There’s a story about the great theologian St. Augustine, one of the most brilliant minds in the history of the church. He was walking along the beach one day, lost in thought, when he noticed a young boy playing by the water. The boy was digging a hole in the sand, and then running to the ocean, filling up his cupped hands with water, and then pouring it into the hole. Augustine watched with fascination. Finally, he asked: “what are you doing?” The boy replied: “Trying to fill that hole with the ocean.” Augustine laughed quietly to himself and then replied: “Son, you will never be able to fit the ocean into that hole.” To which the boy replied: “And you will never be able to fit the Triune God into that mind of yours.”
Obviously, a very wise observation from a young boy, but it did not stop Augustine from contemplating the Trinity. The great theologian devised ingenious analogies to help us conceive how one can be three without sacrificing oneness and how three can be one without sacrificing distinctness.
Now we don’t presume to follow Augustine’s example and devise new analogies, even though it may seem appropriate for us to do so on Trinity Sunday. Instead, we want to go to the very root of these analogies in the Christian’s experience of God. When we do, we discover that the content of this experience is threefold. That is to say, our experience of God is of a God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However we later represent this to ourselves with the help of Scripture and tradition, it always remains the case.
Already last Sunday we began to attend to this threefold experience of God. Then we pointed out that God wants to make himself known. That seems to be the main lesson to be drawn from Pentecost. God in Christ acted decisively for the salvation of his people, of all who will hear and receive the message. But they need to hear and understand it. That is why the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to declare this message in their own languages.
Do you see here already that the experience of God is threefold? The Father sent his Son into the world, that all who receive him may have forgiveness of sins and new life through him. But this salvation has to be made known to all peoples everywhere. Therefore, the Father sends from the Son the Holy Spirit, who opens the minds of the people to hear and receive this message. That is the essence of Pentecost.
Today the Apostle Paul addresses those who are on the other side. They’ve already heard and received this message, and Paul is eager to explain to them what they now have. He tells them that because of what the Son has done for them, they have peace with God.
This peace—shouldn’t this itself make the gospel appealing today to our contemporaries, to the people all around us? A man asked his colleague: “where can I find peace today?” This followed a conversation in which they’d been talking about the tragedies in Uvalde and Buffalo, the sad and senseless war in Ukraine, political dysfunction, divorce and family breakdown. And we could add our own personal stressors to this list.
So many of us our tired, so many of us feel depleted. The negative news cycle seems endless; and it can feel suffocating. And yet last Sunday we heard Jesus tell his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. For it is my peace that I give to you.”
Paul repeats for us this truth today. Peace with God is ours through Jesus Christ. In him is the grace in which we now stand. This peace does not depend on outward circumstances. Even if it’s not alright in your world, it’s alright with God, because of Jesus Christ and what he has done for you.
We can stand before God, not as cowering wretches, but as confident children, because God has justified us. Those of you who remember your church history will know how important the doctrine of justification was to the Reformers, especially to Martin Luther.
Justification is a word that comes from the law courts. Imagine the accused standing convicted before the judge. But instead of passing sentence, the judge declares the condemned innocent of all charges.
The Reformers and our Reformed confessions teach that when God justifies us, God not only dismisses the charges against us, but also declares us to be innocent. Put otherwise, not only does God forgive our sins, but also sees us as righteous, that is, as holy, just and good—not because of anything we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us. Paul summed up what Christ has done for us in the verse immediately preceding our lesson: “he was handed over to death for our sins, and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:23).
The Reformers too sought peace, but they felt that what most robs people of their peace is a guilty conscience. God relieves the guilty conscience by justifying the sinner.
All this gives God’s people grounds for boasting. Entrepreneurs find in business success grounds for boasting. Social media influencers find in the number of subs grounds for boasting. And yet so many still struggle with feelings of worthlessness. But “worthlessness” is not a word that can ever enter into Paul’s vocabulary. We are worth so much that God gave his Son for us, so that, through faith in him, we may be adopted into God’s family as dearly loved children.
Now all this is good news, and it would be perfectly appropriate for us to end here. But Paul now makes an abrupt shift. It’s almost as if he is anticipating an objection. “Paul, if you say that God is on my side, then why has all this happened to me?”
We hear variations of this question constantly. A friend of mine asked a woman at a local restaurant whether she believed in God. The woman replied: “I did, but when I was pregnant, there were complications. I prayed to God for healing for my unborn child, but he died. I want nothing to do with God now.” This same friend more recently asked a young man if he believed in Christ. He replied: “People close to me, people who are Christians, hurt me. I want nothing do with their God and the church.”
