One possible frame/theme I might explore in my dissertation is the observation that the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17) demonstrates Trinitarian Praxis. Here is a rough sketch of how I see it working out in the passage.
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)
I read this passage this morning because we are studying it in our College Group on Tuesdays. There is obvious connections to John 15 and my research, so I could not help but meditate on the Trinity. These two verses focus on the relationship between the Father and the Son and raise some interesting questions and observations for me. (This is not a well-crafted essay. It is a list of ideas that might give seed for further reflection):
- If someone sins, we have an advocate in Jesus. The second person of the Trinity stands beside us and before the first person of the Trinity as a paraclete. What does this say about the relationship between the Father and the Son? What does it say about our relationship with the Father? We cannot get away from a sense of otherness when it comes to the First. God is Creator, Other, Not Us, and there is the possibility of being estranged, cut off, not in fellowship, separated. We cannot deny that.
- This otherness of God is absolutely necessary for life and relationship. If God was not other, then there would be no us. It is the relatedness–positively or negatively–with the other that constitutes our own existence. Without the Other, how would we even know that we exist in the first place?
- And yet, in the Otherness, and the separation from it that must be part of the Otherness, there is a freedom to be different and not in a positive relationship. This freedom is what opens space for destructiveness–that which is labeled “darkness” in John.
- The irony of the freedom is that, if we “turn away” from the Other that gives us life, we die, because without the relationship, without remaining in that relationship, we cease to be constituted by it and we cease to be.
- Is this like the trapped animal that bites the hand of the one who wants nothing more than to rescue it? Or, like the drowning person who drags the rescuer into the deep because of blind fear?
- If God were singular and not Trinity, then all would be lost. The ontological gap between us and the Other would be insurmountable. Truly, this is unthinkable, because it is the relationship that creates life in the first place, yet, if we imagine this is in the frame of substance ontology, then the gap is unspannable. Yet, the Second, the Redeemer, the Incarnate Word, Jesus stands beside us and faces the First.
- Jesus standing beside us is not so much a crossing of the ontological gap as it is a demonstration of the constructive relationality–the telos ((here I mention the word telos because that is the word translated perfection in verse 5 “but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection.” The telos, or the purpose, for creation itself is the mutual, other-oriented love–agape–of the God that constitutes life)) –of the Trinity in its fullest form. The Second is facing the First, speaking–ad-voca–to the Father, not for himself, but for us. The direction and intent of his speaking is for the other. It is for us and our best interest, and it is for the Father and the constructive relationality. This is the propitiation–the sacrifice–for our sin. Not that the First required blood to be appeased, but that the second needed to be first for the other, and not for self, in order for the telos to be fulfilled.
- What I find most interesting about this passage is that John calls Jesus the Advocate, when Jesus called the Spirit the Advocate in John 15. Where is the Spirit in 1 John? Are Jesus and the Spirit conflated in this passage? Are they doing the same work in this moment and the Spirit is present in the act of advocacy itself?
- Is the risen Jesus present with the Father in the Otherness while the Spirit is present with us and connecting us to the Advocacy that the Second is presenting?
- This Advocacy is not just for us but is for the whole world. This is an incredibly important phrase. This, I believe, cuts against the grain of the decisional theology that invites people to cross the ontological gap by receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior. It also cuts across the grain of any idea of limited atonement. God has given, and is giving, life to all things, and Jesus is advocating for all things. The question is whether or not all things are fully aware and fully participating in the relationality that Jesus advocates. ((Yes, we must acknowledge that there is an act of the human will involved in this process. At some level, we, as individuals, must face the Other and say “yes” to the relationship. However, Jesus has advocated for us and the First has said “Yes,” thus constituting life itself. Our “yes” is derivitive to the primary “Yes” of God. We are not passive receivers of God’s salvation, but we are also not “in control” of our salvation, either. We are in relationship with God, who is for us, and we are invited each moment to face–with Jesus and in the power of the Spirit–the Other–both in the First and in our fellow creatures–in constructive relationality.))
- When we “walk in the darkness” (1 John 2:7-11) we are not abiding in God (we are not in the contstructive relationality) and destructive things happen. The darkness is self-focus. It is the “lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life.” (1 John 2:16) This is what John calls “the World” (kosmos). It is not, again, an ontological gap between God’s realm of perfect substance and the realm of the imperfect, created substance of the universe. It is a dissonance of telos. It is a conflict of purpose, focus, and intentionality. God’s way (the light) is other-focused for the creation of the we ((here I can build a case for the Me/We Priniciple)) while the “way of the World” (our exercise of destructive freedom) is self-focus, believing that my own survival and getting what I want is primary to the needs of the other.
- The “foolishness” (in the eyes of the World) of God’s way is that it is only when we focus on the needs of others that we actually save ourselves, because it is only in the relationality that we are eternally created.
- Put simply, we need the survival of the whole to insure our own survival. My survival does not rest on the elimination of the Other to protect my own rightness and dominance, but rests, rather, on the survival of the other, and the invitation of the other to be in constructive relationship with me. We do not have to be the same (nor can we, since we are truly other) but we do have to be in fellowship if we are to survive into “the age.” (this is the Greek term translated “forever” at the end of 1 John 2:17)
- 1 John 2:17 – “And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”
Someone recently handed me an issue of Decision magazine (May 2014). The front cover had a picture of a yellow warning sign with a graphic of a church that was teetering on the top of a crumbling foundation. The headline read “The Danger of Compromise.” I paged through this magazine and noticed that it was filled with middle-aged white men declaring that the world was going to Hell–and the church was going down with it–mostly because of the LGBT “agenda” and the denial of the “inerrancy of Scripture.” The magazine calls for the church to stop compromising with the world or else our very foundation will crumble.
