Understanding God

Trinity Sunday is just ahead. Often we ( perhaps preachers especially) seem to shy away from that day because – although we might not say it aloud – we tend spontaneously to think of Trinity Sunday as a day on which we are meant to understand God and to express to the rest of the Church our understanding of God.

But I don’t think it is that at all actually. The absolutely vital thing is not to understand God. The absolutely vital thing is to rejoice in the truth that God understands us. God understands you. God understands me. And God loves us anyway. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that extraordinary? Isn’t that divine? It is!

Just resting in that understanding – that comprehension that might better be described as love – is enough. It gives freedom. It offers the end of fear. And in so doing, oddly enough – or maybe not – it opens the possibility perhaps to actually understand something of God after all! After all, God has seen fit, in astounding generosity to reveal the very life of God to us. It’s just that the light coming off that revelation is so very bright that it is hard to know what we are even seeing.

I begin to think that it takes decades of human life and thousands of mistakes – otherwise known as sins! – to begin to dare to look toward that light with the hope that the eyes of our soul might begin to adjust to the light and begin to see.

Way back in the book of Genesis, in the first chapters, at the beginning of the beginning, God decides to create us in God’s own image and likeness. What an unexpected starting point that is! And it opens the opportunity to believe that when we finally – in all honesty and truth begin to understand ourselves (as individuals and as communities and as a species even a little bit) – we can begin then as well to understand (maybe?) something of who God is. If we dare. If we are willing to sit with the desire to know God, and let it become a quest of ours, not in our spare time, but deep down in our gut as one of our most vital human callings.

Wise people who have lived long before us and followed Christ and listened to the Gospel and felt the Spirit and seen God as Father/Mother alive in the world have sat with that question. It took the Christian Church the first four centuries after the Resurrection to be able to agree on how to speak about who Jesus Christ is. And then it took another century to be able to do something of the same about the Holy Spirit. So then, way back then but only after hundreds of years of the whole Church wondering about these questions together, we came to an agreed way to speak about the Trinity, about God as one God in three Persons. And then almost right away most of us were confused again. But at least we had language to talk about the work of God in the world and the inner life of God as well.

So I am wondering if we look at that Christian understanding in the Creeds of who God is, can we receive some light about who we are and who we are meant to be in God’s eyes? In other words, to return to where I began: can looking toward God’s identity as God has shared it help you and I to see ourselves through God’s eyes – and maybe then to see something of the magnificence of God’s love for us?

Now some paraphrasing or saying things of the faith in my own little way.

Though the outward works of the Trinity are works of all 3 Persons in God, thus sayeth the faith, God the Father is spoken of as Creator. God the Father brings things that were not into being. We are made in this image and likeness. Here then is a fair question: what do we bring into being? What do we – working with the raw materials we are given in life – in some sense of the word ‘create’? Many of you have helped to make new humans. Bravo! There’s a really good example. Maybe in your chosen line of work you have brought about a new way to get something done that needs to be done? Maybe in the kitchen at home, in your own little oven, you have brought to be Toll House cookies or brownies that – in your circle of family and friends at least – are acclaimed as the best of the best? I want you to really to think about this: what do you create in your living? What do you make in your life that reflects in some degree and sense the goodness of creativity of the Creating God?

God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, the one who took on flesh in the Incarnation and lived a fully human life and died a painful human death, is named as the Savior, as the Redeemer. I could express that in these words: Jesus is the One who will not leave anything or anyone broken behind. He cradles the broken by the side of life’s road – as the Good Samaritan did in one of his best stories – and cares for them with all the tools he has until they are whole and well again. To those blinded, he reveals the sight they have. By the deaf he is heard. He stays with the mute until they find their voice. And he enters the room, or the tomb, of those who have died and he trembles with the fullness of life until they live again. So you and me: where are the places in our lives where we possess a faithfulness and a care profound enough to keep us by the side of the suffering until suffering is over? Where in our hearts is there – at least sometimes in life – the willingness to sit with those in pain as long as they need us, even when we have no idea how bad the pain really is or how to relieve it? When and where are we able to be healers even if we don’t trust ourselves to get it right? We stay simply because the others ones, the broken ones, need us – and after all, we too know what it is to be broken.

And God the Spirit, the 3rd Person, is sometimes so mysterious to us as to be rarely mentioned. But the Creed calls the Spirit ‘the Lord, the Giver of Life.’ The Spirit was there at Creation, active as the wind. And we might say that the Spirit is the One who activates us, who makes things happen that otherwise would not happen; the One who energizes us in every season of our living. That’s an incomplete description, but all three of these are only partial, as they only can be. But again it is worth asking. If those words capture something of the Holy Spirit and you and I are created in the Spirit’s image, where do we bring energy? Where do we breathe new life? Or to put it in terms of Jesus’ description of the Spirit in the Gospel of John’s sharing of the Last Supper: where do you and I remind our friends, our family and total strangers of the truths of Jesus? Where do we act as Paraclete – as comforter, counselor, advocate, friend to others – without end, with indefatigable energy? This may in some sense be the hardest question. Maybe we can only answer this one late in life. Maybe we will only know when we stand ourselves face to face, heart to heart, with God revealed and loving us forever.

How am I one who brings new things to be? How am I one who never leaves the broken lying on the ground alone? How am I one who infuses new energy into human life when it has become tired and seems unable to go on?

