As Free as the Air We Breathe
A sermon based on Romans 5:1-5
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 16, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Today is Trinity Sunday. Every time it rolls around I have to smile. It reminds me how far I am from what I once thought I was, and how close I am to what I aspired to be. Sounds intriguing, even poetic . . . I suppose. What makes it even more intriguing and perhaps even more poetic is that the lesson today lifts up things I once rejected, Paul and God’s grace and how good can come of suffering.
The short version of why Trinity Sunday and the text have me smiling and poetic-ish is as a young teen I aspired to be a minister and work on justice issues until I got disillusioned with the church over justice issues regarding LGBTQ and other faiths I eventually gave up on church and rejected Christianity, chiding much of it including the idea of the Trinity, even God, strings– attached– grace . . . and Paul. When I left the church I had to give up on the idea of being a minister. Here’s a spoiler alert: I obviously found my way back! Here I am a Christian minister, working on justice issues in church and embracing the Trinity, God, and no-strings-attached grace . . . and I often even like Paul.
Funny how God, this thing “we live and move and have our being in” works. And it is fair to understand that it IS the grace of God which brought me into church, sent me a way, and brought me back and keeps me here. I truly believe that, and I am going to flesh that in a bit, but first I want to spend a few moments explaining the Trinity. I try to do that each Trinity Sunday, because as I used to say in my away-from-church days, ideas about the Trinity make no more sense than a mythical three-headed dragon or THE three-headed dog “Fluffy” in the Harry Potter story. How can one God be three God persons? The answer that I typically got in church was, “It’s a mystery.”
I looked for a better answer and found one. The Trinity is a notion from a model for God created to help understand the different aspects of God that Christians name as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The idea of the Trinity was not intended to be confusing or unbelievable. It was meant as a helpful device, not something to be misused as dogma or mystification about who or what God is.
The word Trinity, and the confusing Trinity doctrines that developed over the years, are not in Jesus’ teachings, they are not in Paul’s letters, they are not even in the Bible! The Trinity idea was first proposed in the writings of a 3rd Century lawyer named Tertullian. He created the idea to rebut claims that Christianity was polytheistic. Opponents misunderstood the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost as separate deities, so Tertullian pointed out that was not true. Using the Latin word for Roman theatre masks, “persona,” he showed how one God could act in three different roles. The roles are named in the New Testament and Christian practices as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. (We often call them Creator, Christ and Spirit in this church, but I am mostly going “old school” today to lessen the confusion). Through those three named roles Tertullian demonstrated that God can be one being encountered in reality in different ways. Just as humans can be experienced in different roles, so too can God. Tertullian’s simple point being, the named roles of God are different aspects of one being, not three separate beings.
The Trinity model is about different ways we experience the Divine, God, THE ONE we live and move and have our being in. The Trinity model for God is a metaphor that can be understood in different ways. We can retroactively apply it to Paul’ description of God . . . (1) Living, (2) moving and (3) have being. The Creator Father made us live. The Christ Son is how we aim to be. The Holy Ghost Spirit keeps us moving forward. Another way to name that approach is God’s existence in the past, present and future. Played out on the stage of life this version of the model understands the persona of God the Father made creation, the persona of the Son of God soaks creation now and the persona of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of God, calls us to move toward better-ness in the moments and days and years to come. It’s all God.
Some religions have hundreds of names for the myriad of roles God plays on earth, we have three. We CAN call them a Trinity . . . or not. It’s just a model to help. It was not intended by Tertullian to be a litmus test for the faith or convoluted dogma that confuses. So that’s my primer on the Trinity.
Okay I said I would flesh out how the grace of God brought me in to church, sent me a way, and brought me back and calls me to stay. It fits in the Trinitarian model too, God’s past, present and future involvement in my presence here wrapped up as gifts to me from what the church has long called the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I’ve indicated before that as a young adolescent I wandered into church to fulfill a bargain with God to go to church if someone in my family stopped drinking. My big time ask was answered, so I went to church. I found a nearby Reformed church and voluntarily went by myself . . . (as a teenager, no less!).
There was a huge paradigm shift when I showed up by myself at that church. Although alcohol abuse ended at home other abuse did not, so that is not what I mean. What I ran smack dab into was the embrace of God’s grace, I’d never encountered the likes of it before. Of course I did not know to call it grace at the time. But grace it was. In the Old Testament grace typically refers to God or a person turning to someone to provide them assistance, bestowing if you will, a favor. 1 Outside of Paul’s letters grace in the New Testament tends to mean pretty much the same thing, it is something that brings pleasure to another through a welcomed favor offered without expectation of anything in return. 2
At the relatively conservative Reformed church that I wandered into, God, especially in a number of people provided that sort of Biblical grace to me. God assisted me in moving out of darkness and despair and into light and hope. God especially favored me with something I had not had before, a sense of self value. For the first time I felt I had worth. I felt loved and cared for by God, not only in the actions of a Pastor, adult youth leaders and youth, but also by this bigger than creation supreme Spiritual being who appeared not only in Bible stories, but also in the worship and prayers and songs, and to my delight out in creation. I got doses and doses of Old Testament and New Testament grace. It caused me to turn my life around in so many ways including getting very involved in the church and wanting to be a minister and work to provide kindness and justice in a humble walk with God, that is I wanted to participate in providing grace and access to grace to others.
Paul put a spin on grace that is not typically found in the rest of the Bible. He added that humans do not merit or deserve grace. For example in Romans 3(12) he notes we all are worthless and not humna can be justified in God’s sight. Paul claims grace is free, but tainted that lovely Truth by adding that humans are unworthy of it. As a consequence of Paul’s addition, God’s grace is now very often understood in Christian circles as something like:
God’s goodness toward humanity as expressed in unmerited, undeserved favor given supremely in Jesus Christ to bring salvation, forgiveness, and new life.
