June 3, 2012
In 1997 I was invited to attend a family reunion on my father’s side, the Busse side. This was the first family reunion that I had ever been to, and it was going to be the reunion to end all reunions. This was a reunion of all the descendants of Christian Busse, my great-great-great grandfather. He was the first Busse to come to this country from Germany. He was a minister and he started a small Lutheran church in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The reunion was centered around this church, the church that my great-great-great grandfather built. My grandfather, also a minister, was confirmed in that church. And my great-grandfather, William Frederick Busse – my own father’s namesake – is buried in the old cemetery next to the church.
Not only was I invited to attend the reunion, I was asked to preach. That was both an exciting and terrifying honor. The pulpit in that church was a good Lutheran pulpit, meaning that it had a significant intimidation factor. It was positioned up and over the congregation. You had to climb stairs to get into it, and once you were there you could lean out and really stare down the people below you. I am not a fiery enough preacher and far too confirmed in my Presbyterian ways to want that week after week, but it was fun for just one Sunday.
When I stood in that pulpit I realized I was experiencing, actually living out, the idea of standing on the shoulders of the people who have gone before. I was standing on the shoulders of all the generations of ministers in my family, going right back to Christian Busse himself. My three times great grandfather stood in that pulpit. Here I was, standing in it too.
The current pastor of the church, not a Busse, asked me to help him with the celebration of communion that Sunday. Just as we have been coming forward to take communion during Eastertide, that was the tradition in this church; everyone came forward to receive it. Because it was a special weekend with the reunion, every Busse descendant was asked to wear a blue ribbon to distinguish themselves as being a member of this large family. When it came to family, Christian was prolific. He had a large family, and all of his children and grandchildren were prolific as well. The church was packed with Busse’s. As I stood there offering the bread and cup, it seemed as though a giant wave of blue ribbons were washing toward me. Blue ribbon after blue ribbon after blue ribbon. It dawned on me watching all these blue ribbons that this was my family. Most of those people I met for the first time that day, and most of them I’ll never see again. But they were, are, my family. We may be third, fourth, fifth cousins or beyond but we share a common bond, a common ancestor. We all trace our beginnings back to the same source.
In our passage from Romans Paul reminds us that as followers of Christ we have another common source, a common parentage. We have received a spirit of adoption. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
Through the Spirit, Paul quite literally says that we are adopted. We have been adopted by God. We have been adopted into the family of God. This means that Christ is our brother, and just as he refers to God as Father, as parent, we can also do the same. Through the leading of the Spirit we have been adopted into an enormous family, but we share an intimate relationship with our adoptive parent. Scholars say that our adoption means we have changed from being enemies of God or rebels against God to children of God. It is the Spirit who opens us, opens our hearts. It is the Spirit who enables us to cry out, “Father” when we pray for God to come near. It is our close encounter with the Spirit that brings about our adoption into God’s family.
The funny thing about encounters with the Spirit though, as the story of Pentecost certainly testifies to, is that they never leave you the same. Being led by the Spirit not only means adoption, it means change, it means transformation. We are changed. One of my favorite hymns is My Shepherd Will Supply My Need. The last verse ends with, “no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” This is the kind of change I think Paul is describing. This is the kind of change that occurs when we encounter the Spirit. We are not a stranger. We are not a guest. We are a child at home.
Paul begins this particular passage saying that we are debtors. Not to the flesh but to the Spirit. Because of the Spirit we are adopted into God’s family. Going through adoption teaches us a better way to live and be and do. Being debtors as I understand Paul, means that we know a better way than a life lived for the flesh only. Living for the flesh is not just about physical things. Living by the flesh means a life lived merely for ourselves, for our own interests.
We are transformed by our experience with the Spirit. Pauline scholar, Paul Achtemeier, wrote that “No one who faces the living God can remain as he or she was before.” I know that’s true in my experience. I think the reason we’re here today is because in one way or another, we’ve all experienced that. We have faced the living God and we are changed because of it.
Maybe I should have made the title of today’s sermon, “The Living God” rather than “The Story of God.” I knew I was setting myself up for a daunting task if I used that title, because it would somehow imply that I could wrap up God’s story in one nice, neat little sermon. That’s not going to happen. The other challenge for today is the fact that it is Trinity Sunday. My favorite scholars on WorkingPreacher.org issued a challenge for preachers this Sunday to either A)not say anything about the Trinity in today’s sermon, or B)at the very least, don’t try to explain it. I’m going with option B.
There is no real way to explain the Trinity. I can’t explain it any more than I can the Resurrection. It is a mystery that defies explanation. We have analogies, metaphors, to try and help us get a grasp on what it means to worship a triune God. The desert fathers referred to the Father as being the source of the light. The Son is the light itself, and the Spirit is the warmth that we feel from the light. Augustine spoke of the Father as the Lover, the Son as the Beloved and the Spirit as the love between the two.
Sometimes duties or attributes are ascribed to each member of the trinity. The Father is the Creator, the Son is the Redeemer and the Spirit is the Sustainer. But that doesn’t work either because doesn’t Jesus create new life, and doesn’t the presence of God sustain us, and don’t we find redemption in the power of the Spirit?
How many children’s sermons have I seen where a well-intentioned minister talks about the three properties of water. It’s liquid, it’s ice, it’s steam. That’s the Trinity.
But that’s not the Trinity. And no matter how good or intelligent or well-reasoned any of these analogies are, none of them quite describe the Trinity, because the Trinity ultimately defies explanation. As scholar, David Lose, wrote this past week, people who believe they can explain the Trinity are not to be trusted. So as far as explanation goes, I’m out.
Yet, “no one who faces the living God can remain as he or she was before.” Even though I can’t explain it, I do believe that encountering the Trinity is encountering the living God. It is the story of God. As best as I can understand it, with my limited perception, the Trinity is about relationship. And as best as I can understand it, with my limited perception, the story of God has been and continues to be about God reaching out in relationship to us. We are called to be in relationship with the living God and with one another. We are adopted into that relationship. And we are not as we were before.
We are not the same as before because we have encountered the living God in the story of God. The story of God is the story of a living God who embodies relationship and reaches out to us to do the same. The story of God is in all of the scriptures we have before us today – in the call of Isaiah, when even the heavenly host cry acknowledge that God is far holier, far greater, far bigger than anything we can imagine. The story of God is in the gospel, where Jesus embodies the love of God. The story of God is in these verses from Romans where we learn of our adoption as God’s children through the Spirit. And we are not just children but heirs. We inherit God’s amazing life and love.
Yet the story of God goes beyond even our scriptures. The story of God is a story about a God who doesn’t sit at a distance from us, in a heavenly pulpit, either aloof or raining down fiery punishment from on high. The story of God is about a God who loves, without limit, without end. And out of that love God comes to us in different ways to love us, to be in relationship with us. The story of God is about community. It is about relationship. And that relationship is found in our stories about that story. It is found here in this place, and it is found beyond these doors. It is found wherever people encounter the living God. The Trinity is more than an abstract doctrine. It is a relationship. It is an ongoing story of love. And when we encounter that love, the love of Father, Son and Spirit, we are never the same. Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”