Living by the Spirit

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, May 26, 2024
Romans 8:12-17

    My colleague, Rabbi Jason Fruithandler of Woodbury Jewish Center, recently shared a story of a rabbi teaching his students about when to pray the morning prayer, the shacharit.  “When do you know it is time to pray the morning prayer?” the rabbi asked his students.  “When the first faint light becomes visible in the eastern sky,” one student replied.  A second student said, “When you are able to distinguish between blue and white.”  The rabbi responded, “You are both correct, but you are not right.”  He went on, “You know when it is time to pray the morning prayer when you can look across the room at the face of your neighbor and in their face see the face of God.”
    This morning is Holy Trinity Sunday.  In our heads, we may know as Christians that it is important to dedicate a day once a year to especially focus on our unique belief that God is one and yet three; three and yet one:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We celebrate a math problem about God that doesn’t make sense: that one plus one plus one does not equal three but one. I try to explain the concept to my other monotheist friends, and I know they don’t get it.  I’m pretty sure many of us don’t quite get it.  But today I’m going to try to get us past good Trinitarian theology that can make our heads hurt pretty quickly and stick to the heart of the matter of why we believe God to be primarily in relationship to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  John 3:16, one of the most famous Bible verses for Christians is a good summary, “For God so loved the world.”  God as Trinity reminds us to fall down in worship before the awesome God of the universe whom we can never fully explain or understand, and to look intently for God present among us in the faces of our neighbor. That is what the Trinity is all about:  loving God and our neighbor as ourselves.  Just as God exists in a relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so we strive to exist living in and among these three persons of God.
My favorite chapter of the whole Bible is Romans 8!  We have been hearing from this chapter in Paul’s letter for a few weeks now.  In our short second reading today, Paul encourages us that we are to live in the Spirit, not according to the flesh.  But what does it mean to live in the Spirit?  Paul goes back to the story of the Exodus, where the people of Israel lived in slavery and fear.  God led them across the Red Sea on dry ground, in a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day into the promised land, into a new life and a new way of living.  Just like the people of Israel, who several times told Moses they wanted to back to Egypt, fear can hold us back and make us forget that we are living by the Spirit, that we have left behind our old way of life.  There is plenty to be afraid of, to be sure; with inflation still rampant, how will we pay all our bills?  We worry about the wars in Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere, with increasing tensions right here in our own community between religious communities.  We have anxiety about the upcoming presidential election and what might happen to our country.  We fear for our children’s, parents’ and other loved ones’ wellbeing and safety.  Fear can cause us to relapse, if you will, to thinking we need to rely on materialism, overconsumption, greed, violence, and so on, the ways of the world or the flesh, instead of living by the Spirit.  Instead, living by the Spirit has us asking, “When is it time to pray? So we can see the face of God in the face of our neighbor.”  When we join Jesus in praying, “Abba, Father,” God’s Spirit gives us courage, strength,  love and forgiveness that we just simply do not have by our own efforts.
Just as God leads the Israelites across the Red Sea into the promised land on dry ground, Christians pass through the waters, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Triune name of God.  And through baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and reborn into a new life, as Jesus tells Nicodemus in John.  Living by the Spirit, we move forward in faith, not backward in fear.  We are able to relate to this amazing, most powerful God of the entire universe as children of God, not slaves.  We become heirs of the kingdom of God along with Jesus, God’s only son, our Lord!  
When my grandmother died last summer, I received a small inheritance along with each of her grandchildren.  While the financial gift from my grandma was nice, the most valuable inheritance was a keepsake shared Google document my cousins and I created together with stories and memories of our grandparents.  This document helps me hold on to the values and character traits I believe my grandparents passed on to me: grit and determination (some would call it stubbornness), hard work and perseverance especially when times are tough, a sense of humor and a love for telling stories, a love of making things from scratch whether it was growing vegetables in the garden, baking bread, or knitting a sweater.  Paul tells us we are not slaves but heirs of God’s kingdom.  Through our baptism, we inherit the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, patience, generosity!  These are the character traits we strive to live by when the anxieties and fears of this world press in and try to cause distrust in God and others, tugging at us to look back to Egypt rather than propelling us forward by the Spirit in faith.
So then, what do we have to be afraid of?  God’s Spirit lives in us, leading us and guiding us.  Jesus has freed us from being slaves to the ways of this world by his death and resurrection, thanks be to God, so we can live in the freedom of being a forgiven child of God, eternally.  Jesus changes the relationship between us and God so that we can relate to God as intimately as we do with our parents or siblings; we become part of the family.
So, living by the Spirit as a part of God’s family, we can resist the ways that the world tries to make us afraid of each other – isolated and apart from others, distrustful of God and each other.  Instead, the Holy Spirit gathers and enlightens us to be a different kind of faith-filled community relying on the mercy and power of God to transform us and this world for the better.  Like Nicodemus, we do not fully understand what this means, but like Nicodemus, we can journey with Jesus in faith and trust, guided by the Spirit.  Amen!