Considering these questions this Sunday may be a start. But carrying these questions with us on the weekdays between the Sundays from year to year may provide the Divine key to our finally being revealed as genuinely human beings. Only then might we finally understand what God sees in us and why this triune God loves us all with such mad faithful unending abandon. God understands us. And that is, as a place to begin, a beautiful thing.

Good Friday

Good Friday 2016 – Seven Last Words

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”


At a first glance, and admittedly at a surface level, they certainly do seem to know what they are about.  These are professional executioners.  They know this prisoner has been found guilty of a capital crime.  They know that he has been sentenced to death.  And they know that they are the death squad. 

They know how to stretch the prisoner’s body across the instrument of torture.  They know how to angle his limbs to assure the greatest suffering.  They know how to secure hands and feet to the wood.  They know what it takes to raise the cross, with its living burden, upright.  They know how to keep watch and how long it usually takes for the death throes to move to the silence of death itself.

With the possible exception of the youngest among them, the newest recruit to their team, who may feel a bit squeamish, they know what they are about.  And they set about the work, again.

But he, the condemned one, the Nazarene, breaks the usual script open.  Others used their dying breath to curse the empire and the emperor and the soldiers beneath.  This one breathes words of . . . forgiveness. 

He addresses an unseen Father, but in tones of confidence that there is a Father and that he does hear.  He asks forgiveness for his executioners, for the ones who brought him to arrest and trial, for the one who betrayed him, and for we who stand at a distance two millennia later, but still in the shadow of his cross.  “Forgive them.”  He prays, from that time and place, for a universal gift of forgiveness.

The 20th century Austrian priest and author Karl Rahner wrote that the soldiers who placed Jesus on the cross to die in fact did not know what they were actually doing for this seminal reason: they did not know they were loved, each one, by God, by this Father upon whom Jesus called.  They did not know how much they were loved.  They did not know that God loved them with a love as bright and lasting and transformative, as that moment on Golgotha seemed dark and of passing significance, and unlikely to change anything, except the presence among the living of one Jesus of Nazareth. They did not know that this Father Jesus called upon knew each of their names and their stories, and how they came to be a part of this chain gang of executioners, and what else they might become in days to come. And not knowing that they were so truly loved, they could not be guilty of sin, even there and then as the Son of God died on the cross.  And so, he asked for them what should be theirs: forgiveness.

How completely do we know God’s love for us?

How truly do we know that we are forgiven, that we are caught up in this stream of forgiving love that becomes a river running from the cross to every time and place, to every generation, to every man and woman and child, to this moment on this Good Friday as we come together in prayer?

Fastened to the cross, Jesus is still supremely free.  In the face of hatred, misunderstanding, and fear, Jesus accepts the violence brought against him into himself, into his own body.  He freely allows that violence to kill him, and in return he gives not more violence, not deeper misunderstanding, not paralyzing fear nor confirmed hatred.  In return rather, from the cross Jesus pours out peace, compassion, comfort, forgiveness – all of these founded on limitless love, the revelation of the very heart of God.

Where retaliation might be expected, instead he pours out amnesty, grace, vindication.

We receive this forgiving grace, we who are blessed to know that we are loved, as Jesus taught us in the prayer that is his and ours.  Deep in the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 

The grace of forgiveness flowing from the cross of Christ calls us to become channels of that same forgiving love.  On our willingness to forgive, rests the gift of our own forgiveness. 

And so.  If we are ridiculed, we are called to forgive.  If we are attacked, verbally or emotionally or spiritually, we are called to forgive.  If we are betrayed, by friend or spouse or son or daughter, we are called to forgive.  If we are shut out, left alone, ignored, we are called to forgive.

. . .

In this world, today, at this moment, there is much suffering.  There are many crosses, some borne with courage and love, some cursed and rejected. 

We are the people of this cross, the cross of Christ, the cross from which flows the unexpected and real gift of forgiveness.  We accept that gift, for we all deeply require it.  And in turn, as Christians we say of others, of all others, echoing our gentle Lord:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

~ Preached at Trinity-St. John’s Church | Hewlett NYimg_8484

Word & word 2 Lent 2016: the invitation home from exile

Word & word

2 Sunday of Lent

February 21, 2016

Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Luke 13:31-35 (NRSV)

What strength and confidence Jesus consistently shows before the powers of his day, whether governmental or religious. Warned of Herod’s intent to destroy him, as the prior Herod had attempted in Jesus’ infancy, this time there is no flight into Egypt, no exile.

Rather, in his forthright bold response – “Go and tell that fox for me…” – there lies the revelation that Herod, and the city of Jerusalem, are themselves in exile. They may be situated at the expected place on the surface of the earth, but their hearts are nonetheless exiled. Exiled from their own truest selves and best potential.  Exiled from the loving relationship God is offering them. Exiled from the future God intends.

Here is both challenge and invitation. Why might I presume that I am where I should be in relation to God, to community, to the potential of days to come? Might I too not be in exile, and blind to it?

Jesus’ expressed desire to gather us together is a part of the work of healing he undertakes today, tomorrow, and the until the third day. Are we willing to be brought together?

~ J.P. McGinty

 Herod Antipas

[Image from biblicalarcheology.org]