Trinity Sunday  |  John 3:1-17

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

BrownGrassesIt is the most Christian of beliefs—the idea of the Trinity. Other religions and story traditions have saviour figures, even gods and heroes who die and are resurrected. Other religions espouse multiform expressions of the divine—little gods, greater gods, gods of every shape, form, nature and purpose.

Only Christianity embraces the concept of the Trinity, three in one, one God expressed in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit. There are all sorts of explanations, endless theological views, all manner of descriptions. We have a host of clever illustrations. Clover leaves. Pretzels.

Though we claim we believe that God is one, we act as though these three persons were separate, untethered, more like generations of a family than aspects of one God.

Take God the Father. When we speak of God the Creator, we think of the Father. After all, how could the universe have come into being if God did not have a long white beard? Ridiculous question? Fine, you try to imagine it without those paintings in the Sistine Chapel popping into your head.

And who does evangelical Christianity expect to return but God the Son? It is  Jesus, riding on a cloud, surrounded by angels, never the Spirit, and almost never the Father unless one’s church is particularly inclined toward judgment and hellfire. No, it is almost always the Son, with a beard that is darker and shorter. You know it’s true. Look at the illustrations in any illustrated Bible. The Father is left behind, presumably in heaven which as everyone knows is up there in the sky, and the Spirit is nowhere to be seen, while a very intense and fairly young man rides into the picture. There are always clouds and angels.

God the Spirit is more radical. We have our symbols, to be sure—a white dove, the fire of pentecost, even the wild geese of Irish tradition. (The Irish were always a little different. Ask them yourself if you don’t believe me, and they will proudly own up to it.) Like fire and wind, the Spirit is unpredictable, difficult to describe.

All of these images of God have one thing in common: each is an expression of what we expect to get from God. That’s right—our ideas about God spring from what we expect from God and what we want from God. From the Father we expect power and knowledge, and so we imagine a white haired king. The Son gives us ferocity of love, the healing touch, restoration, and so we imagine the energy of youth. The Spirit meets our desire for the mystical, for mysterious inner communion with the God who is Other, and so we think of fire and wind, birds in flight.Candle In Darkness

God does not live to meet our expectations. Our concept of the Trinity enables us to contemplate the Otherness of God, but the Otherness that is God does not exist to fulfill our conceptualization.

In other words, we may be a little like God, but God is not like us. And our faith should not be concerned with whether God meets our expectations. Our faith should not be based on what we hope to receive from God. Our faith should be simply that God is, for God’s own sake, in God’s own way.

In his novel Looking for Alaska, John Green retells this story:

Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, ‘I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.’”

[Green, John (2008-08-14). Looking for Alaska (p. 174). Penguin Young Readers Group. Kindle Edition.]

The point this wonderful woman made is remarkably similar to the conclusions of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). In his work On Loving God, Bernard explored the various reasons we might love ourselves, others and God. While we might love God for those things we seek to receive, or in response to the power or abilities of God, the greatest reason to love God is God—loving God for God’s sake, without thought of gain or obligation.

Trinity Sunday is a perfect time to examine what we expect from God. It is a day to confess what we hope to receive in exchange for our acceptance, devotion, worship, and faith. All of that needs to be put aside. We may even, for the moment, lay aside our understanding of God as these three relatively defined persons.

At the end of our theology and our understanding, there is faith. Somewhere beyond our expectations and our explanations, God is who God is. In the moments of our deepest need, we are not seeking anything from God. We are seeking the presence of God.


Better Unseen

Day of Pentecost  |  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Sparkler HandsOn this Sunday, the Church celebrates the Day of Pentecost. The Christian remembrance of this day depends upon accounts left by the early followers of Jesus, left leaderless after his crucifixion. They told of experiencing the presence of the Spirit of God in ways that make little sense to modern readers. To make the matter more mysterious, the accounts do not even agree with one another.

According to the book of Acts, something “like tongues of fire” appeared to these earliest Christians, or happened to them, or by some other difficult to describe experience changed them. Afterward they left off their new practice of withdrawing from society, as they had done partly in fear of persecution and partly for lack of a clear idea of what else to do, and went out among the streets and people of Jerusalem, telling everyone that Jesus had been resurrected.

