body or its desires, but we must put to death the misdeeds that can grow out of our desires. Absolutely the only way to do that hard work is “by the Spirit.”
As we become more and more like Christ, we will more and more “live.” That is, arguably, the central promise of salvation. In place of the death that sin brings, Jesus brings life, life that is quantitatively different (it never ends) and qualitatively different (it is life indeed). I think that Paul is focused on the latter dimension of life when he writes, “because those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God.” At first, the connection between verse 13 and 14 is not all that obvious. I mean, why even add verse 14? Paul has just said that we will live if by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body. Why talk next about being led by the Spirit and being children of God?
I think it has to do with the difficulty of killing off the sin in our lives. We need assurance that we can really do it. So Paul assures us that the Spirit will lead us each step of the way. And he assures us that we already are children of God. We’re not just miserable sinners dragging ourselves along in the battle against sin, like Mark Wahlberg, the “Lone Survivor” singlehandedly battling Afghani terrorists in the movie by that name. No, we are already children of God, who will surely win the victory over sin. We don’t have to live in fear of defeat in this battle, fear of falling back into the hands of the terrorist named sin. “For you did not receive a spirit of fear that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.”
At this point our text becomes thick with Trinitarian connections. We are children of God because we have received the Spirit of sonship. That last word really means adoption. But Ephesians 1:5 says that we are adopted through Jesus Christ. “In love [God] predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ….” Galatians 4:4 describes the historical circumstances surrounding our adoption. We had been little more than slaves under the law, living under constraint as if in an orphanage. “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Now in Romans 8 Paul says that the Spirit was active in our adoption. So we have God the Father sending the Son to accomplish our adoption, and the Father and the Son sending the Spirit to finish our adoption. Our adoption, and our life as God’s children, is the work of the Triune God.
How are we to think of all that? Well, first of all, we must remember that the human race had orphaned itself by disobeying God’s commands. Though we have all been created by God and are thus his children in a general sense, all of us are aliens and exiles because of our rebellion. We live in the far country of sin under the sentence of death, for the “soul that sins shall die.” In his great love for the world, God sent his Son to do the legal work necessary to bring rebels back home and make them children again. Even as no human adoption can be done without all the proper legal work, so Jesus had to satisfy the laws demands in order to set us free. It is only through Jesus Christ that we can become God’s adopted children. Now all “who receive him, who believe in his name have the right to be called children of God.” (John 1:12)
But it’s one thing to be adopted, to be released from the confines of the orphanage and welcomed into the Father’s house where one of the many rooms has my name on it. It is quite another to feel at home there. At the heart of feeling at home in the Father’s house is feeling at home with a holy God whom we formerly experienced as distant and threatening. This is where the work of the Spirit comes in. If Jesus did the legal work, the Holy Spirit does the social work in our adoption. Or better, the Spirit is the Counselor who produces trust and love toward God in our hearts. We know that we are God’s beloved children because we believe that Jesus died for us. We feel that we are God’s beloved children because the Spirit mysteriously works in and with our spirits until we are actually able to call almighty God, “Abba, Father.”
Here’s how Paul puts it in verses 15 and 16. “And by the Spirit we cry ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Note the intricate cooperation between the Spirit and our spirit. The Spirit doesn’t exactly put words in our mouths/spirits. But without his work, those words and the feelings behind them will never be ours. As the old Presbyterian divine, John Murray, said in commenting on this entire pericope, “The activity of the believer is the evidence of the Spirit’s activity and the activity of the Spirit is the cause of the believer’s activity.”
It is fascinating that Paul uses that word, “Abba,” which is the Aramaic word for father. It was the word that Jewish children used when addressing their fathers at hearth and board. But the Jews would never have referred to the thrice holy God with that word. Yes, God is spoken of as Father in the Old Testament on occasion, but no one ever dared to use the familiar, family oriented word, “Abba,” when addressing the One whose name is so holy it cannot be uttered. No one, that is, until Jesus. He could do that, of course, because the Almighty really was his Abba. At the risk of sounding like a social analogy Trinitarian, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit were family. No wonder Jesus, at his most vulnerable moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, cried out, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” That’s as pure and tender an insight into the inner workings of the Trinity as you will find anywhere in Scripture. Now here in Romans 8, we are told that the Spirit puts Jesus’ name for his Father into our spirits. We adopted children are as near and dear to God the Father as his only begotten Son is.
In the rich language of verse 17, Paul goes on to elucidate just how near and dear we are. It’s conceivable that adopted children would not be treated the same as natural born children. Blood can be thicker than legal papers. We’ve all heard of adoptions that never work, that go bad and are terminated because adoptee and adopted parents cannot bond. Then the adoptee is cut off from all the rights and privileges of being part of that family. That cannot happen to followers of Christ, says Paul. The adopting work of the Triune God is effective and permanent.
So, if we are children of God, we are heirs, heirs of God. What can that possibly mean? Paul tells us in the first of three Greek words with a sum prefix. We are sugkleronoumei, joint heirs with Christ. All that the Father will ever give his only begotten Son will also be given to us, his adopted children. No matter what our situation in life may be, we have a guaranteed future so glorious that we can’t imagine it.
Indeed, that is another of those Greek words with a sum prefix, sumdoxasthomen, which means to be glorified with. What is the inheritance we have with Christ? It is to be glorified with him, to actually share the glory of the very Son of God. What a difference that makes in our daily life if we actually believe it! It will transform the way we deal with our suffering. Suffering will surely come; it is our lot in a fallen world. But if we are children of God, inseparably united to the Father through the work of the Son and the Spirit, our suffering takes on a different character. Now it is part of our union with Christ.
That’s what the third sum word points to. The word is sumpaschomen, to suffer with him. Though the NIV translation of verse 17 says, “if indeed we share in his suffering, in order that we may also share in his glory,” that isn’t really a conditional sentence. Paul is not suggesting that if we don’t suffer with Christ, we won’t have his glory, as though our suffering somehow earns us that glory. He is simply saying that our union with Christ by the work of the Spirit will always involve us in suffering as well as in glory. That transforms our suffering. We are not alone in a hard world. We are the children of God, and even our suffering is part of the family’s heritage and destiny. We are co-heirs, co-sufferers, and co-glorified ones. Knowing that we are united with the Triune God changes the way we live our lives. That should be the point of this Trinity Sunday sermon.
A recent issue of Sports Illustrated featured a story about an illegitimate son of the 7’ 1” basketball legend, Wilt Chamberlain. In his 1991 memoir, A View From Above, Chamberlain famously boasted that he had slept with 20,000 women. But he had never, he claimed, fathered “any little Wilts.” Then along came Aaron Levi, biracial, very tall, and lost. Though he had been adopted by a very lovely and loving white family, Levi always wanted to know his birth parents. From an early age, he began to search for their identities. He finally found his birth mother and learned that Chamberlain (now deceased) was his father. But it wasn’t good enough for him. His aunt Victoria, a Boston area psychiatrist, said Levi’s essential questions are, “Who does he belong to? Where are you in the world? Who are you? Who claims you as theirs?” Those questions aren’t unique to Aaron Levi. They are the questions answered once and for all by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of what the Triune God has done to bring lost children home.