‘The Triune God: Rich in Relationships’ – A sermon by Jürgen Moltmann

When we hear the names, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, we sense that in the mystery of God there must be a wondrous community. It is the one name of God in which “the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” are so different that they are named successively, yet bound together with the conjunction “and.”

When we want to emphasize the oneness of the divine mystery we usually use the term “trinity;” when we want to emphasize their difference, we use “triunity.” Regardless of the terminology we use, we hold that God is no single Lord in Heaven who rules everything, as a temporal ruler would. Nor do we mean some sort of cold power of providence who determines all and cannot be affected by anything. Remember, the triune God is a social God, rich in internal and external relationships.

It is only from the perspective of the trinitarian God that we can claim that “God is Love,” because love is never alone. Instead, it brings together those who are separate while maintaining their distinct characters. From the perspective of the triune God, one can say, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “only a suffering God can help.” The God who is with us and for us in his suffering love can understand us and redeem us.

There are two classic Christian images of the Trinity which can prove useful both in sermons and in teaching. The first is the amazing icon done by Andrei Rublev in orthodox Moscow in the 15th century. The three divine persons are seated at a table. In the slight inclination of their heads toward each other and in the gestures of their hands, a deeper unity of the three is suggested. A chalice on the table symbolizes the sacrifice of the Son on Golgotha for the redemption of the world.

The painting originated in the story of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 1:18), who receive and richly entertain “three men” from whom they receive God’s promise of a son, in spite of Sarah’s (laughably) advanced age. A later interpretation claims that the three men were “angels,” while some claim Sarah and Abraham actually met the triune God. Rublev omitted Abraham and Sarah from the painting, leaving only the three “angels.” Thus in his rendition it is impossible to tell which is the Father, Son or Spirit. In this way, the painting expresses the ultimate unrepresentability of the triune God.

The other image of the Trinity is a “Gnadenstuhl” from the Latin Church of the Middle Ages. In it, God the Father, with an expression of deep sorrow on his face, holds the crossbar of the cross from which his dead son hangs. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends from the Father onto the Son. Where in many paintings of this sort the eucharistic chalice stands in the midpoint of the three persons, here the cross stands in the middle of the triune God. It is the breathtaking image of Easter Saturday, after Christ was killed, but before his resurrection for the redemption of the world by the life-giving Spirit. This image of the Trinity can thus rightly be called the “Pain of God” or the “Death of God.”

The death of Christ and the eucharistic representation of its salvific significance is in both pictures the heart of the triune God. I know of no Christian image of the Trinity in which the cross is missing. The redemptive cross of Christ is always deeply involved in the divine mystery, but turns it into a revealed mystery. The ancient theo-paschite formula rightly exclaims: “One of the Trinity has suffered.” I would like to add “where one suffers , the others suffer along.” The Son suffers death in our God-forsakenness, the Father suffers the death of his beloved Son and the Spirit binds the other two together through unspoken sighs. It is only by comprehending the depth of this chasm as the “pain of God” that we can fuIly understand the incommensurable joy of the Easter celebration of the victory of life and the beauty of the new creation of all things.

The history of Christ is thus a trinitarian history, otherwise one cannot call the gospel the “Gospel of the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The history of Jesus is first a Spirit-history. It is through his baptism by John in the Jordan that the experience of the Spirit of God upon him is revealed, and with it, the revelation of God: it was in the Spirit that he heard the voice “You are my beloved Son.” From that point on, he knew that he was the messianic child of God. In the Spirit it was possible for him to refer to God as “Abba, beloved Father.” It is thus in the Spirit that God and Jesus, the “Father” and “Son” are both bound together, yet also uniquely distinguished.

With this, the Spirit-history of Christ becomes the Christ-history of the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ comes out of the Spirit of the Father and just as Christ is sent from the Father, so too is his own spirit sent to his own people and to the whole world (John 20:21-22). This change of subject in the history of salvation is described in a trinitarian manner in the so-called “departure speeches” in John’s Gospel: Jesus must “go forth” (die) so that the Paraclete may come. The Paraclete comes because Jesus asks the Father to send the Paraclete in his name (John 14-16). Good Friday and Pentecost are two sides to salvation: the redemption of the world out of God-forsakenness, and the new creation of all things.

We enter into the trinitarian history of Christ through baptism. It is for this reason that the first confessions of faith are baptismal confessions. The life “in the Spirit” and in “discipleship” is the practice of faith in the triune God. In both faith and in life, everything depends on the God-sonship of Christ. Those who lose sight of this lose their ability to be children of God. Those who forget this lose their future in God, which Paul states is a “hereditary right” of the future world. It is sonship that binds together God and Jesus and provides the foundation for trinitarian faith. If this connection were broken, then Jesus is merely one more good person and God is merely the unfeeling Lord of Heaven. In the 19th century, this led to a “Jesus-humanism.” Today it leads to an “Islamization” of Christianity. It is only through the recognition of the triune God that Christian dialogue with Jews and Moslem’s becomes interesting and dialogue-worthy.

