Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 30, 2021
Romans 8:12-17 Commentary
It should be no mystery why the Lectionary chose this passage as a Trinity Sunday text. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all nicely on display in these half-dozen verses. Of course, if you also chose the Romans 8 Lectionary text option for Pentecost last week, then you realize that for some reason the Lectionary is proceeding backwards through Romans 8 as these verses actually precede the ones for Pentecost. Again, however, the reason for this backing up is clear enough: these verses are among the key building blocks used by the Early Church when assembling the Doctrine of the Trinity. The whole passage is about God but we seem to be talking in triplicate.
This is also a glorious text for other reasons, not least is the lyric truths it conveys about our salvation. One of orthodoxy’s key tenets in Church History has been the idea that despite the fact that God consists of three Persons, they are always and forever working in perfect tandem. Of course they are never at odds with each other and of course no one person is ever unaware as to what the other two are doing. But it’s more than just this: they are in fact working together perfectly to achieve a common goal. What’s more, all three Persons are needed to achieve that goal.
It would not have been enough for the Son to have been made an incarnate human being. The will of the Father had to be behind that. The power of the Spirit had to be permeating all of Christ’s work and teachings. The power of Father and Spirit were needed to raise the Son from the dead as the ultimate stamp of approval on the sacrifice Jesus made and how it was that he—along with Father and Spirit—chose to take on the devil and also death itself (namely by dying himself).
And in this part of Romans 8 we find out the other exceptionally important task the Spirit performs: he assures each individual believer that he or she really is part of the divine family now. What Jesus talked about a lot when he was on earth is utterly true: we are invited to call the Almighty God of the galaxies “Abba,” Father. Daddy. And you need the Spirit of God to do that, to sear that truth onto your heart, because otherwise who in their right mind would ever dare to do such a thing? Who would approach this figure of shining and holy effulgent glory and say “Hello, Dad!”? You would not walk into the Oval Office and address the President so lightly and in such cozy language, much less the Lord of Hosts!
Unless you are invited to do so, of course. Unless in baptism you really have been given a whole new identity as a New Creation who now dwells “in Christ.” And that, Paul reminded his readers over and over in his epistles, is exactly who we are and where we live now. But don’t take Paul’s word for it—it is the living Spirit of the living God who witnesses inside of us that this is all true. “The Inner Testimony of the Holy Spirit” was a leading concept in the theology of John Calvin. “Testimonium Spiritus Sancti Internum” or “TSSI” as I used to abbreviate it and write it into the margin of Calvin’s commentaries and other books every time he referred to it, which means I have a lot of TSSI marginalia scribbles in those books! This is a key doctrine.
Yet despite that truth and that reality, we are not for now removed from all suffering. Indeed, in addition to inviting us to call God “Abba,” we are also made to share in Christ’s sufferings as well as in the suffering travails of this creation generally, which is what Paul will go on to talk about next starting in verse 18. But those pains are birth pangs because they cannot remove the hope that has been sown into the soil of this creation and now sown into also our very hearts by that indwelling Spirit of God.
I could be wrong but if I had to guess, I’d imagine that “Trinity Sunday” may be the most under-celebrated day on the liturgical calendar. It goes without saying that it cannot compete with Christmas or Easter. Even Ascension Day and Pentecost have a hard time generating anywhere near the liturgical wattage of those two big celebrations. Epiphany might get a little more attention since you can loop it back to the just-finished Christmas focus. And even “Christ the King” Sunday has more cache than “Trinity Sunday,” which sounds doctrinaire, dusty, academic and too complex by half.
Yet here in the center of the powerful 8th chapter of Romans is a lyric reminder of why God as Triune is anything but an ivory tower idea for professional theologians to ponder ad infinitum. Father, Son and Holy Spirit working in their perfect tandem for us and for our salvation is our very life, our very hope, our deep, deep joy. The Spirit capitalizes on all the resurrection momentum Christ generated and brings all that movement and energy straight into our hearts, assuring us of our adoption into no less than the family of God.
So preach that on Trinity Sunday. Preach the Triune God as the God who—precisely by being three and not only one—is definitively the God who is pro nobis, the “For Us God.” Preach the Good News that out of the hyper-abundant fullness of the Trinity, life overflows to this whole creation and to those who are in Christ eternal life flows and flows, too. Celebrating the oneness in threeness and the three who are one is at once a great and inscrutable mystery and the foundation of all joy.
And there’s nothing arcane, dusty, or academically stuffy about that glorious message!
Celebrating our adoption as full children of God reminds me of something Richard Lischer wrote in his book The End of Words in terms of stories we can never tire of telling or hearing—and the story about how we by the Spirit get to call God “Abba” should be one of those stories:
“When the adopted child repeatedly asks her parents to recount the events surrounding her adoption, the story must remain the same. And woe to the one who introduces omissions or changes in the sacred formula. “And then out of all the babies in the orphanage you chose me, right?” Could parents ever tire of telling that story? Would they ever dare substitute another for it? If telling God’s story strikes us as repetitious, that is because it is. It is repetitious the way the Eucharist is repetitious, the way a favorite melody or gestures of love are repetitious, the wa the mercies of God that come unbidden every day are repetitious . . . Such stories do not entertain, they do something fare better. They sustain. They do not inform, they form those who share and hear them for a life of faithfulness.”
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