What Is God Like?

 David Lose, who writes a weekly blog for preachers, says that trying to explain the Trinity in a sermon is a really, really bad idea. Since I’ve tried to do just that on a few occasions in the past, I took notice. Lose says that the typical pastor is tempted to launch into a historical explanation of the reasons why the concept of a triune God was the first great doctrine with which the Church had to grapple. We want to cite all the scriptures in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mentioned, and to attempt a neat packaging of Trinitarian theology for easy consumption. By engaging in such an enterprise, the pastor may give the impression that he or she understands everything there is to know about the Trinity. Lose thinks giving that impression is dangerous, writing, “People who say they understand (the doctrine of the Trinity) aren’t to be trusted.”[1] Taking Lose as a guide, I suppose the challenge is to say and think and feel a worthwhile something without claiming to know everything.

 On this Trinity Sunday, the lectionary schedule calls for reading the third chapter of John’s gospel. Many of us are so used to hearing the words of John 3:16 in association with Sunday school and evangelistic crusades that we forget the context in which Jesus originally spoke them. What we have in this text is essentially the record of a secret meeting that took place at night. Nicodemus represented the worldview of an established religious authority. Yet, he could not deny the power of Jesus’ new ministry, and felt the emotional pull of his preaching. Nicodemus was struggling with a decision about which authority to trust – the tradition and culture he inherited, or the life and teaching of Jesus. He understood the life-changing implications of a decision to trust Jesus, and that is why he arrived only under the cover of darkness.

 The reason, I think, that we read this gospel text on Trinity Sunday, is because it functions as a warning to those who think they have God all figured out.  The Pharisees whom Nicodemus represented had elaborate interpretations of scripture that supported a rigid rule-based approach to every situation. Jesus’ creative and cagey response to Nicodemus’s questions can be understood as his attempt to get Nicodemus to see the truth: God can’t be placed in a box of human construction. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

 In the early centuries of the Christian Church, theologians and bishops spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to describe how one God could be revealed to humans in three persons, and how in the process those three persons could remain one God. Sometimes, people held on to their conceptual positions like the Pharisees of old held on to their rules. When that happened, the fighting and bickering within the Church seemed to betray in deed the love of Christ that the Church proclaimed in word. But, along the way, the Church began to agree about a few key ideas revealed in scripture. One of those ideas was the notion that the triune God is dynamic, not static. God is revealed in scripture through particular activities, never as an abstract lifeless concept.  Another idea is that God, as revealed in scripture, relates not only to creation, but also to Godself: the Father cares about the Son. The Son prays to the Father. The Spirit bears witness to the Son. 

 My old preaching professor Tom Long puts it this way: “Some people think of God as like a great big parent, a father or mother in the sky, or maybe a fearsome judge who stares down and makes us behave out of fear and guilt. Some other people think of God like a divine clockmaker who made the creation, wound it up, and lets it tick away on its own. Other people think of God as like some distant star, cold, unblinking, shining out there somewhere, but far away from us and our lives. But when we walk the trail called Trinity, we discover that God is not a fearsome judge or a clockmaker or a distant star, but God is rather a community of persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in a living and dynamic communion of love and self-giving.”[2]

 What does this all this mean for you and me? In the study of religion, it’s a well-known phenomenon that those who practice a religion take on some of the qualities of the god whom they worship. If you worship a god whose primary occupation seems to be vanquishing enemies, then it’s likely that you’ll end up with a vengeful spirit. If you worship a god who is only a heavenly legislator and lawyer, then it’s likely that spirituality for you will consist of making elaborate lists of complicated rules to follow, and judging everyone else against them. But if you worship the God whose oneness-in-threeness cannot be completely understood, then you will be drawn toward the Awesome Mystery that we cannot confine or control. If you worship the God who is a community of three persons of one substance, then you will be drawn into the living communion of love and self-giving that is the Church.  Peter Gomes, the Harvard Dean of Chapel who died a little more than one year ago, once said, “You don’t always have to be what you have now become.” For you and me, worship of the triune God means that redemption is possible, a movement from a state of judgment to a state of grace. When you worship the dynamic God revealed in scripture, then you know that life-giving change can happen, whatever demon plagues your life. When you are in a place that you know isn’t quite right, to hear and believe the proclamation that God is living and active and isn’t finished with you yet is very good news.

[1] David Lose, “Divine Relationship, Working Preacher, 28 May 2012, www.workingpreacher.org

[2] Thomas G. Long, “The Start of the Trail,” 3 June 2012, Day One Radio, http://day1.org


~ by JohnH1962 on June 3, 2012.

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