(Read John 3:1-17 and Romans 8:12-17)
None of us exists in isolation. We live in community. We all affect each others lives. You are who you are because of who you relate to and how you relate to them. I am who I am because of who I relate to and how I relate to them.
Relationships have the potential to heal and bring joy to our lives. They also have the potential to harm and bring suffering to our lives.
I am always saddened when I hear stories and statistics of domestic abuse and child abuse. The family is supposed to be the safest place in a society, the place where one is loved and nurtured, but according to the Department of Justice, over 2 million men and women are assaulted by their intimate partner every year. Twenty percent of nonfatal, violent crime perpetrated against women happens in the home (http://www.abanet.org/domviol/statistics.html), and at least half of those women have children under the age of 12 in their home. “A recent study of low-income pre-school children in Michigan found that nearly half (46.7 percent) of the children in the study had been exposed to at least one incident of mild or severe violence in the family. Children who had been exposed to violence suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as bed-wetting or nightmares, and were at greater risk than their peers of having allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, headaches and flu” (Sandra Graham-Bermann & Julie Seng, Violence Exposure and Traumatic Stress Symptoms as Additional Predictors of Health Problems in High-Risk Children, 146 J. of Pediatrics 309 (2005) http://www.abanet.org/domviol/statistics.html#children).
When it comes to relationships, abuse is at the furthest end of the spectrum. The way God does not want it to be. It’s what we want to eradicate. As we move along the continuum, we hope that relationships become more healthy and loving to the point that it is in our relationships with each other that we find our fullest and highest expression of ourselves. It is when “we” are together that you not only feel safe as a person, but that you are built up as a person. It is in our life together that you find the courage and commitment to live into your calling as a child of God.
Human beings are created in the imago dei, which is latin for “the image of God.” This means that we are to reflect who God is in our lives. Christians often discuss this in terms of being like Jesus, but today, I would like us to think about how being created in the image of the triune God impacts our life. While the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible, it is one of the unique Christian claims about who God is in God’s own being. The word “Trinity” may not appear in the Bible, but the concept of God existing as a Creator, a Father, a Messiah, a Son, a Spirit, the Breath of Life does occur over and over again throughout the Old and New Testaments. It is Christianity’s unique claim that we believe in one God existing in three persons, often referred to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit or, in more inclusive language, the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. The readings today from John 3 and Romans 8 are two passages that mention all three persons of the Trinity within just a few verses.
What Scripture and Christian theology tell us about God is that God is relational within God’s own being. The Creator of heaven and earth, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have a shared, communal life together in which they all play a distinct role. The Trinity exemplifies two ways that we can reflect the imago dei, and the point of this is to move our relationships away from the end of the spectrum that is harmful to the other end, in which our relationships are edifying. First, we are called to exist in relationships of mutual, self-giving love, and second, at the same time, each of us is called to become a distinct, unique person, to live into God’s vision of who you, and you alone, are created to be.
Let me explain this a little more fully:
The persons of the Trinity have a relationship that is one of mutual self-giving on our behalf. The Father/Creator poured out his love to create the universe and all that dwells within it. The Son/Jesus gave his life to save humanity of our sin and put us in right relationship with God. And the Holy Spirit/Spirit of Life gives us its power, guidance and comfort so that we might be transformed and become the children of God we are created to be. In this way, the individual persons of the Trinity work together, giving freely of themselves for the creation and redemption of the world.
Even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are bound together in relationship, inter-connected and inter-dependent on each other, giving and taking from each other, each person of the Trinity remains distinct. No matter what they give or how closely they work together, they never morph one into the other. No matter how much love the Father pours out, he remains the Father. Even though Jesus sacrificed his life, he remains Jesus of Nazareth. And no matter how much power the Spirit sends out, it remains the Holy Spirit.
Now, how can we best reflect these two aspects of the Triune God?
1. We are to exist in relationships of mutual self-giving, and in order for these relationships to be healthy, the mutual self-giving needs to be balanced.
Relationships in which I try for you, and you try equally for me. I offer to you, and you offer equally to me.
This means that when you are in a relationship, if you give and give, but receive much less than you give, then that relationship is out of balance and does not adequately reflect who God is calling us to be in our shared life together. The same is true if you are receiving and receiving, but not giving back in mutual support.
