Relationships, Family, Community and Society
Trinity Sunday, May 26, 2002
Bishop Andrew St John
In the Name of God who is Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
The familiar formula of words which we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday is more than simply a theological formula but rather a shorthand way of describing God and one which models the way we view the world. Let me explain.
There are certain words that are often used in public or political discussion or debate which carry a good deal of baggage with them. I am thinking of words like relationships, marriage, family, community or society. When they are used in discussion or debate it is often hard to criticize the person who has used them for fear of being misunderstood. In church synods we often talk about "motherhood motions", to use a politically incorrect phrase. They are motions usually about marriage or family or the like but with a sting in their tail. You have to tread very carefully when dealing with them in seeming to take a negative stand. For such concepts as marriage or family, community, society and indeed relationships each have their negative as well as their positive aspects. If we take relationships for example we think of marriage, of parenthood, of friendship, and of relationships between siblings. All of these have the potential to be rich and rewarding relationships, life-giving and enduring. But we also know that some relationships can be destructive and difficult, or possessive, limiting or abusive. So what is obvious is that relationships have the potential for good and for evil: they can be both positive and negative experiences. And the same can be said for "family". All of us are part of families whether we like it or not. I must say I get very insulted when people knowing I am single say "but you have no family". The reality is in fact to the contrary. I am fortunate to have a very strong family: sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces, and given both my age and being the youngest in a large family, great-nieces and great-nephews. When I hear the word "family" used I have a positive response to it. For me it conjures up a web of supportive, loving, understanding relationships that don't require any explanation, except they are based on family.
But at the same time I am well aware of those for whom "family" may conjure up very different responses to mine. Their experience of family may have been fairly negative, maybe as the result of the bitterness from marriage breakdown or as a consequence of abuse within the family. But there are other aspects to the discussion of "family" that need to be looked at. This became clear in what was designated as the Year of the Family some years ago. The question was asked, quite rightly, what do we mean by the family? Is the family only Mum, Dad and the kids, that is the nuclear family, or does the family include the single parent family, the blended family, the lesbian or gay couple with children, the extended family or indeed any household that gives itself that name? I think it was generally accepted at the time that our understanding of family had changed dramatically over the past twenty years, that the use of the word "family" was a much more inclusive than was previously the case. But what makes a good family still remains the same, that is, a place of loving nurture and security, a stable network of supportive relationships, an assured welcome at all times.
Community and society are two other words in regular use which also need to be used with some care. We in the church talk a lot about community, especially parish community, and pride ourselves at being good at it. "Community" is a positive word, it connotes something good. But like family or relationship it may have negative associations for some. Thus a fenced-in community with security gates would not come across as a welcoming or inclusive place to someone on the margins of society or the local Vicar trying to visit. Or a parish community which was unfriendly to outsiders or at odds with itself would not be an attractive one to be part of. We refer to community on a larger scale as society and once again it is a word with strong associations. But the society of which we are part is what we make it. We pray regularly for a society which is just, which upholds the common good, which is an inclusive one, which is generous and compassionate to its weaker members. The media and politicians talk a good deal about Australian Society as if we all know what is being referred to. Many of us are troubled at the present time when we see Australian society becoming a less generous and welcoming place than many of us would desire. I know there are complex issues surrounding the issue of asylum seekers and our refugee policy. But I for one feel distressed at the hard line policies of government at present, which we need to recognize have popular support otherwise I doubt they would be pursued, policies which seem to be based on old community fears about our vulnerable borders and the threat of invasion by who knows. I noted with interest the lack of debate around the recent Federal Budget provisions to protect our borders and increase surveillance. I want to ask how real are these fears? Do we really want to create an Australian society based on suspicion, fear and lack of welcome?
But we gather on this Trinity Sunday to celebrate our God, who according to the first reading is "merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" and in the second reading is spoken of as a source of love, grace and fellowship. What the Trinity proclaims above all else is that our God is a community of relationships, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that God is a divine society bound together in love. The traditional hymn "O Holy Spirit, Lord of Grace" contains the lines "As thou in bonds of love doth join the Father and the Son". The Trinity is the relationship between Father and Son brought about by the Holy Spirit who is the bond of love. But it is not a closed relationship or community but one which is inclusive, with the Spirit drawing us into the divine relationship which is our true home. God, the Holy Trinity, draws us into divine Heart of Love. The Gospel for today from John chapter 3 containing those familiar words, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son" point us to Jesus in whose life, teaching and above all in his death we gain a glimpse into the divine life, the life of the Trinity. Today's alternate Gospel is the Great Commission from Matthew: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". In other words the Spirit of the Risen Christ is poured on the church giving it a Mission which is universal and inclusive, because it derives from the same divine model. Our God is not a closed community, or society, or family, or an exclusive relationship. No, our God who is Holy Trinity is a model of a generous, inviting, welcoming, open society, community, family or relationship; a God who is Love, whose love is ever reaching out to the whole creation, until all things find their true home in God. It is this model we see reflected in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: Jesus who welcomed all who came to him; who reached out to those who were vulnerable or on the edges of society; who was generous in his hospitality; who in the end gave his life for the salvation of the world, stretching out his arms on the cross in loving embrace like the Prodigal's father. It is this model of self-giving love which is affirmed by God in the resurrection and becomes the shape for the mission of the church.
Returning to where we started with relationships, family, community and society, we Christians have a vital contribution to make to how these concepts are regarded based on our knowledge of God. It is because we believe in God who is Trinity; because we believe God is an eternal relationship of love; because we believe that our Trinitarian God reaches out to the whole creation drawing us and it into the divine heart of love, that we advocate human relationships that are likewise modeled.
We as Christians try to build loving relationships which are hospitable, respectful, supportive and compassionate. And family life which is inclusive, generous, open in spirit, nurturing, secure, encompassing different generations. Likewise when we are reflecting on community, and in our case our parish community, do we see in them the marks of the divine community which we call Trinity? Do we see communities of reconciliation, of warm welcome, of generous hospitality, compassion and of hope. Do we see our parish communities taking mission seriously, reaching out to those on the edges, those right outside the church, to newcomers to our cities, to the young, bringing them into the knowledge and experience of the God of Love? So it is that our contribution to the society in which we live is to promote a model of society which has its roots in the divine society. What better contribution can we make? We are entrusted with the good news of God who is gracious and compassionate, merciful and forgiving, who demonstrates his love for the world in Jesus, who is for all people everywhere.
May we model the divine society of the Trinity in our relationships, in our families, in our parish communities and in the society in which we live.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.