Imagine you are Jewish child living in Rome 2,000 years ago. As you and your sisters and brothers begin to fall asleep, you beg your father for one more bedtime story. “Tell us about Moses! Tell us about Moses!” And your father relents for the thousandth time, and he starts to tell you the story you long to hear….
The people of God had lived in slavery to the Egyptians as long as they had known. Every one of them knew the life of a slave and only the life of a slave. If there was variety in their life, it had to do with how harsh and unrelenting the slavemasters were. Sometimes they got straw to make bricks…other times they had to make them without. Sometimes they left the Israelites alone…other times they inexplicably began killing Israelite babies. The people had no idea what was going to come next.
Until a shepherd appeared out of the desert with a staff in his hand and stories of a burning bush on his lips. He talked in a new way, spoke of a new life, and even gave them a new way to look at themselves. Those who had only been slaves now began to see themselves as free. With words of hope and challenge: “Let my people go!” the Israelites began an exodus out of Egypt, and a journey toward a new life.
However, the journey was not always an easy one. They were in the desert, after all, and the people started to get hungry, and thirsty, and tired of sleeping in the sand. And most of all, they were afraid of what was going to happen once Moses and these pillars led them into the desert. Some of them suggested, “when we were in Egypt, at least we knew where our food was coming from. At least we had a place to lay our heads without getting sand in everything. Sure, we were slaves, but we knew what to expect. Maybe we should give up this journey, and just…go back.”
The guide to this new life was the very Spirit of God. They were led on their Exodus by a pillar of fire that burned continually at night, and a pillar of cloud that rumbled throughout the day. These pillars acted as their guides and told them where to go next, and led them on their journey.
But Moses pushed and pulled and cajoled and pleaded and they continued on their journey. The key to Moses’ ability to keep them motivated was the promise of a new land, flowing with milk and honey: “That’s where we are going. That’s why we need to keep moving. That’s why all this time in the desert is worth it, because we are due to inherit the Land of Promise.” And while it took a whole generation to get there, and while Moses himself didn’t even get to step foot in it, the Israelites made it to receive their inheritance, and lived in the Land of Promise given them by God.
Now, imagine that you are still that same Jewish child in Rome, but it is a few years later. You have now heard the story of Moses more times than you can count, and it has become a part of your story, an internalized part of your own journey of faith. Meanwhile, you and your family have followed that journey into a new community of faith, an offshoot of the Jewish community in which you were raised, a community that calls itself The Way. You are with your fellow believers when you hear a knock on the door. A messenger breathlessly enters your worship time with an urgent message from the Apostle Paul. It is a letter to you and your fellow believers in Rome, and the messenger catches his breath and reads every word. You don’t understand everything, but you hear things that definitely sound familiar: slavery, a savior, God’s spirit.
At the end of the letter, you look up to your father and whisper, “Daddy, it sounds like he’s talking about Moses.” And your father turns to you and smiles. “You are right, honey, he sure is.” And what biblical scholars spend a lifetime studying 2,000 years later, any child would have figured out in a heartbeat. Romans tells the story of a New Exodus, a new Moses, and a new way to understand God.
The Exodus was about slavery to the Egyptians.
The Gospel is about slavery to sin.
The Exodus speaks of a people scared, wanting to go back to their own life.
The Gospel warns of the foolishness of going back to their old life of sin.
The Exodus had its saviour Moses.
The Gospel has its saviour Jesus.
The Exodus speaks of the spirit of God present in the fire and cloud.
The Gospel speaks of the Holy Spirit in our midst, leading and guiding us.
The Exodus speaks of an inheritance of a Land of Promise.
The Gospel speaks of an inheritance of promise with Christ, as we become co-heirs with Jesus.
Now, imagine that you are, well, you. And you hear these two stories together. Hopefully it begins to be clear that these two stories, separated by 2,000 years from each other, are relevant in your life, now 2,000 – or 4,000 years later! It speaks of timeless principles just as relevant in our own lives:
Living in Slavery? Living Scared? Finding a Saviour? Hearing the Spirit? Receiving our inheritance? (I know, if I was a preacher worth my salt, that would also start with an “s”)
These principles snap right into place in our own lives do they not? The appeal that Paul was making was both as new as the freshly empty tomb, and as old as Moses. And today, they are still fresh in our lives, in our journeys, in our Exodus. They are timeless principles relevant today.
First, slavery. What does slavery look like in your life?
For Paul, the call to live according to the Spirit and not to the flesh was a centerpiece of his ethic – to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Philippians, and all followers of The Way. His point was that just like the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, we become enslaved to sin. And today, we are still tempted to replace the place of the Spirit with things of the flesh. How often in our journeys do we fall prey to self-soothing, self-numbing behavior that seeks to destroy instead of restore?
- We are bummed out about missing an assignment at work, and so we head to the mall to buy a pick-me up. Five hours, and three credit cards, later, we have spent enough to feel better. Until we get the bill.
- Or we are driving home after a long day and figure that we have earned a drink. But one becomes two, becomes too many, and before long, while we have forgotten the work stress for a moment, we have created more problems for ourselves, not to mention a raging headache.