We’re talking about the problem of suffering. Christians have been wrestling with this problem from New Testament times to the present day.
Indeed, the problem is as old as human civilization itself. We cannot avoid suffering. Each one of us will have to face it in some form or another at some point in our lives. We may know people who bear more than their fair share of suffering. We may even count ourselves among them.
Since we cannot entirely eliminate it, we ask how best to respond to it. The traditional view in the church is that we need to outgrow out attachment to this life, and not take seriously all the cares of this world down here, which is not our home. Life is a vale of tears, a period of trial and suffering, a necessary preparation to life in the world to come, where alone we can expect to enjoy happiness.
There is more than a grain of truth in this view. The Apostle Paul says elsewhere that if for this life alone we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. On the other hand, this view can foster a kind of escapism, which is not really Christian. There is “more” than this life, but we do not discover this “more” apart from this life, but rather in this life.
God wants us to be fully engaged in this life. For it’s in this life that we meet and come to know God. God wants us to be fully present in the moment, because it’s in the moment that he meets us and makes himself known to us. And we have the courage to be present in the moment, because, as we have already seen, it is God who justifies us.
Most of us do not seek to escape from life, but rather to live it from one event to the next. People, psychologists tell us, are compelled to organize the events of their lives into a coherent narrative, into a story. Indeed, that is the very presupposition of therapy. “Tell me about yourself.” When we disclose who we are to someone, we tell a story about ourselves.
We are characters in a story. If it’s our story, we are the central protagonists. All that makes our lives good and full and meaningful, all that helps us realize our ambitions, all that helps us achieve our dreams, we gladly weave into the story we tell about ourselves.
But there are things we have a hard time telling, if we can do so at all. They don’t fit into our story, no matter how hard we try to make them fit. They weren’t supposed to happen. They weren’t supposed to have a place in our story–not if it’s supposed to be a good story, one worth telling, one that we even want to be in. What makes suffering so soul-crushing, whether it is past or present, is its senselessness.
If anyone knows suffering, it’s Paul. Note, however, that it does not dampen his confidence. On the contrary, he tells us that we boast in our sufferings.
At first glance, this sounds outrageous. To our ears it sounds nonsensical. Does Paul like pain? Is he a masochist? No, on the contrary, he is so confident in the victory that Christ has given us that he believes that God can and does use suffering in the lives of his children to shape them, to make them into the people he intends them to be.
We need to be careful here. Note that we said that God “uses” suffering. We may not say that God inflicts suffering. If Paul is no masochist, then the God whom he proclaims is no sadist.
But we may still feel uncomfortable with Paul’s boasting. Perhaps that explains why we don’t hear too many sermons about suffering today, unless they’re about unjust suffering against which preachers today demand us to protest.
But Paul’s message is very different, at least here. We don’t protest against this suffering, but rather submit to it. We let it do its work in us, trusting that it is God who shapes us through it as the master sculptor. Or, changing the metaphor, we let it educate us, trusting that it is God who teaches us through it as a wise Father. We accept suffering as a school.
What do we learn in this school? Paul answers this question in the form of a word chain. The associations between the words in the chain seem arbitrary at first glance. But it is clear that Paul means them to be seen as a sequence or a progression, set in motion by “sufferings.” There is “endurance,” which leads to “character” which in turn leads to “hope.”
We have already said that we cannot avoid sufferings. But even if we see no place for them in our story, we can be confident that God does not waste them. As senseless as they may be, they can accomplish a work in us, a work whose goal is hope. And this hope does not disappoint, because God has poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit whom he has given us.
Here we arrive full circle. We made the point at the outset that the Christian affirmation of God as Trinity is rooted in experience. We have peace with God because of what his Son has done for us. In Christ God shows that he is for us and not against us. Nor do our sufferings contradict this truth, because God pours his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
We affirm our faith in the Triune God in our liturgy each Sunday when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, which contains three articles, corresponding to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But today it’s going to be slightly different. In a few moments, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, we are going to acknowledge Trinity Sunday by reciting the Nicene Creed.
This Creed first appeared in 325, at the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council. The council was called to settle the controversies surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity. There was a popular preacher named Arius, who taught that the Son is not God in the same way as the Father is God. In effect, he denied the Trinity. At the council, the church rejected the teaching of Arius, and reaffirmed its faith in the Triune God. Later the church had to clarify its teaching on the Holy Spirit. In 381, at the Council of Constantinople, the second ecumenical council, the church reaffirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and produced the final version of the Nicene Creed.
Let us then affirm our faith, which we share with Christians in all times and in all places, in the words of the Nicene Creed.