Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Trinity Sunday

Deep in the South in 1962, 22 year old Zelda was giving birth in a university hospital. Poor, indigent and black, Zelda was not like other patients. Far from the nice, genteel white southern women who complied to the hospital rules, lying. flat on their backs in a drug induced state, Zelda broke all the rules. Pacing naked back and forth on her bed, she moved and sang and moaned with each contraction.
Student nurse, Peggy Vincent, author of the memoir, The Birth Catcher, recounts being utterly bewildered with what seemed to her at the time as crazed behavior. Struggling to care for the woman and stay in good standing with the rigid rules of Mrs. Purdue, who was her instructor, Peggy remembers her own anxiety, panic and fear as she watched Zelda labor.

See pages 18-19 of The Baby Catcher.

Much to young nurse Peggy’s chagrin, the hospital rules could not contain Zelda. It was only in a moment of mutual vulnerability, Zelda in her need to labor her way and Peggy in her need to stay within the rules, did the two figure out a way to become “conspirators in birth.” Rather than try to impose the rules on Zelda, Peggy became her co-laborer, her co-conspirator. The minute hospital staff came near she would run in the room, Zelda would lie down and pretend that all was well. In an unlikely alliance, the two of them danced together toward birth.

It was only when Zelda began to push that the hospital staff realized what was going on. Despite Peggy’s horror, the doctors and nurses who rushed in at the sound of pushing were intent to follow the rules to the letter of the Law. With thick leather cuffs they strapped Zelda to the delivery table despite her desperate screams and kicks and pleas. As Zelda tried to birth her baby, the rules of the hospital clamped down on her with ferocity.

“She’s a crazy woman!” shouted one doctor.

“Why do we let these women breed?” cried another.

Devoid of any relationality, the doctors and nurses treated Zelda like an object to be controlled, rather than a person with whom to be in relation. And all the while, fighting back tears, Peggy observed, as rules trumped relationship and Zelda was subdued. For after all, a rule is a rule is a rule. Mrs. Purdue would approve.

A rule is a rule is a rule. No matter who it hurts. No matter what relationships it violates. A rule is a rule is a rule. It is this same sense of legalistic adherence to rules that Paul addresses in the text that we read today. In order to understand the passage, we must contextualize it within Paul’s wider argument about what it means to lead a life in Christ.

Without having read the previous 7 chapters, this passage seems quite problematic. The dualism of flesh and Spirit suggest a denigration of the body and the call to suffer with Christ seems a masochistic command to salvation through pain. Yet, I believe there is much more to this passage when we read it in the context of Paul’s full argument.

For no scripture was ever meant to be read literally or a historically.

We enter Paul’s argument at the moment where he distinguishes between two ways of living. The first is a way of living life according to what Paul deems as the “flesh.” Given the dualistic interpretations of this text throughout history, we all too quickly assume that Paul is talking about the desires of the body, of our sensuality or sexuality. However, in the context of the entire chapter we come to understand that for Paul living in the flesh meant living by the human values which seek to drive us away from God…selfishness, fear, greed, and legalism.

You see, the early fundamentalist Christians were enslaved by a life driven by the flesh, rather than liberated by the Spirit. They were held captive by the Law, trying desperately to keep the commandments, dotting their lives down to the last iota. For the fear they felt, the anxiety about the uncertain nature of the world around them drove them to seek security in the very concrete, seemingly eternal and objective truth of the Law as literally depicted in scripture.

Yet, in their fearful fervor, they found they failed time and again to uphold God’s requirements of love, mercy, grace and compassion. Paul recognized this earlier in the chapter when he asserted that this type of legalistic living drives people into a state in which, as William Loader puts it, “their guilt conspires with their sense of inadequacy to produce a kind of moral impotence in which people just keep getting worse.” Legalistic living, is indeed living by the flesh…living in blind adherence to human values projected onto the divine. Scripture driven or not, this way of living is not what God intends for the world. In many ways, this was how Peggy was living her life terrorized and paralyzed by the rules imposed on from high…from the divine Mrs. Purdue and her rigid rule book.

But there is another way to live….living not by the flesh, but by the Spirit. For Paul, the radical message of Jesus was that love initiated a new relationship of belonging with God…an at-one-ment with God, as William Loader claims, “from which goodness would flow, not because of fear of disobedience, but because love begets love. Love is the fruit of the Spirit. While the way of imposing the law leads people into slavery, love liberates.”

Love liberated Peggy, if for only a moment. In recognizing their own mutuality and interconnectedness in birthing new life, Peggy and Zelda allow relationality to trump rules and forged an unlikely alliance to bring forth new life together.

This momentary alliance was indeed exactly what Paul meant by living by the Spirit. It is not isolated act of personal piety, of an individual relationship with Jesus as your personal savior, but rather living in intimate, inextricable relationship with one another, the world and ultimately the Divine. And this type of living is just the opposite of the enslavement by the Law…it is the liberation of love.

When we understand the distinction between these two ways of living and when we come to understand what Paul means by flesh and the Spirit, we begin to see the implications of this passage in a much different light. Living by the Spirit is a gift given to us by God, by virtue of our status as joint heirs with Christ.

