sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018
This sermon will be about three things at once. I pray that the three topics may be one, acting with the same intention, mysterious but not incomprehensible, and not going on too long. This sermon will be about the Trinity, about the difference between flesh and spirit, and about the royal wedding. Of course.
But I want to start with our Psalm today, Psalm 29. There’s a verse in it that’s very strange. The Book of Common Prayer has it, “The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.” But if you really dig into the ancient Hebrew text, it could just as easily read, “The voice of the LORD brings labor pains upon a doe and causes a mountain goat to give birth prematurely.” We don’t know which is correct. But what if the psalmist intended to say both things at the same time?
This is why I love the Hebrew language, and this is why Psalm 29 is my very favorite psalm. What better poetry could there be than poetry that offers not one meaning, but many? What better faith could there be than a faith that is poetry and not just rote teaching? And what better text to speak to such a faith than the Bible we have, such a curious conglomeration of texts written by multiple authors over more than a thousand years—texts that alternately delight and horrify, relieve and confuse? What a weird thing this is, this faith that has been handed on to us. And is there any weirder inheritance of ours than the doctrine of the Trinity?
Is the Trinity in the Bible? Well, yes and no. No, if you mean a semi-cohesive theological formula by which 1+1+1=1. That would come later, in the era of the early Christian councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. But within the Bible, we do find God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—sometimes in surprising places and situations. The author of the Gospel of John declares that Christ always was—begotten, not made, working with God the Father at the very beginning. And we find God the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1 as well: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.” Wind: Ruach in Hebrew. Ruach also means breath, and the spirit of life. Ruach shows up in the psalms, and in Isaiah, and in other places in the Hebrew Bible. We find the Wisdom of God in several books, usually represented as feminine, as the divine Sophia. She could be equated with Christ or with the Holy Spirit, as could “the voice of God” in that wonderfully weird Psalm 29.
Paul talks about God’s holy Spirit today in the Letter to the Romans: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” So then, according to Paul, the Holy Spirit frees us from bondage to fear and replaces that fear with belonging. We see this clearly whenever we baptize someone, as we baptized Lucy, Finn, and Alice last week. Oh, the joy on their faces! We baptized them with water as Jesus instructed his apostles, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Well, the Trinity is all about threes. But we find today in our readings that both Paul and Jesus are talking in twos, in a duality of flesh and spirit. Now, I think this is one of the most dangerously misunderstood areas of Christian theology because of the unconscious biases we carry in our own times. When we think of spirit, we think of that which is invisible, incorporeal, elusive—and somehow less than real. The Holy Spirit is more traditionally referred to as the “Holy Ghost,” and unfortunately, that makes me think of spooky haunted houses more than the fiery love of God. And when we think of flesh, don’t all our minds automatically go somewhere in the area of sex, and even to some sort of condemning of sexual desire as somehow dirty or at least less than holy?
So first, understand that in ancient Hebrew thought, there wasn’t much of a differentiation between our bodies and our souls. Our ancestors in the faith never would have thought of human beings as souls trapped inside a troublesome and limiting body. Indeed, without your body, your soul could not be, and the notion of an afterlife had only partially developed by Jesus’ time. We have the Greeks to blame, and primarily Plato, for our body-soul dualism. The Hebrew differentiation of flesh and spirit is not, as it turns out, a parallel.
Rather, when Paul differentiates the flesh from the spirit, it’s a matter of where we choose to put our focus. The flesh will always demand certain things, and it is right to do so. We cannot stay alive without eating and drinking. But when we limit our focus to these things—to mere survival, or to satisfying the present, immediate need—we are remaining “of the flesh.” This can be selfish, such as when we say, “Well, I’ve got mine, so that’s all that matters.” Or it can be as good and as innocent as taking pride in a personal accomplishment. There are many perfectly appropriate matters “of the flesh.”
To become “of the spirit” means to set a higher standard for ourselves that is beyond our instant gratification. Some people aren’t able to do this, because they’ve never felt secure enough “in the flesh” to go beyond it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being “of the flesh,” just like there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a child. It is a phase of the journey, and it is leading somewhere, all in God’s good time.
Furthermore, we are never fully “of the spirit,” but we also must attend to the needs “of the flesh.” When we say, “If I don’t take care of myself, I won’t have any energy to give to others,” we are setting healthy boundaries, and this is a matter “of the flesh.” But this taking care of ourselves serves the parts of our lives that are “of the spirit.”
One of the ways we can remain stuck “in the flesh” is to remain enslaved to our most irrational fears, and it is to this tendency that Paul addresses the Roman church in today’s reading. Paul is saying, “God has adopted you into the only family that matters. Relax. You belong to God, and God will not let you fall.” But, he warns, living “according to the flesh” happens when we let our fears run wild, when we try to seize control over our lives in every way we can. It happens when we have no qualms about hurting others to protect ourselves.
Likewise, Jesus urges his potential disciple Nicodemus to relax into God’s love and to be born anew. As we age, we find ourselves burdened with fears that, it turns out, are unfounded once we understand how eternal God’s love for us is. Being “born again” means letting God put our fears to death and starting over.
|The Most Rev. Michael Curry,|
Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
(image from express.co.uk)
A week ago Saturday, our presiding bishop Michael Curry preached at Windsor Castle at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and he brought the house down! Bishop Curry preached about love—not a surprising topic at a wedding. But here’s the shocking thing: church weddings are not primarily about the couple. Weddings are about God—about what holy things God is accomplishing through the couple as they publicly declare their commitment to each other for life. When Bishop Curry quoted Song of Solomon—another Spirit-rich Hebrew text—and said that love is a fire, I could only think, “Wow! Pentecost came a day early in England!”
Indeed, the love Bishop Curry points to is a fierce, fiery love—the love by which God pursues us. This joyful love catches us up in its playful embrace and then sends us outward. Wherever that love spreads, God’s work is accomplished, and that’s Good News! This is why Bishop Curry quoted the Hebrew prophets to point out, during a wedding, that God’s vision is for an end to poverty, and end to violence, and end to exploitation. No wedding is only about the couple, because one of the most important ethical values of committed, sexual love is that it provides energy that the couple can then turn outward on the world.
Furthermore, as I looked at the shots of stony-faced congregants at that wedding, and also at those who occasionally let slip a smirk or a smile, I thought: “Bishop Curry is pointing to a love that can free us from fear. It can burn up all our stuffy, anxious self-consciousness and free us to love joyfully and with abandon!” This love also burns up all our self-righteous bigotry ... all our gross ambitions for power ... all our selfish lusts for that which we cannot control ... all the ways that we do live according to the flesh. This burning, consuming fire of the Spirit is what God's Judgment is. It may hurt … a lot. But I say, bring it on! I want to be free to live according to the Spirit—God’s Holy Spirit.
Bishop Curry will be with us at St. Paul’s for a brief time on Friday, June 15, at 3:30 p.m. We’re not giving out tickets, so show up early and save seats! It won’t be a church service—just a public address with some question-and-answer time. But I bet that Bishop Curry will make us feel like we’re in church—not dry, stuffy church, but spirit-filled, fiery church! We are the Church, and when we love God, love one another—and while we’re at it, love ourselves—we can help God to change the world.