"It's all about relationships!" I can almost hear my good friend and youth worker using those words to describe youth ministry. It's all about relationships. Actually, so is much of life. The focus on relationships is central, whether you're reading books on management or parenting or community organizing-even books on theology.
The Lutheran scholar Joseph Sittler writes: The great Christian words like God, love, sin, forgiveness; these are all relational statements. Love is not a thing. It's a relation. Guilt is not a thing; it's a relation. You can't find a definition of love. Love becomes clear and recognizable only when you behold a relationship.
Today is Trinity Sunday-the only Sunday in the whole year when we focus on a doctrine and not on a biblical event. Still, this word, the Holy Trinity, is not really a thing. It's a relationship.
In his wonderful book "Open Secrets," Rick Lischer describes a stained glass window at the church where he served in rural Illinois. It was called the Trinity window, and it used triangles and Latin to depict a geometric diagram for God. In the center was a larger triangle which stood for God. Deus, it read in Latin. And around that triangle were three smaller triangles, one for Pater (Father), another Filius (Son), and the third Spiritus Sanctus (Holy Spirit). These smaller triangles were connected to the central larger God triangle with little highways, and on each of these highways was the word est or is-that is, Jesus is God, the Father is God, the Spirit is God. However, between the little triangles ran highways which read non est-is not. Jesus is not the Father. The Father is not the Spirit. Three distinct persons, one God.
It's all about relationships. You see, even the essence of God is an eternal relationship. I'm always amazed by this. And, yet, in a recent lecture, Old Testament professor Terry Fretheim argued that relatedness is the most basic biblical metaphor when talking about God. You see it already in Genesis 1. God says, "Let us make humankind in our image." Well, who is the us in Genesis 1? Or in chapter 2, verse 18, God says, "It's not good for the man to be alone." And you have to wonder who really is God talking to. Who's God consulting up there in the heavenly court? Yes, right out of the chute God is a relational being. At the very beginning, we get a glimpse of God as a community.
And the relationship within God says something about the relationships that we share as humanbeings. For, you see, we were made in the image of this relational God. It's into the triune God that we were baptized. And, if God in God's self, is a relationship, how can the baptized be any less? As Gail Ramshaw puts it, 'The life of baptism into the triune God is the end of isolation and the gift of communion, the beginning of what life was meant to be."
Yes, we are created and redeemed for community, for relationship with one another. In that same book, "Open Secrets," Lischer paints his own beautiful picture of relationships within a congregation. It's a story of Amy and how the church ministered to her. When she was four years old, her parents learned that Amy had cerebral palsy; and along with the diagnosis, her parents received a prescription for intense physical therapy. Eight hours a day, seven days a week, a team of four volunteers was needed to stretch and manipulate Amy's neck and arms, hands and legs in an attempt to train her muscles to work together. Well, such a regimen of physical therapy was more than her parents and even her extended family could ever provide. So the members of the church pitched in, along with members from other churches. At first it was the wives who came, but soon the husbands joined in-farmers, mechanics, retirees, teenagers, neighbors, strangers who read about Amy in their church bulletins. Whenever they came, they did the therapy, but they also said nice things to this young girl. They showed her love. "That's where she gets her smile," her father said. Still, no one really understands how a little one who's never danced or walked should possess the most luminous face in all the county.
The physical therapy itself lasted less than a year, but the congregation saw it as a miracle, not so much a miracle of a cure but the miracle of cooperation and love. People coming to help eight hours a day seven days a week, a whole network of love and concern.
Yes, it's all about relationships. A pastor from South Dakota recently spoke about the network of relationships in his congregation which support the baptized children and youth. He talked about how Christians belong both to a blood family and to a water family. Everyone is connected in that water family. So if someone is asked to teach kids in Sunday school or to mentor confirmation students, and they reply, "Oh, I've been there, done that; my kids are all grown," the pastor responds, "No, they're not. Our kids, your kids, are all of the baptized."
It's all about relationships. For the young and for the old. So today on this Trinity Sunday, it might be a good time to ask ourselves, "Is there someone in my life with whom I can honestly relate, with whom I can honestly talk about my faith and my discipleship as a baptized Christian? Is there such a relationship of honesty and care?"
Oh, such spiritual friendships come in many forms. A Bible study community. A spouse, a family member, a close friend, a small group. It can come through a spiritual director, a youth worker, a pastor.
When my family moved to Atlanta last year, it dawned on me that this would be one of the very first times that I would move into a city without a sort of automatic community of faith, a congregation where I was called to serve as a pastor. And to be quite honest, the prospect was a little scary. If you're not called as a pastor into a church, you have to be pretty intentional about finding a church, about forming a community, about finding those deep and honest relationships which enable one's faith to grow and to flourish. In this move to Atlanta, I gained a new appreciation for the experience of most Christians who face that challenge of finding and nurturing Christian community. In this culture, it's so easy to remain anonymous, to live in isolation instead of tending to relationships and facing the complexities and messiness of real community. We're tempted just to pick up that remote control or pop in a DVD, or grab the mouse and surf the net. It's a lot easier.
Still, if God in God's very self is a small group, how can we ever think we can make it as Christians on our own? Yes, my friend was right. It is all about relationships. The relationship within the triune God, the relationship among Christians created and redeemed by God. But there's one more relationship. Over the last several weeks, our Gospel lessons have come from chapters 14-17 in John's Gospel. And in those chapters, Jesus says the most amazing thing. He tells us that God loves us with the love that God has within the Trinity itself.
Listen to these works of Jesus: He says, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you."
God loves us with a love not unlike that which exists in the very nature of God. As the Father loves Jesus, so God loves you. The love between the three persons of God, that intimate perfect love, is a love which extends to you and to me.
Yes, at its core, the Holy Trinity is the story of God's relational love forever reaching out, forever reaching in to our lives. The Holy Trinity is not a cold concept or a stale doctrine but a story-a story of the way that God loves us.
Yes, God, who is by nature relational, yearns to be in relationship with you and with me. God, who is by nature loving, loves you with the love like that between God and Jesus; and God, who is by nature community, embraces us through our communities of faith, loving us and empowering us in our relationships with one another and with God's world. Amen.