The Synod Assembly was this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. UniLu was well represented. In addition to your pastors, attending were Rachel Quesada, Rebecca Quesada, Karen & John Dreher, Pat Morgan, John & Sarah Heyer, and my son, Smith Heavner. I mention him last, because I want to talk about him a bit more. Smith was recognized by the Assembly, with a round of applause, for his role as President of Lutheran Student Movement- USA. Smith was also elected, at the Assembly, to be one of the ten persons to represent the Synod at the 2013 ELCA Church-wide Assembly. This is quite an honor; one of which his father is extremely envious.
It was a wonderful thing, to see Smith in those roles. It made me proud, as a father.
Smith was also involved in our attempts to bring together as many of the young adults in attendance as we could. We hosted a “late-night pizza run.” Getting thirty-five folks to move together from the convention hall to a restaurant was no small feat. Add to that the process of getting them (most of the strangers to one another) to agree on pizza selections, and you can see that I needed all the help I could get. It was helpful, to have a co-worker who knew what we were trying to accomplish, and one who could form the other bookend to our process of herding cats.
On Friday, Smith shared with me the interest of a neighboring congregation in a program called “3-D Ministry.” He had been talking to the pastor of that congregation, and began to share with me what he had learned about this approach to deepening discipleship. I go to Synod Assemblies, eager to learn as much as I can. There are too many opportunities to keep up with them all. It was helpful, to have Smith there, to absorb even more of the content, then to step into the role of being my teacher.
The Assembly was only 48 hours. But in those two short days, Smith and I switched roles a number of times. He was my son (of whom I was extremely proud;) he was my co-worker; and he was my teacher. Who we were did not change – we remained the same persons. But the fullness of our relationship meant that we took on vastly differing roles; we interacted in extremely different ways. Each of those interactions was very important to me. I would be unwilling to discontinue any one of the differing roles that I find myself filling with Smith Foster Heavner. Each of those interactive patterns is essential for there to be the breadth and depth of relationship which I treasure.
If this is true for our human relationships, how true it must be for our relationship with God. No single set of roles could ever completely capture the fullness of God's interactions with us. We need several, if we are to even come close to appreciating the breadth and depth of our relationship with God.
The church's Doctrine of the Trinity is not some esoteric mind game, of no real consequence to you or me. The church's teachings regarding a God who comes to us in three persons is an invitation to be reminded of the tremendous variety present in God's relationship – or relationships – with us.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is read for a lot of different reasons. It contains one of the most often quoted verses in all of scripture. It also illustrates for us the diversity of God's presence in our lives.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he is to enter the kingdom of God, he must be born from above. Nicodemus is confused and thinks that Jesus is telling him that he must somehow re-emerge from a mother's womb. Jesus corrects his error, but only in so far as to re-direct his thinking on the womb from which we are to emerge. Jesus allows Nicodemus (and us) to continue to hold on to the image of God as one who carries us within Godself. Fully encapsulated, there we are protected, nurtured and nourished.
This is precisely the image intended when we speak of the relationship God as Holy Spirit has with us. The Spirit is constantly holding us, shielding us, and continually providing for us all that is needed for life. This is the relationship God has with us.
But it would be an understatement to speak only of God's relationship of nurture. We must also remember that God is God – God is the One who lies behind and beyond all things. In speaking of God, we must also speak of a relationship with the One who rules over the entire cosmos.
In the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, this aspect of God comes through in that most famous of all verses. Jesus says to Nicodemus, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..." The actor, the prime mover, is God. The Son (Christ) does not simply appear out of nowhere. Everything which comes to us - comes as a result of the One who lies beyond and behind all things. God is the one who loves us and as an expression of that love God acts. God's actions are limitless and eternal.
God holds us within God’s own self. Within God we are nurtured and cared for. This is the nature of our relationship with God. This God, who carries us in this way, is truly the God who called all things into being. When we pray, we pray to the one who is ruler over all things – yet is as present with us as the very air that we breathe. Two aspects of the wonderful and varied ways in which God relates to us.
But there is more. As important as it is to know God as the one who loves us; as essential as it remains for us to understand that God is the provider of all things; we cannot afford to forget that God is also the one who shares our hurts and our pains. Our God does more than look down upon us from on high - our God comes and lives among us.
Nicodemus' opening statement to Jesus is one in which he acknowledges the otherness with which Jesus carries himself. He says, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." The marvel and mystery of Jesus is that he not only communicates to us God's hope and desire - he is God, present in the flesh and blood of a human brother.
Our relationship with God must take into consideration this aspect of God’s identity. We worship a God who would so love the world as to enter this world and take upon Himself the world's condemnation.
The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is brief. Yet, even this limited exchange exposes at least three aspects of our relationship with God. God interacts with us as a mother: carrying us in God's womb, protecting us from all harm and when the time is right, birthing us. Even so, God remains God. God interacts with us but is not limited by the same limits which we experience. God enters our world but remains beyond the world. Coming to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, God absorbs and takes on the hurts and pains which would crush us frail creatures.
Our relationship with God takes on many differing roles. It can never be encapsulated in one single style. As is true with our human relationships, so also in our relationship with God - we take on and live out of a wide variety of differing roles. It is this breadth and width which gives our relationship with God its tremendous depth.
We may find ourselves most comfortable in a particular interactive role. Within Christendom there are those who identify most fully with God the Holy Spirit. For them, God is a continual companion, guiding their every move and action. Others within Christendom are most comfortable with God the Son. The Jesus First movement is an example of this. Still others find themselves at home with God the Creator. Their theology is anchored in an argument from design - the world is so marvelous there must be a God who holds it all together.
I intentionally speak of each of these as groupings within Christendom. While each may have a preferred pattern of interaction they worship the same God. We would never want to tell any grouping that they needed to change their focus. But we would caution each against the tendency to believe that their preferred pattern should be normative for all Christians. Within God there is a wide variety of relationships. Each is credible and fully functional.
The bottom line – and the thing we all need to take home with us – is that the relationship God seeks to have with us is varied and complex. Our relationship with God changes, over time and even within the course of a single day. Our relationship with God takes on differing forms, depending upon what is needed in our lives at the particular moment.
The Church’s Doctrine on the Trinity is one way to acknowledge this great diversity. It allows all of us – regardless of the way in which we experience God most intimately, to realize we are interacting with the same God.