Why does it matter that God – glorious, mysterious and merciful – is three persons in one God rather than a singular deity? Well, I would say that in some ways it doesn’t matter, and yet that it is incredibly important. It doesn’t matter because whatever we can say about God is so approximate and limited and God will be God whatever we say or do. And it is important because what we think about the nature of God impacts on how we relate to God, to ourselves and to all other beings and our world.
I usually begin any attempt to talk about the Trinity by claiming the Lateran Council’s concept that the nature of God is incomprehensible and that the best we can do is mere approximation and metaphor. I usually work hard to situate myself somewhere in the middle of the theological continuum, trying to respect tradition and to incorporate some of the more inclusive metaphors, so to speak to most people and offend as few as possible. For such a carefully considered sermon please follow the link below.
But given the state of the world and the world wide church I am not sure that this is the year for such carefulness. More courage and passion are called for, with all the attached hope and risk. I want to share with you my gratitude and continuing indebtedness to Sallie McFague’s model of God as Mother, Lover and Friend (Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1987) While I cannot do her seminal work justice here I do wish to acknowledge and give thanks for her work’s impact on my thinking and liberating impact she had on a whole generation of us – as serious theologians, humble preachers and even more humble companions on the way.
To think of God as mother is to consider that the whole universe, including our world and our selves, has been and is continually being conceived, carried, birthed into life and then nurtured into fullness. I am not interested in merely swapping the gender of God from father to mother for some politically correct rebalancing of the scales but to reclaim some of the depth and breadth of God’s nature. Images of God as a mother and one with mother like qualities are scattered through Scripture. The psalmist describe God as being like a midwife who delivers a child, the prophet Isaiah refers to God as a mother, Jesus claims his love is like that of a mother hen, Paul refers to the words of Scripture as being like milk for those young in faith, and to our part with God and creation as groaning in labour with God. And saints such as Hildegard von Bingen and Julian of Norwich also experienced God as mother.
When we look to God as a mother we see the nature of God to be forever creating and caring for what has been created or birthed. God having desired and carried us into being does not intend to abandon us or our world. God as mother nurtures us and wants us to grow into the fullness of wisdom and maturity and for us to seek of our own accord to work in harness towards the fulfilment of creation. And if God is our mother then we are all – each and every human, every creature, and every particle of this universe – beloved children. No-one or no-thing is left out! We are all beloved children. And therefore we are all interconnected in that belonging.
To think of God as Lover is to open ourselves to the passion of God for all of creation including us and every other beloved one. As Christians the one thing we seem to agree on is that God is love and yet to suggest that God is a lover makes most feel a little or a lot uncomfortable. It is partly because we think of eros too narrowly, as only about physical sexual love rather than more broadly about love that is passionate, juicy, self abandoning, and seeking union with the beloved. And yet there is a thread through Scripture that refers to God as the source of all love; a husband to Israel (even when she/we are behaving like an unfaithful partner); as lover and beloved of the soul in Song of Songs; and of course we know that God calls Jesus the son, the archetypal human and fully divine one, Beloved; that in several of the parables that Jesus spoke of the bridegroom as representative of God; and Paul speaks of the church as the Bride of Christ. And any who have seen the sculpture of the Ecstasy of St Teresa cannot mistake that she experienced God as lover. We are not being nearly so heretical as some might suggest when we think of God as lover.
When we acknowledge God as lover we realise that God does not merely love us dutifully as a product of creation but that we are passionately loved and sought after, that nothing less than union with the divine beloved is offered or desired. God desired us into being collectively and individually. And God desires us still and always until we are welcomed into the embrace of eternity and ultimate union. Passion we know is not narrowly sexual in its meaning but is also about suffering. We talk about the last days of Jesus’ love and suffering as one of us and for us as his Passion. To think of God as lover is to understand the lengths that God will go to save us, to win us back, to reach into the murky and failed ordinariness of our lives. To think of God as lover means that we can look at the life and death and resurrection of Jesus as an expression of passionate saving love rather than legalistic payment of debt. And passionate love that takes into the divine self the suffering of the beloved ones is ultimately about healing and restoration to fullness of joy and intended being.
To think of God as friend is to dare to consider that God’s love for us is freely chosen, a desire to bind to us in simple, mutual delight and to share a common vision of abundant life that is for our benefit. At first we may think of friendship, philos, as somehow secondary to eros, and yet Jesus offered friendship to his most faithful disciples as a parting gift. According to the gospel of John, Jesus described his ongoing loving relationship with the disciples as friendship on that last night, and then again as the risen Christ quizzed Peter on the beach “Do you love (philos) me?” (John 15:12-15; and 21:15-19) And Jesus practiced friendship with the least and the lost, even tax collectors, over shared meals in ways that disturbed the religiously correct. (Matthew 11:19) Many of the saints and mystics experienced God as friend including Julian of Norwich, Hildegard von Bingen, and Ignatius of Loyola. And Quakers are known as the Society of Friends.
When we consider God as friend of the world we see in another way the love and desire that God has for all that has been made. God desires freely given company and shared vision; God delights in sharing time and activities; God is available as companion of our days, as one who desires to break bread with us. And God desires our friendship, our freely chosen intentional sharing of life’s journey and deeply mutually held dream for the world’s flourishing and care.
I do not suggest that we need think of the Triune God exclusively as Mother, Lover and Friend but rather that we open ourselves to a deeper and broader appreciation of the glorious, mysterious and merciful love of God. Not only or even primarily to be more correct but because the wider the theological net we cast the more of God’s nature we can glimpse, the deeper and more intimate our individual journey can be, and the more loving and respectful our relationship with all others and else in the creation might be.
In a time of exclusion and demonization of those who are different or other, in a time of climate devastation, and the threat of unrestrained war and destruction, we must consider how the smallness of our visions of God makes our hopes and responsibilities, our passions and our commitments, too small. If God is our mother then we must honour, adore, and protect her creation and recognise all as our siblings in God. If God is our lover then we can lean into the embrace of all that happens knowing we are already home and that we share that embrace with all others. If God is our friend, and we are friends of God, then we receive and give in perfect freedom, joy and delight, joining our energies with all other friends in the dream of God for our interconnected precious world.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, and help us hear your invitation into your love without end or limit.