Christian Essentials 101: God, Jesus, and the Church

Abstract: God is a community within a single identity. An aspect of God (the Word) came to co-exist within the person of Jesus, who through his death and resurrection God does something new in the relationship of creator to creation. After Jesus’ ascension a different aspect of God (Holy Spirit) infuses the community of disciples with empowerment giving birth to the Church. The Church continues God’s work in creation. Baptism is entry into membership of the Church. The Church witnesses to the mystery as well as the revelation of God in Jesus through receiving God in the form of Spirit. God, Jesus, and Church are linked – Jesus died; God raised him to new life; the Church affirms this new beginning through the celebration of Eucharist. 

Trinity Joke

Jesus said, Whom do men say that I am? And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or other of the old prophets. And Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple. “And Jesus answering, said, “What?”

Jesus’ response to Peter is a fair summary of how many people feel about the Trinity, which is where I want to begin in responding to the remaining three questions in this Christian Essentials section of Episcopal 101. We have explored questions of identity with respect to God, the Creator and Jesus Christ, the Word of God. We are now ready to explore the fuller identity of God as a relational being. God as a community of relationship is known as the Trinity.

As the joke above captures, many regard the Trinity as a thorny theological and philosophical conundrum. However, the important and relatively simple thing to remember is that the Trinity emerges out of the ordinary experience of the first Christians as they begin to make sense of their experience of God. As Jews, they knew God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of their fathers and the Creator of the world who revealed himself to Moses and to the people through the gift of the Law and the preaching of the Prophets. They also had direct experience of Jesus as a revelation of God, this time within their intimate human experience. They now have a further experience of God as a force of nature that overwhelms them and leaves them in a completely changed frame of awareness.

Another way to approach this is to remember that to be human is to be relational. As human beings we are built for relationships. Our human need for relationship finds expression in the life lived in community – one Christian is no Christian- says the Early Church Father, Tertullian. Therefore, our relationality is a reflection of God’s relationality. For the first Christians, God as a divine community is powerfully experiential. They identified with the Father-creator – lover, Jesus the Son- communicator – beloved, and Holy Spirit empowering presence, love sharer. For them, all three were expressions of God, directly experienced.

In italics I have added nongendered relational terms to these identities – lover, beloved and love sharer. As we saw in our first session, God is neither male nor female, yet the principles of masculine and feminine are present in God’s nature. Although Jesus as a human being certainly was male, the Word of God (logos) is not male. The Father – creator, and the Son – communicator, can be viewed through masculine imagery without being defined as male. The Holy Spirit, in Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (peneuma), is feminine. The feminine principle is captured in the notion of the Spirit as generative, fecund energy, bringing life to birth. Traditionally the Holy Spirit was referred to as it, because I guess it was difficult for a patriarchal tradition to refer to an element of God as she.

As time passed the first Christians needed to be able to articulate their experience. As the influence of Greek philosophical thought grew among the gentile Christians, it was natural for them to turn to this tradition of learning in search of a way of speaking about their experience. The Trinity is a philosophical theory that gave the growing Christian Church the language to speak about God. In Greek thought, the term person could be used to speak about different identities that, nevertheless shared one nature.

There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities are also the product of our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. Who I think I am is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me. It’s kind of like that, we can imagine, within the divine community. There are not three Gods, but three persons in one God, each reflecting back the image of the other. Each person has a function. The Father (the lover) is the creator source of all things. The Son (the beloved) is the communicator of all things – the Logos or Word. The Holy Spirit (feminine principle) is God in all things. But the main point is not their functions but the way each function emerges out of being in relationship with one another.

Please go online to explanation.htm  Here you will find a further explanation that uses Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity to demonstrate how this can be imagined.

What is the Nicene Creed?

The Trinity emerged out of the way the early Christians experienced God (see above). The doctrine is important not because it explains mystery, but because it protects the mystery of God from being reduced to mere human understanding. This protective function is what the Nicene Creed is, and does. The Nicene Creed gets its name from the Ecumenical Council that met in a place called Nicaea in 325AD. There were seven of Ecumenical (Greek for inhabited world) Councils up to the end of the 5th Century. They met to iron-out differences and disagreements. They formulated statements that protected the full mystery of the relational nature of God, the incarnation, and the two natures in Jesus as the foundations for the shared faith in the life of the Church. They used Greek Philosophy to do this. The teaching of the seven Ecumenical Councils is the teaching agreed upon by the Latin-speaking catholic Church in the West and the Greek-speaking orthodox Church in the East. It is the teaching that Episcopalians recognize as the Historic (Catholic –universal and Apostolic – from the Apostles) tradition of Christianity. For further reference you can view the Historical Documents section of the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 864.

