Christian Essentials:3. God Jesus and the Church

Summary so far

  • God is relational or communal and not solitary or individual – evidenced by the use of we and our pronouns in Genesis 1. The Genesis creation accounts of God as Creator bringing order to the universe are set in the predawn before human history. But we also find here that the means through which the creator acts is the spirit – that hovers over the abyss. We refer to the Genesis origin accounts as myth or stories that convey timeless truth – set in the predawn before history.
  • In Exodus God’s identity is further enriched when through relationship with Moses God appears within the historical record of a particular community as the self-declared Liberator.
  • In Jesus as the Messiah God’s identity is further expanded for humanity as a God who loves acting through his appointed loving Savior. With Exodus we begin the great epic or the story of God’s relationship with Israel which the first Christians came to understand as an epic (story that unfolds within time) fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection and finally the ascension of Jesus the Messiah.
  • The early Church gropes its way to articulating through the doctrine of the Trinity its experience of a relational God as hinted at in Genesis 1.

Next steps

  • Within the divine community we can identify creative, expressive, and energetic elements which the Nicene Creed refers to these as persons- sharing the same substance. Three persons but one unified identity.
  • The expressive- communicative aspect of the divine community is known as Logos (word, reason or plan). In English we translate this rather inadequately as the Word. The Word enters into creation in the human person of the Jesus (refer back to session 2).
  • The divine person of The Word and the human person of Jesus co-exist alongside each other within a human life. The divine and the human sit in mutual relationship – healing the breach between Creator and creation.
  • Through the death and resurrection of Jesus – resurrection as understood as life, after life after death – God realizes God’s historic promise of liberation and restoration of the creation through an act of bringing the future into the present. In raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated ahead of time as it were, what he intends for the resurrection of a new creation at the end of time.
  • The Church sits in the time in-between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the world – the age of The Holy Spirit.
  • As in Jesus the divine and the human co-existed, so now the divine Spirit (the energetic expression of God which hovered the chaos at creation) and the human institution or organization co-exist alongside each other in the life of the Church which as the Body of Christ continues to embody the ministry of Jesus in the world.

What is the Church? The short answer is the Church is the human community that through its divine empowerment by the energetic Spirit of God continues the work begun by Jesus of setting the world to rights.

The Holy Trinity

The Trinity is the doctrine that speaks of God’s essential nature as three persons in one identity. Before the Trinity was a doctrine it was an experience of the first followers of Jesus the Messiah that gave the particular shape to their experience of God. They already knew of God the Creator. They had come to personally encounter God present in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – God the Logos or Word. Finally, they had the experience of God infused within them and all around them as Holy Spirit.

This three-fold experience of God was a lived one. With the passage of time, the immediacy of this experience among the followers of Jesus needed an official articulation. The influence of Greek philosophical thought grew among the successive generations of increasingly Gentile Christians so to became the language for speaking about this unique experience of God.

The Holy Trinity is a philosophical doctrine that gave the growing Christian Church the language to both speak about their experience of God. The function of doctrines is not to explain anything, but to protect the mystery that is God. The primary function of the Trinity as doctrine is not to explain God but to protect the mystery that is God from being reduced to only that which successive generations were able to understand.

In Greek thought, the term person could be used to speak about different identities that nevertheless shared one nature or substance – hence three persons in one God.

It might have been simpler for the Early Church if it had used instead of Aristotelian Logic the simple poetry of the Ancient Irish:

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints of the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snow-flakes and ice, all water their origin share,
Three Persons in God; to one God alone we make our prayer.

A modern reframing

Our individual sense of self – who am I, 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. This is a wonderful analogy for the identities or persons within the divine community of the Trinity.

You might like to visit explanation.htm  which expresses this concept of beholding and being beheld in the gaze of the other. Rublev’s divine persons express their individuality through their look at each other, yet they look with exactly the same face.

Relationship over 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 (love sharer) is God in all things. But the main point is not their functions but their relationship. They enjoy a relationship which is the fruit of each divine person discovering themselves in the gaze of the other two.

