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Trinity Sunday

Romans 8:12 So then, siblings we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 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.

Today marks two occasions in the church calendar. This is the first Sunday of what we call “ordinary time.” We spend about 6 months in this great cycle of feasts and fasts, Advent and Christmas and Epiphany and Lent and Easter, but then the other half of the year, we settle into a quieter, more regular rhythm without all of the high drama—we just get to exist. Which I think is a nice reminder that God is not only with us in the big moments, the tragedies and the triumphs, even though God is with us then. But God is also with us in the quiet, seemingly insignificant times between the times we’ll remember years later. Even in the moments when you’re unloading groceries or walking between your car and your office or doing the dishes, you are held by the divine.


Which is why, I think, on this first Sunday of ordinary time, we also celebrate Trinity Sunday. Today, we begin Ordinary Time by contemplating the mystery that God is three in one and one in three, Father, Son, and Spirit, Mother, Child, and Spirit, Love and Beloved and the Love shared between them. But the connection might not be obvious so I want to try to trace it out.


This ancient teaching is partly a way of saying “God is not who you think God is.” Most of us have some pretty automatic associations when we hear the word “God.” There’s a default where some part of us thinks of someone like Zeus. Big. Strong. Mean. Man. Up “there.” A little cranky. Mostly inaccessible to us. And in that picture of God, faith becomes a game of climbing up to the divine. So in some theologies, this is what Jesus allows us to do. God is wrathful, but Jesus comes down and dies so that his sacrifice gives us a way to climb up to God. But there’s still an up “there” and a down “here,” and they’re opposed to each other. In that picture, Jesus doesn’t change the opposition—he allows us to get onto the other side.


But in our Scripture this morning, Paul gives us a very different picture of who God is. Paul says that when we cry out to God, “Abba, Father!” as we struggle like Jesus struggled, that cry is actually the Spirit of God crying out in us. So the Spirit of God is already all around us, helping us before we know it. And the Spirit is helping us realize that we’re already united with Jesus in whatever we’re struggling with. And as we’re joined to Jesus, we are already adopted as children of the divine. The relationship is not a servile one, there’s no up there and down here, there’s God closer to us than we are to ourselves in the Spirit, God with us in the flesh of Jesus, and God who tells us we’re not in a lower position before them, but their very children. All of these are images of intimacy. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that God is these relations that Paul is talking about.


This passage reminds me of a story in the book of Genesis, where Jacob is on the run, he’s exiled because he’s pretty sure his older brother is going to kill him (because his older brother said he was going to kill him). So here’s Jacob, disgraced, alone, and he finds a place to make camp for the night. And as he falls asleep, he has a dream of a staircase connecting heaven and earth, and he sees angels going up and down the staircase. And then all of the sudden, God appears to him and promises Jacob that God has chosen him, that God will bless him, which doesn’t exactly seem likely given Jacob’s circumstances. Part of what I find interesting about this story is that a lot of translations read that God appeared to Jacob “on top” of the staircase, but the grammar is actually unclear. It could just as easily be translated, “Beside him,” which I think makes more sense because as soon as Jacob wakes up, he says, “God was in this place and I didn’t know it.” Not, God is up in heaven and I was down here, but God was already here, I just didn’t know it. And that encounter reframes Jacob’s whole situation—it’s not that it gets easier, but God is with him in his struggle, God is near enough that later in the story, Jacob will wrestle with God before he goes back home. That’s how near God is to Jacob, how intimate God is, and how bold God invites Jacob to be, that his faith doesn’t look like servile obedience, it looks like wrestling with God.


The Trinity is a way of saying that God is not at the top of a ladder, distant from us. The opposition here is not an opposition between us and God, the relations of the Trinity are already the context in which we live and move and have our being.


But there is an opposition: the opposition between the flesh and the Spirit. And you all have heard me talk about what Paul means by the “Flesh” before. It’s not your skin or your body. The Flesh for Paul is his name for the instincts, the muscle memories, that are our obedience to the Powers of this world. The “flesh” is not that you want to find pleasure through, say, having sex. The “flesh” is when a man conflates pleasure with domination and acts abusively. The “flesh” is not your desire to feel safe. The “flesh” is that feeling of suspicion some white people have when a Black person walks through the neighborhood. The “flesh” is not a sensation of discomfort with something new and unfamiliar. The “flesh” is refusing to use people’s correct pronouns because you takes your discomfort as a moral principle.


The flesh is all of the habits and routines and instincts that put some people on top of a ladder and others at the bottom, so that those on the bottom have to climb up to be good. And the “flesh” invents an idea of a god on top of the ladder so that this whole arrangement with some on the top and some on the bottom feels like a divine mandate. Traditionally we call that god an idol, and one of the gifts of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it can help us reject that idol and the kind of world people would make in its name.


My friends, that feeling you have, that you have to climb the ladder, even if it means climbing over your neighbors, or that you are just inevitably stuck on the bottom of the ladder, that is the flesh trying to please a false god. That reflex toward servile obedience, to just go along with the way things are, to put your head down, be a good employee, a good citizen, a good child, no matter how much your boss or our leaders or in some cases your parents take from you—that reflex is the flesh.


And so the flesh says, wherever you are in your life, it’s not good enough. You need to get somewhere else. You need to climb up to the god on top of the ladder. Do you feel this, like there’s always another place you’re supposed to get to? But then when you get to that place, it’s not good enough either? If you’re single, you’re supposed to get married, but then you get married, and you're supposed to buy a house and have kids. If you do all that, then you’re broke and your kids mental health is all over the place, because, like, look around. So now you need a promotion and better benefits to make you good at the stuff that was supposed to make you good in the first place. So you struggle for the promotion. You take on the second job. Then your HVAC goes or your car goes or you have a health issue (or all 3 at once), and so for every step you take up the ladder you’re still somehow just barely breaking even, if that. And on and on and on. It turns out that ladder we’re supposed to be climbing is actually Sisyphus’ hill and our lives are the rocks we’re spending eternity pushing up that grade.


But friends, if what Paul is saying here in our scripture this morning is true, there is no ladder, which means there is no God we can never reach glaring at us from the top of the ladder. Our very task in this world, our calling, is not to climb the ladder, it’s to chop it down, because that god is a false god. The God we believe in is already here, is already near to us, is already within us—God wants us to call them “Abba,” not “Sir.”  This is the way of the Spirit. Not the will to climb at all costs, but the longing to join into the relations of giving and receiving that are one as the triune God.


And this is why, I think, we celebrate Trinity Sunday to begin Ordinary Time. Because God is already with you in the ordinary, in the day to day movements and rhythms of your life. To the extent that those rhythms curl around the Flesh, we can change them together with the Spirit. Because satisfying the flesh doesn’t make you good, you don’t have to play that game anymore. God is not an angry figure on top of a ladder you have to climb. God is Trinity, God is these relations that already include you within them. And so we allow ourselves ordinary time, because there’s nothing you have to achieve or become to earn God’s love. You get to become who you are because God already loves you. God the Spirit is already whispering to your soul, God in Jesus is already right alongside you, and the transcendent Lord of the universe already calls you their child. That is the reality in which we live and move and have our being. Amen.




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