- Or we are afraid that we are going to spend the rest of our lives alone, so we hook up with someone we meet at the party. In the attempt to find companionship, we end up feeling more alone than ever.
- Or we realize that it is the anniversary of mom’s death and so we think that maybe some ice cream will cheer us up. But at the bottom of the pint, we are still grieving, and now we feel sick, in more ways than one.
Paul recognized that finding fleshly answers to spiritual problems is a dead-end street. Slavery to sin is not new, nor is it something that we as a society have surpassed. It is Brene Brown that points to these self-numbing behaviors as one of the primary struggles of our society. Whenever we fail to live whole-heartedly, as she says – or as Paul would say, “according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh” – we are doomed to stay stuck in a cycle of guilt and shame and pain.
And we are scared to live this new life – our second timeless principle. Just like Moses and the Israelites, there are those who start to long for the safety of their old life of slavery. Those who say, “at least we had meals and a place to lay our head in Egypt – let’s go back.”
Paul uses that short-sightedness to remind the Romans about their own complaining and whining. “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear…” he tells them. In other words, don’t try and go back to the old ways, just because they are familiar. Don’t run back into slavery to sin, just because it is something that you know how to do. Don’t let fear turn you back toward the life of sin that you once lived. Just like the Israelites had to fight the temptation to return to the old life, we must fight the same temptation, argued Paul. Paul doesn’t mince words about returning to the slavery of the flesh. It’s like taking the freedom that we have been given and running back into the shackles of Egypt, begging to be enslaved once more. That’s as fooling as the short-sighted Israelites who begged to go back into slavery. And Paul’s answer for them – and us – is simple: don’t do it.
Our third timeless principle is the reality of salvation. What does having a savior look like in your life?
Hopefully, the teachings of Christ are relevant to your own life as you – like the Israelites – understood that yours was not a life of slavery, but one of freedom. Just like that powerful switch in mental model that took place for those who had always been slaves, it is the person of Christ, Paul says, who helps us to see that we don’t have to live under the tyranny of sin anymore. Jesus shows us a new way to be human. A new way to be free.
And, of course, on this Trinity Sunday, the person of our savior is followed closely by the person of the Spirit – our fourth “s” and another timeless principle. What place does the Spirit have in your life? This is the portion of the Trinity Sunday sermon in which I am contractually obligated to try and make sense of how God is present in three different persons. But as helpful as metaphors and children’s sermon illustrations are, I am going to cheat and use Paul’s method for describing the Trinity. There is a Source of all that is holy – sometimes called Father. There is a Moses-like leader – sometimes called Son. And there is a guide that shows up in different forms and leads us through the wilderness to the Promised Land – sometimes called Spirit. Paul’s language is evocative of the presence of God through the fire and the cloud, the tabernacling presence of the Holy.
If you want the fancy, seminary-grade explanation, this is what we call a perichoretic relationship. It is connected in Greek to the word “rotation,” using the picture of a circle to describe the ways that the Source, and the Savior, and the Spirit, all connect to one another.
If you want the less-fancy words, it means that God values relationship because God exists as relationship. God values community because God exists as community. God understands the value of belonging because God exists as belonging.
And, again, this is an eternal principle that we understand inherently, right? The desire to belong. Browning Ware tells a story about the famous and handsome poet Rupert Brooke. In 1913, he was leaving Liverpool for a trip to America, but there was no one to see him off, no one to wave goodbye as the ship pulled away from the dock. So, before he left, he offered a boy a sixpence to wave and shout farewell. Even he understood what it meant to be lonely. Ware’s response to this phenomenon includes these words: “The lonely have forgotten that they belong to God. The Creator has not forgotten his creation. He has not forgotten you.” We are not alone.
Which brings us to our final word, our final timeless principle (and the only one that doesn’t start with the letter “s.”) We are left with the vision on the horizon: the inheritance that we are meant to receive. Just like Moses, Paul uses the vision of a future inheritance to keep their eyes on the horizon. That is our final concept that echoes through the generations and into our lives as well. “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption…we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
And so, finally, the perichoresis that the Godhead shares has been shared with us, as well! We, too, are joint heirs with Jesus. We are a part of God’s inheritance of eternity. And it will last longer than the Promised Land did in the hands of the Israelites. For, we, too, will share as joint heirs the love of eternity. And not just eternity after life, but life that is more verdant and abundant and whole-hearted here and now.
And so, when instead of turning to the ice cream, we call up a friend, we are participating in the perichoresis that God has had from the beginning. When instead of turning to the credit card, we ask someone to pray with us, we are participating in the perichoresis that God created for us. And when we look for relationships more sustaining and fulfilling then overnight hookups, then we are living out of that perichoresis in life-renewing ways.
For me, the most powerful thing that I take away from the Trinity is the fact that it is rooted in community, in relationship, in belonging.
Or, like the old Gaither song goes: “I’m so glad I’m a part of the Family of God.” That family, that belonging, is what makes life abundant. A final word from the song…
From the door of an orphanage to the house of the King, No longer an outcast, a new song I sing; From rags unto riches, from the weak to the strong, I’m not worthy to be here, but praise God I belong!