God-in-Community vs God-the-Loner

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Tue, 06/13/2017 - 2:45pm

 Steve HollawayHarbor Church, June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday

            Jesus doesn’t tell us to baptize people in the name of God, or to baptize them in his name, but rather to baptize disciples into the name (the reality) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are immersed into a community—not only the community of the church but also the community of the triune God. When First John says “God is love,” it does not mean that God is loving. It means that God is love. God is that love, empathy, and delight among the Father, Son, and Spirit. That is as close to a definition of God’s essence as a Trinitarian Christian can get. I think there is a reason that Jesus, and Matthew, did not give us a simple name to be baptized into. God’s nature and God’s inner life cannot be made simple. Jesus gave us a name as complex as God, a name that speaks of relationships rather than a one-person, unilateral, dictating deity.

            The most famous image of the Trinity is the Russian Orthodox icon by Andrei Rublev painted in 1425. It shows three angelic figures with halos sitting around a table sharing a meal. They share similar features and long braided hair, as if they were brothers or sisters. They each wear something blue, which ties the picture together. The icon is based on the story of the three strangers who came to Abraham and Sarah under the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18, three persons who turned out to be the Lord, bringing the promise of a son. But Rublev’s painting is a painting of God the three-in-one. It’s a wonderfully balanced and peaceful picture, but what it says to us is that the Trinity is more like a dinner than a doctrine. It tells us that at the heart of God is the experience of fellowship and communion, and that God is not adequately described as a king or a Zeus-like figure on a throne or a cloud. God is more like three persons sharing a meal and love and life.

            In New Mexico, you often see images of saints and Jesus and the Virgin painted on small plaques called santo, usually in a style you might call “primitive” or “folk art.” In the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, I saw a santo of the Trinity loosely based on the Rublev icon. I wrote a short poem about it:

I came upon adult triplets sitting at a round table
as if ready for tea or a talk show.
So their mother could tell them apart,
they wore different T-shirts.
one with a cloud, one a cross, one a dove.
They had identical faces,
and I saw it was the traditional face of Jesus,
three of him looking right at me.
Three of you? He looked unperturbed, all three.
Why not? I shrugged.
It’s the only face God has ever shown.
Would it not be a comfort to think that God has one face?
Jesus, Jesus, and Jesus.

            When I looked back at the Rublev icon, I wondered if those three also had the face of Jesus. Maybe. It is true to say that the God we see in the Trinity is not different from the God we see in Jesus. But the main message of the picture is that God is like a tea party. The idea of the Trinity is not a mathematical formula to try to make rational sense of God. The Trinity means that God is and always has been a God in community. God’s inner life is a life where love flows constantly between three persons who are so united—who, to use the word from classical theologians, so interpenetrate—that they are experienced by us as one being and one love.

            There are two very different ways of conceiving God: as God-in-community or as God-the-loner. Those two ways lead to two different ways of experiencing God and living your life. The Trinity has so faded from the modern Christian imagination that most people only think of God as One. In fact, most people think of God as alone. God is the loneliest person in the universe, in this view. Of all individuals, he is the most individual, the most differentiated from everyone else. He has no peers. He relates to everyone form a position of power and authority. He is like the CEO who has no friends because he is never not the boss, or like the man who roams the empty White House at 3:00 a.m. We say “It’s lonely at the top,” and God is the topmost. Poor God is always right about everything, is so pure idea that he is practically a rule book. He doesn’t let people laugh at him, and so he seldom laughs. The universe is a heavy responsibility. In spite of the fact that no one understands him, God must carry on with a stiff upper lip, knowing that he is so powerful he will always get his way. When he doesn’t get his way, it is because he is playing with us, as a mother pretends to give a toddler choices. That’s one way of imagining God.

            Contrast God-the-loner with the image of God-in-community, which says that the essence of God is love and delight flowing within God’s self among three wonderful persons. God is the happiest of all beings. The creation of the world was an overflow of God’s joy and love. The cross was not so much a solution to a problem God had created as an expression of the compassion and mercy at God’s center, and a demonstration that God’s love for humanity has no limits. Philosopher Cornelius Plantinga said that God is “a zestful, wondrous, community of divine light, love, joy, mutuality and verve,” where there is “no isolation, no insulation, no secretiveness, no fear of being transparent to another.” It is into that community that God is inviting us.

