Theological Framework for Mission Strategy

Beginning With Relationships

When we are asked to close our eyes and picture God what we often see is an image of God as Father, as Mother, as Spirit, as Christ. We picture something or someone that is singular or one. Much as when we imagine and draw a blade of grass or a deer. We have learned to treasure uniqueness and individuality and in turn have become accustomed to fashioning a God in keeping with our own preferences.

Jesus, as a faithful Jew, would have begun his day with the opening words of the Shema, Here O Israel, God, our God, is one. And so oneness is indeed an integral part of our Jewish and Christian heritages. However, as Christians in the West who are accustomed to beginning with one, we then find ourselves struggling to explain how the One can be Three. We tend to approach the mystery of the Trinity as a logical puzzle, which we try to solve deductively, beginning with the One. More often than not we set the puzzle aside in frustration as irrelevant.

As we listen intently to the voices of science today, however, we hear described a picture of creation in which parts are always integrated dimensions of larger wholes. Atoms rest in molecules, which rest in cells, which rest in organs, which rest in animals, which rest in communities. Science describes a creation in which all creatures are related and interconnected in a web of life – each whole is a part nesting within a larger whole. It is only within our whole relationships that we live, move, and have being. No creature is ever simply singular.

The relational and nesting character of all creation reveals a communitarian approach to God, reflective of the Trinity. A creation of interwoven lives leads us to affirm that relationship, partnership, and mutuality, lie at the heart of being creatures of God. When we follow this communitarian path to God, it transforms our relationship with creation. We discover that to be a people sent, is to be a people whose mission is characterized by listening, learning, and then leading. These gospel virtues flow from a recognition and respect of the trinitarian presence in all that is. The Trinity is not only how God is, it is how we, created in God’s image, rest in and come to God. God is community and so are we. A theology of mutual ministry asks us not to begin with a singular one, but with a oneness birthed through the union of mutual love.

Let us begin then with the Three, when we talk of God, and ask ourselves, how is it that the Three are One? We are not questioning whether God is One, but how God is One. Which raises the question, how are we, God’s creatures created in the image of God, one? What is it that unites us with one another, forming various individuals into a community?

In the 15th century Andrei Rublev painted The Old Testament Trinity, an icon of God which has become quite famous. As you gaze into the icon, you are drawn to an open place about a low table, around which sit three relaxed figures. Upon the table sits a cup easily reached by any of the three. Each figure rests peacefully and at ease in the presence of the other two. With heads inclined gently, yet deliberately, toward one another, there is a distinct air of mutual regard. A desire to drink in the presence of the others permeates the icon. These are figures ready to receive what the other has to give. Around this table each is utterly aware of the presence of the other, and each listens to the other with inclined ear and ready heart. One table, one cup, one mutual desire to listen to the other – born of eternal loving recognition of the holy present in all. Competition is as wholly absent as compassion is utterly present. Domination dissolves into equality. These three are one: one in open heart, one in listening mind, one in mutual love.

Rublev’s icon is a vision for community life (an ecclesiology) as well as an understanding of divine life (a theology). Mutual ministry begins with the inclined ear and open heart ready to receive in love the holy which is the other. Mutual ministry endeavors to embody in community life the same mutual respect eternally present in the life of God. The Trinity is a symbolic way of affirming the hope expressed in John’s gospel that all may be one, as you, Abba, are in me and I in you (17.21) This is in no sense an exclusive oneness. Whenever and wherever we accept the Spirit’s invitation to live into the river of love which sustains all creation, we dwell in one another. There is no love not of God, and so there is no unity born of love not of God.

The open and embracing character of Trinitarian love in the icon is revealed also through the warm space between the two figures in the icon’s foreground. Here there is forever a place at the table for another within the life of God. In a sense, God draws back to make space and then embraces. All of which might be a description of how God relates to creation. Drawing upon the ancient Jewish doctrine of the Shekinah, we can think of the creation of the universe as involving a withdrawal of God to make space for creatures. God makes space for the emergence of a universe and for the evolution of life and then embraces it. Elizabeth Johnson draws comparison here with the pregnant mother: To be so structured that you have room inside yourself for another to dwell is quintessentially a female experience. Every human being has lived and moved and had their being inside a woman, for the better part of the year it took them to be knit together. Denis Edwards says he finds this experience of a mother making space in the womb for another a wonderfully rich and evocative image for the divine generativity by which the universe is brought forth within God.

The Johannine gospel declares that love is the Spirit which weaves our seemingly separate lives into a common fabric of community. Love draws a couple together to unite in partnership and family – united around birth and death, meal and story. These concrete and mundane activities are the very flesh of divine love lived. And love lived is Spirit weaving wholeness and communion. If we attend closely to how it is we not only survive but thrive, such wholeness is never realized in isolation but in community. Even if we are alone, our hearts are ever inhabited by others – they dwell in our memories, our stories, our hopes and sorrows, and we abide also in them. To live is to dwell in others as they dwell in us. How we dwell, well that is the question. God bids us dwell in love. For God is love, and we who abide in love abide in God and God in us.

As human beings, as God’s own, we feel ceaselessly drawn into community. Human history may be studied as more or less successful attempts to live into this call. The call is the voice, the nudging, of the Spirit who flows through and sustains all creation. The call is of God. We might go so far as to say that the call is God. Because to be God is to live in communion and to ceaselessly invite all creation to join in this communion of life. Trinity is not only God’s life, it is our mission. The Spirit invites us to share the redeeming story that we are healed from our brokenness as we learn to live into communities (family, school, workplace, church, etc.) of mutual love which nurture our gifts. The co-creation of such communities is our mission because only this way of existence holds the promise of life.