What’s in a Name?

Jesus asked his disciples: Whom do people say that I am?

His disciples answered Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or another of the old prophets.

And Jesus asked again: But whom do you say that I am?

Peter answered: 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, each 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: Excuse me?

There’s an old term for God which we don’t refer to much these days. It’s the Godhead. Godhead is so much more than a name. It’s a description which hints at the essential nature of the deity. That essential nature hints at the communal rather than the solitary. God is a nickname by which we refer to the Godhead. We have every right to think the Trinity is confusing. But it’s actually very simple.

First a little history. The most expansive articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity was officially accepted at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The doctrine of the Trinity was and remains protective rather than explanatory in nature. The doctrine of the Trinity requires us to tolerate mystery -as in- knowing – but not knowing how we know.

The 4th-century Nicene doctrine of the Trinity is the culmination of three centuries of theological speculation on what begins for the first Christians as a lived everyday experience.

As Jews the first Christians experienced the historical God of their ancestors who brought them up out of the land of Egyptian slavery; who gave them the Torah through Moses; the God with whom they had lived – falling in and out of relationship over centuries of ups and downs.

Yet, as the followers of Jesus, they also had a new experience of God – God with a human face. While living among them, Jesus had taught them a new way of seeing God – God revealed through the intimacy of human relationship – God revealed in a loving look, a casual smile, a kind or not so kind word of instruction from a human voice, a physical touch of a healing God.

After Jesus left them –-they were surprised by a completely unexpected experience of God as indwelling spirit –the Spirit of the risen Christ – now inhabiting deep within them, filling the spaces between them, and enveloping the whole world around them.

By the 4th-century, Christianity had developed from an obscure Jewish sect to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Religious zeal and political lobbying now ran in the same channel – a phenomenon we today are not unacquainted with. Factional partisanship fanned intense theological disagreements between competing episcopal camps – inevitably spilling out into running street battles between the unruly mobs of their supporters. For a chilling perspective on the death and violence that accompanied the conciliar debates, John Philip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars is a must read.

At issue were attempts to define the nature of the internal relationships within the Godhead. The Emperor Constantine the Great, fearing civil war called the bishops to convene in Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 where he forced them to codify something that earlier generations of Christians had simply lived as an everyday awareness.

At Nicaea, using Aristotelian philosophical concepts of persons and con-substance it was decided once and for all – at least at the official level – that the essence of the Godhead comprised three persons all sharing the one substance. One God in three persons, three persons but only one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To put it in today’s language – three discernable identities emanating from and united within a single relationship. If you think relationship the wrong term here let me go on.

Tradition is a slippery thing. It passes from one generation to another, each subsequent generation receiving the legacy of its forebears. Yet, if tradition is received unchanged – it dies. For Tradition to remain a living force – each generation must reinterpret what is received – so that it speaks to the lives actually lived by Christians facing new challenges and seeking to apply timeless truths in new contexts.  

As I wrote in E-News this past week, you can’t be in a relationship by yourself. There is no such thing as a community of one.  We identify ourselves in reference to others with whom we live in relationship. Today we recognize that individual identity filters through our perception of the way others see us. We catch a glimpse of ourselves in the face of the other – looking back at us.

Andrei Rublev’s famous 14th-century depiction of the Trinity offers a pictorial metaphor of three identical persons – each lovingly gazing upon one another. We see here three identical figures gazing upon each other with a strong mutual love. That there are three attests to the communal nature of relationship within the Godhead. That they are identical attests to their single shared nature. But it’s their mutual gaze that strikes us. It’s as if each figure catches a glimpse of themselves in the reflected gaze of the other two.

We not only see the figures gazing at each other, but we also catch a glimpse of ourselves in the relationship to them for as we gaze at them they are also gazing back at us. We are communal and relational, because God is communal and relational – after all in whose image we were created.

All well and good you might say but can we really continue to talk about God in the gendered terms of Father and Son, with the Holy Spirit not obviously gendered until referred to as he, which is odd because in the Hebrew ruach is feminine and carries the pronoun she.

Patriarchal Tradition – linguistically ascribed masculine identities to the relational elements within the Godhead. Whereas in our own time the drive for linguistic inclusivity is a response to evolving conceptions of gender relations exposing the Tradition’s male gender bias. Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a warning we should hear, however.

We hear the gender bias issue being resolved by referring to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. This may overcome the gendered issue but the problem here is that these terms refer to functions within the Godhead not to relationships. It’s important to remember that the point of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not gender but relationship.

A better solution is to refer to the members of the Trinity – as I do frequently -Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer. These terms preserve the essential relational – can’t have one without the other- nature within the Godhead.  

It is the relational quality within the community of God that commends itself so powerfully to us – living increasingly in a world where relationality, its presence or absence, is the measure of meaning and an indicator of quality of life.

