Date: June 7, 2009 (Trinity Sunday)
Texts: Isa 6:1-8, Ps 29, Rom 8:12-17
Author: Isaac Villegas
In April, celebrities took over downtown Durham. Hollywood came to town. They were filming a movie called Main Street. Most of the young ladies were very interested in the star of this movie, which is Orlando Bloom. But my wife was much more interested in the co-star, Colin Firth. In order for me to understand her admiration of this middle-aged British celebrity, Katie made us buy the BBC’s six-part 1995 production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
So we’ve been watching Pride and Prejudice for the past few weeks. And I’m glad I did, because now I understand the Trinity. Yes, I had to go back to England in the early 19th century to understand the Trinity. It’s all about Mr. Darcy learning how to love courteously. But before we go there, I should probably talk about the Bible first.
There are plenty of interesting things in our passages to talk about. The passage from Isaiah 6 has the Seraphs in heaven praising God saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Later tradition has suggested that each of “holy”s is for each person of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit.
Or we could talk about the interesting emphasis on the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God in Psalm 29. The “Voice of the Lord” does this, the “Voice of the Lord” does that—a constant repetition. There’s a rhythm to the Psalm that focuses our attention on this voice that almost has a life of it’s own.
But of all the passages on the table for today, I think Romans might be the best way into the Trinity. Besides, it’s one of my favorite passages—maybe it’s the nihilist in me. I like all the stuff about groaning, the sighs too deep for words. It’s there in verse 26, “for we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words.”
But doesn’t sound a little too unholy to start with the groaning in our gut? The Trinity doesn’t belong there, right? Shouldn’t we start up in heaven? Isn’t it a bit self-centered to turn a sermon on the Trinity into a sermon about us? Isn’t God supposed to be way over there, or way up there?—anywhere but here… As Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty” (Isa 6:1a).
Now, to be fair to Isaiah’s vision, God isn’t completely distant. “The hem of God’s robe filled the temple” (v. 1b). There’s a point of connection between heaven and earth, and that is the Temple. But in Romans, Paul seems to think that God’s presence is even more intimate than that—in us, in our groaning, our sighs, in our prayers, God’s Spirit as a companion with our spirit. Here’s what Paul says, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit [the Holy Spirit] bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15b-16).
Through the Spirit, God becomes intimate with us, interior to us, completely familiar, a companion. The Spirit is present in our spirit, groaning with us, crying out with us. And with the groaning, we begin to get a sense for the Trinity. We become the site of the work of all three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. Our bodies, our lives, become God’s home. God rests with us, and in us, not as some outside power, not as some cosmic clockmaker, not as some bearded old king on a throne in heaven.
God isn’t an outsider to our lives. God isn’t like a king or a president who might choose to save us by sending the troops. God doesn’t send others to do his dirty work. God sends God. That’s why we confess that Jesus is God. And if Jesus is not God, then we worship a God who refuses to jump into our mess, then we serve a God who doesn’t like to get dirty. If Jesus is not God, then we praise a God who doesn’t want to get too close—a God who refuses intimacy, who refuses the risks that come along with becoming our friend, our companion.
This is why the language of God’s sovereignty sometimes leads us astray. When we say that God is sovereign, we probably picture him as one of those kings who makes decrees from on high with an entourage of servants at his command. We picture God as a president who claims victory while never living in the trenches. A distant God, always once-removed from the action. And if that’s what we mean when we call God sovereign, then we don’t really believe in the God who is Trinity, which is simply another way of saying that we don’t have a clue about what happens on the cross.
Because, on the cross, that kind of sovereign God dies. Or, to put it more provocatively, the crucifixion kills our picture of a detached God. The crucifixion of Jesus kills our image of God as the sovereign victor who sends other people to do the dirty work, the risky stuff. But our God, the God revealed at the crucifixion, becomes intimate with humanity, familiar with our flesh. God sends God. God gives himself for us, for our salvation, for our liberation.
And the Holy Spirit is how God takes even one more step closer to us. The Spirit is draws God even closer, maybe even uncomfortably close. Remember the beginning of the Gospel, when the Holy Spirit descends upon Mary’s womb and gives her a son, Jesus. Now that’s close, very close, uncomfortably close—entering a womb. And now we have Paul in Romans 8 using, interestingly enough, pregnancy language to talk about how the Spirit is doing things inside of all of us—not just Mary.
Each of us is groaning in labor pains, Paul says, undergoing the travail of the Holy Spirit, awaiting God’s redemption in our midst, feeling the good news being born inside of us.
