May 22, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: John 1: 1-5; John 16:12-15
In Time magazine’s May 2 issue in which they list who they consider to be today’s 100 most influential people, there is a story about Nadia Murad, age 23. The article reads:
“Nadia Murad stands in a long, invisible history of fierce, indomitable women who rise from the scorched earth of rape during war to break the odious silence and demand justice and freedom for their sisters. At 19 she lost her home, her country, her culture, her mother to murder; witnessed male members of her family murdered in mass killings; and was kidnapped, sold and endlessly raped by members of ISIS. She now travels the world speaking out on the genocide being inflicted on her Yezidi people and demanding release for the more than 3,000 women still held in bondage.
“As Europe closes its borders to terrorized refugees in Greece and the U. S. turns its back on the suffering, Nadia is a beacon of light and truth – a reminder that it was the American-led war in Iraq that laid the path for ISIS and that the U.S. waited too long to intervene in the mass killing and enslavement of the Yezidi people.
“At 23, Nadia Murad is risking everything to awaken us. I hope we are listening, because we too are responsible.” (Eve Ensler is a playwright and the founder of V-Day, a movement to end violence against women and girls.)
Today I’d like to reflect with you about our connection with one another; our relationships with each other, and our life journey together. According to the great reformer John Calvin, in order to know ourselves we must first know God. Knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves are closely related. If we are to understand who we are as human beings created in the “image of God,” we must first understand who God is. Now, we can’t ever fully understand God. God is greater, bigger, beyond our understanding. But we can learn some things about the divine that can guide us in our journey to closer union with God.
Like Judaism and Islam, the Christian faith declares that God is “one”. Unlike these other great “monotheistic” religions, however, Christianity declares that God is not alone, isolated in solitary “one-ness.” Christians believe that God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; “One Being” in “Three equal divine Persons.” This understanding is referred to as the doctrine of the Trinity and it developed from evidence in the scriptures. Most of the writers of the New Testament were originally Jews who believed in one God. But when the apostles and disciples encountered Jesus of Nazareth and witnessed his life, death, and resurrection, they became convinced that he was fully Immanuel, God with them, the Person of God incarnated in human flesh. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the apostles and disciples also found that God in Christ continued fully to be with them in the Person of the Holy Spirit, as Christ had promised. Thus, the one God of the Old Testament was fully present in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The two segments of John’s gospel read this morning refer first to the Father and the Son co-existing from the beginning; and in the second section Jesus speaks of the coming of the Holy Spirit who is one with him and the Father. This is complicated stuff.
The great Doctor of the Church St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo spent over thirty years working on a treatise about the Trinity. A story is told that he was walking by the seashore one day contemplating and trying to understand this mystery when he saw a small boy running back and forth from the water to a spot on the seashore. The boy was using a sea shell to carry the water from the ocean and place it into a small hole in the sand. Augustine approached him and asked, “My boy, what are doing?”
“I am trying to bring all the sea into this hole,” the boy replied with a sweet smile.
“But that is impossible, my dear child, the hole cannot contain all that water” said Augustine.
The boy paused in his work, stood up, looked into the eyes of the Saint, and replied, “It is no more impossible than what you are trying to do – comprehend the immensity of the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your small intelligence.”
The Saint was struck by the child’s words, and turned his eyes from him for a short while to consider what he had said. When he glanced down to ask him something else, the boy had vanished.
Some say that it was an Angel sent by God to teach Augustine a lesson on pride in learning. Others affirm it was the Christ Child Himself who appeared to the Saint to remind him of the limits of human understanding before the great mysteries of our Faith.
Through this story, the sea shell has become a symbol of St. Augustine and a symbol for the study of theology. Theology is sometimes defined as Faith Seeking Understanding.
As a diverse faith community we are more a spiritual body of worshipers than a community held together by a shared theology. So why is the mystery of the Trinity important for us to consider? For me, it’s because we are made in the image of God, and the more that we know about God, the more we will understand who we are called to be. In today’s reading today Jesus tells his disciples and tells us, “I still have many things yet to say to you…When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” A significant contribution to what will give us delight in our human journey is growing in our relationship with God; getting to know God better and growing in Union with the God of our understanding. So let’s review some of what we know.