I was torn as I read this. The magazine is the self-proclaimed “Evangelical voice of today.” The Evangelical tribe is my native tribe, but I am now an ELCA pastor. My journey allows me a unique perspective on reading this magazine, and I feel compelled to respond. It left me wondering about two words: compromise and foundations.
Compromise is an interesting word. It often has a negative connotation in our society. It usually means that two sides of an argument have made concessions and settled for something less than what they truly desire in order to achieve peace. Compromise is definitely a sin to a society that values winning and personal rights higher than any other virtue. Our culture seems prone to view compromise as a lose/lose scenario.
Decision magazine warns that if the church entertains the idea that some homosexuals might be OK—or even Christian—and that there might be alternative ways to interpret scripture in light of a globalized society, then we are compromising the truth and putting ourselves in danger. The church, on one side, loses its grip on truth and the world, on the other, loses its hope of knowing the truth. Both sides go to Hell, in a handbasket.
I agree that the Bible does caution against loving the world rather than loving God. Jesus prayed that the Father would not take the disciples out of the world, but would protect them from the evil one. Let’s be clear. There is evil in the world. There are attitudes and behaviors that are destructive to the purposes of God’s mission to love the world and save the world.
This begs the question: what is “the world” and from what is the world to be saved? Some would argue that “the world” systems are the oppressive Imperial tendencies of nations that claim religion as their vehicle for coercion and dominance. Others would claim that homosexuality is the sin that will ultimately destroy our nation. The heart of these debates rests with how one views scripture and how God is currently at work in the world. These are not easy conversations. The arguments they incite tend to polarize churches and nations and, almost always, lead to violence.
As I was considering Decision magazine’s headline “No Compromise” I made an interesting observation. Consider the word compromise: com–promise. It is a compound word joining com—meaning together—and promise. To compromise is to promise together. Perhaps compromising is less of a mutual losing, and more the process of mutual humility in which two sides of an argument recognize that they each have limited, finite perspectives, and that they must come together, in the promises of God, to seek a third way of loving co-existence within the tension of conflicting values and worldviews.
Compromise is, according to that definition, communicative rationality. This realization created excitement for me since communicative rationality is at the core of my research. Allow me to bring the word compromise into dialogue with what I’ve learned in my research so far. I believe that God is the God of promise. I also believe that Jesus said, “blessed are the peace-makers.” Jesus prayed that we would be one, just as he, and the Father, and the Spirit are one: The Lover, the Beloved, and Love. They are three distinct persons, with different roles and perspectives, working in relationship to bring about life. This is the dynamic, relational, social Trinity that models communicative peace-making.
Could God be the God of compromise? Could God be in the business of promising together with a selfish, sin-soaked world, to bring about new life in all of its messiness?
What would happen if God said, “No Compromise?”
The issue of Decision magazine also led me to think about the word foundation. A foundation is a static, man-made substance that is rigid and destined to crack at the slightest tremor of the earth. Jesus did say that we should build our house upon the rock, so it is a valid, scriptural metaphor, but I don’t know if he meant it in the way that we think of concrete-poured foundations. Scripture has a more prevalent metaphor that may speak more readily to our calling. Perhaps we are less called to be built on a foundation–in the modern sense–and more called to be deeply rooted in God.
Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. The vine is deeply rooted in God and saturated by the water, wind, and sun of the Holy Spirit. Roots are not static. Every season they grow deeper and wider and never stop growing. When the ground trembles, they adapt and hold on tightly. When the storms of adversity rage, they cling to the depths and allow the vine to bend and sway in the the wind. We are called to be deeply rooted in God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Foundations are static and bound to crumble, but roots are organic and ever-changing. This is why I consider myself a post-foundationalist. The missional imagination is one that is not built on a foundation of the inerrancy of scripture, human reason, or experience. ((see Beyond Foundationalism)) Rather, it is rooted in the dynamic presence of the Triune God at work in the world, to bring about a new creation, in the promise of restoration, new life, and peace on earth, good will toward all nations.
All of these words are metaphors and every metaphor breaks down eventually. We should be careful to not become fixated on any one of them to the exclusion of the others. The church strives to be a house built on the rock, a tree planted by the waters, a flock following the Shepherd, a band of beggars looking for bread, a diversity of parts working in unity in the body. They are all good metaphors.
Is the church compromising and is the foundation crumbling? Yes, it is.
I love my Evangelical brothers and sisters and recognize that they are trying to honor God and the scripture that—as Luther put it—swaddles Christ and the Gospel. I thank them for their voice. And yet, I believe that the scriptures are not a rigid law which is concretized and static. Instead, the scriptures teach us that God is the God of Promise. He promised Noah that he would never flood the earth again. He promised to be faithful to the covenant with Abraham, even though Abraham’s children cheated on Him again and again. God revealed Godself in Jesus and demonstrated that God is always making things new. Jesus showed us that God is constantly challenging rigid legalism by reframing old perspectives, demonstrating self-sacrificing, other-oriented love, and standing with the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast in the face of Imperial power…to the point of laying down his own life. The Spirit of God raised Jesus from the dead, breathed life and power into a ragtag bunch of scared disciples, and led them to cross social and cultural boundaries with the Good News that God loves the whole world. God calls the world to…compromise…to promise together.
This, I believe, is the ongoing work of the infinite, loving, Triune God. True love and unity is not a veil for sinful sell-outs, as some of the Decision authors claim. It is the promise of God. We are all sinners in need of a savior. We all bring our own fears, doubts, selfishness, self-protective, violent tendencies, and limited perspectives into the global conversation everyday. God meets us there and compromises—promises with us. The Spirit guides us and empowers us, and calls us to be transformed by God’s gracious love and to extend and share that gracious love—to compromise—with all people.
Thanks be to God!