Presence is everything. When my daughters were young, we loved to go on walks. We had a large grassy area behind our townhome, and I’d often take my girls on a walk along the grass behind the homes on our block. In the summer, we’d often take walks after dark when it was cooler. There were lights near the street, but the farther we moved along the grass, the darker it would become.
My daughters, being independent as they were, never wanted to hold my hand. I’d offer, and they would refuse, declaring their independence even at the young age of three. But I knew what was coming, so I always left my hands dangling at my side. Something would happen as we wandered deeper into the darkness. I’d feel their little hands gently slip into mine. The darker it became, the tighter their grasp would get. If it was pitch black, there would even be the rare moment they’d ask me to pick them up and carry them.
I lived for those moments. The times when their fear would melt away as they buried their heads on my shoulder. I’d ask them if they were afraid, and they’d always answer no, but I knew better. I’ll never forget the time I asked Kristin if she was afraid, and she answered: “Not as long as I can hold your hand.”
Presence is everything. This week is Trinity Sunday, the week we attempt to move beyond the “activity” of the Spirit and Pentecost, to explaining the Spirit and the nature of the Triune God. How do you explain existence? How do you explain the claim we make of a God expressed in three forms?
As you are most likely aware, explaining the Trinity and the problems that go along with that, have been around as long as the church. Some scholars believe the way this discussion was resolved is still accounting for schisms and division in the church, one saying it is responsible for opening up the East to Islam. Not that where the church landed was wrong, but the way the church arrived could have been handled with more grace. That being said, this week we are given the opportunity to introduce our congregations to a Triune God, desiring Trinitarian presence that goes beyond the closing of a prayer or blessing.
Concerning our text for the week, which by the way, is the gospel text for year B in the Lectionary, we can’t claim the activity of the Spirit began at Pentecost, or that Jesus is introducing the third person of the trinity for the first time in John chapters 14-16, but there is something different taking place in this dialogue and teaching that is reshaping. I think it’s because presence is everything.
Jesus is close to wrapping up his last night with his disciples before his death, what is commonly called, his final discourse. It is written with much care and reflection. John’s gospel was the last of the four, and he had a lot of time while sitting on an island to not only read and reflect on the other stories of Jesus, but also how he wanted to tell his Jesus narrative. It’s because of the way John goes about it that we have some of the richest, disturbing, yet comforting texts. From the I am statements; Jesus mid-night encounter with Nicodemus; his mid-day encounter with a Samaritan woman; the difficult teaching in the 6th chapter; the narrative of Lazarus’ resurrection; his preparation for his death by Mary; the metaphor-rich chapters we are currently reading; leading to the reinstatement of Thomas and Peter, John tells a narrative unlike any other.
In the verses preceding our text, the three-fold work of the Spirit, our paraclete, is described. Jesus says our advocate, comforter, would “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment; about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I’m going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” Vv. 8-11.
Prior to that the 15th chapter contains language of presence and the abiding relationship we are to have with Jesus and he longs to have with us. John continues to write retrospectively about things he has seen and experienced. The three-fold work of the Spirit as described in 16:8-11 has begun, bursting into that upper room and continue to work it’s way throughout the Mediterranean region. This is all evidenced with the promise of an abiding presence that is beyond understanding and explanation; our advocate, comforter. And as he begins our section for this week, John says something maybe more directed at us, than them.
Jesus is done teaching because he doesn’t want them to be overwhelmed. It’s similar to the language used in the parable of the Unjust Judge in Luke 18, with the reason given for this story is his concern for their need to pray and not lose heart. Don’t lose heart, never give up. This concern is seen again in the prayer Jesus prayed in John 17 for those who would come to believe through their message. John is letting us know that Jesus will send an advocate to provide guidance and comfort for us, as he has them. Presence is everything.
When the advocate (paraclete) comes, he will guide us into all truth, giving us the counsel we need, providing comfort and strength. Remember, this is a forward gaze from someone writing as he looks back. He has seen evidence of the spirit’s presence, in his life and the life of others. What he’s sharing here isn’t just his future, but ours as well, and John has a better understanding of the meaning of these words in ways 40+ years earlier he couldn’t. He isn’t concerned with getting the doctrine of the Trinity correct, because truthfully, will we never fully understand? He is concerned with us understanding the role the Spirit plays in his life, and ours. Presence is everything.
The United Methodist resource for Trinity Sunday says:
“Our congregations are starving, not for doctrinal correctness, but for life in communion with the triune God. Our churches need the subversive presence of the triune God who defeats and break the chains of the strong enslaving the weak. The whole people of God are yearning to be encountered by the God who gives up the idea of God (Philippians 2:5-11) and becomes incarnate in the demands and struggles of daily life. We long for this God. Baptized into this faith, we are born to proclaim before the world the God who by the power of the Spirit animates Christian worship in the name of Jesus Christ.”
So maybe this week instead of getting hung up on our need to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to a culture not as much concerned with doctrine as they are presence, we talk instead of the relationship the Spirit has with us and the role the Advocate plays in our lives; regardless of what life throws our way, the good and not-so-good. Let’s remove the temptation to skip this week because of our exhausting metaphors explaining 3-in 1, and speak of the presence and advocacy of the Spirit, God giving evidence to his own existence, not our need to explain it. It is a message as old as time itself, believing a Triune God was active from creation, throughout time, until all things are made new.
How did Jesus answer Philip’s request to show him the Father (John 14:8-11)? By saying if we’ve seen him we’ve seen his Father. Maybe the reason there was so much ruckus last week on Pentecost Sunday was because the arrival of the Spirit, in true Trinitarian understanding, was the coming again of Jesus. Presence is everything. His Kingdom has crashed into our world (Already), evidenced by his death and resurrection, and now the spirit of the Triune God is here to enable us to live fully into what it means to be subjects of this Kingdom as we await all things new (Not Yet).
So when you see the Spirit, you see Jesus. And when you read about the activity of Jesus in the gospels, you see the activity of the Father and the Spirit. And if we want to know what God is like, the Advocate longs to show us each and every day, by being present with us. And if that is true so is this: because of the arrival of the Spirit, the work of the Triune God is expressed in us. We celebrate the Trinity not just because of the ways God is expressed in Father, Son and Spirit; but also because of the way the God through his Spirit is expressed in us. So, those of us claiming to live in the way of Jesus, the paraclete living within us, put on display who God is to our world. Scary, freaky, amazing.
That’s why Paul can write to the Romans (5:1-5) that the reason we hope, are not crushed, able to endure, is “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” So according to John, everything we need for life, truth, endurance, and hope arrived and is present in the Spirit of the Triune God. The question for us to wrestle with is, do we believe it? Or as Francis Chan writes, do we have a forgotten God? Do we believe that presence matters?
Like my daughters walking along in the dark knew that at any moment, when the darkness deepened and fear grew, I was there and only needed to reach up to take my hand; may we realize this Trinity Sunday, that the presence of the one who lived, died, and rose again, whose Kingdom is present and among us, is as close to us as I was on those summer evening strolls with my daughters.
Because, presence is everything.