Think of the most important relationships in your life or the relationships that are affecting you most. Are they balanced? And if not, try to figure out what the problem is. Does one person have too much power? Is one person overly needy? Etc. We have to be careful with each other in all of our give and take so that we don’t get out of balance. And if and when we do find ourselves in a particular relationship that is out of balance, it is necessary for us to work towards restructuring that relationship if we ever want it to be a holy, life-enhancing relationship.
2. The second way we reflect the Triune God is to remain a distinct self, a strong presence while in relationship and while giving.
Jesus didn’t lose who he was because he gave himself over to the Father’s will. In fact, Jesus became Jesus because of his sacrifice. The Spirit did not compromise itself as it came down at Pentecost to remind us of Jesus and teach us the truth. In fact, the Spirit showed us exactly who it is and what it does when it came down at Pentecost. The Father did not cease to be the almighty, unnameable God when he gave his essence of love to create the world. In fact, God proved to us exactly who God is at creation.
This means that as “I” exist in relation to “you,” as I love you, as I serve you, as I serve with you, as we walk together on this journey, I will mature and develop as a person, as a spiritual being, as a unique child of God, and so will you. Our relationships shouldn’t make us less like God’s design, but help us to live more fully into who God is creating you to be.
This reminds me of Paul Simon’s song, Slip Slidin’ Away, which says:
I know a man/He came from my hometown/He wore his passion for his woman like a thorny crown/He said, “Dolores, I live in fear/My love for you is so overpowering that I’m afraid I will disappear.”
I know a woman/Became a wife/These are the very words she uses to describe her life.
She said, “A good day aint got no rain.”/She said, “A bad days when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been.”
In each of these instances, the man and the woman are expressing that they have somehow lost themselves or fear losing themselves because of the relationship they are in.
Even though a man and woman become one flesh in marriage, they are each to retain a strong sense of self. The one flesh that they become is a new person comprised of the two individual selves. Couples fall into dangerous territory when one or both lose/compromise their own identity in their coupledom. Examples: maybe we give up our hobbies or even our dreams, maybe we let our values slip or let our priorities get rearranged.
We can diminish or compromise ourselves in many other types of relationships as well.
Another type of relationship where people tend to get lost is that of employer/employee. I have a friend who, if her boss is stressed, she is stressed. If her boss has a good day, she has a good day. I know it’s natural to be affected by others, but this friend started making decisions she wouldn’t normally make, and even stopped taking care of her own needs at one point to please or appease her boss. This is not a healthy relationship. It showed a lack of boundaries. A lack of a strong sense of self. We don’t need to blend into each other just because we work together. A distinct person remains distinct even as we relate and give to each other.
Another relationship in which one or the other or both can lose their identity in their life together is that of parent and child. We all know the dangers of parents who try to live through their children. And a child who never asserts him or herself beyond the parents is one who never fully develops. I read a promising story a few months ago in People Magazine of all things. The actress Melissa Joan Hart (best known for her role as Sabrina the Witch) was on the cover looking great in a bikini, and the headline was, “How I lost 45 pounds.” I just scanned the article at the newsstand, but essentially, Melissa said that after she had her children, she gained a lot of weight. In her story, she said, just because I am a mother to my children doesn’t mean I have to be unhealthy and overweight. She doesn’t have to give up the lean, active woman she has always been just because she had children.
In John 3, Jesus says that in order to walk in the kingdom of God, in order to really live this life to the fullest as God intends, we must be born from above or we must be born anew. We are physical beings so we had a physical birth, but we are also spiritual beings, and so we must have a spiritual birth. Different religious traditions have different rituals or rights of passage signifying spiritual birth. For the Christian, we are born of water and Spirit. To be born of water is to be baptized, to be claimed as a child of God and invited into the family of God, and to be born of Spirit is receive the Spirit of God and let it live through you, guiding you, inspiring you, transforming you and the world you live in.
This morning, I invite you to remember your baptism and receive the Holy Spirit once again. Let us all be spiritually reborn together. Rebirth has the potential to invigorate our lives, our relationships, our communities, our world. As we join together in the liturgy and in Communion, remember that we are created in the image of the Triune God, which means that we are created with and for each other. May all of our relationships be a blessing. May they bring us a sense of belonging and comfort. May they build us up in love and inspire us to live out our divine destiny as children of God.