Trinity Sunday. In essence, it’s all about relationship. The relationship God has with us, the relationship we have with God, the relationship we have with one another. The whole three-in-one, one-in-three thing works well as a slogan but is famously difficult to unpack, pretty much impossible to explain without falling off the rails into one heresy or another. But essentially, it’s all about relationship.
We talked a couple of weeks ago about the Father and the Son. Jesus, in John’s Gospel and especially in his farewell discourse and prayer, tells his disciples repeatedly that if they have seen the Son, then they have seen the Father. It’s a little bit like seeing a child and knowing, without ever having met her before, who her family is, because she looks just like them; she looks as though she belongs with them.
Of course, Jesus isn’t talking exactly about a family resemblance; but he is saying that through him we can see God the father, because of his own unique relationship to God as his own father.
In other words, it’s all about relationship.
I had a couple of conversations recently around the verse where Jesus says: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Some people find that very challenging, usually because of anxiety about family or loved ones who do not seem to be able to find their way to or through Jesus; sometimes because of the pluralism of the world in which we live and the simple desire to be friendly, hospitable, inclusive.
Gail R. O’Day, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, puts this claim in the context of the community of John the Evangelist which this Gospel addresses as its primary audience. She says that:
“Jesus’ claim that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’ is the joyous affirmation of a religious community that does, indeed, believe that God is available to them, decisively in the incarnation. This claim has been announced from the opening lines of the Gospel, ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (1:18). … It is important to try to hear this joyous, world-changing theological affirmation in the first-century context of the Fourth Gospel. This is not, as is the case in the twentieth [or twenty-first] century, the sweeping claim of a major world religion, but it is the conviction of a religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world. … The claim of John 14:6-7 becomes problematic when it is used to speak to question that were never in the Fourth Gospel’s purview. To use these verses in a battle over the relative merits of the world’s religions is to distort their theological heart. … These verses are the confessional celebration of a particular faith community, convinced of the truth and life received in the incarnation.” (NIB, 743-5)
“No one has ever seen God. It is God the Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known,” writes the Evangelist.
The same God, who made heaven and earth and whose loving kindness and steadfast mercy sustains the whole, whether we see it or not; that God has been hidden from our sight by the gulf between the human and the divine, the Creator and the creaturely, immortality beyond the imagination of the mortal. Yet Jesus, the Son of God who is close to his Father’s heart, has become our Revelation, our Redeemer, our Way to the Truth and the Life of God. This is not about exclusivity: but it is a new way of seeing our relationship with the God.
The God who made heaven and earth has been in relationship with us, of course, from the beginning. In the beginning, says the book, the earth was formless and empty.
The metaphor which the poet uses is that of a pitch dark, raging ocean; the waters of the womb gone wild, unable to bring forth life; a mess of futile struggle; labouring for nothing; the antithesis of relationship. Not only nothing, but beyond nothing; the opposite of good; the opposite of life.
Yet even the darkness on the far side of nothing is not enough to negate God. The Spirit of God, sometimes translated as a breath or a wind – think Pentecost, of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit over his disciples, the rush of a mighty wind in an upper room in Jerusalem – the Spirit of God already was on the move, surfing the waves of negativity, soothing the ocean of all that is not to be. Some interpreters use the image of a great bird brooding over the primordial waters, ready to bring life into being out of less than life. Karen Armstrong points out that in most ancient Middle Eastern creation stories, the God himself (or herself) has a backstory: parents, siblings. This God alone appears out of eternity, and the first relationship that God has beyond God’s own self is with the less than nothing out of which creation is spoken into being (Armstrong, 10-11). Out of which we are called into being.
The sweep of the Bible from that moment to this moment of the gospel, when we stand on the mountaintop with Jesus and his disciples; the sweep of the Bible is like an exhalation, a breathing out of creation to replace that which is beyond nothing and to fill the air with life; and an inhalation, a drawing back into God, back into a relationship that sees God clearly, as our Creator, our Redeemer, our Sustainer; as a Father, encountered through his Son, into whose family the Holy Spirit wraps us with her brooding wings and her playful wind…
It is a relationship at once personal and universal; particular and profound, but open and inviting. On a day that we celebrate the particular relationship of fatherhood, we lift up the image of the Father revealed in the Son, and we celebrate the beauty that it mirrors; but if we have trouble with that image of relationship, either as fathers, or as disappointed fathers, or as disillusioned sons or daughters, we have other ways into the relationship of Trinity; drawn under the wings of a brooding Spirit, lifted out of less than nothing into the climax of creation.
We live in a world that is thirsty for relationship. Witness the explosion of social media and the apparently endless new creative ways that are invented for us to stay in touch with friends and strangers at any hour of the day or night. And yet we live in a world where relationships are breaking down alarmingly. In the past two weeks we have witnessed three school-related shootings in this country; in the midst of communities based on relationship – because teaching and learning are definitely relationship-based activities – we have witnessed the negation of relationship; we have seen what is on the other side of those waters of chaos.
Jesus said, “Love one another.” Pay attention to relationships. Fathers’ Day is as good a day as any to start taking stock. We may begin with the relationships within our own families; but we should pay attention also to the relationships of our community. What is the joyous affirmation that Epiphany claims, which needs to be shared with the people who live around us? Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations;” share with others the good news that you have heard; that God is beyond the chaos, above the raging waters that oppose life; that God has power over them. Do so knowing that we come from a particular point of view, and do so with grace, and humility. It’s all about creating, redeeming and sustaining relationships.
In the beginning, God lived in relationship: three in one; the Creator speaking the Word carried on Spirit breath, hovering, brooding over that which was less than nothing; a long breath out which longs to draw us back in; the Holy Spirit breathing into us the knowledge of the Son who is close to the Fathers’ heart, who can show us all the way into a living relationship with God.
The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX: The Gospel of Luke; The Gospel of John (Abingdon Press, 1995)
Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)