Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 6th June 2004
Rom 5:1-5; John 16: 12-25
How are you? How is your family? is the way my African friends greet each other and greet me. From them I have learnt how important it is to enquire about the family, as they do not look on life in the individualistic way that most westerners do. For Africans, I exist because we that is, first and foremost, my extended family exist. I could not be a person without other people. Persons do not exist in isolation; it is in the pattern of relationships that personhood emerges. This pattern of relations extends backwards in time to my parents and my parents parents; forwards in time to my children and my childrens children; and includes in the present whatever aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces and cousins I may be lucky enough to have. I do not choose my family, nor do they choose me, yet we belong together, so that if my family is well, then I am well, but if there is sickness or suffering in my family, then I share in the suffering as well.
It is not true to say that God is a family, but it is true to say that within God there is a pattern of relations: Scripture tells us that the Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; the Father sends the Spirit and the Spirit makes known the Father and the Son. Scripture also tell us that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). Christians have traditionally affirmed that it is as true to speak of God in terms of relation as it is to speak of God as an isolated, all-powerful individual. One analogy that has often been used is that of the dance. God is one as the dance is one: within the dance there are individual dancers, who share in the dance because they dance in relation to other dancers. Each dancer has their part to play in relation to the other dancers so there can be one, complete dance. If the oneness of God is a oneness-in-relation, as the oneness of the dance is a oneness-in-relation, then God is not anindividual in the way that human beings are individuals. For the dance to be a dance there must be dancers and there must be the relation between the dancers; for God to be God there must be love, and for love to be love there must be something of the one who loves and the one who is loved, an element of relation, in God.
Even though God is not a family, there is still a way in which what we know of God is like our best experiences of family. Think of the child who is fortunate enough to be born and grow up within the loving relation of two adults. (What I have to say here applies just as much to the child with a single parent, especially if there are other loving adults, such as a grandmother or a grandfather, or brothers and sisters, giving support as the child grows up.) The child is the product of an initial act of sexual relationship: the expression of love through which new life comes into the world. The child grows up as an active participant in daily relating to her parents (or parent-figures) and those about her a relationship that from the beginning is one of receiving and giving as even a baby communicates by crying, by smiling and so on. The growing child becomes ever more conscious of her part within the pattern of family relations until, having internalised the pattern of relating within the family, she becomes an adult, with the potential to form adult relationships, to have children of her own, and so to continue the pattern of relation into which she has been born and in which she has grown up.
Here is the pattern of life in a family. The family survives by reconstituting itself as it passes through time. Here is the pattern of lovingin the family: creating, sustaining, and once more creating new life.
It is this pattern of lovingthat, I want to suggest, gives us some clues into the threefold nature of God. The pattern has within it the dynamic of creativity as new members of the family with all their new potential are brought into the world. It has within it the dynamic of self-giving and costly nurture as children are nourished, cared for and raised to maturity by adults who expend energy, money and time in self-sacrificial caring. It has within it the dynamic of exploration and innovation as mature family members take new paths in life, contribute new experience to the store within the family, and in time, through marriage, bring new members into the family. Without the consistent loving that sustains the pattern of the familys life, none of these dynamics would operate healthily (this process of social and familial reproduction is far more than the outworking of the selfish gene); the dynamism of creativity, sustenance and exploration within us all are all ultimately dependent upon the loving and nurture we have received; within the life of a family they are to some extent distinguishable as different sorts or modes of the expression of love. (I am not saying that family life is perfect; that there are not huge rifts and feuds within families; that family life cannot be disfunctional and destructive; that parents are not frequently neglectful, selfish and damaging to their children, and so on but somehow or other life in family groupings of various sorts seems to carry on, and at its best can clearly be seen to derive its strength, consistency and creativity from its groundedness in various forms of love.)
The analogy is not perfect, but it may illuminate a little of what we mean by speaking of the one God whom we experience as creator, redeemer and sanctifier; or as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and of there being within God a pattern of relation. To speak of God as our creator is not only to speak of what happened in the very beginning; it is to speak of that which engenders creativity now. To speak of God as our redeemer is not only to speak of Jesus Christ focusing within history the presence and power of the divine; but to speak of that presence and power of self-sacrifice being made available and present to us now. To speak of God as sanctifier is not only to speak of the Holy Spirit as the one who makes Christians more like Christ; but to speak of God as the one who makes us slowly and steadily more fully ourselves and heals our broken relationships now.
It is, of course, possible to see human experience as a closed system, which need not be explained or described by using the language of God. I am not this morning trying to provide arguments for the existence of God, but to show how the trinitarian language Christians use about God is a resource for understanding and shaping our own experience. Loving is always a mystery we do not know where it comes from and where, sadly, it sometimes goes to. It presents itself in our lives as gift. It can be welcomed or rejected, nourished or starved. It can redeem us from selfishness; it can make us more truly ourselves; in the gift of love we receive the gift of life.
And this is what is offered in this eucharist. The celebration of the holy communion is a celebration of holy loving and holy living. It is a sharing of the love of God known to us in creation, redemption and sanctification. In this communion we are invited to participate in the love that is the very life of God, to participate in the dance which is the dance of God; to renew our commitment to the church which is the family of God; to share in the indestructible relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which forever lies open to embrace the needy family of humankind.