That definition is from my Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, so it is mainstream. Even so, I personally have a lot of trouble with the wording “unmerited and undeserved favor” because it sounds like we are bad and don’t deserve God’s favor.
Paul and lots of churches and theologians understand humans that way, as if Adam’s sin tainted everyone’s DNA to the point we all just stink. Paul felt humans were born tainted and sinners. As such Paul claimed humans are unworthy and undeserving of God’s love. But in my experience “unmerited and undeserved” are human judgements and boundaries and requirements, not God’s. That is the whole point of grace, there’s no judgment in its dolling out, it just there. It is just ours. It’s just as free as the air we breathe.
Like I said, Paul actually agrees grace is free, he just thought no human deserved it and Jesus had to die to make it so all humans could get it. In modern speak, Paul’s position might be something like, the purported taint to human DNA that he thought made us unworthy, was altered by Jesus’ death . . . Jesus’ at the cross took the taint away, so God could love us. I think Paul is wrong, but in the end Paul reaches the same fundamental result with respect to grace, that it is not earned and is as free as the air we breathe. Which all on its own belies Christian theologies that claim humans have to do or believe something to get God’s grace.
That’s also true and Paul claims that. Nonetheless Paul would say Grace cannot be earned. I say there is no need to earn it. That may sound like a slight difference but I think it matters. Because I think calling humans unworthy is harmful. We all are loved and matter much. I’ve noted over and over again that people need to hear and know that. I am particularly aware of that because as a very young teen I came to church feeling unworthy. I was shy and lacked confidence and I was a pretty broken being. In the judgment of myself, my abuser, and apparently Paul, I did not merit or deserve favor. But that is not what Jesus taught. In Jesus’ theology we are all of great worth– we are all loved and matter much to all aspects of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Paul, and many others since, have claimed otherwise, creating the false impression that humans are so flawed God cannot love them without Jesus having been sacrificed which leads to strange and discordant views of God as father who . ..what? So unloved the world he needed a blood sacrifice?
But John 3:16 is Biblical proof Paul is wrong. If God so loved the world before sending Jesus, that means any taint Paul thought we had before Jesus, did not stop God’s love. From day one humans have been ipso facto worthy of love. God so loved us always, because we are worthy of love. Period. Had I understood that God thought I was worthless when I showed up at church I doubt very much that it would not have altered my life. I only showed up because I did not want to get in trouble by backing out on my deal with God, who I pictured as a disciplinarian in the sky, punishing and looking down on me. I showed up thinking I was unworthy and fearful of God’s wrath. The grace I got at church was all together unexpected.
I got what I was sure I did not deserve. I got goodness, I got salvation, I got forgiveness. And I got new life . . . I got no strings attached love . . . I got God’s grace. And I got it because Jesus and the God of Jesus so loved me that they offered me love and grace. Neither was earned. Neither was won. They both just were and they are. Always. Forever. Not one string attached. Not one issue of worthful-ness. Not a modicum of judgement. I was and am worthy of God’s love . . . and so are all of you, and everyone else too.
Paul agreed that God gives grace freely, but unfortunately argues that we are not worthy of it. We may, like him and others, judge that as true, but that is human judgement. In God’s judgement we are worthy of love. As Cliff’s amazing song from Psalm 139 points out, there is nowhere God and God’s love is not. As other Psalms, long before Paul, put it, that love is steadfast and endures forever.
I am going on about that because most of us may think we are not worthy but we are – that IS what the Psalms mean. That is what “God so loved” the world means. That is what “God is love” means. It is why Jesus says in the Gospel of John (15:9) “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” We are all worthy of the Father in Heaven’s love. We are all worthy of Jesus’ love. We are all worthy of abiding in that Spirit of love.
For anyone who might be aghast that I would dare to disagree with Paul’s words in the Bible, Christianity has long, long understood that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. “Jesus loves me this I know because the Bible tells me so . . .” and Paul cannot alter that because the Bible says JESUS and God find us worthy of love . . . me and you and everyone else too. Jesus telling us so in the Bible trumps anything that contradicts him.
Jesus, you see, trumps contradictions found in other Bible verses. Jesus trumps contradictions by Paul. Jesus trumps contradiction that religious people have made up over time. I did not know how to say that was why I left the church when I did but it was. It took me a long time to get that. I loved Jesus’ Way, it was what others put in the way of his Way that led me away.
And here’s the final thing, I may disagree with Paul on worthiness because it’s not Jesus-like; but I agree with him that grace and goodness can come out of suffering because that is Jesus-like. Jesus’ terrible suffering was not a good thing, but it led to a good thing, not because God and Jesus wanted or planned the suffering; but because Jesus’ Followers through the guidance of the Holy Spirit figured out how –as Paul puts it in our reading– to endure it and produce character from it– all of which led to hope in it. Paul’s sufferings have had similar effects. Indeed my own difficulties as kid led me to church to find the grace Jesus taught and gave. The Creator set it moving. Christ magnified in Jesus and others showed how Christ could be magnified in me, The Spirit calls me forward … that, that is the Trinity.
I came back to Christianity as an adult because I found a UCC church like this. Where in the past, present and future, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, call God’s people to shower people with grace not only to all who enter, but to all they can . . . anywhere. All three of those personas – the Trinity– call us to that, to provide love without bounds. The Trinitarian God wants us to treat all as worthy because that God so loved the world the Father sent the Son who’s Spirit is with us always, then . . . now . . . and tomorrow. May we so love the world like that.
1. Hollman Illustrated Theological Dictionary, p 678.
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