Harrowing Of Hell
June 11, 2017

How We think about God Matters

Preacher:  The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

How we think about God matters very much.

Today is Trinity Sunday, which inspires me to talk about God. I’m going to do so by drawing out the tension that exists from two ways of seeing God.  And I’m going to expose those God viewing perspectives by asking some questions:

Do we believe in the God of winners and losers? Or do we believe in the God of relationship? Do we believe in a God who gives us a competitive advantage? Or do we believe in a God who equally values all people? Because what we believe about God, deep down inside, will be reflected how we act in the world.

Richard Rohr, in his book The Divine Dance calls this MIRRORING.  He borrows the idea from the 3rd chapter of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. It reads: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18).

How we see God will determine who we are, what we become, and how we act. If we see a judgmental and punitive God, then we act one way, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we see inclusive and tender God, then we act another way, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I am thinking about this because of an internal tension I struggle with. It is that tension between being inclusive and tender verses seeking my own competitive advantage. And what I’ve found interestingly, is that the more secure my own position the more tender and inclusive I tend to be. In other words, not having to struggle and compete for what I want or what I need makes it easier, I suppose, to be generous, patient, and inclusive.

But then that makes me wonder about what I worship -is it God, or the idol of my own security? Maybe you’re thinking I’m thinking too much about this.  And maybe I am.  But before you judge me too acutely let tell you a story.

Many years ago I was in the Sudan working with the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Army to smuggle food into war torn northern Ethiopia.  To get there we had to fly into Port Sudan, Sudan and then take four-wheel drive trucks through the desert to reach our destination. It was a grueling trip.

And I remember coming up to an oasis. As the trucks pulled to a stop people materialized from the vegetation. They were rail thin, and some of the children had distended bellies. They were curious about us and insisted we stay for a bit.  I left it to our guides to make the call. We ended up staying for hours as the villagers killed a goat, cooked it, and then fed us a feast. As we sat in the center of their village they just stood around and watched us eat.

It was deeply touching, and awkward, if not embarrassing, that people clearly lacking many things acted so generously towards us. It would be as if a complete stranger, who you were never to see again, was brought to your house by a loose acquaintance, and you gave the stranger your car filled with gas.

In the Epistle today we hear the final sentences of the Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.  He first says “Farewell,” and then gives this final directive: “Put things in order.”  Now what we think about God might determine how we hear those words…“Put things in order.”

If God is about competitive advantage we might hear this as an order to get things right, that is, to be more attentive to the law and the rules, and in this way more attentive to the judgments of God, and in this way God will pick us for God’s team, and we’ll be winners. But if God is about relationship we might hear this final directive as a set of priorities for how to live as a community.

What we believe about God impacts how we read the Bible, and how we act in the world. After Paul writes “put things in order,” he then gives us a list: listen to my teaching; agree with one another; live in peace; greet each other tenderly; and remember that you are connected to the saints; past, present and future.

The words of this short checklist produce a mirroring effect with the final sentence of Paul’s farewell.  We see that if we put things in this order; listening, agreeing, remaining in peace, being tender, and knowing we’re connected then Paul completes his thought. Paul completes this mirroring reflection by saying, “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the community of the Holy Spirit will be with you all.

In other words, if the God we are looking at is Jesus of Grace, and God of love, and Holy Spirit of community, then, we will listen, agree, remain in peace, be tender, and know we are connected to all things. And when that happens, Paul writes, “We will be transformed from one degree of glory to another.”

This final sentence in the Second Letter to the Corinthians is probably the oldest articulation of the Trinity that we have.  This insight by Paul that our God is one God, that is a relational God changed how people act in the world. Hear Paul’s insight again: Our God is one God, that is a relational God.

It is a fairly easy idea to imagine one God. It is rather more complicated to imagine a relational God that is one God. It is hard to imagine because we are autonomous beings. We have a singular identity, and a singular perspective. God does not. God has three identities and three perspectives at least in this three-dimensional universe. And what makes these three one is that they always agree with each other.  They always listen to each other.  They are always at peace with each other.  They are always tender to one another.  They always know they are connected to each other, and they always have been, and they always will be.

So, they are one, and they are three, perfect in their commitment to each other, no hierarchy of relationship, no insider or outsider, no winner or loser; because if there were the Trinity would dissolve in an instant.  It would be the ultimate triangulated mess.

I know what that kind of mess can feel like because I know fear. Because sometimes in my mind the first question that pops up when someone does something nice for me is: What do they want? What is their angle? How are they seeking a competitive advantage over me? That thought occurred to me as I sat eating goat in the center of that Sudanese village.

And when I act that way, the best way for me to stop acting that way is to put the God of relationship in front of me…so I can see, and mirror, and, as Paul promises, little by little, be transformed from one place of glory to another. That is the Christian way… the way of the Trinitarian God. Our God is a God of perfect relationship, of perfect hearing, of perfect agreement, of perfect peace, of perfect tenderness, of perfect connection.

That is what a Trinitarian God is: We don’t have to know or explain fully the taxonomy of each of the characteristics of God.  We don’t need to fully know the job description of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  It is enough to know the conjunction, the AND that connects them.  It is enough to know we have a relational God, and anything that seeks division is not of God.

What we believe about God matters. Even when we acknowledge the reality of our own impulses and fears and need for control, if our God is a God of perfect relationship, then, at least, we know where we are going.  We know that when we see grace and love and community, as I saw that day in the Sudan, well, it is actually grace and love and community, full stop, these three things abiding to show forth the generosity and beauty of our God.

Ours is a God where relationship is primary.  We don’t need to have the answers about the specific job description of Jesus and the Holy Spirit and God.  We don’t have to set them in hierarchy, or attribute power to one over the other.  They are equal.  They are one. One God who is grace and love and community… that matters. Let that be the mirror you look into.