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Prayerful Advocate

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

Trinity Sunday

Romans 5:1-5; (Romans 8); John 16:12-15

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

June 12, 2022

O God our mystery, you bring us to life, call us to freedom, and move between us with love. May we so participate in the dance of your trinity, that our lives may resonate with you, now and for ever. Amen.[1]

Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to Trinity Sunday. Always the first Sunday after Pentecost, this day invites us more deeply into one of the central mysteries of our faith, as one of the classic hymns sung on this day puts it: “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” God is one in substance, and yet is also known to us as Father or Mother, Parent, Source; as the Son and divine Word through whom all things were created and who became flesh in Jesus Christ; as the Holy Spirit who broods over creation, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth. This is a mystery not meant as a challenge or test to be mentally parsed so much as to be received and celebrated. Or as the traditional collect for today prays, that we may have grace “to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity.”[1] This mystery has also sometimes been envisioned as a kind of divine dance into whose life we are invited in prayer. God makes invitational space within God’s heart, the flow of God’s life, for finite creatures such as us to abide and rest, to receive life anew, to be transformed. That prayerful invitation comes in particular through the Spirit, whose descent at Pentecost we celebrated last week. The Spirit meets and carries us, particularly in the midst of struggle, drawing us forward, leading us into deeper truth.

In her book God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity,’ theologian Sarah Coakley writes of the unique role of the Holy Spirit, among the persons of the Trinity, in prayer. The Spirit serves, she writes, as “the primary means of incorporation into the trinitarian life of God, and [is] constantly and ‘reflexively’ at work in believers in the circle of response” to the prayerful call. She shares how key strands of the Christian tradition, particularly the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, witness the Spirit meeting us where we are and, through our prayer, “catching up the created realm into the life of God.”[2] “Dwell[ing] within [us],” as Paul describes, “divinely activated from within,” as Coakley adds, the Spirit causes us to pray, to cry out to God -- “abba!” -- thereby “bearing witness” to our fundamental identity “as children of God,” as we heard one of last week’s readings (Romans 8:16).[3] This is the Spirit who intercedes on our behalf as we and all creation groan together, longing for a redemption that will lift us out of suffering and longing and into God’s promised future (Romans 8:23).[4] The Spirit meets us in this groaning, especially in our not knowing how exactly to pray, and from within our own hearts, carries our prayers, carries us more deeply into God’s triune life with, in one of my favorite phrases from Paul, “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Our shared prayer in the Spirit, Coakley emphasizes, not only comforts us in affliction in our own personal circumstances, but catches our prayer up into its larger creational, even cosmic purpose, with ripple effects we cannot fully understand.

Our gospel passage also bears witness to the distinct role of the Spirit in meeting us where we are, particularly in struggle, and carrying us forward. The opening line of our passage from John has long resonated with me. Ahead of his arrest and crucifixion, in the midst of a long discourse, Jesus says to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). As challenging as Jesus’ words could be, he had things to say that were so much so that the disciples would not be able to hear them. Would not be able to bear them. Almost all the English translations of this passage I have seen use this word bear here, evoking the sense of carrying something forward as well as being able to even hold or understand it in the first place. Something that is just too much. Yet in our finiteness, in our limited capacities, the Spirit is once again promised to intercede. Here Jesus describes the Spirit in a manner distinct to John’s gospel: the Spirit of Truth. We heard this descriptor last week as well (John 14:8-17), and were reminded of its edge, its challenge, such that “the world cannot receive” it even as the disciples were reminded, “You know [the Spirit], because [it] abides with you, and… will be in you” (14:17). In today’s passage we hear that “when the Spirit of truth comes, [she] will guide you into all the truth; for [she] will not speak on his own” (14:10). There is something about the Holy Spirit that specializes in a kind of divine translation, carrying our prayer into the triune life of God, and conveying to creation what God would have us hear. There is something about the Spirit that leads us into things we struggle to bear, that guides us into connection when we are disconnected, that profoundly advocates, “speaking what [it] hears,” clearing the way, bridging divides, inviting us and all creation into divine glory.

There is also something about the Spirit that lifts up leaders along the way who prayerfully bear witness to God’s call to connection across the gaps of our understanding. In thinking about the distinctive role of the Spirit of Truth this week, I could not but remember someone I met at the General Convention of 2009 in Anaheim: Jim Toy. Jim, who died January 1st of this year at age 91, was known as a pioneering activist, educator and therapist, a Chinese American, openly gay man who was widely acclaimed as the first person to publicly come out as gay in the state of Michigan at a rally protesting the Vietnam War in Detroit on April 15, 1970.[5] This was less than a year after the Stonewall riots in New York City, and about four years after the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot had taken place here in San Francisco. He went on to help found the first LGBTQ Center at a university in the U.S., what is now known as the Spectrum Center at the University of Michgan, where Jim worked for many years. In a fairly recent video for the center Jim described himself: “I’m a Democrat, I’m an Episcopalian, I’m a conscientious objector… I was assigned to what we call the male gender. I identify with that assignment. As it turned out, I happened to be gay.”[6] In another interview he said, “My ‘identity’ is a tapestry of many threads — race and ethnicity, color, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability/disability, appearance, age, religious belief, political belief. If one of the threads is plucked, the whole fabric is bound to move.”[7] What struck me when I met him in 2009 was both his intentional living out of that tapestry, that intersectionality, and his absolute clarity that his life and liberation was bound up with that of all people. And in an LGBTQ context in which the T was, and is, not always well understood, he joined those of us from TransEpiscopal in offering a space of training and formation, speaking with conviction about how he had experienced the oppressiveness of what he called “the rules of gender” in his own life, how all of us are impacted by them, especially when those rules are rigidly binary.[8] Jim was an advocate in a truly Holy Spirit-inspired sense. His life was prayerfully shaped by the Spirit of Truth, manifesting that catching up of creation, in all its struggle, into the life of the triune God.

I so appreciate the acknowledgement in scripture, in our living tradition as it has continued to develop, in the life of saints living and departed, that there are things we struggle to understand. There are things we experience that we cannot bear, not right now, perhaps not ever. Things that we in our language limitations cannot grasp or articulate about God in God’s triune mystery. Things in our hearts that we in our finitude and fragility have no words to convey to God. Things of our living experience that we struggle to convey to one another. In these gaps, these fragments, God the Holy Spirit comes and catches us up, leading us forward into truths we may express as best we can to and with one another, truths perhaps ultimately too deep for words, truths that can rest in the movement of God’s own heart. Thanks be to God for the gift of such prayer, for persons of such prayer, for the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, for the dance of God’s own triune life.

Here is the refrenced video interview of Jim Toy by the University of Michigan Spectrum Center.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 1979), 228. [2] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 111. [3] Coakley, 112 [4] The phrase “God’s promised future” is inspired by Patrick Keifert, We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era (Allelon Publishing, 2006) [5] [6] [7] [8] I commented on this on TransEpiscopal’s recent blog post honoring Jim:

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