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Loving Parent! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

By using the intimate language of familial ties, Paul emphasizes the true gift or inheritance of God as relationality. We are enabled and empowered to live life in the Spirit in and through our deep connection with God.

Living by the Spirit means living our lives, not by externally imposed rules and regulations, but rather by the innate, internal law of love in which and for which we were created by the divine. Living by the Spirit is living in and through our relationship with the Divine. Being glorified with Christ, is no pie in the sky heavenly prize, but the very real and present presence of the Divine working in and through us. For the last two weeks, we have been talking about the way in which the Divine dwells in and through our very being. This, indeed, is living by the Spirit. It is a divine dance of love in which we are an integral part.

Today, on Trinity Sunday, it is quite appropriate that we celebrate the relationality of the divine in our lives…for indeed this is what the Trinity represents. Christian tradition has struggled over time to depict the reality of the divine relationality through the concept of the Trinity. One God in three.

Early in the life of the church folks tried to make sense of the relationship between God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. If God is one, what do we make of these seemingly distinct revelations of the Divine. Some tried to distinguish by substance (what they are made of), others by role or action (what they do). Yet, these interpretations failed to express the inner relationaity of the Divine. It was Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers who first began to describe the Trinity in ways that fully expressed the mutual interaction and relationship between the three. For Augustine, the Trinity could only be known in and through Love. He used the analogy of Lover, Beloved, and Love to describe the Trinity.

The Cappadocian Fathers developed a similar idea of God’s essence through the concept of relationality. The theo-babble word we they used to describe this reality of relationships was "perichoresis" which means a mutual "indwelling," "permeating," or "interpenetrating” or even "to dance around." Perichoresis describes the Trinity as eternally giving themselves over and into one another, as if in a Divine Dance. It is not a static relationship, but a dynamic, ongoing, active relationship….a dance that knows no end.

But this dance of the Trinity is not exclusive to the Divine. If we take the account of Genesis seriously in which we are created in the image of the Divine, if we believe Jesus’ words that we have become the hands and feet of Christ for the world, if we understand Paul’s assertion that we are indeed heirs of Christ, then we see how this divine relationship extends to include us…for we have been adopted into the divine family. We have been made heirs equal with Christ….In this way we see ourselves as participating in this divine dance of love.

For Paul, living in the Spirit, is living in and through this Divine relationship of love in which are called to join the divine dance, at once being the lover, beloved and love for and with the world. Yet, this way of being is difficult to maintain in a world ruled by the Law, by the legalistic demands of the flesh. It is this tension between the world of law and the world of love that may lead to suffering. Here, Paul is not prescribing suffering as a necessity of salvation and redemption, but rather explaining that to love so fully, may create conflict with the world and may lead to suffering…such as we witnessed in the life and death of Jesus. But, as full participants in the life of love, we are called to follow love at all costs.

Lest we understand this divine dance of love as exclusive, Paul makes clear that this relationship, this divine dance, is not limited to a human-God relationship but rather extends to all of creation. Paul looks to the renewal and rebirth of all creation. The Divine dance of love includes all of creation….from bacteria to baleen.

“For the creation waits with eager longing …” It is not just humanity that longs for redemption in and through and with the Divine…but all of creation.

In Paul’s understanding, the universe is like a mother in the final stages of pregnancy.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of the world.”

As William Loader imagines, “It is almost as though Paul sees the Spirit as the panting in the birth process. The Spirit - indeed God - is travailing with us for change.”

Several years after attending the traumatic birth with Zelda, Peggy was called upon to attend to Mrs. Purdue, the very instructor who had instilled such fear in Peggy that she became paralyzed to help Zelda in her time of travail. Now more than ever she had to be absolutely perfect. The rules were the rules were the rules and she had to demonstrate her ability to the one on high that she could indeed enforce them. As intimidating as it was, Peggy began her work with Mrs. Purdue with all formality and rigidity as she had been taught.

See pages 32-33 of The Baby Catcher.

Throughout the night Mrs. Purdue and Peggy abandoned the legalistic hospital rules and instead melded together in what Peggy calls the “dance of birth.” Rocking and swaying and dancing together, the two became one as they brought new life into the world. Suddenly the enforcer became the transgressor. Perhaps, these rules were always meant to be broken. Even Mrs. Purdue, the symbolic keeper of the rules, realized that relationship trumps all. For new life, cannot come under the scrutiny of rigid regulation, but must be allowed to be birthed in a divine dance of relationality that connects all creation through love. In their dance of birth, Mrs. Purdue and Peggy symbolized for us all the power of relationship to loose divine creativity in the world.

When we let go of the fear of disobedience, the anxiety of following the rules, the projections of good and right behavior, and instead give ourselves over the wild and unpredictable nature of the Spirit working in and through us, we find ourselves living not by the flesh of enslaving law, but rather by the love of the liberating Spirit. It is in and through this relationship that we join with creation in bringing forth God’s kin-dom.

We are called to allow ourselves to dance intimately with eth Divine, to let go of fear and rock with the rhythms of life being birthed in us and in the world.

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