If only the Nicene Fathers had had the benefit of an Irish poetic sensitivity:

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


In the lead up to Pentecost in 2021, I’ve felt the preacher’s perpetual dilemma when facing into the great feasts of the Church – what’s new to say? It’s easy to forget however that each anniversary or stopping off point in the yearly cycle of Christian celebration happens in a new and changed context. The texts and theme remain the same from year to year, but with each revolution of the yearly cycle – the texts and themes echo into and are heard in a new context.

I’ve been wondering about guidance and journeying during this past week – and the words: you can’t get there from here – have been on my mind a lot. I mentioned this to a couple of friends who informed that this was an expression much favored by the residents of the great state of Maine where – upon asking for and being given directions you’re likely to be told oh, but you can’t get there from here.

On this day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit not only to the community of the Church, but to each one of us by virtue of our baptism – I’m aware that our Christian journey – historically speaking- has a Jewish-Palestinian starting-off point.

The root of Christianity lies buried deep in the cultural soil of Palestine. This means any flare-up in current Israeli-Palestinian tensions feels to us more than a local Middle Eastern affair. The events taking place across Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza during these past days have had the feel of something infinitely more serious than the normal ongoing level of intercommunal tensions. In our Christian liturgies we have the historic request to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. This year the prayer carries a deeper urgency. With Jesus we want to cry out Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

With due regard to the complexity of opinion and passion that can ignite over the Israel-Palestine question – it’s probably foolhardy of me to even think about touching this third rail of controversy. But on this day of all days – Pentecost Sunday, I feel recent events cannot pass without mention.

You will recall the story of the Gordian Knot – a knot tied by Gordius, king of Phrygia, held to be capable of being untied only by the future ruler of Asia. Many had tried to untie it before Alexander the Great simply cut the knot with his sword. A bold solution. The Israel-Palestinian question – not to mention our conflicting thoughts and feelings concerning it – presents a classic example of the Gordian Knot.

There is an earnest desire for peace on all sides, but peace is a destination – and it’s a there that cannot be reached if you start from here.

Any attempt to talk about the situation runs immediately into questions of mind-numbing complexity:

  • How much is Western European political criticism of Israeli action a thin veil for an older anti-Semitism?
  • How much is an easy American condemnation of Palestinian violence a cover for anti-Muslim prejudice?
  • How can the Christian-nationalist right be so virulently pro-Zionist and yet remain violently anti-Semitic at the same time? -Remember the chant Jews will not replace us arose from this section of our society.
  • Can Israel be both a democracy and a nationalist Jewish state at the same time?

Peace is a journey as well as a direction we journey in search of. Peace is a destination – a there – and no matter the directions given –  you just can’t get there if you insist beginning the journey from here. Hence the need for accurate guidance.

For there can be no peace without justice.

The birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus evidences a – you can’t get there from here God moment realization. In Jesus, we Christians believe that the Creator-God personally enters within the process of creation and with the gift of the Holy Spirit God reboots the whole creation system – resetting the direction for its subsequent unfolding.

At Pentecost, the divine Spirit –once brooding over the creation now becomes actively engaged from within – empowering you and me to become the change we long to see. As Christians we believe the Holy Spirit now empowers us with agency, filling the depths within us, inhabiting the spaces between us -enveloping the world around us. The Spirit reboot, empowers us to partner with God in the work of nurture and repair of the creation.  

Acts 2 – which begins with amazing pyrotechnics of wind and flame announcing the Holy Spirit’s descent into the world amidst the polyglot cries of those present that differences separates us from one another, no more. The chapter ends with Luke offering an amazing glimpse into the Pentecost events immediate effect on the community of Jesus followers.

All who believed were together and had all things in common. Those with wealth disposed of it for the benefit of all – and they gathered in community both in the Temple and privately for the breaking of bread in memory of Jesus.

This is a glimpse of the destination which we can only reach when we begin our journey from the right place.

The trick is to recognize when we’ve gone off track.  Let me suggest a final image on this feast of Pentecost in 2021. These days when we get lost – we have a GPS voice telling us to take the next legal U-turn – showing us how to get back to from we should have started our journey in order to each our desired destination.

Among the many names for the Holy Spirit perhaps we need to add a new one – that of Holy GPS – the ultimate life guidance system.

Vine and Branches

I am the vine; you are the branches!

There is an old African saying:

If you want to go fast – go alone; if you want to go far – go together.

In these weeks following Easter we have opened again for in-person worship alongside our continued livestream. We are all experiencing the joy of moving tentatively, yet assuredly forward together – moving into a time when not everything is defined solely by the pandemic. Despite our in-person worship still having some restriction – the biggest of which is still no congregational singing – everyone who has the experience of returning says how good it is to be back!

The experience of pandemic restrictions on our church and social lives has paradoxically expanded our sense of virtual connection. This alone will not be enough. We must rise to the increasing challenge to give an account for why we exist. In a world increasingly moving away from institutional church affiliation this is the most important question of all and will dictate the contours of our future.

