You Have Received…, Trinity Sunday (B) – 2000
June 18, 2000
“You have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
“No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”
How well do you know your father? Today is Father’s Day, and when we think of our earthly father, how well did we or do we know him? We may know our father in many different roles–Dad as gardener, businessman, fisherman, drunk, kind advisor, holy terror, disciplinarian, sage–but at some point we come to the realization that we never knew him as confidante or bridge partner or co-worker or boss or husband. We really can’t know our fathers completely, just as we can’t know any other person in their totality. All our personal knowledge of another is just that–personal, from our own personal and limited viewpoint.
Today is also Trinity Sunday. The lesson from the Letter to the Romans has just reminded us of the understanding we have of God–our adoptive Father. So it seems appropriate that we take a closer look both at fathers and at the language we use for God.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The Three-in-One God of official Christian doctrine. We affirm our faith each Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almightyâ¦I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lordâ¦I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” We baptize in the name of our triune God. We invoke blessing in the same three persons of our one God every time we make the sign of the cross. But the doctrine of the Trinity never appears in the Bible per se. All the persons of the Trinity are alluded to in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. But it is only in the last words of Matthew’s Gospel that we hear “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” used together in a sort of unity. These words are found in in Jesus’ resounding call to mission and evangelism, the Great Commission. It is here, too, that we can find the promise that has given and grown hope in the hearts of the most nearly hopeless believers for two millennia: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of time.”
None of our language for God is absolute and determinative of precisely and totally who God is. Please know this. Our best attempts to describe, name, quantify, or qualify God are just that: our best attempts. If we can’t know our earthly parents in their totality because of our limited viewpoint as their offspring, how much less completely can we know God?
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know the Son, Jesus, as human as we are and yet as divine as the Father. We live in his stories, his parables, and his miracles. We know the Spirit, the indwelling presence of God in each of the baptized, bringer of comfort and peace, power and fire, our great Advocate for all time. But for some, Father language is difficult when we are speaking of God.
In Jon Winuker’s book, Fathers, he looks at celebrities and their dads. For example, he quotes broadcast magnate Ted Turner: “One summer I made $50 a week,” says Turner, “and my father charged me $25 a week rent. I asked him if that wasn’t a little high. He said that if I could do better than that for food and lodging seven days a week I could move out.”
Winokur also quotes sometime presidential candidate Pat Buchanan: “To impress upon us what the loss of the soul through mortal sin meant,” says Buchanan, “my father would light a match, grab our hands and hold them briefly over the flame, saying, ‘See how that feels? Now imagine that for all eternity.'”
Don’t these stories explain a good bit about Turner and Buchanan and who they are today? He tells another story from golfer Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez: “One night,” says Rodriguez, “at about two o’clock in the morning my father caught a man stealing bananas from our back yard. He went over to the man with his machete, took the bananas, cut the branch in half and said, ‘Here, you can have it.’ And then he said, ‘From now on, if you need anything from the back of our house, come to the front.'”
Can you see how our own knowledge, our own experience of our fathers can color how we see God, if we take the language we use for the first Person of the Trinity as an absolute? For one whose earthly father was a loving, kind, generous, unselfish man, like Mr. Rodriguez, the image of God as Father is powerful and reassuring. But what about those people whose fathers were withholding and conditional in their love? Might they not perceive a God whose love and care depended on following all the rules and satisfying all the necessary requirements–an impossible task? And what about a person whose father was abusive psychologically, physically–or even incestuously? What happens to that person’s image of God?
This distortion doesn’t have to be the case, however. William Zittle, a Colorado Episcopalian and postulant for Holy Orders who died of cancer, was heard to say in a discussion about inclusive language: “Please don’t ever take away my heavenly Father from The Book of Common Prayer. He’s the only Father I’ve ever had who really loved me.” As an abused child, healing came to Zittle through the very language that is difficult for others with similar “father-experiences.”
All the language we use about our amazing God is risky, even the most “tried and true” words. When the images they conjure for us are anything less than images of abiding love, faithfulness, mercy, justice, strength, care, limitless Being, then we need to ask our God to show us how we are to perceive the Divine in our own lives. As King Oehmig points out, however, “The good news is that we Christians are not justified by believing that, but by believing in. We are not saved by ‘right belief’ or ‘doctrinal perfection,’ but by the grace of God. Therefore, we can take ourselves a little less seriously, be more willing to trust Mystery rather than be caught up in cognitive Mastery.”
How we speak of God is much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The unique yet united parts–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–are joined together in eternal relationship and community which we come to grasp through snippets in Holy Scripture and more snippets from our own corporate and individual experiences of God. We can’t say or know all of God, and that’s okay. But we, like Nicodemus, know that we are spirit with the One Spirit, and we know that we have not only been born anew in this Spirit but adopted as children and heirs of the eternal Father, brothers and sisters of the eternal Son. What a gift we’ve been given! Don’t you look forward to the next time somehow asks you, “Tell me about your family”?
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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