According to the New Testament, God is “love”. Love is not a characteristic or “attribute” that we ascribe to God. Rather, God is love; God’s very “being” or “nature”, the essence of God is love. This we know.
We also know that love is a term of relationship. Love requires another. The Holy Trinity is a fellowship or communion of divine love. The “Persons” of the Holy Trinity are not separate, autonomous “selves” or “individuals”; rather, “otherness” is essential to the triune being of God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have their identities in relationship to one another, a relationship whose essential nature is love.
We also know that we were all born into relationship. As soon as we were born we were someone’s child, a member of a community, a citizen of the world. Created in God’s image, we attain the fullness of our nature to the degree that we too are loving beings. Like the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, human beings are persons. This means that we are free and are able to know and love others, but it also means that our belonging to the community of humankind, our relatedness to other people, is at the very root of who we are. The three divine persons are forever united with each other in mutual love, they dwell in each other. They collaborate continually, sharing as one in all their activities. This provides a model for the ideal human community, in which people are united by mutual love, they work together in harmonious consensus, and the equality and dignity of each person is respected.
In summary, the doctrine of the Trinity states that the One God of the Christian faith eternally exists as three divine Persons in a communion or relationship of love. In the beginning was the relation of persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. According to theologian Daniel Migliore, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, who, by the way wrote a book entitled Faith Seeking Understanding; the communion of the Holy Trinity includes “differentiation” (i.e., “diversity”) and “relationship.” In the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is “difference without division, self-giving without self-loss, and eternal life in ceaseless harmony and peace.” What a wonderful model for us on our journey through life and for us as a church community: “difference without division, self-giving without self-loss, and eternal life in ceaseless harmony and peace.”
The Christian belief that God is a fellowship of equal Persons who co-exist in a relationship of love bears directly upon the biblical teaching that human beings are created “in the image of God.” Because God has his “being-in-relationship,” we are created to have our “being” in relationship. Yet we live in a culture that prizes and protects autonomy and independence. We intensely defend our ability to make individual choices. We guard our precious individuality: my body, my private property, my rights, my needs, my fulfillment, my conscience, my interests. Others are the problem. It is they who impinge on our self-determination. They make demands. They want their way. And maybe, most threatening of all, they make our life journey unpredictable. We never know what will happen, what will be asked of us, expected of us with others in our lives. I invite you this week to take some time to think about how you expected your life to be lived; the plans that you made when you were younger; the vision you had for your life journey. And then, review how that journey has progressed thus far, because of the people in your life. Sometimes it was no doubt frightening, and painful, but hopefully more delightful than you ever imagined. You were stretched, you grew in ways that you never would have on your own.
Here at Union Church we are developing a care team; a group that will support its members, a group whose members can continue to learn how to communicate the care and concern we have for persons in our community who are hurting or sick. Yes, pastoral visits will continue, but it’s important when we are in pain that we experience love from a wider circle of our church family; that we experience the support of others when our journey is difficult.
The Trinity is a model for all human relationships. The equality, interdependence, cooperation, sharing and mutual self-giving and receiving among the three divine persons paint a picture of the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed. This is what we pray for when we say, “Thy Kingdom come!”
This is a big year of decisions for us. In late summer or early fall a search for a settled pastor for Union Church will begin. Already, however, the leaders of the church have been reflecting, discussing and beginning to consider processes whereby every member of the congregation will have a voice; will have influence, will matter. The relationship among the Persons of the Trinity, marked by equality of personhood, interdependence, cooperation, unity of purpose, and mutual self-giving and receiving will be an important guide for us in this endeavor.
