22 May – The unfinished story of God
Most of you have probably had a child try to describe to you the plot of a story she has heard or read, or a film she has seen.
She begins to tell the story, and then stops and says something like, “No, no, no; I forgot, I have to go back, there’s something else…”, as she remembers an important detail she should have told at the start. Only then does she go on, before cutting back again to something else which she also forgot to mention but which you need to know to understand the next bit, and so on.
In the end you may well have no idea what the story was actually about, or at least be in no position to tell someone else what it was about, but you know that you did get all the bits and that it was important to hear her tell it!
It’s kind of like that when the church talks about God; talk of God as Trinity has that kind of jumbled-ness about it.
Listen again to part of today’s very trinitarian-sounding gospel reading:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Wherever you start to speak about this particular God, there will always be something else you should have said before, something about the Spirit or the Son or the Father which you now say too late, but it has to be said somewhere for everything to be said: “No, no, no; I forgot, I have to go back, there’s something else…”
Now, if you’re not already asking the question, let me ask it for you: So what? So what if God is like that, circles within circles? As neat a way as that might be of accounting for the church’s tortuous trinitarian confession, what does it have to do with anything, really?
The “so what” of trinitarian talk of God is in the contrast such a sense for God has with other senses for God or god-like things in our lives.
Most of us, for example, have a very strong desire for simplicity. This is why we don’t tell stories as children do. Simplicity is ground to stand on. It is firm and reliable. Simplicity is (has?) a reference point: a point before which nothing else needs to be said, and after which all that I say and do is justified, so long as it is levered from that reference point, that fulcrum.
Our lives are filled with these reference points. They are philosophical, economic, social and political. They are manifest in those strong sentences which begin with “I am…”, “You are” or “We are…”. I am a man. I am white. We are Muslim. I am, You are, We are Australian. I am free. We are true believers. These are reference points, assumptions, bases, before which nothing else need be said, and after which all that I say or do is justified.
These reference points are the ground we stand on. They simplify the complex world. They are where our sense for the world begins. You – woman, Christian, Muslim, disabled, child, beggar, refugee – you are measured from that simple and sure starting place. You are less than me, because you don’t have the basis I have, are not what I am.
These reference points are very often unrecognised, simply because they are obvious not only to their beneficiaries but also to their victims. Think of the operation of ideas like maleness, whiteness and citizenship in our contemporary social and political life. That concepts like this work in a quasi-divine kind of way indicates that the simplification I am speaking about is not just a “religious” thing. The only difference religion might make here is to propose to stick God under the “I am/we are” statements as a reinforcement: I am, you are, we are, this or that crucial thing because God has made it so (“So there!”).
A simple god, simple economics, simple politics corresponds in Christian thinking to a stark legalism, in contrast to the life of grace.
Law is a secure place, before which nothing needs to be said, and after which what I say and do is justified. “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God” (John 19.7) – no two ways about it.
By contrast, grace always has something more to say. Something new is always being said. The sign of this is the Resurrection. The law has worked through its logic – “he ought to die” – and then it’s as if God says something like, “No, no, no; I forgot, I have to go back, there’s something else…”
Simple gods see people crucified because those people don’t connect to the story told so far. “Woman” does not connect in a Man’s world, or black or yellow in a White world, or muslim or christian in a Secular world, or a foreigner in a Sovereign State, or a prophet drawing attention to the freedom of God among a people who have God all sewn up.
Simple Gods see people crucified because those people don’t connect to the story told so far. But the God of Israel, the God who gives the Christ by the Spirit, the God of the church – this God always makes the missing connections. The exclusions are overcome: the crucified first, and then the crucifiers; the outcast, and then those who rendered him so.
This is what the Holy Spirit speaks in reminding us of the things of Jesus, the things of the Father: What the Father gives the Son, and the Son gives us in the giving Spirit, is a making of connections, a re-visiting of foundations, the adding of another detail which has not yet been spoken but which illuminates everything.
And so the church confesses faith not unlike how a child tells her story: constantly being reminded of something which should have been said before.
Is this good enough for us? This is a crucial question.
‘Truly I tell you,” Jesus says to us, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever stands before God as a little child does is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Matthew 18.3f).
Let us, then, tell – and glory in – the story by which God makes us children – his children.