That makes a string of odd experiences.

John recalls the events differently than the other gospels. In the verses outlined by the lectionary, Jesus tells his followers that he is leaving them, and that only when he has left them will they come to know another aspect of God, the Advocate, the Spirit of truth. In this gospel, after the crucifixion a resurrected Jesus and some of his followers are gathered in a room when he breathes on them—another peculiar detail—and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.Candle in Salt

The New Testament accounts are not clear, and they do not tell the same story. We might agree that something happened to change the way these earliest Christians understood the presence of God. We might agree precisely because of the lack of agreement in the texts—if these folks were making it all up, surely they would have done a better job of getting the details down, but their focus appears to have been on the result, not the method.

Whether some of these people had a visual or physical experience of fire, or were merely expressing their experience in such language as a metaphor, or were more apt to describe some quieter occurrence as in the Gospel of John, all of them claimed that something happened. More to the point, these early Christians began to behave in a different way—something changed in them and something changed in the way they related to the people and the world around them—and as a result our own civilization changed with them. Whatever they experienced was powerful enough to change history.

Oddly, in this passage of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that “…it is helpful to you that I go away.” The word translated as helpful, or as to your advantage, literally means bring together. (Even today, to ‘get it together’ means something a little different than what the words convey.) We find a version of the same term in Acts 19:19 — “…those who had practiced magic arts brought together their books and burned them….” The greater oddness of that passage aside, it is interesting to think that the words of Jesus have a double meaning: it is to your advantage and it will bring you together.

SparksAt a stretch, then, we might translate the verse this way: But I tell you the truth, you will be brought together if I go….

Whatever the meaning, that was the effect.

Watching a teacher is a good way to learn, but we don’t really know something for ourselves until we do it for ourselves. Hearing the gospel taught, listening to the words, is not the same as living and sharing the gospel. Hearing that God draws near to us, whether we recognize the moment or not, is not the same as internalizing it, having faith that it is so. Hearing that our failures can be redeemed, that there is always an opportunity for grace, is not the same as accepting it, walking with it.

The followers of Jesus got it together when he left them. He got out of the way. If we hope to experience love and grace and God in our lives, sometimes the best thing we can do is to get out of the way.

Holding Sparklers

Not Going Anywhere

Seventh Sunday in Easter  |  John 17:6-19

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical  theology.

Pine Straw TossEverywhere I go in the world of Christianity, I hear about heaven: heaven is real, going to heaven, back from heaven, phone calls from heaven. If not heaven, then I hear about hell: it is Jesus or hell, the fires of hell, you don’t want to go to hell, you are going to hell. (That last is usually from people who read these posts.) Yet in this long prayer, on the eve of the crucifixion, in what amounts to a farewell benediction, Jesus does not pray about his followers leaving this world for heaven, nor does he issue dire warnings of hell.

All this talk about heaven, yet Jesus openly prays for his followers, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world….”

He does ask that God protect them from the evil one, one might point out. There it is, the devil himself, right in the heart of all of it. Really? To borrow a question from a long line of thoughtful theologians, who is the evil one? This Satan who is rarely mentioned in scripture but whom we have built into a central figure in horror films? Or is the evil one our too human neighbor? The criminal who does us harm? Our enemies on a battlefield? Are we, ourselves, the evil ones? If so, Jesus is praying that we be protected from the darkness of our own hearts.

John’s Gospel records Jesus confessing that he has given his followers the words that God gave him. This Gospel began with it: in the beginning was the word, we read, the logos, the essence of God. Jesus confirms that his followers keep that logos, that word, that essence of God within themselves. It is an echo of the famous statement found in a very different Gospel, Luke 17:21—the kingdom of heaven is within you, or perhaps, the kingdom of heaven is in your midst.Pine Straw Smiling

We hear no pie in the sky Gospel message, not in these passages at the least. We hear a Jesus who passionately claims that the essence of God, the power of God, the bliss of heaven, is already present in and among those he leaves behind, here on this earth, in this life.