We also will have big decisions to make in this election year. Because the God in whose image we are created is a fellowship of love, we, as Christians, are called to work towards creating a community in which there is a fair sharing of the earth’s resources, and where relationships of power and domination are replaced by relationships of honor and mutual respect among equals. Migliore states, “Understanding the Holy Trinity as a community of love among equals lays the foundation for a society of brothers and sisters, of equals, in which dialogue and consensus are the basic constituents of living together. To be sure, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity undermines all forms of social inequality, whether elitism, racism, sexism, or classism.” The Christian hope for peace, justice and freedom among peoples of diverse cultures, ethnicities and races is in keeping with the doctrine of the Trinity. When as Christians we work for justice and for human rights, for a compassionate and caring society, we are modeling the Trinity. Faith in the Trinitarian God, in the God of personal interrelationship and shared love, commits us to struggle with all our strength against poverty, exploitation, oppression and disease. If we desire to imitate God who is three-in-one, who is relational, who is love, we cannot remain indifferent to any suffering, by any member of the human race, in any part of the world. As we consider candidates running for election, and party platforms, we need to make our assessments as disciples of Jesus Christ called upon to embody and enact the values that derive from a Trinitarian view of God.
The implications for human relationships in light of humanity’s creation in the image of the Triune God have yet to be fully realised. In this morning’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Father Raymond Brown has said, “The best Christian preparation for what is coming to pass is not an exact foreknowledge of the future but a deep understanding of what Jesus means for one’s own time.” It’s living as today’s sacred music guides us; surrendering to not-knowing, living in the moment, and doing all we can with what we have, in the time we have, and in the place we are. Living up to what we do know about the teachings of Jesus is the best way to prepare for what we will face on the journey tomorrow. But this can be difficult. Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that give me trouble, but the ones I do.” But we are not alone on our journey. In today’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples and he tells us, “When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth”. We are on this journey together. The spirit who will guide us will usually do so in the voice of family members, neighbors, friends and our faith community. To be fully and truly human is to live and move and have our being in relationships. When God is rightly understood to be a tri-Personal communion of love, the doctrine of the Trinity challenges both the radical individualism of Western culture and the loss of individuality that is the goal of eastern religions and totalitarian regimes. There is not room for a world view in which the self-interest of the individual undermines the interests of the wider community.
I believe that Joan Chittister, OSB says it well in her book Illuminated Life: “Community calls us to the kind of relationships that walk us through minefields of personal selfishness, that confront us with moments of personal responsibility, that raise us to the level of personal heroics, and lead us to the rigor of personal compassion day after day. It is when we see in the needs of others what we are meant to give away that we become truly empty of ourselves. It is in the challenges of the times that we come to speak the Spirit. It is when we find ourselves dealing with the downright intransigence of the other that we understand our own sin. It is when we recognize in the world around us the call of God to us that our response to the human race becomes the measuring stick of the quality of our souls.
“The honor with which we regard the other unmasks our own theology of creation. The way we react to the needs of the other tells us something about our own needs. The attention we give to another exposes our real sense of the breadth of the universe and stretches it beyond ourselves”.
Today we have an example of that in Wiley Beveridge, who despite challenges and difficulties is delighting in the human journey. Wiley is leaving us and moving south to be with family who will share in providing care and support for him and his dad. Wiley has been an example for us on what it means to be in loving relationship. Wiley has demonstrated what Gregory J Johansson has written:
“We are in it together.
We are connected. That this is so helps pull it together for us. Life seems to be a flow that involves many currents and stages and passages, something like a mighty river. Hopefully it comes in a pattern of growth for you and for me. But while our individual growth is of great importance, that’s not all there is to life.
I think what undergirds it and gives it meaning is the fact that we are all in it together, whether we like it or not – you and I, our families and friends, our neighbors, even God, by choice. We are in it together.
“Much of the time we find ourselves concerned exclusively with the flow of our individual lives, and that’s understandable. But sometimes we are thrown close to others and their struggles. At those times we find ourselves seriously challenged – challenged to open up our pain and joy, and risk allowing ourselves to be touched; -challenged to respond to the pain and joy of others in a personal way, as we let our lives be interrupted; challenged to let the flow of our lives, with all the good and the bad that is there, mingle with the flow of the lives of other people; challenged to let ourselves be saved. It’s not an easy challenge to respond to of course. Sometimes we find that we must set limits and protect ourselves so that we are not overwhelmed by all the people. But the beauty of it is that when we genuinely open ourselves to another, we often discover that our lives become richer and fuller. We are in it together. “
Thank you, Wiley, for sharing your musical talent with us. And thank you especially for who you have been for us.
May we all let ourselves be guided by the Spirit and delight in our human journey together.