Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
After something on the order of a decade doing youth ministry, I can safely say I’ve seen some pretty disgusting stuff. One of the classic techniques for getting and keeping the attention of teenagers and young adults is to do something gross. For example, we came up with a game once that involved putting a bunch of random food into a blender and making a smoothie out of it. A volunteer would then drink the smoothie and try to determine what exactly we had blended into it. Before you go thinking it was just fruits and vegetables, let me explain that there was no food that was off limits for this game. We used everything from hamburgers to salmon to cookies to pickle juice. It was absolutely revolting. And the kids loved it. I cannot for the life of me remember if there was a point to that game other than winding the kids up. We also played fish basketball once. It was just as messy as it sounds. I guess if you think about it, just telling you about these games in my sermon introduction suggests that old habits die hard, because while I’m not actually throwing fish around right now, I’m telling you about it to get your attention. I hope it worked as well as the hamburger smoothies worked on those youth a few years back.
One year, at a youth conference, I saw a gross illustration that really took the cake. The speaker was talking about how we can’t have sin in our lives and say we’re good Christians at the same time. He walked onto stage with a bottle of chocolate milk in one hand and a bottle of lemonade in the other. He explained that the chocolate milk was living by the Spirit and the lemonade was living by the flesh. He might have even been using the same passage I just read. He said, “It’s like if you take a drink of the chocolate milk and you really like it.” And he took a big swig of the chocolate milk. “But you still really like lemonade and you see it there and think a little bit wouldn’t hurt.” And he drank a little bit of the lemonade. “Oh, but the chocolate milk is awesome.” So he took another drink of the chocolate milk. And he kept going back and forth between the two, explaining how that’s how we live when we go back and forth between living in the Spirit and living in the flesh. He kept switching back and forth faster and faster until he was drinking both at the same time. It was so gross to watch him drinking the two at the same time and by the end he had to stop because he couldn’t handle it any more and the whole crowd was yelling, “EEEEEW, STOP!”
I will never forget that illustration. Partly because it was hilarious and disgusting. Mostly because I think he missed the mark. He was right that living in the flesh and living in the Spirit don’t mix well. But he was wrong in suggesting that we’re able to ever completely turn away from our sin in this lifetime and he put way too much emphasis on our own will and ability to avoid the lemonade. To obsess about our own power and will to get it all right is just as sinful as the sins we worry about avoiding. That’s pride, friends. It’s just not as simple as saying yes to chocolate milk and no to lemonade.
Romans 8 tells us to stop living according to the flesh and start living according to the Holy Spirit. It sounds simple enough in writing, but try to actually do that. What Romans 8 does not say is that this is as simple as giving up a few things that seem worldly. It does not say to run and hide from the rest of the world so as not to be corrupted by its influence. In fact it says that this difficult balancing act is part of our suffering as Christians. It’s no fun at all. It’s hard and it’s sticky and it looks weird to the world.
Thank God, that in Jesus, God knows our suffering and that in the Holy Spirit, we are able to move toward understanding how this works. We are able to participate in the community of the Triune God even when we don’t get it all perfect. We don’t just watch from afar. We don’t just have to think about how someday we’ll get it right and become a real part of the family of God. We’re already adopted into the family of God and able to participate in community with God and with one another. . . even if we’re still trying to figure out what living in the Spirit looks like in a world full of worldly stuff.
We celebrate Trinity Sunday on the heals of Pentecost, partly because the Holy Spirit is sort of like the glue that binds this all together. The Holy Spirit is who inspires us and brings to us the gift of adoption. The Holy Spirit is how we know who we are – not who we are in the flesh (in the world), but who we really are in Jesus Christ. We aren’t just people who do good stuff or who do bad stuff. We are God’s children! We aren’t just “like a son” or “like a daughter” to God in a way that we might say a favorite friend’s child is like a child to us. We aren’t foster children who might be sent back into the system. We are adopted for good. The Holy Spirit is sort of like the judge who signs the adoption order and changes our name.
The Trinity is one of those things that is just flat out impossible to explain. We can do our best to say things about what our God the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” looks like. But God is unlike anything we know in creation, so we can only draw fuzzy pictures that don’t ever quite get it right. We can say that it’s sort of like an egg that has three parts, or the three leaves of a clover. We can say that it’s kind of like how I’m Pastor Charissa, Gloria’s Mom, Rich’s Daughter, Tim’s wife, but that those are all the same person, just different relationships I have with people. The Trinity is kind of like a dance or three people sitting at a table together. But we can only say that God works kind of like those things. Like the chocolate milk and lemonade illustration, those illustrations only get us sort of there, but they aren’t perfect.
An egg has a yolk, a white, and a shell, but the three parts of an eggs are three different substances that can be separated. You can eat just the yolk or just the white, and most of us just throw the shell away. You can’t separate the three persons of God. A clover has three leaves, but they are all the exact same thing – just three of it. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all distinct from one another. I have different roles when I’m with different people, but I’m still the exact same person in each of those roles. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit aren’t just different roles the same person plays. A dance or a boardroom table suggest that there are separate beings working together, but God isn’t’ separate beings.
The thing that all these illustrations of the Trinity have in common is that they are trying to describe the relationships between The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So perhaps the best thing we can say about this God Who Is Three And Yet One is that relationship and community are key. God in three persons. God isn’t just in relationship with us, but as three persons all of the same being, God is a relationship. Even without anyone else, God is relationship just by the nature of being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We can’t truly embrace our identity as Children of God unless we recognize the relational aspect of the Trinity and the relational fact of our lives in community with one another. We can’t truly embrace the Trinity without recognizing the impact that worshipping a God who is the embodiment of relationship has on our interactions with the people around us – even, and perhaps especially – with those who we would consider “of the world” and not “of the Spirit.”
Most people spend their lives searching for some way to belong to something. Nobody wants to feel like they don’t belong anywhere. Sometimes we people try so hard to feel like we belong – really really belong – to something, some group, that we work to show how other people don’t belong. That’s why we wind up drawing lines and saying things like “those people” or “that other group.” We sort people into groups and we get so caught up in determining who fits in which earthly groups that we completely forget that real belonging isn’t about what group of people we belong to, but it’s about being a child of the God who in God’s very own being models relationship, fellowship, belonging.
God has given us community with one another as a way for us to participate in the communal life of God as seen in the Trinity. When we devalue, classify, or marginalize anyone, we are standing in the way of that community and have forgotten that we are all loved by God. When we treat others as those who God loves, building community and fellowship with them, we are modeling our lives after God. We are allowing the Spirit’s work of reconciliation and relationship to change not just our own lives, but the lives of those around us. We start to talk to and act toward people differently. They are no longer just people who don’t belong to our particular “group” – whatever that group may be – they are important people. Whether they know it or not, they too are loved by God.
If we are to live by the Spirit as we see in Romans 8, we must stop worrying about who belongs to which group. We stop worrying about tally sheets of when we drank the chocolate milk and when we drank the lemonade. Or when THEY drank the chocolate milk and when THEY drank the lemonade. We all belong to God and that’s what matters. God loves everyone whether they realize it or not and so should we. We live by the Spirit when we stop sorting ourselves out according to worldly classifications like what church we go to, IF we even go to church or not, what language we speak, what color our skin is, how much money is in our bank account and we place our identity with what really matters: God. God of relationship. We live into the adoption granted to us by the power of the Spirit through the life of Jesus into the arms of God Almighty. We model God’s love and community with one another.