Harry Williams, was a renowned spiritual writer in the middle 20th century. His writing was a huge influence on me growing up. He was also a monk of the Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican men’s community at Mirfield in Yorkshire. A story is told that during the recital of the creed in the Eucharist, Fr Harry would sit down and switch-off the light over his stall when he came to lines he did not believe. I am often asked do you have to believe every line of the creed? The answer is no you don’t. The Nicene Creed represents the historic faith of the Church. We related to the faith of the Church from within the dynamic experience of our own spiritual journey. Think of roaming about the many rooms of a great mansion, sometime feeling more, sometimes feeling less comfortable in various rooms. However, the faith of the Church continues to remain true and because it is the faith of the community, its truth does not rely on our individual assent, nor is it invalidated by our individual doubts. Remember, that we participate in the life of the Church not through holding at all times correct belief, but struggling at all times with the demands of right relationship. This leads nicely to our next question. 

What is the Church?

What we call the Church, the Christian Community in the world is born on the Day of Pentecost, literally 50 days after the Resurrection. On the Day of Pentecost those gathered were visited by the power of God in the form of wind and fire, both atmospheric phenomena that communicated the presence of God in a particularly new way. This is recorded in the second chapter of The Acts of the Apostles. This is the first experience of God as Holy Spirit.

The Evangelist we know as Luke wrote a two-part work. He wrote his Gospel as an account of what God had done in the life and ministry of Jesus. He continued the story in Acts, with the birth, life and ministry of what God is continuing to do through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Ascension of Jesus and the birth of the Church are linked by the Holy Spirit’s actions at Pentecost. Now that the ministry of Jesus is completed with his return to the divine community of the Trinity, something else is needed.

With the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, two elements came together for the first Christians. The pieces of knowledge that had remained as fragmented memories of Jesus’ teaching when he was alive began to make sense through their direct experience of a series of events, i.e. the death, resurrection, post resurrection appearances and the ascension of Jesus. The intervention of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the catalytic event is a tipping point moving the disciples from a state of loss and confusion into a new order of perception.

Through Jesus, God shares Godself with the creation, a sharing that bridges the breach in relationship between the creation and creator. Through the Holy Spirit, God now shares Godself in order to further energize the work Jesus started. Empowered by the Holy Spirit the disciples, which means followers now become apostles, which means messengers. The Holy Spirit is God’s second gift of Godself. The result of this encounter dramatically changed the disciples of Jesus from bewildered followers into impassioned messengers who then proceeded to talk openly and publically about Jesus. The Church is born!

As Christians of the Historic Tradition, Episcopalians conceive of the Church as more than a voluntary association of believers, organized for mission. We conceive of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, which has a corporate identity, which is greater than the sum total of its individual parts. The Body expresses itself primarily through liturgy – esp. the Eucharist. Liturgy is the mechanism for incorporating individual believers or worshipers into the experience of being part of the mystical Body of Christ known as, the Church. For example in Eucharist, even if there are only two of the baptized present, and one of the two is a priest, then the Eucharist can be celebrated. Two members represent the function of the whole as if the entire Church is present. I mentioned the Eucharist requires at least two baptized persons, one of whom needs to be a priest because each represents the separate function that together constitutes the whole. It’s time to talk about baptism.

What is Baptism?

Baptism is the ceremony of entry into the Church. Contrary to a lot of popular belief, baptism is not about individual salvation. It’s about belonging, nurturing and growing as part of a community of faith.

Baptism involves four key elements. The first is Spirit. Baptism finds an echo in the actions of God’s Spirit hovering and brooding over the void at creation in Genesis 1. It also finds echo in the Spirit breathing life into the lungs of the human being fashioned out of the elements of the earth in Genesis 2. The Spirit, which is the source of all life, is given to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. For Christians the Holy Spirit is the sanctifying and sustaining energy of God active in the world.

The second element is Water.  Water is necessary for life. It is elemental. It also nourishes, cleanses and restores. In our baptism we find an echo to the passing of the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea  – a rite of passage. In the waters of baptism we also die and rise to the new life in Christ whether through the symbolism of total emersion or the pouring of water over the head. Both have the same meaning in the sense that the Eucharist is a meal even though we are only given a piece of bread and a sip of wine.

Thirdly there is Covenant. In the 31st chapter of Jeremiah God speaks of a new relationship with his people in which his law is transformed from a set of commands to something written on the inside of their hearts. In baptism we are signing ourselves into the New Covenant initiated by Jesus through the cross and resurrection. Baptism is our response to God’s invitation to enter into covenant. Like a contract, a covenant is a conditional offer that requires a response of acceptance to transforms it into something potential to something realized.

