notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Romans 8 - The Holy Trinity: Divine Love Triangle
Waterloo United Free Church 11/6/06
Romans 8. 1-17
This morning I want to try to persuade you that there are not two - but three sides to every story.
We're often persuaded that there are only two sides. We read Paul's letter to the Romans in a way that suggests that the Christian life is a two-way confrontation between the Spirit and the flesh. We read the sports pages and are persuaded that young Wayne Rooney's prospects of playing in the World Cup are caught between two things - his fitness and his manager.
And onto weightier matters, conflict in war-torn Iraq is usually reported as a confrontation between the good guys - the newly-formed government supported by the US militarry, and the baddies - those refusing to accept democracy and fighting a guerilla war on the streets of Baghdad.
Life, however, is never that simple. And there are always more than two sides to every story. In fact, as a rule, there are three.
In reality we know that Iraq has broken into a land where war rages between two sects - the Shiite and the Sunni - and US forces are caught in the middle.
In reality we know that the answer to the question, Will Wayne play in the World Cup? rests on the decisions of three men - Wayne himself, his England manager Sven, and Alex Ferguson his club manager whose presence in these negotiations has been equally forceful.
And what about Romans Eight, one of the foundational texts of our faith, where Paul holds up two sets of opposites and celebrates the victory of one over the other:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. [Rom 8.1-2]
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you [Rom 8.9]
These are the words of eternal life and they portray a world divided between flesh and spirit. Look closely at them, though, and we will see that Paul is telling us that there are not two, but three players in this eternal game - the flesh, the Spirit, and ourselves. Paul isn't describing something which happens outside us, in some vague spiritual realm. He's describing the way we live our lives day to day, in our fleshly bodies.
Those who want to be faithful to Christ must be aware that our daily lives are a constant exchange between the flesh, the Spirit, and ourselves. We are not empty vessels. We live in what could be described as a triangle of love and desire. The things we do with our bodies we do because we're in a love triangle.
This triangle idea fits well with one of the ways we Christians talk about God. We talk about God as the Holy Trinity. We've sung about God in those terms today:
Father, we adore you... Jesus, we adore you... Spirit, we adore you...
God in three persons, blessed trinity.
Around the world today Christians are celebrating Trinity Sunday, and preachers are tying themselves in knots trying to describe this almighty puzzle of One God in Three Persons, the triangle of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
All over the world today unfortunate preachers are using their "children's sermon" slot to try to help their congregations to make sense out of this puzzle by trying to describe God like - apples (cut in half to reveal three parts: skin, fruit, core); or water (the three phases of ice, liquid, and steam).
And all over the world today these unfortunate congregations are left struggling to make sense of the Trinity through these well-meaning but flawed illustrations. These attempts to describe God all fall far short of the Trinity, not just because they are pale analogies, but because they shift our focus from what the Trinity is all about: God as Love.
The bible tells us a love story. But our attempts to understand the Trinity usually present us with some puzzle to comprehend, which takes us completely away from the love story.
I think we can better understand the Trinity in terms of the biblical love story. Where the 'characters' in the story can be seen in a triangle, a divine love triangle quite different from the triangles of love and desire we find ourselves embroiled in day by day.
You might not think you're very good at geometry but here is a triangle every congregation will understand.
A family with two sons. The eldest son at one point of the triangle, looking for something to play with. The youngest son at another point of the triangle, looking for something to play with too. The room they are in is full of wonderful toys - there's no shortage of things for each of them to play with happily. But at the third point in the triangle is one particular toy.
Not a very special toy - let's say it's a rusty old Action Man - but by now I suspect that you know what this triangle is about. One thing you can be absolutely sure of in children is that when one child sees another playing with a particular toy - then that toy becomes the one toy they both want to play with. And a squabble breaks out.
This happens because from birth we are all caught up in triangles of desire. What one child wants immediately becomes what the other child wants. There are three elements to every story - the toy and the two children, the object of one person's desires which becomes the object of the other person's desires.
And of course it's not just children who copy each other's desires - it's all of us. And just like the fight on the nursery room floor the outcome is the same across all ages and all societies - conflict. In other words, the 'love triangles' that we human beings get into, turn bad, and we end up fighting.