Even more important, however, is the recognition that if Jesus were not “God’s son,” if God were not “in him,” then his suffering would have no divine meaning for the redemption of the world. It would disappear into the endless history of the suffering of murdered people. But, if “one of the trinity suffers,” then healing can come to wounded humanity and hope can enter a dying world.

Jesus’ prayer, “In this you may all be one, as the Father is in me and I in him that you may be in us” (John 17:21) calls for the unity of the Church and for ecumenism. John describes the communion of Jesus with the “Father” not merely as “with each other, ” or “for each other,” but “in each other.” “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Therefore, “whoever sees me, sees the Father,” for “I and the Father are one” (John 14: 9-11, 10, 30). It is a unity based in mutual indwelling.

The trinitarian unity of the Son and the Father through the Spirit is a model for the relationships of men and women in the Spirit of Christ. The unity of the Church resides neither in the monarchy of God, nor in God as a supreme, divine essence, but in the trinitarian communion of God. However, this trinitarian community is so wide and so open that the Church and the whole world can “live” within it. The prayer of Jesus that “you may be one in us” is a prayer that is answered. Whether we know it or not we not only believe in the triune God, but also “live” in the triune God.

This reciprocal, sometimes called mystical, “living in God” also belongs to the trinitarian life: “those who live in love, live in God and God in them” (1 John 4:6). “We in God and God in us” is not meant merely as some sort of fleeting, mystical rapture, but is a daily relaxing quiet and intimate “living.” I find this picture of a mutual indwelling ever more beautiful and convincing. The triune God is a “habitable” God: he allows us to become one within him. If the world becomes “inhabitable” for God, then the restless God of history comes to his rest. The Church is an icon of the trinity. Its community of freedom and equality illuminates the image of the triune God. This is best expressed in the base communities in Latin America and in some Pentecostal communities, communities of social justice and personal freedom, modeled on the communities of the early church which lacked nothing because they held all in common.

Finally, we can move beyond the human community and into the creation-community. The Spirit of Life holds everything together in that it enables the various creatures to live with each other, for each other and in each other, created through divine love and destined for eternal joy.

Preuschoff on Fathers and Daughters

As promised here, I will post a number of thoughts/quotations from Gisela Preuschoff’s Raising Girls. For my wee review of the book see here.

A father is the first man in the life of a little girl, and his role is vital. He represents the masculine, the facinating ‘other’, and his daughter will compare every man who plays a part in her life to him.

If you (the father) and your daughter have a close relationship, she will probably choose men who are similar to you, although some women choose men who are in radical contrast to their fathers. For example, a woman who has had a difficult relationship with her father may look for a man who is very different in temperament and personality. And some women find themselves repeating patterns of experience and behavior from childhood in their adult relationships.

As with mother-daughter relationships, if the issues in a strained father-daughter relationship are not worked through and resolved, those issues will be passed from generation to generation …

The ‘positive father complex’ … occurs when a girl admires, respects, loves and trusts her father. And, in turn, her father is consistently proud, supportive, understanding and encouraging of his daughter. It is important to remember that detachment of children from their parents occurs during puberty, and that it is an essential process for the transformation to healthy, independent adulthood. If detachment doesn’t happen, a daughter risks spending her life in the shadow of her parents and will not develop her own identity. If her attachment to and identity with her father are particularly strong, her adult self-esteem may greatly depend on the extent to which she can win the admiration of men. You can easily picture the drama that occurs when such a girl loses her father, or such a woman loses her husband.

The woman who did not experience consistent parental love from both her parents in childhood, on the other hand, will suffer where her self-esteem is concerned. The kind of woman who feels unworthy of love will spend her life unconsciously offering herself as a victim because she believes that she doesn’t ‘deserve’ any better. (pp. 169–70)

Names and the Name – 1

For different reasons, I’ve been thinking of late about names and their significance. So over the next few posts I thought I’d share some of my reflections on these things. Specifically, names in Scripture and the significance of God not only ‘having’ a name, but of God ‘giving us’ his name, and to what end.

O be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, And for thy name, which is no part of thee, Take all myself. (Juliet, in William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)

‘What’s in a name?’ A lot it would seem, particularly if you lived in the ANE where names served as distinguishing markers. Their role is neither to define nor describe, but to identify. They work to differentiate, to structure, and to order. So the naming/designation of the animals by Adam in Genesis 2:19 not only ‘represents something wholesome and salutary’ but also ‘opens up specific human dimensions for communication and for fellowship’. Compare this to Babylonian creation epic in which time preceded the naming of creation: ‘When on high the heaven had not been named … when no gods whatever had been brought into being, uncalled by name.’

