Relationships, Relationships, Relationships- a sermon for The Holy Trinity (The First Sunday after Pentecost)

First Lutheran Church as pictured on its website from the outside of the church building.

I had the privilege of being with the good people of First Lutheran Church in Fremont, Nebraska on Holy Trinity Sunday, June 12, 2022. This was an unplanned visit, but a good one nonetheless as the congregation dealt with a bit of a COVID outbreak among many of its staff and key leaders. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from, and is based especially on the appointed gospel lesson and second lesson for the day, John 16:12-15 and Romans 5:1-5.

Grace and peace from God in Christ who is with you, for you, and who loves you. Amen.

Good morning First Lutheran. I’m Deacon Timothy Siburg, your partner in ministry for mission, innovation and stewardship. It’s great to be back with you, today even though it might have been unplanned. Pastor Duane if you are tuning in, I hope that you feel better soon and please know that I was greatly looking forward to watching your sermon that you were imagining preaching this week. I hope you’ll still find a way to share that message soon. Now to all of you, today’s sermon won’t be from Pastor Duane.  But rest assured, I am sure he will be back in the office as soon as he clears COVID.

As I’m with you today, I bring you greetings from Bishop Brian Maas and your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Juliet Focken, as well as from your 90,000 siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. Given the news of the past week, I also bring you greetings from someone else you know well, Bishop-elect Scott Johnson, and I want to give a special word of thanks today to your delegation that you sent to Synod Assembly last week in Kearney. I had the pleasure of sitting directly in front of them throughout the assembly, and you should be proud of their engagement and participation in the shared work of our church. Thank you, and thank you all for praying for and supporting the shared work of our church together.  Just as the Spirit moved through assembly in ways mysterious and wonderful, let’s now think about what God might be calling us to see, hear, and sense.

(The live-stream broadcast as shared by the congregation on Facebook. If you would rather watch or listen to the sermon instead of reading it, or the whole service, just click the link above, and click play.)

Today of course is the day we celebrate God in Three Persons, the Holy Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But if you’re expecting to hear me try and tell you what that means, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I am not about to fall into the trap and try and explain a way the mystery of our Triune God. I mean centuries and even millenniums of theologians have tried to do that. It’s partly why we have the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds of our church, and all of the councils of church history that led to those creeds which featured great conflict in the church. Imagine that, church and conflict. It happens, and we’re not talking about the color of the carpets, how strong the coffee should be, or the fact that someone else is sitting in my chair or pew. No. Conflict about the very nature of God and who God is. But that’s as far as I am going to go there.

The Trinity helps us understand relationships, and given the history around it, reminds us that we don’t always agree about everything. On this day in particular I give thanks for the dance and relationship that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share and embody. Showing us what relationship means, and calling us all to be in relationship with God and with one another.

Relationships and Truth
That idea of relationship is so central in our story today. Jesus is sharing some of the final words he will give to the disciples prior to his arrest in Jerusalem. He knows that his hour is at hand. So what is he going to convey in his last words before his arrest and sham trial? Love, which is the heart of a message he has been telling the disciples throughout his ministry and especially the duration of Holy Week. The assurance and promise that God walks with God’s own, and that they will not be alone. The promise that the Spirit of Truth will be with them. The Spirit, the Advocate, the one who we celebrated at Pentecost last Sunday.[1] And part of the work of this spirit will be to take what is Jesus’ and make it known to the Body of Christ in the world- God’s beloved- the disciples of all times and places including you and me. This is part of God’s self-emptying and entrusting- the opening up of God’s love for all of God’s beloved. That seems to be what Jesus has on his mind here.

Some of the great conversations and relationships on display between services at First Lutheran as people enjoyed some coffee, doughnuts, and time together as God’s people.

Jesus is making way for the coming of the Spirit of Truth. Perhaps we should take a moment and ponder what this truth might mean. It’s very important in John’s gospel. Just think of a couple examples.

At the very beginning of this gospel in a lesson we often hear on Christmas Day, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”[2] The Word incarnate Jesus, John is saying is the truth. That theme Jesus later picks up on in his famous “I am” statements, proclaiming that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life.”[3]

The coming of the Spirit of Truth is something Jesus has been laying the ground work for, for the disciples. But they don’t understand it yet. It’s something too that shortly after this, when Jesus is arrested and then standing before Pilate, Pilate will ask him about, asking a question we perhaps miss amid the rest of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Pilate askes Jesus, “What is truth?”[4] Jesus doesn’t really answer Pilate, but if we have been paying attention in John’s gospel, we can probably start to unpack what Jesus means by the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit who shines light on God’s activity in, with, for, and among God’s people. The Spirit who also shines light on what is broken and that which needs healing, reconciliation, restoration, and justice. And God through the Spirit invites us all into this shared work together as disciples, stewards and children of God who are guided by the light of the Spirit of Truth.

