The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – Trinity Sunday (Day 3)
12 So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. 13 If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if you put to death the actions of the body with the Spirit, you will live. 14 All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. 15 You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. 17 But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.
In v.12 of our reading for today Paul disposes of what is arguably the default form of religion in America today: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD for short). To live lives not “on the basis of selfishness” is shorthand for the antidote to MTD. MTD, in essence, proposes that we are the center of our lives and determine its meaning and happiness and God is brought in to be the guarantor of our life projects.
Paul thoroughly reorients us away from such nonsense. We are adopted into God’s family. Now we are to live so as to demonstrate our new family’s characteristics. We know we are God’s children now because God’s Spirit enlivens us and prompts us to cry out “Abba” (“Father”) to our new divine parent.
We are heirs now in God’s family. Yet the path to our inheritance is not, as it is for MTDers, a self-chosen path of self-gratification and fulfillment. Rather, as God’s children bearing the marks of God’s family, our way is that of our older brother, the one child of God by nature, the way of suffering.
Suffering? Yes, you heard Paul right! Jesus’ way was (and is) the way of suffering, the way of the cross. By raising Jesus from the dead God has validated his way of suffering servanthood, his cross-bearing life, as the shape God’s life takes in a fallen and not-yet-fully-reconciled-world. Thus, our journey through this world, will entail the suffering that marked his. No way around this, apparently. Paul closes the door on any other way with his last sentence: “But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him” (v.17).
Here we meet one of the places in the Bible where the rubber really hits the road. It’s not that we do not understand the words or the ideas. They aren’t difficult. They’re just daunting! We all have enough of MTD in us to make us balk at Paul’s words.
We run head on here into what I have discovered in my life as a basic hermeneutical impasse. Or we could translate that fancy phrase into this more colloquial one: the Yes – But principle. It works like this. We find ourselves driven to affirm (“Yes”) that what scripture claims, in this instance the ineradicable link between suffering and glory, yet, at the same time, pushing back with every kind of objection we can come up with (“But”) to forestall or avoid the truth we are driven to affirm.
MTD-afflicted as we all are, most of us meet this impasse at these kinds of points in our faith journeys. Paul’s challenge to us here is stringent, akin to Jesus’ warnings about the incompatibility of wealth and faithfulness; it rocks us to our core. The way through this challenge is to honestly acknowledge our desire to avoid what is said here, perhaps even to wish it were otherwise. This gives both God and ourselves as baseline of honesty to work on. We can begin to reexamine the “whys” of our resistance as we at the same time plead for God’s Spirit to illumine and fortify us with a fresh sense of our acceptance and new identity as God’s children. A sure sense of that identity and our call to participate in Jesus’ ongoing work of cross-bearing in the world can help us break down our resistance and take up our new calling.