For God So Loved the World
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Between 1509 and 1511 the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael painted one of his most famous frescoes named The School of Athens. In the centre of this painting are Plato (left) and Aristotle (right). Plato gestures to heaven representing his belief that knowledge came from what he called the Forms. Aristotle gestures to the earth representing his belief that knowledge came through empirical observation and experience. Plato reasoned that there was an eternal being of perfection. Aristotle postulated a first cause or prime mover. Raphael was right to paint them at the centre of the school. The influence of these two thinkers within the discipline of philosophy is still felt today.
This fresco was commissioned by Pope Julius II and is in the reception room for what was his papal apartment. On the wall opposite Raphael had earlier painted a fresco depicting the church at sacrament representing theology. When you stand inside the room the philosophers are depicted as walking down the steps towards the church. The idea being that all truth leads to Jesus Christ.
A lofty idea but I wonder about such confidence. It was in a course called Philosophy for Understanding Theology that the professor asked a probing question that has given me pause to consider philosophy in a different light. The question would go like this with respect to Plato and Aristotle, for example. Does Plato’s idea of an eternal being of perfection or Aristotle’s postulation of a prime mover have anything to do with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? (Many today profess an Aristotelian view of life—everything happens for a reason. To be clear, Christian faith says that in whatever happens God can work his purposes not that everything has a purpose.)
1. Today is Trinity Sunday. The doctrine that there is one God who exists eternally in three persons sounds for many people like stuffy philosophic enquiry. It may seems that we (church) bring the idea out once a year and have a conversation about how difficult it is to define; congregants may be left wondering what all the fuss was about. What we call the doctrine of the Trinity—that God is spoken of as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has to do with the God who discloses himself in Jesus of Nazareth. It is the grammar for how the New Testament speaks of God; it is what the Apostles taught about God following the forty days of instruction by Jesus after his resurrection; it is the language of the Apostle Paul after his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. God’s nature and person has, as we shall see, everything to do with love.
It is true that the word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible nor is the doctrine articulated in its pages as such. Yet what we might call the “raw materials” of the doctrine are clearly there and the thrust of scripture is pointedly in that direction. Consider the story we read of Nicodemus meeting with Jesus. Nicodemus, according to John’s gospel, is talking with the Son (Jesus) about the necessity of being born of the Spirit (Holy Spirit) in order to see the kingdom of God (the One Jesus called the Father). Take our brief reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans as another example. (Romans 8:12-17) Paul assures the believer that she has the Spirit of God and is therefore a child of the Father, and if children heirs of God (Father) and joint heirs with Christ (Son). We hear this in seed form in the creation story where God says “let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness”. (Genesis 1:26) This is what I mean when I say the trinity is the grammar for God.
Why is this important? The Apostolic witness is that when we see Jesus we see God. If we think of Jesus Christ as the manifest ‘face’ of God, then the doctrine of the Trinity attests the face of Jesus and the heart of the Father to be identical. The face the Father displays in the Son is not and never can be a false face. Face and heart are one. God as he is towards us (the Son) is identical with God as he is in himself (the Father). We are all too proficient at wearing false faces. What we show outwardly towards someone is not necessarily what we are feeling inwardly. The doctrine of the Trinity articulates that God wears no false face; it witnesses to God’s unity. What is done for us in Jesus Christ and what is effected in us through the Holy Spirit is an act of the one God.
This is the reason we can know that God so loved the world. The self-giving of the Son on the cross for our sakes is the self-giving of the Father. As Jesus bears God-forsakenness so we never need come to such a place, it is at the same time the Father’s broken heart giving up the Son so we might be welcomed home and never be given up on. “In this is love,” wrote the Apostle John in his first letter, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 2:10)
It is at the cross that we know what love is—the love of God, that is. God so loved the world he gave his only Son. Here we learn that love—the love that gave rise to the creation of the universe—is a self-forgetful self-giving. When we see Jesus we see love and because God is one we know this love to be the love of the Father—the same love that is shed abroad into the believer’s heart by the Holy Spirit.
Not everything that our world professes to be love is a self-forgetful self-giving. Let me probe this with you from another angle of vision. Take Plato’s idea of an eternal being of perfection or Aristotle’s prime mover or first cause; do either of these deductions about the nature of ultimate things lead you to the conclusion there is a personal God who loves the world? We know God to be love because we know Jesus Christ and of God’s manifest mercy demonstrated in the ongoing conversation with Israel.