As more and more of us return to in-person presence in worship – our livestream worship becomes an additional long range arrow in our quiver. Virtual worship enables participation from those among us who for reasons of age or infirmity, temporary sickness, or other reasons – cannot be physically present in worship.  What it is not, is a permission to stay away from in-person worship!

I see our livestream worship as an outreach channel connecting us with the spiritually curious – whose curiosity about faith might be encouraged through their exposure to our online worship – those who might one day risk the counter cultural action of walking through our red doors for an in-person experience on Sunday morning.

The church’s institutional decline in our time mirrors the disaffection with institutions across the Western World. Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z’ders raised in a time when many of our hallowed institutions have increasingly failed to deliver on their promises, automatic loyalty of previous generations to institutions is being seriously challenged. This is compelling us all to question beyond our experience of church as an institution. If no longer as an institution, how might Christian communities redefine themselves?

Jesus focused on relationships not religion. He certainly had little interest in forming a new religion with an institutional product. Jesus projected his experience of being in relationship with God into the relationships he built with his followers. By extension he taught them how to make their connection to him into relationships with one another.

In the 1st letter of John, Jesus says:

No one has seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.

This is a later echo of Jesus Great Commandment recorded in John’s gospel:

Love one another – by this the world know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.

His teaching points to a way of life that seems simple enough! Well at least clear enough though not necessarily simple to live.

Elsewhere, Jesus paints word pictures of what relationship with God looks like through the use of arresting metaphors that draw their power from being taken from every day and the familiar aspects of life. Last week’s gospel portion from John 10 Jesus uses the metaphor of the good shepherd whose love for the flock has a very intimate and self-sacrificing intensity. In today’s gospel – He continues in John 15 with another powerful metaphor – that of the vine and its branches. This is a metaphor that speaks of the organic life of relationship.

It seems to me that the future of the church in our own century lies in a return to Christian communities defined as vision movements putting core spiritual values into concrete practice. This will require letting go of our investment in church as an institution. I don’t mean we should abandon the institution but allow the nature of our identity and sense of purpose to shift with and not fight against institutional decline. In other words, to take advantage of institutional decline to be freed and renewed by the presence of the risen Christ in the world.

Such a shift in orientation will go to the heart of our evangelism. Is our evangelism aimed at shoring up the flagging membership of the institution, or is our evangelism focused on winning hearts and changing lives? Do we want to revive our flagging enculturated institution – or will we take a new opportunity to put into practice Christ’s counter-cultural message of love – and in the words of St Paul –  give a good account of the faith that is within us?

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

Through cracks in the institution of the church –  a new vision movement emerges – inevitably setting in motion the cycle from movement- to institution – to decline in motion once more.

Historically, we find ourselves in the scary but also exciting institutional decline stage of the cycle. As we contemplate the overall cycle of larger decline – at local levels we continue to celebrate signs of vitality. For instance we are moving to celebrate the success of our recent capital campaign. For some, this is a sign of the revival of the institutional St Martin’s fondly remembered. For most of us, we are not so sure. We grope our way forward – somehow sensing that our recent campaign success must be used to transition us into a different kind of future – the contours of which have yet to fully emerge.

I’m a member of a small parish working party that is currently participating in a five-week stewardship seminar series involving a wide range of attendees from across the Episcopal Church. The first question we have been asked to address  why we exist?

Simon Sinek in a video called Getting to the Why, addresses the question: why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, they have proved themselves more innovative than the competition yet like their competitors, they are just computer company, operating in the same business climate and conditions as every other computer company.

Sinek drawing three concentric circles on the board wrote why in the center of the three circles – then how in the middle circle, and finally what in the outermost circle. He noted that every single person in an organization will know what the organization does. Some will know how the organization achieves what it does. But he claims very few will know why the organization does what it does.

By the why – Sinek is referring to purpose not product. What is the cause or belief that explains not only why an organization exists but also the paramount question – why should anyone else care? Most organizations begin at the outer circle and move inwards. They will tell us what they do and maybe how they do it but are silent on why they do it. Making a profit or a product is not a why – it’s a result or a goal. In contrast, innovative and inspired organizations move from the center circle outwards – telling us why they exist before moving onto what they do and how they do it.

Sticking with Apple he gives an example. (If you click on the link here or above – listen from 2:17- 4:02.)

Following Sinek’s approach compare the following two pitches:

We have a beautiful church and an active community. We marry progressive theology to traditional worship. We have fun and do good– want to join us?


Everything we do strives to give an account of the faith within us to become better equipped for the purpose God has for us. We are a community on a journey together in the belief that if you want to go fast journey alone but if you want to go far journey together. We will be greatly strengthened by your presence with us. Will you join us?

Jesus said

I am the vine; my father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes and makes it bear more fruit. … I am the vine; you are the branches … because apart from me you can do nothing.

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