The fourth element is Community. All of created life is sacred. Physical birth ushers us into the goodness of God’s Creation. Being created involves neither a choice nor a response from us. In this sense to be human is to be most like God. Baptism reminds us that no one drifts into the Kingdom of God by mistake. As Christians we embrace the fundamental goodness of creation by making the choice to enter into a deliberate and particular covenant with God. In this sense being Christian is to know that to be human is to be most like God. Baptism is our entry into the saving and cross bearing community we call the Church.

Baptism is the same for all whether you are three months-old or 30 years-old. It is a once in a lifetime event. No prior knowledge or demonstration of faith is necessary to be baptized. What is required is an intention to journey within the community of the Church. The importance for baptism is what happens following it. Its meaning and effect grow within us through a daily renewal of our baptismal promises of the Baptismal Covenant. There is no special status within the Christian community beyond that of being baptised. Both St Paul in Romans 12 and the writer of 1 Peter:2  speak of the community of the baptised as a royal priesthood. Even those set aside by ordination hold the same spiritual rank as all other baptized members. Ordination for ministry is a call from within the whole body of the baptised for leaders to guide the community into becoming more fully an embodiment of the Kingdom of God.

Baptism and The Eucharist

Entry to Holy Communion is by virtue of our baptism not confirmation. Historically, entry to communion became linked to confirmation as an attempt to ensure that people continued to present for confirmation. Confirmation adds little other than an opportunity to confirm baptismal vows, often made by us as infants. The current practice of the Episcopal Church is to communicate infants and children who have been baptized. Baptism is the sacrament of entry into community of the Church. Eucharist is the participation in the life of that community. Confirmation is the sacrament of personal affirmation of baptism and is the ceremony of entry into relationship (communion) with the local Episcopal Bishop. The unity of the Church is a result of local bishops being in communion with one another. 

Additional matters

The Order of Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer.

Take a look at the structure of how the rite unfolds and think of it as the unfolding of the drama of our salvation story. Note the different parts:

  • Presentation and decision
  • Blessing of the waters
  • Baptism and sealing with the Holy Spirit
  • Confirmation – note confirmation is the concluding part of baptism. Because it was reserved only to the Bishop to confirm over time as the Church grew beyond single communities each led by a Bishop, confirmation became increasingly divorced from baptism becoming separated by an interval of years.

Baptismal Covenant Pg 304 BCP

We affirm our faith through saying together the Apostles Creed, which identifies how to live the life of a baptized person in the world. It involves making three reaffirmations of belief:

  1. Do you believe in God the Father – Creator God – Source of Being?
  2. Do you believe in Jesus Christ – Redeemer God – Bridge of Being?
  3. Do you believe in The Holy Spirit – Sanctifier God – Spirit of Being in and through the Church?

We affirm our faith through five promises:

  1. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers? (be a faithful member of the saving community)
  2. Will you persevere in resisting evil, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? (work to stay in right relationship with God)
  3. Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? (live out the values of the Gospel in the world)
  4. Will you seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself? (live a life motivated by love)
  5. Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? (fight against social systems the deny human dignity to all)

Spiritual Reflections

Over the coming week try, to spend some time each day reflecting on the following questions. The way to do this is to find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere and bring your attention to the rising and falling of your breath. Imagine the breath as deep within your belly rather than in your chest and simply observe yourself breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God who is the breath that brings life. We also become aware of something we do all the yet, usually are not ware of doing it. Breathing offers an image of the presence of God, here all the time usually not noticed by us. 

After a few minutes of settling begin to contemplate the questions. You don’t have to do all of them at one time. Let the question percolate in your thoughts and notice images or connections that seem to arise naturally for you. At the end of your time, end with an expression of gratitude for your life, your loves, and for your desire to come to know God more deeply. 

1.     Why are human relationships and communities important from a theological standpoint?

2.     How might a growing sense of your answer to 1. above influence the way you live?   

3.    Trace in your mind’s eye the emergent sequence of experiences that led the first Christians to conceive of God as Trinity.

4.     Are you taking the vows of the baptismal covenant seriously in not only the way you live but though the worldview you hold?

5.    Go to the link given for the Rublev Icon of the Trinity. Gaze at it. Note the sequence of movement from Creator to Word to Spirit. Reflect on the experience of gazing at identical figures and ask yourself the question: the figures look identical but do they feel the same to you?.

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