Traditionally we used the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to refer to God. What’s important about these names lies not their gendered nature, but as relational terms. Sometimes we attempt to escape the gendered overtones of these traditional names for God by talking of creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. These are certainly adjectives that describe function, but they cannot express relationality. Therefore, we should avoid referring to God by use of functional adjectives and instead find other terms that denote relationship. I prefer lover, beloved and love sharer. Each term links and refers to the other two, which is the nature of relationship.

Baptism – Belonging Preceding Believing

Baptism is the ceremony of entry into the Church. Contrary to a lot of popular belief, baptism is not about individual salvation. Baptism is entry into belonging. Belonging therefore comes before believing. One Christian is no Christian. Being Christian is to belong within the community that is called Christian.

Baptism involves four key elements:

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.

Water is elemental. It sustains life and there is no life without water. In addition to nourishing, water 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 and become sealed in this new life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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.

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.

Additional Elements

  1. Baptism is the same for all whether you are three months-old or 30 years-old.
  2. It is a once in a lifetime event.
  3. 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. Belonging precedes believing.
  4. 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.
  5. There is no special status within the Christian community beyond that of being baptized. Both St Paul in Romans 12 and the writer of 1 Peter:2 speak of the community of the baptized as a royal priesthood.
  6. Even those set aside by ordination hold the same spiritual rank as all other baptized members.
  7. Ordination for ministry is recognition and empowerment by the whole body of the baptized of leaders to guide the community into becoming more fully the Body of Christ in the world

Baptism and The Eucharist

Any baptized person, no matter their age is invited to receive Holy Communion. Why? Because Baptism is the sacrament of entry into community of the Church and Eucharist is the participation in the life of that community. In the early Church each community was headed by a bishop. Bishops baptised and confirmed in the one service. As the numbers of churches grew it was less possible for each to have its own bishop. Priests became the bishop’s delegate and while they were empowered to baptise confirmation was still reserved to the bishop. Thus a time gap arose between baptism and confirmation and in the Medieval English Church the custom arose of linking later confirmation with admission to communion. This was a practical decision not a theological one. Theologically speaking, confirmation adds nothing to the effectiveness of baptism. The 1979 Prayer Book recognised this by admitting infants and children to communion following baptism. Confirmation became seen as the individual’s opportunity to confirm baptismal the vows, made on their behalf at their baptism by the godparents and not as the entry rite to communion.

What does the Church believe?

There is a funny story told about Fr. Harry Williams who was a well-known member of the Community of the Resurrection – one of the great missionary communities in the Church of England (Desmond Tutu along with a generation of South African leaders were all educated by CR.)

Over the top of each monk’s stall in the choir was a light operated by pulling a dangling cord. When the monks all stood for the recitation of the Nicene Creed, Fr. Harry would sit down and turn off his light when they came to particular lines in the creed he didn’t believe.

I am often asked do we have to believe every line of the creed? Well Fr. Harry Williams clearly didn’t. But this is an amusing anecdote because Fr. Harry should have known that we say the creed not as a statement of individual belief, but as a statement of what the Church has always believed.

The Nicene Creed represents the historic faith of the Church. We have a dynamic relationship to shared faith. Some bits we readily affirm while other bits we may have doubts about and this is a continually moving target over a lifetime. This may change from day to day as an expression of how we are feeling – hopeful or despondent.

However, the faith of the Church continues to remain the faith of the historic community. Its truth does not rely on our individual assent, nor is it invalidated by our individual doubts.

The Church has down the ages affirmed its shared belief in God as Trinity, and in Jesus as both divine and human, not in order to explain God but to protect God from being explained away.

For further reflection

  1. One Christian is no Christian. Discuss.
  2. How might a growing sense of 1. above influence the way you live and think about your membership in the Church?
  3. Trace in your mind’s eye the emergent sequence of experiences that led the first Christians to conceive of God as Trinity.
  4. How do the five vows of the Baptismal Covenant BCP pg 304-05 influence your actions and worldview?
  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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