When the 175th anniversary committee met to consider celebration of 175 years of the ministry of the congregation a tag line was chosen; “rooted in the gospel; serving in love.” Now many people are immediately inspired by “serving in love.” It sounds universal—who could object to such aspiration. But “rooted in the gospel” sounds a little restrictive. Friends, the opposite is true. The content for the love we profess to offer to the world is Jesus Christ. Not any idea of love will do. This is why we say “rooted in the gospel.” It is in God giving the Son that we learn what true love is; the sort of love we are to show to the world. It is at the cross that we learn that while were still sinners—while we were still in our obstinate rebellion and turning away from God, Christ died for us. It is in the good news of the gospel that we learn of the Spirit’s work in our lives to convict us of our sin in order to turn us to Christ and then to one another.
God so loved the world—the content of that love is Jesus Christ—that he gave his only Son. Jesus promised that the Spirit of God’s work in the world would be to shine light on him. (John 16:14) It is the same Spirit who helps us “believe in him that we may not perish but have everlasting life.”
2. I would invite you to shift your focus for a moment from thinking about Jesus as the content of love to thinking about the experience of his love in our lives. I said a moment ago that creation was a love story. According to the gospel, before Israel was created, before we had even heard the name Jesus of Nazareth, The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit loved one another. Before our conception of time or before our ability to understand how the eons moved, their love existed. Their love was so strong and their love for each other was so powerful that it issued in a creative act, the creation of the world. And as a manifestation of their love they said “let us create this world and more especially let us create human beings in our image in order that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit may share their love with the creature and the creature may bask in their love.
What happened was we turned away from this fellowship to go our own way—the root of this rebellion the Bible calls sin. The good news of Jesus Christ is that he bore the just condemnation of this sin that we might be welcomed home to this fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A fellowship we were created to enjoy. Listen as the Apostle Paul described the experience of this fellowship. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8:15-17)
Abba was the Aramaic word used by a Palestinian youth to speak of his or her father respectfully, obediently, confidently, securely, and of course intimately. It wasn’t so “palsy walsy” as to be disrespectful. Neither was it so gushing as to be sentimental. It was intimate without being impertinent, confident without being smug. Abba was trusting one’s father without trading on the father’s trustworthiness, familiar without being forward, secure without being saccharine.
We must be sure to understand that when early-day Christians came to use the word abba in their prayers they weren’t repeating the word just because they knew Jesus had used it and they thought it cute to imitate him. On the contrary, they were impelled to use the word for one reason: as companions of Jesus they had been admitted to such an intimacy with the Father that the word Jesus had used uniquely of his Father they were now constrained to use too, so closely did their intimacy resemble his.
When Paul writes in Romans 8:15 that Christians can’t help uttering the cry, “Abba, Father”, any more than a person in pain can help groaning or a person bereaved can help weeping or a person tickled by a good joke can help laughing; when Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that this is normal Christian experience, “normal” means being introduced by the Son to the Father in such a way and at such a depth that the Son’s intimacy with the Father induces the believer’s intimacy. Abba.
You might respond that no such cry Abba has ever sprung from you lips and you wonder is there something wrong with me? Allow me to repeat a reflection on praying. When you pray is it like talking with someone you call for the first time so are hesitant? You don’t know the person you are speaking too so conversation is to the point, about the task at hand. Or when you pray is it more like the familiarity of family conversation? Is there any sense you have that you don’t know the person you are speaking with? When I ask such question and reflect on my experience of prayer I can see that there is an intimacy—certainly not one that I orchestrated being no paragon of prayer, neither is it because of having had the privilege of years of theological study. I knew it is a child and I know it now. This is the work of the Spirit of God; it is Jesus acquainting me with the Father. I arrive and everything is in place for conversation. I don’t invent it or create it.
The witness of God’s Spirit resembles happiness in one respect: if we pursue it, it forever escapes us. Happiness, everyone knows, overtakes people when they aren’t looking for it but are getting on with what they have to do. In the same way God’s Spirit assures us of our standing with him as we are preoccupied with what God has given us to do. “When you pray”… said our Lord. In the activity of praying. “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. As we engage with God—prayer, praise, study, worship—and serve the world God so loves in his love—preoccupied with what God has given us to do the Spirit witnesses to our spirit that we are children of God. So that you may rest secure in his love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.