Although there is good practical sense in Christian living, every now and again we come to something more obscure. Here in today’s passage we encounter something which may at first seem removed from practical reality. Jesus is telling his disciples that when he is gone he will send this thing – this mysterious spirit which in Greek is called Parakletos, which approximately translates as the legal expression for advocate. Perhaps we should remember that the disciples, most of who would be likely to be dragged before the courts to explain their apparently rebellious faith, they would when this happened, feel in need of all the help they could get. But this is not an educated lawyer John reports Jesus as talking about as advocate. He is talking about a Spirit – in all likelihood – the Holy Spirit.
Although this is an other-worldly illustration, as it happens, for all his poetic phrases in reporting the gospel John was not into magic or miracles except as signs. His message was essentially simple. Jesus had brought love into the world. Many had not recognised the love which is why he had to die. It was now up to those of us left as his followers to take up his mission same message relying on his spirit to carry it through.
Today is Trinity Sunday when a good part of the Christian Church celebrates the three in one nature of God, yet for any thinking Christian, I suspect the Trinity is cause for some unease. It is not so much that we would want to question that there is some mysterious organizing principle behind our dimly understood and vast Universe, nor that Jesus is still a very significant figure, it is just that our attempts to put what we know into words seem so trite and inadequate.
If astronomers and astrophysicists are currently struggling to come to grips with the rapidly developing picture of the distant reaches of space, is it any wonder that even the best informed modern scientists find it hard to know what is meant by creation, let alone describe the creator in terms of an earthly father. And when it comes to the second person of the Trinity, even with the gospels providing biographical details about Jesus, and even with those like Paul helping sort out Jesus’ significance for his followers, we are left with shadowy glimpses that have to be reinterpreted for each generation in a changing world.
People have always had trouble with the word “God”. Traditionally the Jews haven’t even wanted to commit themselves so much as to write the complete word for God on papyrus or more recently on paper. In the Hebrew Bible “I Am that I Am“, and the “Tetragrammaton” YHVH are often used instead as names of God, while Yahweh, and Jehovah are sometimes used in Christianity as vocalizations of YHVH. I understand the current modern practice for a number of English speaking orthodox Jews is to write the word as G-d to remind themselves that at the heart of that which we call God there is mystery, and ultimately this mystery defies definition. If you are not quite sure what you are trying to say, words alone won’t do it.
As a compromise, as sincere followers have struggled to express where they are at in their thinking, a series of changing metaphors have been used through the centuries to highlight different aspects of intention and basic belief. In this sense metaphors should not be expected to provide physical definitions. In fact the metaphors we choose to own turn out to be more important than definitions because they can transform our thinking and imagery which in turn can influence the way we live and interact with others.
We trivialise our faith if we confuse metaphor with literal understanding. Rabbi Benjamin Sylva once put it this way: “A literalist interpretation of Scripture tells us that God is a rock that sent a bird to cause a virgin to give birth to a loaf of bread. And this is supposed to be an improvement on obtaining a chiselled code of conduct from a flaming shrubbery in a cloud [?] If a literal understanding is all that is required for faith, then I’m a yellow ducky.”
And if we recall some of the metaphors in the scriptures we can see why it would be inappropriate to analyse their literal meaning too far.
For God some of the chosen metaphors in the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, include: a shepherd (the 23rd Psalm), a potter (Isa. 64:8), then in Psalm 18 a rock and fortress . There are the female metaphors. Genesis Ch 3 and Psalm 139 refer to God as a seamstress who “stitches, mends” (Gen. 3:21) and knits (Ps. 139:13,15), In Deuteronomy Ch 32 (and Exodus Ch 19 ) God is presented as an eagle who teaches her young to fly and carries them on her wings, or is God rather the metaphor of mother (Isaiah 42:14; 66:13), ) a mistress (Psalm 123:2), or a mid-wife (Psalm 22:9-10). Some of the metaphors reappear in the New Testament almost as a way of saying it is the same God acting. The wind and the fire of Pentecost are two standard illustrations to indicate the presence of God or the Spirit in the older scriptures too. Today’s metaphor is the Spirit as Advocate.