This is a really important point about the nature of God, and it’s an insight that comes when we pay attention to the ways of the Spirit. God doesn’t overpower us. God isn’t that kind of super-sovereign, doing what he wants whenever he wants. God doesn’t rescue us as if he were a swat team or a navy seal operation. God doesn’t act like a foreign invader of our lives, forcing us to join the mission. That’s not it at all.
Augustine of Hippo made this point when he said, “God did not will to save us without us.” God doesn’t save us without us. God doesn’t use external force to get us to do the right thing.
Let me offer a few images to help us get a sense for what God is not. God is not like a surgeon who stands next to her patient and operates on the heart. God is not like a mechanic who looks under the hood and repairs the engine. God’s life is much too intimate with ours. God saves us from the inside; God heals us as if healing his own body.
It’s hard to talk about this stuff. That’s why I’m using so many metaphors. That’s part of what the Trinity does do our language—it’s a doctrine that pushes us into the limits of language and shows us that the best way to understand it is to feel it, to be drawn into this relationship, to feel the Spirit working in your life, to listen for the groaning.
So let me offer one more picture of the way God works in our lives through the Holy Spirit. And this one involves that BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. The story centers on the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy is a gentlemen and one of the richest men around. And Elizabeth comes from a humble family, but not poor. Basically Mr. Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth, even though he shouldn’t because of their class difference. It would be a scandal for a man like Darcy to marry someone from the inferior Bennet family line.
But he can’t help himself. And it comes out one afternoon when storms into Elizabeth’s room and professes his love. But it’s all wrong; he gets everything wrong. Darcy doesn’t understand love. His kind of love is one that compels from the outside; Darcy knows his position of social power over some as humble as Elizabeth. If he wants Elizabeth, he can take her and insult her in the process. Here’s what he says in his profession of love:
“My feelings for you have taken possession of me against my will, my reason, and almost against my character!” Darcy knows that a person of such high standing shouldn’t love someone of such low status. So he admits that his love is unnatural, and insults Elizabeth’s family in the process. Not a very wise move. But Darcy doesn’t know that you can’t come from on high and force someone to love you, that you can’t make love happen on your own terms, that love is not coercive.
So, this is what Mr. Darcy says when he finally gets to the proposal part, after going on and on about how his kind shouldn’t associate with her kind: “I now hope that the strength of my love may have its reward in your acceptance of my hand.” The strength of my love. Darcy thinks the strength of his love, the sheer power of his passion, should get him what he wants—a “reward,” he says… Elizabeth’s acceptance is a reward, something he earns through his confession. There’s no need for him to think through whether or not he has made himself lovable. Darcy doesn’t think twice about whether or not he deserves her love.
Mr. Darcy’s love comes from one high, from the position of a gentlemanly sovereign, a benevolent aristocrat. And that’s not how God loves. Now, I should say a little more about how Darcy’s character develops—Katie would not be happy with me if I left you with a bad impression of Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s profession of love from on high, and so Darcy slowly learns that love must first become familiar—to expose oneself, to become vulnerable. Love comes from companionship—so he spends the rest of the movie learning how to be a companion, and how to love Elizabeth’s strange family.
And it’s that companionship that begins to get at what Paul is saying about the Holy Spirit. God is in our depths, groaning with us, an intimate companion. God’s love comes through companionship—walking with us, praying with us, crying out with us. God doesn’t overpower us. God’s Spirit is a hidden presence—willing to go unnoticed, willing to be a humble companion.
And that’s how the Trinity begins to unfold in our life. It starts as a groan, something beyond words, a sigh. Maybe a sigh from exhaustion with our life, or a disgruntled groan about the way the world works. You don’t know what to say or how to change things or where to go. You’re just plain stuck, without options. And the Spirit is there, your groaning companion, Paul says. The Holy Spirits turns that feeling in your gut into a simple prayer—or, as Paul says, “a cry”… a cry to the one who bore you, the creator, the Mother of us all, “Abba! Father!” Sometimes that all you can say. But when you say it, when you pray, “Our Father,” you are already one of the beloved children of God. You pray with Christ, who is our brother.
The Trinity doesn’t make much sense as a doctrine. But that’s how it goes with the mystery that is God. It’s not for you to sit around and think about. The Trinity names an experience, an encounter, a relationship. The Trinity comes as a feeling in our gut, a prayer we don’t know how to pray, a desire we can’t quite get a handle on. That experience is how we know the Trinity is on the move. And if that’s the case, then the best we can do sometimes, the best we can say when we don’t know what to say, the best we can do when everything seems completely unsatisfying, is to go with our gut and groan. For our hope is that our deep sighs echo with the Holy Spirit who leads us into the intimate love of God, a God who is already our companion, a hidden presence among all his children.
All of this is what Paul is saying in Romans—the Trinity comes with a cry: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit [the Holy 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” (Rom 6:15b-17a).