This is a sermon for Trinity Sunday; the text is Romans 8:1-4, 12-17, with a nod to Psalm 34; more or less as preached at Corydon Presbyterian Church this morning.
Today is Trinity Sunday, when we are encouraged to think about what might be the most difficult thing we ever try to think about as Christians, namely, the mysterious Triune nature of God.
But today is also the Sunday before Memorial Day, which my grandmother used to call Decoration Day – for very good reason, because according to History.com, the first national Memorial Day occurred in 1868, to honor those who had died “in defense of their country during the late rebellion” – that is, the very recent Civil War, and then as time went on the holiday became a day for remembering those men, and these days also women, who have died while serving in the armed forces of the United States, often though maybe not always while fighting in wars. It was, and still is, the day to go tidy up and decorate the graves of these departed. This makes Memorial Day a day that reminds us about what has got to be one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, things we ever have to think about as human beings, namely, that we are going to die, and so are all of the people we love.
Usually we’re too polite to mention that, because it makes us … anxious … and it seems especially out of place in church on a Sunday morning, when we are always to some extent celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
but this Sunday morning, honestly, our texts have this fear of death right at their hearts, so it seemed appropriate to talk about it …
Because we human beings will go to great lengths, will do a lot things when we are afraid for our lives.
We know this, and this may be what makes the plots of thrillers and detective shows work. At home we’re watching a show on Netflix now where the main characters are in constant peril, because they were just minding their own business waiting for the bus when they got caught up in a drug deal gone wrong between the corrupt police and the two organized crime syndicates, and now they are constantly on the run from one assassin or another, and now lately some Bangkok loan sharks have come into the plot … it’s a great show … but … the main characters never get a chance to relax, and they do a lot of things that fine upstanding citizens would normally not do, like steal cars and forge passports and break into the homes of blackmailers searching for stolen guns covered with fingerprints, because after all, they are in life-threatening danger, “they have no choice.”
Well, they do have choices … and many of them would be better than the terrible choices they keep on making, but unfortunately they are so afraid, they feel they have no choice, they are like slaves of that fear of death, and we get it … because all of us do some things, maybe things we feel are even against our will, because we are aware of, and afraid of, what might happen to us if we … lose our jobs, or make that important person angry, or get into a disagreement with someone …
So how can we get free? If fear makes us act like slaves, how do we get free of fear?
The poet Thomas Gray, in his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, suggests that one strategy is quite simply not knowing about all the dreadful things out there for us to be afraid of. He looks at the happy children playing on the soccer field who he thinks haven’t yet encountered the long, long list of terrible experiences that are in store for them as adults, and he says “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.”
These children, he imagines, who have had kind parents, and have always had a roof over their heads and plenty to eat, who are not familiar with the sound of air raid sirens or the sound of gunshots outside their apartment windows and who have never had to run from a flood or a wildfire, these children who don’t know anything about death or even that there is anything to know, are free to be happy.
So their ignorance, their innocence, is a kind of shield.
It’s not a very effective shield from real danger, though … As one of the memes on the internet goes, ignorance is bliss … right up until the last few seconds. (If you google that, you’ll get a sort of funny-scary picture to go along with it.)
But even though we know that, even as grown-ups, we hang onto that shield of ignorance pretty tightly sometimes. We shut our eyes and ears, we don’t ask too many questions, we keep people with suspicious looking problems a little at arm’s length … so that we can keep telling ourselves everything is OK.
Because it’s when we start learning about what can happen to people that we can start to be afraid of it … There’s a reason second year medical students are known for worrying a lot about their health. It’s such a common response to medical education that it has a name, “medical students’ disease” – it happens because those people are giving up their ignorance, they are in the process of finding out things they didn’t even know they didn’t know about disease …
They are doing it voluntarily, but mostly, we don’t really have a choice about giving up our innocence, we are forced by the conditions of the world to learn about the things that make us afraid, including the threat of death.
Take the Psalmist. This is David, who’s facing mortal peril, he’s escaping from King Saul, who has already tried to kill him twice; he has to watch out because Saul has informants everywhere, even the tabernacle of the Lord at Shiloh is not a safe place for him, and when he tries to buy some safety by sneaking out of the country – something like the ancient equivalent of going somewhere there’s no extradition treaty – the ruler there starts to get suspicious and David has to pretend to be crazy to get away … David has faced the fear of death straight on.
And, those are the very fears he says God has rescued him from.