Inside the sanctuary early in the morning before worship.

Law and Gospel
Throughout this gospel, and Jesus’ ministry, Jesus has been calling God’s people to take notice, to witness and wonder. To see the mysterious activity of God, and wonder, “what might God be up to here?” It’s not dissimilar to what we’re all called to do today. So as the Spirit of Truth comes, it can excite and it can make us uncomfortable. Because it’s very presence means change. As the Spirit of Truth moves, it does so often countering the lies of the world- those of scarcity, power, greed, and the ways we all at times come up short and maybe even miss the point of what Jesus is talking about. For example, how many of you have heard the phrase, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle?” Yeah. That’s popular. But it’s not Biblical. Life has ups and downs that no one can always handle. I know this phrase is not true. I have two toddlers after all. I couldn’t do it alone. But with the Spirit of Truth, and together as the Body of Christ, we can see more clearly the truth that Jesus has been pointing to all along- the truth of God’s abundant and abiding love as a manifestation of grace.

As Jesus has talked about truth, he has been doing a very Lutheran thing, if you will, holding the law and gospel together. The law, as grounded in the words of the prophets and the wisdom of the Old Testament, is given by God to make sure that life goes well for God’s people. As people of God in relationship it also grounds us in our baptisms as we are set free, but also entrusted into relationship with one another. And we know, like in all relationships there is give and take, ups and downs, and good and not so good days. That’s why we practice confession and forgiveness to be reconciled and restored to God and to one another. And the law then is held together with the gospel. The gospel truth that the Triune God does all of what God does, out of love and a desire to be with us, regardless of what we do or deserve.

The “Pray Ground” in the front side of the sanctuary. This is such a great example of making space and providing welcome for the younger saints, showing that all of God’s people, young and old, are welcome in worship no matter what. I wish all sanctuaries would have this kind of space near the front so kids can participate in worship, be included, and have a space for them to use their energy in constructive ways too.

That’s the truth. That’s the good news that Jesus is trying to convey to the disciples in his last few moments before going to the garden and being handed over and arrested. It’s a truth that is a pure gift. One we could not earn. As the Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”[5] Again, it’s a gift. And this gift is one that frees us and leads us into life together. Together with God and with all of God’s people. That means relationships, which an also mean challenges, disagreements, great creative and collaborative works, and beautiful things.

A not so terrible picture of me while preaching, courtesy of the congregation’s live stream. (Yes, in the white stole that blends in with my white alb for Holy Trinity.)

The Trinity as Relationship
Within the Trinity, we see God in relationship. It’s a mystery that no one can fully understand or comprehend. But it gives us a glimpse at a bigger picture of who our God is, and that is something we have been hearing a lot from the perspective of the gospel of John lately during Lent and the Easter season. Theologian Meda Stamper writes that, “The Trinity presented to us in John is a manifestation of God’s love for us, a way of opening a door to the mystery of God that allows us to see ourselves embraced by it.”[6] Throughout the gospels we see Jesus appearing to God’s people, especially those that larger society might have ignored, scoffed at, or ostracized.

Jesus is trying to open the people’s eyes to the expansiveness of God’s love that is at the very heart of God’s work and mission which flows from God’s own identity in the Triune. If this three person thing is hard to wrap your head around, like it is for me, maybe this might help. Think of it as “The loving circle of God—the Father, the Son-Word, and the Spirit-or breath— who draws us into itself and moves us out into the world with it.”[7] God with us. God for us. God in us. All because God loves us.

Our two little ones who are grateful to be part of First Lutheran’s Early Learning Center.

That isn’t to say life together is always easy. There are ups and downs in this life of ours, aren’t there? But being in relationship with God and each other, makes this life possible and sustains us in the highest of high points and the lowest of lows. I know you understand this deeply First Lutheran. It’s been hard lately. The ups and downs of life you have experienced through the joys of graduations, and the sadness of tragic death too soon. Through the hope of new marriages, and the anxiety of transitions.