All of which begs the question, what are we waiting for? According to this prayer of Jesus, we’re not going anywhere, at least not any time soon, and any one day destination is entirely forgotten in the urgency of realizing the presence of God, the essence of God, here and now, where we already are, in what we are already doing.

Pine Straw CoveringIt is good to have a future hope. It is better to have a present one.

We become so focused on the future that we forget to live, forget to be present, forget that God is present—in, behind, around, through, in the midst of our lives, our hopes, our needs.

This is where Jesus intends for us to be—in this world. Our lives change, our needs shift, our gifts vary, our interests broaden or deepen or narrow. In all of these circumstances, it is the claim of the Jesus of the Gospels that we are already touching heaven. We walk on streets of gold, whether we look for them or not. We dwell in the mansions of eternity, whether we pause to experience it or not. Whether we feel it or not, accept it or not, believe it or not, we are already in the presence of God. And God’s not going anywhere.

God is Odd

Sixth Sunday of Easter  |   John 15:9-17

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Some people turn away at any thought of God, not accepting any such concept, loving or otherwise. We might pause to consider that the author of the Gospel of John also rejected many ideas about God.

Ancient of Days by William Blake
Ancient of Days by William Blake

The bearded old man reading our thoughts. The angry judge. Inventor of disease. Permitter of evil. Rule maker.

I don’t blame anyone for not believing in that sort of god. As others have said, I don’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either.

The God in John’s Gospel is not a tyrant in the sky. In this Gospel we find a God who is present with us, one who suffers as we suffer, the same things we suffer. This God, not content to be called master of anyone, chooses to be called friend, chooses to call us friends.

Clearly, God’s odd.

It is easy to love the stranger, a people far away. Not knowing them, we are able to project any trait or personality onto them. We can imagine their loves, their needs, their gratitude.

It is also easy to hate the stranger, people far from us. From a distance, we imagine their failings, their enmity. We assign their guilt, dole out their punishment, decide their fate.

Real people are harder. They destroy our expectations. Up close, they are difficult to love. They are hard to categorize or generalize, impossible to idolize, harder to demonize. They disappoint us. Without distance, we lose the simple clarity of right and wrong. Choices settle into ambivalent shades of gray. We lose our secretly cherished ability to be right all the time.

Some people are monsters, true enough. That is easily seen, almost as easily accepted. What is harder is realizing that the monsters are still people, still like us, still loved by the God of John’s Gospel. God, this Gospel claims, does not love some people but everyone. Monsters included.

Up close, we lose sight of our enemies in the faces we can see. Up close, our enemies change as their hands reach out to hold their children or to support an aging parent.

Lemur groupOur friends may not be like us. They may be better looking, or smarter. They may be better athletes or artists. They may be broken, poor, unable to walk or speak. In fact, it may be that friendship is their only gift.

If the God of John’s Gospel chooses to be our friend, that does not make us the same as God. It does not make God the same as us. It does give us a new way to consider the idea of God. Someone who likes us. Someone who does not judge us. Someone who wants to see us reach our potential, follow our calling.

Someone real.

This is not a God of rules, a God of ‘shoulds’— how you should act, what you should do. This is a God who listens to our hopes, knows our dreams. This is a God who knows our failures and who accepts us anyway, an act of redemption.

Friends redeem us, to the extent they are able. Imagine what that means with God.

This is not the god that radical atheism opposes. This is not even the god that radical creationists preach. That entire spectrum of belief and denial is built upon gods they themselves have defined, gods limited to the functions of universe-maker, time-winder, anthropomorphic clay-shaper, with a handful of traits thrown in to suit one argument or another—supposedly omniscient, all powerful gods most peculiarly limited by the imaginations either of supporters or opponents.

The God in John’s Gospel doesn’t even sound like theirs, either the one some people deny or the one other people insist we accept. A god of our own making, whether for denying or following, is not real. A god of our own making, however powerful or clever or amazing, is not this God of the Gospel.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. That is the command of this odd God, the heart of this odd Gospel. Not that the idea was new. The prophet Micah had figured it out long before the Gospel of John was written: What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.

You know. All the things a friend does.