He’s ecstatic about it, and he invites everyone, “the humble,” to be part of this. Because once God is on the case, we know that God can protect us. God is bigger and stronger than anything that could be pursuing us. God is in charge, so anything that could be threatening us is going to have to answer to God. Understanding this really lets us know that we are in a safe place, we can rest secure. We can all sit back and take that deep breath and relax.
God is our shield against fear, even the fear of death.
… that in the next verse or two, the Psalmist tells us that he does have one fear – the fear of the Lord. It’s as if he has taken all his other fears and rolled them up into one big fear, the fear of God – and really, if we are going to be afraid of anyone or anything, God is a good candidate, because God holds the very fibers of our being, so this approach to fear management makes good sense! And it leads us into good practices and good habits, because all that God really wants from us is good behavior, is right living, is – we know that verse, “to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God …”
So this fear of the Lord is a prescription for good things. Once we’re out of the territory Thomas Gray is talking about, where ignorance is bliss, it’s no longer folly to be wise, it’s wisdom to be wise, and then, as the Bible tells us, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of that wisdom.
So, the fear of the Lord, and the wisdom that comes with that, the wisdom of the Torah, of God’s instruction, God’s word, that’s a much better shield against fear – we’ll have the fear of the Lord, but it feels like a refuge, very much unlike the fear of death.
There is one problem with that … the problem of what happens if we neglect to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. Then what?
Because then all those fears that the fear of God shielded us from rise back up with a vengeance, because we think – God was big enough and strong enough and in charge enough to tell our big, strong enemies where to go, but now we’re on God’s bad side, right? So what does that make us? If we thought David had a bad case of fear of death, think about the fear of death we can experience when we start thinking this way about the Almighty Just God …
This is part of Paul’s point in the long argument he has been making through the book of Romans up to this point: that the law, the Torah, that was supposed to be such a gracious instrument of freedom, it turns out, in practice, it just shows us over and over and over again how much trouble we’re in with God … so what was supposed to set us free just confirms for us that we’re slaves to sin and that we have this threat of death hanging over our heads.
But Paul has good news, too – because fortunately for us, God, in Christ, has actually saved us from the penalty of death, because Jesus, our champion, who really DID live all the way through a human life without sin, who really embodied that wisdom of God’s instruction, who really shared the Spirit of life with God because – remember this is Trinity Sunday, Jesus IS God, in that mysterious Triune way … so Jesus has done all the heavy lifting for us! Jesus has defeated that death we were so afraid of.
And then Paul makes a point of saying that this Spirit of life in Christ is not a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear …
Because … in the ancient world, one thing that could happen when the victor spared your life was that they made you their slave. Many of the slaves in the ancient world got that way when they became prisoners of war. It was just what the Greeks and the Romans did with prisoners of war, was make them slaves. They reasoned something like this: look, I could kill you now, but I won’t, I’ll let you live, so from now on you’ll take orders from me, because if you don’t … you know what’ll happen. It was pure coercion, a lot like the organized crime on my TV show.
So Paul knew, I think, that he was writing to people who knew exactly what it meant when someone defeated the person who had held you as a slave. They knew how that worked; from personal experience. They knew that having your life saved that way did not shield you from the fear of death. Quite the opposite.
Which is why Paul has to tell them, very plainly, look, this is different, this is completely different, you haven’t received a spirit of slavery here. You have actually been made one of the members of the family. Your status is the status of a family member.
In the end, it’s the children of God who are really those happy kind of children, who can rest secure in the knowledge that God, their Father, loves them and shares this treasure with them, this treasure that is Life, and who has so much of it that there is life to spare, life to overcome death, they are heirs of that Life, along with Christ.
That Triune God, God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, that God, with that Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, that is the shield against the fear of death …
And the funny thing, maybe, about that is that we are still talking about the same God David was talking about, because again, this is Trinity Sunday, and the whole point of the Trinity is to … well, not really to explain, but to affirm … that Christians believe in the same God that Jesus preached about, the same God of Scripture, the same God who spoke through the prophets, the same God who made the heavens and the earth, that God … this God of the New Testament, is the same God who freed people to be able to live the Torah, to live the way God wants, to live good and right lives, to “do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God” …
Which, Paul says, we will be doing because we’ll be following the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, we’ll be led by the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead … So, we will be free. Christians will be entirely free of the fear of death. We will never feel like we have no choice, because we are trying to keep from losing our lives. Christians will be free, and fearless.
And we know very well where that kind of freedom and fearlessness got Jesus.