I’m in a Relationship with God. It’s Complicated.

Part 3 of the Sermon Series “It’s Just Like Facebook, Only, You know… Real
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 15, 2009
Psalm 33:1-9; John 17:20-24

Psalm 33:1-9 Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright. Praise the LORD with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
For the word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

John 17:20-24 I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

I. BEGINNING [A]

We live in a post-modern age.

We live in a time of deconstructed forms, of tearing down the “fourth wall”, of turning things upside down and defying convention.

We live in an age of uncertainty and relativism. An age in which our science is dominated by quantum mechanics, which tell us that nothing is certain; or by relativity, which tells us that nothing is absolute. We live in a time when popular philosophy embraces the idea that all viewpoints are valid and that any one person’s grasp on truth is no more guaranteed than anyone else’s.

And nowhere is the proof of this clearer than on Facebook. For among the options a person has for describing their relationship are: “Single”, “In a Relationship”, “Engaged”, “Married”, “In an Open Relationship”–I have yet to see anyone actually use that one–and the coup de grace: “It’s Complicated.”

“It’s complicated.”

That is, there are relationships out there that defy easy understanding. Perhaps like subatomic particles in quantum theory, the relationship is in multiple places at the same time. Perhaps like objects moving at relativistic speeds, the time and location of the relationship depends entirely on the perspective of the observer.

“It’s complicated.”

I sometimes wonder what that means. Does that mean the person is someone’s mistress? Does it mean that one person thinks they’re in a relationship but the other isn’t sure? Does it mean that they would be in a relationship if both people were in a place to be but they want to be? I suppose it could mean any of dozens of things.

Do you get the sense, that were we in an earlier decade the options would have simply said: “Single” or “Married”? Now, there are all kinds of complications.

II. OUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH GOD [B]

I suppose we might feel that way about our relationships with God. There are some people, no doubt, who feel that their relationships with God are very one-sided: they do all the talking. Or that their relationships with God are strained. Then there are those, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof , for whom a relationship with God is a very casual affair. Tevye would just talk to God as if picking up a conversation from earlier and often end by saying, “Alright, I’ll talk to you later.” Elise talks to God like that, if you’ve ever heard her lead a prayer. Other people have very intimate relationships with God. Some of the women mystics of the middle ages wrote in language about God that was bordering on the erotic.

The reality often is that we all have many different levels of interaction with God throughout our lives.

Our relationships with God are complicated.

III. THE TRINITY [C]

And why shouldn’t they be? After all, God seems to be expert in complex relationships, right? I mean, just listen to Jesus describing the relationship he has with God:

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

God is in Jesus as Jesus is in God. He prays for the disciples to be “in us” so that the world may believe God has sent Jesus. He prays they may be one as Jesus and God are one. God in Jesus, Jesus in the disciples… Is everyone getting this?

The relationship between Jesus and God is one of those things that causes a lot of head-scratching. It usually comes up every year during the Faith Questions–it didn’t this year. Because there are times when Jesus seems really distinct from God–he doesn’t know certain things. He says things like “As to that date or hour, neither the angels know, nor the Son… only the Father.” But then we read elsewhere that Jesus is the incarnation of the Word of God. The Word which was in the beginning with God and the Word which “was God.” Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” and yet talks of having been sent by the Father and given authority by the Father. If that’s not a complicated relationship, I don’t know what is.

Even the theologians don’t make it sound any easier. There is a traditional diagram of the Trinity that looks like a triangle connecting three circles, with a fourth circle in the middle of the triangle. The three outer circles are labeled “Father” “Son” and “Holy Spirit” and are connected to the circle in the middle that says “God”. All of them are connected by lines that are labeled “Is”. Thus, The Father is God. The Son is God, The Spirit is God. But then all the outer circles are connected to each other by lines that say “Is Not”. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Spirit. The Spirit is not the Father… Is everyone getting this?

The Trinity is one of those things that Christians–and everyone else, I suppose–find really confusing. There’s an old story about a Catholic school girl who is asked by the priest in class to explain the Trinity. She replies, “I dunno, Father. It’s a mystery.” To which the priest replies, “That’s right. It’s a holy, holy Mystery.”

And yet, even in mystery, there is simplicity.

Because while these relationships are mysterious and hard to understand, they are not complicated. What the Trinity teaches us above everything else, is that God–in God’s innermost being–is love in relationship. God is relationship. What unites the Persons of the Trinity is love for one another. We may not understand the ways in which the persons of the Trinity are distinct, but we can certainly understand that the persons of the Trinity are united by love. It is the love of the Father, Son, and Spirit that defines the Trinity. What Trinitarianism teaches us is that God’s essential nature is one of relationship defined by love.

IV. OUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH GOD (REPRISE) [B’]

And so our relationships with God are not that complicated. Oh, sure, we may have hang-ups. We may have things going on in our lives that make us feel like we are isolated from God. That make us feel like we are out of touch with God. Or oppressed by God. Our perceptions are affected by our circumstances, our situation. But the relationship with God is always defined by one thing: God’s love for us.

It used to be the case that people believed that the sun, moon, stars, and planets all revolved around the earth. But in trying to explain how the planets revolved around the earth, the ancient astronomers noted that the planets appeared to go backward for a time, before continuing on. This was called retrograde motion. Little loops that the planets would take on their way around the earth. A complex, and somewhat baffling system. When Copernicus demonstrated the heliocentric universe, where the earth was one of the planets going around the sun, then all the little loops disappeared. The planets now traveled in nice perfect ellipses, without any backtracking.

We can feel that our relationships with God are complicated, full of retrograde motion and detours and loops. From God’s perspective, from the perspective of love, they are perfectly simple. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re easy , but they are simple.

We are beloved. God loves each and every one of us. God seeks us out. Calls us. God seeks to be in relationship with us, a relationship defined first and foremost by love.

Strange as it may seem, that is the easiest thing to forget about our relationships with God. When we get down on ourselves, when we are feeling unworthy, or afraid or challenged, we often convince ourselves that God doesn’t want to have anything to do with us. We imagine ourselves estranged from God. And yet, the reality is, God’s love never abandons us. God’s love for us is a constant. It does not depend on the perspective of the observer–though the observer may have difficulty seeing it–it is constant.

V. END [A’]

And that leads us back to our relationships with one another. Because it’s not a function of post-modernism, or technology, or quantum mechanics, or relativity, that we find ourselves in relationships that are “complicated”. We find ourselves in those relationships because we find ourselves in relationships without love. We have too often forgotten the love with which God has loved us. We have neglected the self-sacrificial love that we are to have for one another. A love so simple that we are tempted to overlook it. A love so profound that it levels the mountains, and raises the valleys. It makes the crooked straight. The rough places a plain. The complicated, simple.

When we love one another fully, it does not mean that our relationships will be easy–they will often be hard. They will be full of challenge and sacrifice. Of long nights and difficult days. Our relationships will demand a lot of work. But they won’t be complicated.

What makes them complicated is that we are not truly loving as we ought. We try to hold on when we should let go. We try to possess people we cannot have. We try to control. We seek our own advantage. We do not truly love.

God calls us to simple living and that means so many more things than living simply. It means living in such a way that our lives are guided by a simple principle: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Christ loved us with the love of the Father for the Son. The love of the persons of the Trinity for one another was shared with us in Christ. It is a simple love in the heart of mystery.

And we are called to share that love with one another. In a world of contradiction, of chance and uncertainty, in a world of relativism and complexity, we are called to commit our lives to the simplicity of God’s all consuming love.

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