…the One who finds you…
May 27, 2018
Scripture: John 3:1-8
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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. This is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit.”
My life has long been an incredible ebb and flow of energy and evolving streams of thought. And any attempt to choose a single point in time out of that flow in order to state my faith and belief will always yield an understanding that is held somewhat captive to that moment…it will come from and represent the present moment’s location, present and past experience, previous understandings of what I believe were ‘revelation’, as well as my hopes and fears. But it will also last only for a time, as God’s precious Spirit of love is always at work, never tiring of bending, shaping, molding, and reforming my heart and mind to more closely reflect the Divine image in which all were created.
I must confess however that over the course of my life I have often stopped for a moment in just such a way to sort through and arrange my thoughts and understandings into particular groups or collections of beliefs. These “stopping points”, at which I thought I “knew” or “understood” God were really attempts to make sense of the complexity, pain, disorder, or confusion which so often can be a part of the human experience. And at these times I would draw upon my own collection of understandings and conclusions in order to structure responses to the situation at hand. Many of these “boxes” of my thoughts and understandings included much about God…who I thought God was, what God wanted of me, how to please God, how to be a “good” person and so on.
And then usually, with the passage of time and the living through of more varied experiences, the previous “box” would begin to come up short and would no longer serve to provide the same level of comfort, assurance or guidance. In those times I would be forced into the frightening place of letting go of past understandings and allowing new thoughts to roam about within my consciousness until I once again had a new “box of understanding”, a new collection of thoughts and beliefs firm within my grasp, that would address current life needs or crises satisfactorily. The problem with this process all along however was that I was seeking to engage a world in motion and flux with a fixed and static quantity of past ideas and understandings. This made it much more difficult at times to hear afresh and anew anything that the Holy Spirit might be seeking to share with me.
Every time I thought I had figured out just who God was, God would find a way to show me that my “new and improved box” into which I had placed Godself was not yet big enough. In fact it has taken a long time to realize that indeed God does not really like being kept in a box at all! Not even a “Holy” or a “Righteous” or a “Reformed”, or a “Charismatic” box. Rather, I have come to know that our God is truly a free Spirit which cannot be bound and wholly contained within the human imagination. I have learned that a God of true freedom is a wild and unpredictable one…loving deeply and fiercely yet persistently and tenderly…and I have learned that I must be ever willing to “unlearn” what it is that I was absolutely sure I knew…that I must be willing to ponder, to wonder, and even to find peace in a place of not really knowing, of not really understanding…in a place of mystery.
And it is this ‘searching unknowing’ that I bring to the table this morning as we take a moment to ponder the nature of the Trinity…as we look again and try to better understand the nature of our God…at least for this moment…
Over the course of the history of the Church, theologians and scholars have sought to make sense of this idea that we profess to have one God in “three persons”. Debates have raged, huge church splits have occurred and in the end we have been left with lots of questions and some quite stale theological opinions that at least to me have been wholly unsatisfying. And over the centuries there evolved two primary ‘definitions’ or ways of understanding the Trinity which I was presented with in seminary. The first was called the ‘Economic Trinity’ by which the Trinity was described in terms of what God does, or how God is revealed through the works of God in the world. The second was referred to as the ‘Immanent Trinity’ which focused on the interrelationship between the three persons of the one God, or the way God related to Godself within the divine threesome…the ways in which God the ‘Father’ if you will related to the Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit and so on. The thought behind all this which seems just a bit unhelpful and not really descriptive of God’s actual nature, was that the two, ‘economic’ and ‘immanent’ somehow complemented one another. The idea seemed to be that we could come to know and understand God better by seeing the workings of God in the world around us, and that we could better understand the workings of God as we came to a deeper understanding of the interrelationship of the three parts of the Godhead. Which, if you were able to follow it all may make sense somewhere, but to my mind doesn’t really get to a better understanding of how and more importantly why our God comes to us as ‘three-in-one’.
For as I stated earlier, my experience of God has always been intensely personal. ‘Revelations’ or beliefs have of necessity had to be held lightly as circumstances or life-situations forced new reckonings with God. The new wine of new understanding would eventually flow, but often not until the deepest questions and cries of my heart had pestered God to the point that I was finally worn out and became quiet enough to let the Spirit comfort me and reset my understanding.
