There was an interesting piece of information in a leadership book that I was reading recently.* It claimed that church attendance per se made no difference to people’s ethical, or moral behaviour. This is a similar claim to the one that John Shelby Spong makes in his Autobiography that in the Bible Belt in the USA, the rates of divorce, domestic violence and other social evils are as high in the churches as in the surrounding community.
This Book, ‘Leadership Next’, goes on so say, however, that among those committed to the church in activities beyond worship that there is a statistically significant difference between Christians and others in terms of truth telling, absence of racial prejudice, and the ability to see beyond materialism.’
Then today I went to the ‘Table Ronde’, our local oecumenical gathering of local clergy. One of our number gave a brief meditation about Psalm 23. He was speaking about the verse that continues ‘Thy rod and thy staff comfort me.’ He made the point that the rod was a defensive stick, to kill wild beasts etc. and that the staff was a help in guiding the lambs to their mother. He then put one across the other to make a cross, and said, ‘Now this is the cross of Jesus. The ‘rod’, the horizontal element in the cross destroys death (something evil) the vertical element, the staff, leads us to our heavenly Father.’
So now comes the third element in this reflection. Last Tuesday, at our study group on St. Augustine, we were talking about God as Trinity. The group, like many others, was confused about this metaphor or image of God, and asked me to write something about it. Well here goes.
The first thing that I want to say is that the image or picture of God as Trinity is revealed to us on Good Friday. Here’s how. During Jesus’ life, he, claiming to be the inaugurator, in his own person, of the Reign of God, goes about destroying God’s enemies. He gives us a picture of God as reaching out, seeking the lost, healing those who are in the grip of evil, even to the point of being dead. Jesus is not contaminated by sin or death, but by his loving, reaching-out embrace of those in the grip of sin, brings them into relationship with a stronger power, with a new community, with new life.
Now on Good Friday, this picture of God as embracing and transforming evil is integrated into the very life of God. Jesus, as he is crucified, becomes the one who by definition is ‘outside of God’ (Everyone who is hanged on a tree is cursed). This ‘outsider-ness’ is by the power of the love of the Father held within God. The holding force if you like between the Father (total God) and the Son (total ‘not-God’) is God the Spirit which they both share. So what Jesus was doing as ‘representative of God’ in his ministry, becomes an image of ‘what God is’ on Good Friday.** This is why the veil of the temple is rent in two, because the difference between ‘inside God’ (The ‘Holy of Holies’ and ‘outside God’ (everywhere else) has been torn down. There is now nowhere that can be ‘outside’ of God’s love. (Except for those people who purposefully refuse it like those who say ‘I would not want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.’ )
A picture that is sometimes useful to me is that of a lifesaver. Imagine a drowning person caught in a ‘rip’ off the beach. The life saving club (the Father) sends the lifesaver (the Son) to rescue the drowning person. Sometimes the drowning person fights with the lifesaver, but the love and care of the lifesaver overcomes the fear of the drowning one, and he is brought into the embrace of the lifesaver. But what is to stop the lifesaver from drowning? The club, on the beach, has a belt with a line attached to the lifesaver. This line represents the connection between the lifesaver and the sending club. It represents their common purpose to ‘go out’ and the fact that the sender and the sent ‘belong’ to each-other.
Now on Good Friday, according to this image, Jesus, within the life of God becomes the ‘drowning one’ who is held, only worse. He is not just drowning, but represents all of humanity which is ‘dead’ to God. Yet because Jesus is also ‘God the Son’ the bond between him and the Father, (the Spirit) is not broken, so that this story becomes a description of the way in which God reveals God’s true nature to us, and makes a new relationship with God, and with others possible for us. This is how st Paul Describes it. He says ‘He who knew no sin became Sin for us.’
This brings us back to the first two anecdotes of this reflection. It is God’s nature, as revealed in Jesus, to be a ‘sending’ God. It makes sense that only those who say ‘Here am I, send me’ discover God’s true nature as a ‘sending God’ and are transformed by it. Because God is Trinity, those who allow themselves to be sent, like Jesus, those who risk the ‘going out’, actually discover the uniqueness of being Christian. That is why the question ‘How can we become a missionary congregation?’ is not one that can be left out of the equation, but instead, it is the question that defines us as being Church, within the life of God who is Trinity.Any other kind of association is just another club.
The second story, about the good shepherd destroying evil, also takes its significance from a Trinitarian God, because the difference that is made on Good Friday is that ‘not God’ (evil, the devil, death) is integrated, and loved in ‘God’. This is what is revealed to us at that moment.
Orthodox bishops carry a pastoral staff that is a serpent. This mage is drawn from the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness who were bitten by snakes. As Moses makes a bronze serpent and places it on a pole, everyone who looks at it (i.e. returns to integrate what has wounded them) is healed. Jesus says ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so if I be lifted up I will draw everyone unto me.’ Our healing comes about as we gaze on ourselves, wounded and alienated from God, in Jesus, on the cross. This Gazing, is also a form of the same ‘participation’ (communion) which we do in the sacraments. Healing and the defeat of death, comes not by the expulsion or repression of evil, but by its embrace and integration. Death becomes not something that ‘has us’ but something that is ‘part of a bigger whole’ (death, entombment and resurrection) in God’s love.
That is why it is necessary to have a God who is One-in-Three and Three-in-One if we are going to be Christians. It is not a matter of metaphysical speculation, but a matter of telling the story of the overcoming of all that is destructive, even death itself.
*Leadership Next, Eddie Gibbs.
** This is an expression of the theological maxim that ‘The Economic Trinity is the essential Trinity’