When I initially planned this series, I did not realize it would start on Trinity Sunday. Probably no one else did, either. I’m sure many don’t know there is a Trinity Sunday. I’m certain that many don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity. I certainly don’t and I’ve taken half a dozen classes on it. It’s all tied up with philosophical abstractions, like “essence” and “substance,” “person” and “perichoresis.” And, in the end, as it often does, the Church punts and calls it a mystery. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all one, but somehow distinct. We don’t know how, but we know it must be true. And even though they call it a mystery, that doesn’t stop people from continuing to ask the questions. In some sense, it is at the root of the current controversy between the American nuns and the Vatican. Men who ask those questions are okay, but women who do so are not. So I won’t try to explain the doctrine today. As my professor, Dr. Theo Walker says: “If we’ve been asking the same question for 2000 years, maybe it’s the wrong question.”
Instead of talking about three persons and one substance, I’d rather talk about life in God. At its root, this is what the Trinity is about. African theologian Okechukwu Ogbonnaya suggests that, because some of the earliest Christian theologians were African, their understanding of the Trinity was influenced by African concepts of community. John Mbiti says it this way: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” This is could be thought of as just the nature of reality; we are all who we are because of the web of relationships in which we participate. But for John, there is more than just the tribal and familial relationships, the social constructs into which we are born. John is concerned with the relationships we choose, [fix this]
John is typically thought of as the “spiritual Gospel” or the “theological Gospel.” It holds the clearest statements about the oneness of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit of all the Gospels. It is relied on heavily in “proving” the doctrine of the Trinity. But some things curiously get left out. As Jesus is the son of God, we are given the power to become children of God. So whatever it means for Jesus to be one with God by virtue of being God’s son, we also have that opportunity. When Jesus gives the Spirit of God, he is giving himself, his Spirit, to us, so that we may become like Jesus, children of God. It’s not about metaphysics and it’s not about the magic number three; it’s about participating in the life of God. Because we are Christians, we call participating in the life of God “being a Christian.” We might even call it “Church.”
The Gospel of John is not typically looked at as a guide to the Christian life. Matthew is very concerned with righteousness and has a lot to say about what to do and what not to do. John does not. John is the way to get people in the door – just believe! – but that’s about it. Once you’re in, look elsewhere. There are no beatitudes, no parables, no exhortations to care for the poor or heal the sick or release the captives. If you want to know what to do about divorce or wealth or an eye that causes you to stumble, John is not your book. In John, the commands are simple. In fact, there is only one: “Love one another.” That’s it. Of course, it’s simple to say, but very hard to do.
The Gospel of John is also seldom seen as being concerned about the Church. Matthew is called “the Church’s Gospel” because of the appointment of Peter in 16:18-19: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” John tells a different story where Mary Magdalene alone is given the Easter message and, in 20:18, announces – that is, preaches – to the disciples that she has seen the risen Christ. She is the apostle for John. For a Church concerned with apostolic authority and excluding women from that authority, John is not helpful. However, John is written and edited continuously within a community over a long period of time. Much of its material may come from someone who knew Jesus, but the final chapter was added possibly as late as the early 2nd century. Though this community did not feel it necessary to talk a lot about being a church, they lived together as Christians for a very long time. Through being cast out of their families and synagogues, through tension with other churches, they lived together as Christians.
Maybe the life of the Christian and the way of being church isn’t a list of dos and don’ts. Maybe life in God is more complicated and more difficult than that. Maybe it can’t be precisely set out in advance. In 3:8, John’s Jesus says, “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.”
Life in God, like life in any relationship, is a little unpredictable. Relationships are unique from moment to moment. When we truly open ourselves to the other, we are changed. And vice versa. So we are all, all the time, changing in relationship to one another. Whenever we know a person, we know that there is always something more to know, something new to see. And that’s why we do it. Relationship is a process of revelation, an ongoing mutual self-revelation and self-giving. This is life in God and life in the Spirit.
And this is the point of the Gospel of John. John uses a lot of “knowledge” words: know, understand, see, believe. Jesus is the light of the world that shines in the darkness. Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life. The book of John was written that we might believe. But when John talks of “knowing,” he most often means knowing like one knows a friend. It’s not intellectual or informational, but relational. All of these knowledge words have to be kept in the context of that ongoing revelation. God reveals Godself to us and we reveal ourselves to God. For example, when we see in John the phrase “believe in” it would be more accurately translated as “believe into.” It’s a phrase that the author of John invented to invite us into the progressive revelation of the life of God. You don’t simply accept a statement of fact and go on with your life. You commit yourself to a new way of being, a way of being in the Spirit of God. Being a Christian, and being church, is a posture of openness to the ongoing revelation of God.
When Jesus breathes on the disciples and asks them to receive the Holy Spirit, it is only the further revelation of God. That is, it’s not something new; it is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, come to be with us forever. God is revealed in the person of Jesus, but Jesus is a human being, bound by all the limitations that bind all humans. He is a male of a particular class in a particular time and place and he died. But the Spirit, the one Jesus calls the Advocate or the Helper, is with us forever. The Advocate will teach us – reveal to us – everything. If we want to know anything, such as how to be a church or how to be a Christian or what to do about divorce or wealth, the Spirit is here to teach us, to reveal to us the life of God.
John’s Gospel tells us all of these things. There are no simple directives: “do this” or “don’t do that.” The life of God is openness to the revelation of the other and the willingness to reveal ourselves, to be ourselves as God made us to be. Church is (should be) the space where that is possible. We accept each other as children of God. We participate in the life of God together. Church is the place where we share the same Spirit. Church is the place where we love one another, as Jesus commanded.
For the next three weeks, we’ll be looking at the character of the life of God in more detail. Jesus gives some long speeches in John’s Gospel. One of those long speeches is called the Farewell Discourse, in chapters 14-17. This is where he tells the disciples that he will be leaving and that the Spirit will come in his place. There is where he tells them how to be Christians, how to be church. We’ll look at three things that, I think, characterize Church in the Cliff: friendship, love, and oneness. My hope is that this will reveal to us who we are together as a church and that we see that as a part something eternal and beautiful. What has always been will always be, and we are in the middle of it.