And as I wrestled with the ‘theology’ of Trinity in seminary, I found myself crying out once again, searching for why the prevailing theology of this critical issue seemed so dry and uninspiring to me…why the God I loved and sought after didn’t seem to fit very well into this particular box of words that quite frankly most people would probably roll their eyes at upon hearing.
And after a time, as I pondered the nature of the God I had come to know, I came to feel that at least for me, the Trinity could be better understood in terms of ‘function’, meaning how the three parts of the Godhead functioned in relationship to me…how each of these three persons of God-entities affected me personally…how the Father, the Son, and the Spirit ‘found me’. And I use the word ‘found’ deliberately for I believe that this notion of God searching for us is at the heart of everyone’s relationship to God. I truly believe that our God, who loves so deeply, seeks out each one of us…that God as Parent, Son, and Spirit tries at many points during the life of an individual to reveal the love and grace which the Holy is so willing to extend to every one of God’s children. And to do that I believe that God employs whatever means are best suited to the individual. And in this way the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity function in such a way as to maximize the effect of the love being extended to that person.
For some, God ‘finds them’ , appears to them…comes to them as a ‘Father’ or as a ‘Mother’…as a parent who tenderly nurtures, guides, and gently disciplines the one seeking. Telling or showing that individual what is needed in order for them to lift their eyes to God in order to allow the spark of wonder deep within to be fanned into the beginnings of hope and promise. Some people need God to be ‘GOD’, and so God finds them in that expectation.
Others may not have had such a wonderful or fulfilling relationship with their earthly father or parents, in which case having God find them as a strong parental figure would possibly not yield a favorable start to a relationship. For these, God might find them instead as a brother or a friend…as the gentle friend and shepherd we find in the person of Jesus. For some, understanding the nature of God through the person of Jesus is easier and less threatening…more like having a best friend one can rely upon and trust implicitly. A true and honest reading of the gospel accounts yields a picture of a truly friendly, compassionate, loving, and accessible God in Jesus. For in truth, in some ways Jesus is our only record of God’s loving nature put on personal display for all to see. Jesus is there as a friend and confidant…ready to embrace you in your need, ready to encourage and challenge you to believe and to trust in God’s goodness…and in a certain sense much less fearful and overbearing than the picture that much of church history has painted of ‘God the Father’.
And then…then there is the Spirit. And, at least in my upbringing and denomination, this third person of the Trinity seems to have consistently pulled the short straw in terms of attention, discussion, and ultimately of understanding. Which in some sense is probably fine with God…for this most mysterious of the three is then free to appear in many ways, in many fashions, and in whatever configuration someone may need in order to encounter the outreaching love of God. A tap on the shoulder, a whispered word in one’s ear, a sense of urgency to take a certain course are as varied as the wind that blows wherever it pleases. And in some very real sense that same wind of the Holy Spirit is capable of propelling you to places you may never have thought possible.
And it is also the reason why, at least for me the Spirit has always been the most intriguing and compelling person of the three parts of our God. Long have I relied upon the wise counsel of this free and yet persistent whisper of our God. Many are the times when a difficult decision or an uncertain moment was made easier or at least bearable due to a nudge from this Spirit of grace, love, and understanding. For me at least, the Spirit has always been a living and vibrant presence in my life, convincing me to stay the course and to long more for new wine in new wineskins than for old wine in leaky and dusty dogma and doctrine…even when that new wine challenges long-held and ‘sure’ understandings. For me personally, this ‘spirit-person’ of our triune God has always been my steadfast authority…a fact that was met with deep chagrin by a Baptist minister I once told that to. Later on however, as we worked repairing and installing roofs together we came to respect and care deeply for one another despite our different ways of being found by God!
And so…we have a Triune God…we have one God in three persons…a God understood…but in truth only lightly…a God worshipped…but only partially…a God followed…yet often fitfully…a God loved…but not always understood.
And in the end I am sure of only one thing…and that is that our God of love remains forever larger than our wildest imagination…and far more loving, merciful, gracious, and mysterious than we are willing to admit. May God ever challenge each one of us to reach higher and farther in our quest to more closely reflect the image of love in which we were created.
It is with deep gratitude that I heartily recommend William P. Young’s book, The Shack, whose depiction of ‘God’ was both delightful and eye opening as well as affirming of the loving ways in which our God may find us! dlf