The other use for such a distinguishing mark was linked with hope, namely the endurance of one’s family line, and the related securing of family assets (so Deut 25:7; 2 Sam 14:7; 18:18; Ruth 4:5, 10), or the hope of exploitation and abuse (as in Genesis 11:4): ‘let us make a name for ourselves’ (cf. 2 Sam 8:13. In 2 Sam 7:23 God seeks make a name for himself.)

In the OT world, the name also served as an expression of being itself. ‘The name is the soul’. So Origen noted, ‘A name is a term which summarizes and manifests the personal character of him who is named’.

Whereas in modern practice the meaning of a name functions as little more than ‘mere tags’ which pick out an object that ‘by any other name would smell as sweet’ and is generally unknown and irrelevant to its choice, Hebrew names ‘are readily “readable” by those who hear or see them.’ In so far as it does this, naming ‘assumes, rather than justifies, the existence of an object to be named.’ So, for example, we read of Dan in Genesis 30:6, ‘Then Rachel said, “God has judged (or ‘vindicated’, NIV) me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan’, where Dan sounds like the Hebrew word for ‘judged’. Another example is Nabal (‘foolish’, ‘senseless’) in 1 Sam 25:25 where his character is reflected in his name.

But this is not always the case, even in the Hebrew Bible. So, for example, ‘Absalom (2 Sam. 13) means ‘my father is peace’, when neither he nor David seemed to know much peace, though they offered it to others (1 Sam 25:6, 35; 2 Sam 3:21-23; 15:9, 27; cf. 2 Chron 14:6).

A person’s name not only expresses their identity, but also defies definition by an abstract concept. As Thielicke notes, ‘Any attempt to identify a man with his role or subsume him under a concept leads necessarily to the falsifying of his uniqueness. This uniqueness always contains a transcendent element, a free possibility which cannot be pinned down. The name expresses this transcendent content. It eludes any concept.’

In itself, it seems, one’s name tells us nothing. In itself, it is only an invitation to know more of what might be revealed. The name-bearer is never defined, only introduced, presented. The name can be filled out and interpreted but only by its bearer. But this naming is only ever done with a view to relationship, i.e. for the sake of others; I tell you my name that you and I may enter into discussion. An example of this is when God says to Moses, ‘I know you by name’ (Exod 33:17). As Shults has noted, the point here is ‘not the prepositional content of the divine intellect but the faithful intentionality of the divine promise’. This promise relates to being known by God. In this case, to God’s intention to know Moses. ‘Being known by God’, Shults says, ‘is an experience of the intensive Infinity of divine faithfulness, and the unspeakability of the divine name came to signify this infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature.’

When we come to the NT, there is little unusual about most of the references to a person or place’s name, especially in Luke-Acts. This does not mean that there is not, as Hartman notes, the widely held belief lurking behind the text that ‘the name communicates something essential or characteristic about the bearer of the name’. Particularly significant is the indication in the name itself of some task given by God, as in the names given to Jesus (Matt 1:21, 23, 25; Luke 1:31-33; 2:21), the Baptist (Luke 1:13, 59-63), Peter and Boanerges (Mark 3:16-17), or something essential about their bearer, as for Legion (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30), Elymas (Acts 13:8) and various characters in the Book of the Revelation (6:8; 8:11; 9:11; 13:1, 17; 14:11; 15:2; 17:3, 5; 19:11-13, 16).

Connected to knowing the name of a person is the ability to control them, as in Legion (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30) or those marked with the name of the beast, who are subsequently shaped by its nature (Rev 13:17; 14:11; this becomes particularly significant when we think about God making his own name known). In the case of Jesus giving his followers new names, this amounts to them being given new identities, status and character (Mark 3:16-17; John 10:3; Rev 2:17), identities which are then written in the Lamb’s book of life (Luke 10:20; Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27).

Also, in the NT, one’s name is also linked to one’s reputation (Mark 6:14; Luke 6:22; 1 Tim 5:14; Titus 2:8). This is true even for God (1 Tim 6:1; Titus 2:5).

A final thought: No one introduces themselves to themselves. Hence God’s giving of his name to humanity is only ever with a view to fellowship with us. Hence God’s hallowing of his name is with a view to securing the same.

Another final thought: Perhaps this is why I feel odd whenever I read a posted comment from ‘Anonymous’. I recognise, of course, that Mrs or Mr Anonymous must be either (i) a very important person or (ii) meant to be doing something else at the time and so wanting to allude detection, or (iii) not a person at all.