Scripture: Romans 8:14–27
One the most memorable movies during my growing-up years was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As an adult, the movie has some racial undertones and slavery symbolism that you can’t un-see, but these go right over your head as a child. It was about candy and joy and of course, chocolate!
For those who may not remember the movie, it was about a young boy named Charlie Bucket who was one of a handful of children who received a Golden Ticket to enter into the mysterious factory of Willy Wonka (played by Gene Wilder in the movie). One by one, these children are revealed to be selfish or uncaring, and end up in vats of chocolate, or turned into blueberries, other similar punishments. Until at last, the only one left is Charlie, who Wonka reveals gets to inherit the whole thing. The factory, the chocolate, everything is his!
Which is, of course, a movie all about the Holy Trinity? Obvious, isn’t it?
Today is Trinity Sunday, which is a Sunday that many preachers dread every year. They dread the pressure and expectation of taking one of the most complex and unclear doctrines of the faith and turning it into a 25 minute sermon. And if you think it is hard for preachers, imagine the task in front of those who have to do the children’s sermon! Try and explain the Trinity in three minutes or less! With an object lesson, if possible!
And I think that this dread is shared…by preachers on Trinity Sunday, or parents trying to explain it to their kids, or Christians trying to explain it to friends or co-workers who don’t share the faith. Trying to explain the substance and personhood and nature of God is something that seminary professors and big-time theologians have struggled to do over the years, let alone the rest of us!
But let me suggest something perhaps a little radical today. Maybe our job this morning isn’t to explain the Trinity.
I think that part of where this dread comes from is that we think we have to have this airtight, crystal clear, doctrinally sound theological explanation, that sparkles from the pulpit, or wows our neighbors. We think that our salvation depends on some unambiguous theological understanding of who God is…as Creator, as Christ, and as Spirit. With an object lesson, if possible! And maybe a chart. And some long Greek words.
But look at how the Bible talks about the Trinity. It is very much chart-free. And metaphor-free. And even free of the actual word “Trinity.”
But we have seen examples from the lectionary today as a handful of the passages that reference this “multiple” nature of God:
· The call of Isaiah has this three-fold, singular-yet-plural nature of God, as the prophet is called in the power of this Temple experience.
· Then Psalm 29 is a creation psalm—it would fit just as well in our Season of Creation at the end of the summer—but again speaks of God in this plural and eternal and omnipresent way.
· And John 3 is one of the most famous, as Jesus the Son talks about God as Father and references the Spirit.
· And there are plenty of others. One of my favorites is the baptism of Jesus in Mark especially, and the Two-Way named others, including the first creation story in Genesis one and the spirit of God hovering over the deep, and John 1 and “the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
But, again, there is this distinct lack of tables and charts and complex theological language. These passages seem to point to a truth off in the distance, but one shrouded in a mist. Maybe the point of the Trinity is not to take that truth and package it into something that can be stenciled onto a wall, or printed in a greeting card, or placed on a doo-dad at a Christian bookstore. But the point of the Trinity seems to be that its fullness exists beyond that mist:
· Like the smoke-filled Temple of Isaiah, where even this prophet, this powerful speaker, this wordsmith, cannot help but say, “I am a man of unclean lips.”
· Or the psalmist, who finds the best language to describe God comes from Creation, with phrases like “holy splendor” and “flames of fire” and wilderness.
· Or Nicodemus, who was a wise and learned scholar of his day, who just. didn’t. get it. Who Jesus chides for being unable to understand what it means to be born from above. In Nicodemus’ confusion, Jesus uses language of wind and water and slippery serpents, in conjunction with the words of salvation and eternity.
If these words of Scripture say one thing with utmost clarity, it is this: we cannot speak of God with utmost clarity. Our words cannot be perfect. Our understanding cannot be complete. Even here in Romans 8, Paul, who never shies away from sounding like he has all the answers, shares this language of Trinity that is humble and open and full of mystery. When you don’t know how to pray, when the ways of the world and the ways of God are a mystery, the Spirit will intercede “with sighs too deep for words.” When you don’t understand, you are not alone. When you cannot explain what is happening, the Triune God is with you. The God beyond our explaining is not a God beyond our knowing.
“God with us.” Maybe that’s all the theology you need to understand of the Trinity. The God of “with”… “Jesus with the One he called Father”… “Christ with the power of the Spirit”…God with God with God… is also God with us. The “withness” of God is what you need to remember from Trinity Sunday. God who has always been God in relationship, in community, in family, is the God who invites you into that family, to share that relationship.
Which is exactly where Paul goes in his theological treatise in Romans. At the time that Paul writes, according to scholar Sarah Ruden, a popular form of literature is what is sometimes called “adoption fantasy.” In the midst of a people who were under the thumb of the Romans, often living in poverty and despair, there was a popular genre of story that suggested a form of salvation. The short version of these stories is that a normal nobody—like you and me—would get adopted by a high-ranking Roman official. They would get noticed for their virtue or their giftedness, and this rich Roman patron would adopt this nobody. Instead of giving their money to their own rotten children, they would give it all to this adopted child.
We see a similar story in our own culture. Little orphan Annie? Not abandoned and left in the cruel, hard-knock orphanage, but adopted by the gracious Daddy Warbucks! Or Harry Potter? Not an unloved orphan, locked in a closet by his uncaring aunt and uncle, but a boy with incredible power and true family heritage!
Or, you waited so patiently for it…Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! The best known adoption narrative of my generation. This poor boy who wasn’t rich, or powerful, or charismatic, or smart. Those kids all went by the wayside. Willy Wonka chose him! Adopted him as his protégé. To receive his paradise.
Paul asks, what if that story came true? What if we were loved so dearly…not just by a Roman patron, or a family of wizards, or millionaire with a candy factory? What if we were loved so dearly by the Creator of the universe, that we would be adopted into the Family of God? What if we could leave behind the emptiness and the brokenness of the world around us, and instead enter into the eternity of that Family? Of that relationship? Of that love? What if that adoption meant that we were children of God? What if that adoption meant that Jesus—the One and Only—became our brother? What if the Holy Spirit of God dwelt in us? Isn’t that the kind of family that we yearn for in our wildest dreams? The kind of family that Paul wistfully wrote about…that Isaiah glimpsed in that Temple, that the psalmist saw in Creation, and that even old Nicodemus could figure out.
And it’s true. That’s the truth of the Trinity. That God with God with God…is God with us. That we are grafted into the Family of God. That our inheritance is beyond that of Willy Wonka or Daddy Warbucks…it is the eternity of God’s heaven!
There is a song that Gene Wilder sings in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is a little silly in parts, but I can imagine the Holy God singing it today, in three-part harmony…
Come with me and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you’ll see
Into your imagination
We’ll begin with a spin
Travelling in the world of my creation
What we’ll see will defy explanation…
May it be so! Even as the God that we see defies explanation, it is with the fullness of our hearts and minds and hopes and imaginings that we see that God with God with God…with us…invites us into the eternal love and grace and family of faith, where God waits to bring us home.