God is a Relationship

Dorothy Day. Image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

I hear a lot of folks talking lately about how the world isn’t what it used to be.  They’re worried about the decline of human society, the decay of public morals and values, and the emptying of mainline Protestant churches.  For many of these folks, these three series of events are related.  They say, “People just aren’t coming to church anymore, so society is going to pieces.”

A lot of people wonder why this is the case.  There are a lot of theories.  Some say it’s because of the cultural changes that happened during the 60s.  Some say that our country’s tolerance of religious diversity has left people in a state of moral and spiritual confusion.  Others say that our society’s addiction to busy-ness and constant entertainment has distracted people to the point where they just don’t even have time to think about church anymore.

Personally, I think some of these theories have valid points.  And I think the whole truth about the matter is probably bigger and more complex than any single theory can fully explain.  But there’s one theory that stands out to me more than the rest, if only because it’s the one I hear most often from people who don’t come to church.  And here it is (the number one reason most people give for not coming to church): “It’s hypocrisy of Christians who claim to believe that God is love but do not extend that love to other people.”

Isn’t that interesting?  When you actually go and ask people why they don’t come to church, they tell you: it’s not because of diversity, and it’s not because they’re too busy, and it’s not because of the 60s.  It’s because of Christians.  The author Brennan Manning once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

As Christians, it seems that we don’t take our theology seriously enough.  We think we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving our neighbors as ourselves, but Jesus calls FOUL on that play.  He says you can’t have one without the other.  If you try to separate them, you end up with something other than the God revealed in Jesus.

Central to our Christian faith is the belief that God is love.  Did you get that?  God is love.  Most people breeze right by it without thinking and end up with the wrong idea about who God is and how God works in the world.  What they tend to hear is “God is loving” (i.e. “God is basically a nice person”).  In other words, they think that the Old Man in the Sky (who made the world and controls everything that happens) is a nice guy.  But that’s not what the text says.  The text is taken from 1 John 4:16 and it says, “God is love.”

There’s a big difference between being loving and being love.  God is love itself.  God can be found in the dynamic interchange of energy between people who care about each other: family, friends, lovers, even enemies.  Wherever there is love, there is God.  In fact the full text of 1 John 4:16 reads, “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  The Creator of the universe is not separate from it.  God is not “out there,” floating on a cloud or in some alternate dimension.  No, God is right here.  As the apostle Paul says in Acts 17, “In [God] we live, and move, and have our being.”  God is within us and all around us, wherever love is found.  God is love.  God is a relationship.

Our ancestors in the early Christian church came up with an interesting way of expressing this truth.  They left us with a kind of puzzle that could never be solved.  And they called it the Trinity.  According to the doctrine of the Trinity, we Christians believe in only one God who eternally exists as three persons: traditionally called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is both three and one, one and three.  Each person in the God-head is co-equal and co-eternal with the others.  There is no hierarchy or pecking order among them.

The doctrine of the Trinity has always been controversial.  In ancient times, Jews and Muslims accused Christians of being polytheists.  In more recent years, people have identified the sexism inherent in using exclusively male terms to describe the Father and the Son.  In any age, the Trinity comes across as confusing.  Many have tried to solve the puzzle, but all have failed.  So, this morning, I won’t even try to offer an answer to its question.  We’re going to let the mystery stand and focus instead on the implications of that mystery for our lives as Christians.

And just what are those implications?  Well, according to the mystery of the Trinity, our one God exists in a state of relationship between three persons.  In other words, God is a relationship.  God exists, not as an individual entity, but as the dynamic exchange of perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Because of this, it suddenly makes sense to say that “God is love.”  God is love because God is a relationship.  Wherever love and compassion are established on earth, God is present.  “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  That is the practical application of the theological doctrine of the Trinity.  That is where we begin to live what we believe and show ourselves to be either followers of Jesus or just another group of hypocrites.

The only way to faithfully testify to the presence of the Triune God in the world is through acts of love, not supposedly infallible announcements of dogma.  If God is a relationship, then we usher and invite people into greater spiritual awareness by being in relationship with them, regardless of whether or not they ever darken the door of our church.  Moreover, if God is a relationship, then we come close to God, not through dogma and rituals, but by intentionally engaging in relationships with the people and planet around us.

Jesus spoke about this very clearly in Matthew 25 when he said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”    Offering food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless, friendship to the lonely, and justice to the oppressed are not simply good deeds that improve the reputation of the church in the community, they are our best way to participate in relationship with the Triune God.  God is a relationship, so relationships are the places where God is most fully known and experienced.

There is no one I can think of in the last one hundred years who lived this Trinitarian theology more fully than Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist who opened homeless shelters and soup kitchens for the unemployed workers of New York City during the Great Depression.  So remarkable was this woman, she was not content to simply found and fund a charitable agency for the poor, she moved into the shelter and ate the donated food with her clients, who she simply regarded as friends.  In them, Dorothy Day was seeking and serving the Triune God.

She wrote in 1937:

Every morning about four hundred men come to Mott Street to be fed. The radio is cheerful, the smell of coffee is a good smell, the air of the morning is fresh and not too cold, but my heart bleeds as I pass the lines of men in front of the store which is our headquarters. The place is packed–not another man can get in–so they have to form in line. Always we have hated lines and now the breakfast which we serve, of cottage cheese and rye bread and coffee has brought about a line…

The [Pope] says that the masses are lost to the Church. We must reach them, we must speak to them and bring them to the love of God. The disciples didn’t know our Lord on that weary walk to Emmaus until He sat down and ate with them. ‘They knew Him in the breaking of bread.’ And how many loaves of bread are we breaking with our hungry fellows these days–‘ 3,500 or so this last month. Help us to do this work, help us to know each other in the breaking of bread! In knowing each other, in knowing the least of His children, we are knowing Him.

This morning, I want to urge you toward similar action in your own life.  I invite you to participate in the life of the Trinity, to get caught up in the infinite whirlwind of perfect love that flows between the persons.  In that Great Love, incarnated in the myriad little loves that surround us every day, may you find God: not the monolithic “Old Man in the Sky” but the dynamic energy of love that pulses through all creation.  And, through you, may others come to believe in the God who is love.  May they find that God here in our church as they enter into relationship with a community of Christians who really do live as if they believed that “God is love, and all who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  May it be so.