12 June 2009

Family Resemblance


Isaiah 6: 1-8; Romans 8: 12-17

Trinity Sunday, 7th June 2009/ Sacrament of Baptism & Holy Communion


One of the greatest revolutions in Christian thought occurred when the early Greek church fathers, people like Basil of Caesarea (330-379) and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), and the other Cappodician theologians writing in the fourth century, in Turkey, broke new ground. Reflecting upon their experience of God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit, they began to imagine God in a new way. In reading scripture and paying close attention to the movement of God in the Bible, they came across a major conceptual, theological innovation: God is “a sort of continuous and indivisible community,” Basil said. [1]



God is not an idea or a singular being in three forms, but God is to be viewed as a relationship. What do we mean when we say as Christians say the word “God”? Communion. There is no ‘being’ of God other than this dynamic of persons in relation, in communion.


God is a community of relations, persons in relationship that give themselves to each other and then receive back into themselves in love. These ideas were never fully embraced by Augustine(354-430) in the western church, thus never fully embraced by Catholicism and Protestantism. It’s the Eastern Church theologians who came to view God as a relationship.[2]


What difference does all of this make? Lots. Most critically, how we view or conceptualize God, how we talk about God, imagine God, understand God – your God image – inevitably shapes the way we live our lives, view ourselves, see our neighbors – treat your neighbor – shapes the work of the church and how we see the world. The Trinity points us to this provocative image of God as persons in community, in relation; persons existing in a relationship of mutual love and edification, giving themselves over to each other in love; persons who in love respect each other and make space for each other; persons in relationship who build each other up and seek each other’s welfare. The Father loves the Son and frees the Spirit to serve the Son and the Father. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. They live in service to each other, giving way one to the other. This is who God is: God is a relationship and known through interpersonal encounter.


Paul is using similar images when he talks about being “adopted” into the family of God. Paul wants the Roman church to know who they are in Christ and what has been given to them through Christ. Did you hear the Trinitarian references in this letter? So that, Paul tells us, to be “in Christ” includes being swept up into the family or community of God, into that divine relationship, where we get to encounter God in a new way. We have been given the “spirit of adoption,’ Paul says, in that we have been incorporated into a new community and new family. And one of the given tasks of the Holy Sprit is to convince us and remind us (daily) that we are children of God; because of Christ we are part of God’s family, and thus heirs of God’s blessings and joy. The Spirit then “adopts” or engrafts us into the holy family, the community of God. The Roman Catholic writer, Richard Rohr has said, “The Spirit creates new capacity for relatedness.”


You might have seen this icon lately in the library and France Room. It is Andrei Rublev’s (b. 1360s - 1427/or 1430), “Old Testament Trinity.” It dates from 1410 and can be seen today at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It depicts that scene in Genesis (18) when Abraham is greeted by divine messengers. He extends to them hospitality and a share a meal together. The Orthodox Church frowned upon iconographic renderings of the Trinity, so Rublev used the Genesis encounter as a way to symbolize his understanding of the Trinity. Jesus is in the center, God the Father to his right, the God the Spirit to his left. The color blue means they share the same divine essence, yet are individuals – individuals or persons known to each other in relationship. The green the Spirit is wearing denotes life, creativity. God is depicted as a community of persons in relation around a table sharing a meal. But what is so striking about this icon (and there are many things we could say about it) is the observer is drawn into the conversation; we are welcomed to sit at the table, to be part of the family. Imagine what their dinner conversations are like. There’s space for us there and the hospitality of God welcomes us there.


This is an extremely powerful, rich symbol. Dwell within this icon for a while, dwell with this image of God, dwell in pray with this understanding of God and you will the way you view yourself, others, even God will change.


To be a Christian means we’re part of that family. This is particularly helpful to remember when we pray – our prayers become part of that divine conversation, we are lifted up into their conversation. Or when we pray, “Our Father,” or cry out “Abba,” “Father,” literally, “Daddy,” we are affirming our place at the table, we are asking God remember our rightful place in the household of God.


On this Sunday as we celebrate Timothy Edward Zink’s baptism – claiming who we are in the household of faith – and share in Communion – celebrating our lives in relation to Christ and to one another, both lift up who we are as God’s people in this place. Our lives will echo the God we worship and serve. Our lives will reflect the kind of God we worship and serve. When the church gathers together, our life together echoes or reflects the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ. The theologian, Colin Gunton (1941-2003), once wrote, “The church is called to be the kind of reality at the finite level tat God is in eternity.”[3]


The family of God, as it were, shapes this family of the church, because all of us have been adopted into that family, into the wide embrace of God in Christ. While human life and divine life are not to be confused, for they are not the same, there is what we might call a “family resemblance”[4] — or there can be. The more we see God as a dynamic community of persons who love each other unconditionally, without judgment, take delight in each other, give themselves freely to each other, make space for each other, are hospitable to each other and to us by adopting and including us into their family, the more our lives together this church —Catonsville Presbyterian Church — will be defined by such a love. This image of God compels us to live differently. This image of God invites us to live differently.

The more we dwell in this image of God the more we will find ourselves taking even greater delight in one another, building one another up and less quick to put another down, making space for one another, sharing gifts and resources, respecting one another, affirming, encouraging and celebrating one another, freely giving ourselves to one another, becoming more and more hospitable to the other and inclusive of all people the Spirit is calling and adopting into the fellowship, the family of God’s people.

So let us gather around the font and gather at this table giving thanks for the God who calls us in Christ through the Spirit into God’s holy family.



[1] Basil of Caesarea, Letters in Document in Early Christian Thought (Cambridge, 1975), cited in Colin Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993), 10.

[2] Gunton’s work is just one of many recent studies on the Eastern Church’s contribution to the doctrine of the Trinity. See also Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London, 1957); John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in the Personhood and the Church (London, 1985); J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London, 1981).

[3] “…the being of the church should echo the dynamic of the relations between the three persons who together constitute the deity.” Gunton, 81.

[4] “Family resemblance,” a term used by German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), cited in Alan Torrance, Persons in Communion: Trinitarian Description and Human Participation (Edinburgh, 1996), quoted by Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Westminster/ John Knox Press, 2000), 39.

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