I have seen this as your neighbor, and as a grateful parent of young ones who are grateful to be part of your Early Learning Center, preschool and daycare. I am proud of you- because I have seen God these past few months in the way you have made space. God is truly present in the midst. God’s people, you, have shown up. I have seen you show up! The church has made space for people to gather to grieve, remember, hope, question, and celebrate. I have seen this today as the church hosts a Red Cross Blood Drive, and as your congregation celebrates the tenth anniversary of meeting your neighbor’s needs through providing “The Banquet” each week. Yes. The church has and does show up as the Body of Christ in our world. And that’s all about relationships.

The Trinity and You and Me
Whether you know it or not, you very well may have seen God here a lot lately. Have you ever wondered what God looks like? Look at your neighbor next to you or in the row in front of you or behind you. No, go ahead. Take a deep look. Smile. Laugh. Cry. Whatever feels right. We are called into relationship with one another and welcomed, and reconciled because of God’s love, and because we are all, each one of us, here in this space and around the world, created in the very image of God. So, again, have you ever wondered what God looks like?

Yes, I realize we may all look and sound different. We all may do things differently or be passionate about different things. Our differences are part of our uniqueness as an individual Child of God. But our shared identity, as we are justified through faith alone, is as heirs of the promises of God, as God’s beloved, and together as Children of God which transcends any and all differences, and unites us together.

Together, as unique Children of God, we give God thanks and praise, and join together as the One Body in Christ.

Jesus wanted the disciples to understand this, so he continued up and through his death on a cross to share this good news. And then, of course, he came back and shared it again from the resurrection through the ascension, and then said but wait, there’s more. The Spirit of Truth will continue this work. I can only wonder what the disciples might have been thinking and feeling in the midst of all of this. Joy? Fear? Hope? Anxious? Worried? I suspect all of this and more is true. But perhaps as we know the rest of the story, maybe we can also feel excited and filled with hope? As Paul writes, hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[8] And because of this we have hope to continue in the good work of the church together.

God’s Mission and Our Call as Part of It
No matter what the ups and downs of life are or may bring, God’s work and mission continues. Jesus entrusted us with this in his last days and even in the moments prior to his ascension. He called us to wait for the Spirit and then to go as the Spirit leads. To proclaim God’s promises. To spread God’s love. To baptize, teach, and make disciples, and to be sent as the wind of the Spirit moves. Sometimes this might look like worship as we know it on a Sunday morning. Other times, it might resemble nothing we know or expect, but is just as important, because God’s people are showing up for their neighbors without judgment but simply with welcome, a warm embrace, and the gift of space and hope grounded in the gift of God’s deep love.

Next week in worship marks the beginning of the long green season of life together after Pentecost. Some of you might know it as “ordinary time.” But it’s not ordinary. It’s the time where we continue to hear stories of God’s love, and wonder about what God might be inviting us into as God’s people in relationship with each other, as the Body of Christ together, and with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It’s the time we lean into life as disciples and stewards, and remember that all that we have and all that we are has been entrusted to our care by God, so that life might go well, so that our neighbors and relationships will be cared for, and that we might all live abundantly.

The summer theme for First Lutheran is all about about being invited and having a place at the table with Jesus. It’s a nice theme that ties nicely into Jesus’ invitation and God’s words of promise, given and shed “for you.”

In that sense, it’s fitting that as we move from Easter and Pentecost to the green season, that we take a week to remember what it means that we have a Triune God. Because then we are reminded more deeply of God’s mysteries but also the truth of who God is, whose we are, and the relationship God wants to have with God’s own. What can we do but respond and give thanks and sing our praise to God for God’s majestic name and love?

What can we do but join cherubim and seraphim and all angels and arch angels singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty”?[9] We are filled with joy, praise, and gratitude. That is the work of being swept up with the Spirit into relationship with God and each other. So, join in with whatever emotion you might be feeling. You are welcome here. God holds you. God’s people love you and are walking alongside you. You are not alone. You are known, claimed, and beloved. You are enough for what God has called you, because God is enough, and because you are in relationship with God and each other. Thanks be to God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] As discussed in John 15:26, NRSV.
[2] John 1:14, NRSV.
[3] John 14:6, NRSV.
[4] John 18:38, NRSV.
[5] Romans 5:1-2, NRSV.
[6] Meda Stamper, Working Preacher, “Commentary on John 16:12-15.”  
[7] Meda Stamper, Working Preacher.
[8] Romans 5:5, NRSV.
[9] “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty!” Reginald Heber & John B. Dykes, as found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 413.

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