Certainly it may make no sense to see Jesus as literally identical with the creation force behind the universe, but there is clear overlap for the Old Testament metaphors of God with the sorts of metaphors chosen by Jesus and others to describe himself in the New Testament. Jesus is the good shepherd, the Lord, the King, the foundation, the mother hen, the True vine, the living bread, the light, the door, the gate, the living water, the morning star and so on.
These metaphors are helpful, not so much because they tell us about the reality of a created universe but because they give us a focus for living our faith. And why not? As William Willimon once pointed out, the aim is not so much to find a perfect description of God, but rather should focus on how we are prepared to let our notions of God affect the way we are prepared to become. Willimon’s evocative phrase was: “Our salvation is not that we know, but that we are prepared to be known”.
Although the Trinity metaphor was a long time in formulation, it is important to remember that it took its present form way back in the fourth century AD. Since then the world has changed. For example, even if thinking of God as the Father once resonated with a patriarchal society, in many nations the shape of modern families is radically changed and women now have very different roles to play. Similarly the role of a mysterious Spirit somehow controlling life is reshaped by discoveries in science and medicine. Since religion includes social and cultural purposes and since social and cultural settings have radically changed, old trusted metaphors may need revision. Because the problems have shifted history tells us we can’t pretend that the old metaphors still inspire us to the appropriate action. Perhaps we need to update the Trinity with metaphors drawing attention to such current priorities as the care of nature – what about God the Gardener or God the Ecologist?….or to meet the urgent needs for conflict resolution …..Jesus the Peacemaker?… to looking at the numerous irreconcilable faith options ….perhaps: the Spirit of Unity and Compassion?
As long as we believe religion offers a present help for our current dangers and opportunities, there is a sense in which we have to step back and consider what it that we are trying to achieve.
In the past, an unwise emphasis on inappropriate metaphors has provided an excuse for actions with tragic consequences. For example those who have believed God is the avenging figure, or for that matter, a God who only has interests in a chosen people, have sometimes used these images to treat foreign neighbours in appalling ways. If we are merely using our faith to prop up the way we currently prefer to live and act, we may in effect select out images or metaphors that create God in our own image. There is also the temptation to stick exclusively with the early images of faith from Sunday school days, and miss noticing our world is no longer the world of the shepherd boy or subservient women. I suspect if we are truly objective we would acknowledge past beliefs and actions have not always proved to be the best to deal with all the recent and current realities.
I would stress that for me the answer would never be to ignore the old metaphors. My only reservation with the Trinity is in what history says we have done as a people. The creeds we recite have claimed this image from the fourth century but for many all too often it has been an image to be acknowledged in passing rather than known through lives in which the gospel is lived.
If I am to know that the God I follow is known through the Father image and I do not accept the Father image as pointing me to behaviour that would help those who depend on me, what possible use would that be to me – or to those who come in contact with me? If I know the God I follow is represented in human terms by the teachings and actions of Jesus yet others find no traces of such attitudes and actions in the way I live, for me and those I meet it is an irrelevant metaphor. If I claim the Spirit of God is alive in his followers, and yet this Spirit is demonstrably absent in those like me who claim to follow, then surely I need to question if I am any further ahead than anyone pretending a faith they do not follow.
Bishop Willimon’s phrase should give us pause for thought. May I repeat it? “Our salvation is not that we know, but that we are prepared to be known”.
When John refers to Jesus talking about the spirit, the advocate, it is sometimes forgotten that he was not talking about a Spirit to be experienced primarily in worship. He was talking about his followers discovering this advocate as a resource when facing genuine trials and genuine risks.
Here’s a thought. If we don’t take risks for our faith, why would we need the Spirit, the advocate?
While it is true that places like Church are where we have the luxury of coming aside from the problems of the everyday world to think about what is said in the scriptures, the real test is how our faith measures up in the real life dilemmas that come our way as a result of attempting to live out our mission. Surely no matter how comfortable we are with the familiar image of the Trinity, and the familiar words of Jesus, we still need to face the challenge of what will happen when we speak and act on the essence of his teaching. In Bishop Willimon’s terminology, when the occasion arises we need to be prepared to be known. Talking about the Trinity can have no meaning for others unless we are letting others see the extent to which Trinity is allowed to live within our own lives.