            Listen to what Catholic priest Ron Holheiser (OMI) says:

God is not, first of all, a formula, a dogma, a creedal statement, or a metaphysics that demands our assent. God is a flow of living relationships, a trinity, a family of life that we can enter, taste, breathe within, and let flow through us….

To make God real in our lives, therefore, we needn’t sneak off, shamrocks and triangles in hand, to try to somehow picture how three-can-be-one and one-can-be-three. Nor indeed need we read academic books on theology, valuable though these may be. No. God is a flow of relationships to be experienced in community, family, parish, friendship, and hospitality. When we live inside of these relationships, God lives inside of us and we live inside of God. [http://www.omiusa.org/index.php/2015/02/10/fr-ron-rolheiser-omi-qfinding-god-in-communityq/]

            One of the choices we have to make is whether we build our lives around a loner God who only values a one-on-one relationship with us—so that we really have no need for church or family or friends when it comes to God—OR we build our lives around a God who invites us into community with himself and whose reality is experienced most clearly in human communities. It’s amazing to me how many people think that their relationship with God is an entirely private matter, nobody’s business but mine—and it’s mostly a matter of getting “right with God” the judge or getting a passing grade on the course of life. That’s not what Christianity is about at all.

            Jurgen Moltmann is widely regarded as the greatest living German theologian (he’s 91). He came to Princeton Seminary 40 years ago to teach a course I took on his Theology of Hope. He’s often thought of as a liberal, but in writing about the Trinity he decried what he called “the Islamicization of Christianity.” It’s not that he does not respect Islam or sees it as a threat to Germany because of immigration. He means that most Christians have gone to seed on the idea of radical monotheism; we focus on God as one rather than a God of relationships. He said “[Christians] hold that God is no single Lord in Heaven who rules everything, as a temporal ruler would. Nor do we mean some sort of cold power of providence who determines all and cannot be affected by anything…The triune God is a social God, rich in…relationships” [“The Triune God: Rich in Relationships, The Living Pulpit, 2004].

            There has been some debate lately about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. One thing is certain: we don’t believe in the same conception of God. I’d say there are plenty of Christians who believe in an Islamic idea of God, with the emphasis on God as all-powerful ruler and judge who can almost be reduced to the book of his words. But Trinitarian Christians are more open-hearted and oriented toward building compassionate community. Any simple idea of God as power or law is dangerous for humanity. That simple idea of God leads too often to the identification of God with our power and our law. I’d be happy if we stopped talking about “Judeo-Christian values” or the generic all-religions “God” in whom we trust as a nation. I’d prefer that Christians said that the God we are talking about is not that generic monotheistic God; we are talking about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God-in-community.

            You cannot touch God at any point and say he is cold or alone. God is a complex of loving relationships in constant flux and when you reach out to God you touch that love energy already flowing. To quote Episcopal priest Joseph Pagano, “The life of God is like a divine dance of persons in love from which sparks fly” [http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/05/27/trinity-sunday-a-2014/]. Martin Luther said, “God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love.”

Baptist philosophy professor Dallas Willard said that being a disciple of Jesus is “a spiritual engulfment” in the Trinitarian reality. It means, he says, “that we live as if the Trinity is real…as if the cosmos environing us is actually, beyond all else, a self-sufficing community of unspeakably magnificent personal beings of boundless love, knowledge, and power” [The Divine Conspiracy, p. 318].

            It’s a wonderful thing we celebrate on Trinity, a wonderful revelation of the nature of God and of reality itself. We are not stuck with the idea of a loner God. We are offered participation in the joyful life of God-in-community, the God who is—in God’s very self—community, of whom we can say “God is love.” Of course, you have the choice between the two Gods. Let us immerse ourselves, as Jesus commanded, into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.