If I were to ask each of you in turn if you could tell me aa story of a triangle you have been in, or have seen others embroiled in, I'm sure that given time you'd come up with some very good examples.
One man was honest enough to share this story with me recently:
My brother-in-law got a new sports car last year, he said. He seems to love his car, and he often talks enthusiastically about its powerful engine and incredible sound system. I now find that his constant "jokes" about my old red Rover are more and more annoying. I wish I could afford a sports car, but I won't admit to him - or to myself - that the reason I desire a sports car is envy. If I admitted that it would damage my bruised self-image even more - it would show me up as being petty, slavishly imitating my brother-in-law.
So, I convince myself that the reason I want a sportier car is because sports cars are more enjoyable to drive. The real reason I want a sportier car, of course, is because I want what he's got.
However, since I can't afford a sports car, I become resentful towards my brother-in-law. I won't recognise why I'm resentful. I may say to myself that he's "arrogant" or that he doesn't show me the respect I deserve. While there is much about my friendly brother-in-law that I used to like, increasingly I resent him. And I find myself more and more full of anger, resentment; a thirst for vengeance builds up inside me. I find myself caught in this terrible triangle of desire.
The dilemma that this honest man was describing is nothing new. We can go as far back as Genesis chapters 3 and 4 to see the first stories of love triangles gone awry. The first perfect triangle of Adam, Eve and God replaced by the destructive triangle of Adam, Eve and the Serpent. Where the serpent slides into the role of God as the model of desire and contradicts God's edict regarding the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. Where the humans see that fruit as desirable and the result is rivalry with God, a love triangle gone awry.
When we come to model the desire of the creature instead of the Creator, the result is rivalrous triangles, including with God. We think we can know what God knows. And the results is conflict and death, brother killing brother (Gen. 4). We are caught in the triangles of sin and death.
Let's get back to what Paul has to say in Romans 8. He gives names to the three sides of the triangle we are in: the flesh, the Spirit, and ourselves.
It seems to me that Paul's use of the word "flesh" is basically what we have talked about here in terms of love triangles gone awry. By "flesh" he doesn't mean our bodies. Our bodies are just flesh and blood; they're neutral. The thing which drives what our bodies do, in each moment, is our rivalrous desire. Our rivalrous desire - our behaviour in these triangles of desire - that's what Paul means by "the flesh".
Paul makes it very clear that we cannot by our own power get out from being trapped in these fleshly triangles. The Spirit, on the other hand, is the power of Father and Son's love triangle with the world. Via baptism and the power of the Spirit we are made children of, and are born again into, the divine love triangle, the Trinity.
There is a solution to the problem of the triangle: God the Father sent Jesus his Son into the world to show us another love triangle. It was different to the ones we're caught up in because Jesus never tried to rival his heavenly Father. Jesus never tried to snatch his Father's world off him as a child would his sibling's toy, Jesus never got jealous about his Father's power and authority as an adult would her friend's status.
Instead, Jesus perfectly did God's will; he perfectly came to love what God loves - namely, the world, us:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. [John 3:16]
The end of our bad love triangles is death; we are perishing. But the end of Jesus' love triangle with God the Father is life, eternal life. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings us out of our love triangles gone bad and into God's love triangle; the Spirit is the power of God's love to help us love like Jesus did.
Sometimes it might seem that we are hopelessly caught up in these love triangles gone awry. No matter how hard we try to have them be simply love triangles, they always end up going bad on us. All our relationships go sour, especially since they end in death.
That is why the Christian faith came to see the necessity of the doctrines of both original sin and the Trinity.
Original sin describes the mess we are in, hopeless for us to get out of on our own. The Trinity describes the shape of God's salvation: the only hope for us was for the Father to send the Son in order to establish a love triangle that doesn't go bad. Jesus taking on flesh is what makes the Christian faith unique. The sending of the Spirit is what makes us capable of breaking the triangle of sin.
It took God's love incarnate in a human being to establish his divine love triangle in history; and it takes the Spirit to gather us up into it.
Thanks, as ever, to Paul Nuechterlein's sermon notes on his essential website, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary