Signs of Change

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
—John 14: 10-12

This is a very interesting passage from John’s gospel. The passage is interesting for several reasons, most centrally its depth of meaning and breadth of influence on theological considerations over the millennia. Some passages from scripture seem, almost, disposable. Theologians rarely refer to those passages during doctrinal deliberations. Then others passages, like this passage and those texts immediately around it, pop-up all the time, often directly referenced or lying just below the surface of many arguments.

In particular, I want to consider two parts of this text. First, the portion where John’s Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Second, the statement where Jesus continues by claiming, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these . . . .” Both of these statements have bearing on our understanding of the Trinity, but by informing significantly different notions of our doctrine of the Trinity.

Taking them in reverse order, the second statement implies both a continuity and continuation in action. In Trinitarian doctrine, this means we are speaking about the economic work of the Trinity. The economic work of the Trinity is but theological jargon used to describe how it is that God is visible in action toward the world. In other words, we perceive and experience God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer. From this theological angle, God’s actions toward us define our understanding of God. The tenor of continuity and continuation in this statement suggests, also, that those linked to this work (be that link through the incarnation of the human being Jesus or through the events of Pentecost in the case of the church) provide an unbroken line back to the source. This unbroken line implies that an event is not just efficacious because of its continuity but, also, because it is iconic, i.e., revelatory.

Icons are very important in Christian theology. Icons represent something; they are not the thing but a direct avenue to that thing. Think of the icons on our desktops. By clicking on an icon, we enter into an entirely new world of possibilities. We transition from seeing a picture that allows access to a program or the web actually to experiencing them. Icons both represent something and act as a portal to that something. Setting this notion of an event’s symbolic, iconic function to the side for a moment, we should turn to consider the other statement. We will return to this notion of representation shortly.

If the second statement was about our external impressions of God, then the first statement is about internal reality of God.

This first statement, let us say, refers to Jesus’ relationship—i.e., the Son’s relationship—with the other two persons of the Trinity. In other words, this statement discloses how we understand the internal interaction and dynamics of how the Father, the Son, and the Spirit connect and interrelate. A technical term used by the church to describe this immanent relationship within the trifold Godhead is perichoresis.

Perichoresis, or mutual interiority, is but a way of saying that the three persons of the Trinity mutually penetrate each other without compromising the individual Persons’ integrity while enhancing their collective’s unity. Alternatively, as the church often said, “there is comingling without confusion.” This doctrine has profound importance for our understanding of what it means to say we are “persons.” If we are created in God’s image and that existence is expressed in Trinitarian comingling, then our personal self-understanding and our derivative communities are meant to reflect that intimately, deeply united, communal existence defining that image. Moreover, we become the presenter of the Other or others. Through our presence, others are not just represented but made presently, really known.

Taking these two notions together, we see the act and being of God. As act, God and, therefore, we are iconic, always referencing that from which we come or share. As the Son references the Father, we reference them both through our love and through willingness to be loved. While God’s life is self-referential, our lives are meant to be divinely referential, pointing beyond ourselves back to God.

As being, we are linked to God through the incarnation, sharing a kind of perichoretic relationship with God. As such, not only do our lives point backward to God, but our lives, also, make God present to the world through our very presence with each other. Saying this another way, our lives as icons grant access backward and as conduits make The Presence present. We, therefore, are sacramental.

In the church, sacraments are those “sign-acts” that make a thing truly present through symbolic action. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word we translate as “sacrament” in English is the word mysterion. More akin to our notion of “mystery”—though not synonymous—mysterion is a term that refers to the hidden depths of God. Moreover, according to James White, mysterion presumes an imbedded need to be made know. In other words, while hidden and obscure, the meaning of the word implies an irresistible impulse to enable that divine mystery to be known, if not intellectually, then experientially through present interaction. White says, “the basic insight in the use of this same term for those sign-acts which we call sacraments is that mysterion implies acts in which God is disclosed to us.”

In respect to tradition, the sacraments are officially limited within the church to certain practices. However, all of our lives—when understood through this iconic/conductive role—become sacramental. That is, they take on the “sign-act” function of making the mysterion of God known; knowledge that is acquired not so much through our speaking as through our shared living. We become a new kind of mysterion, revealing God to the world through our actions. If we are sacramental; then what image is cast? What God is revealed? What line may be traced back through us? Where will does that line lead? What kind of God does that line lead others to worshiping? Also, where do we take God? Where are we making God known? How are we making God know?

As God’s sign to the world, our actions matter because they are revelatory. Such is the burden of authentic vocation. And our vocation is to be God’s mystery made real to the world. If we are God’s signs, then we, too, are God’s living advertisements to the world, direct other towards and presenting the Divine. If this is the case, then it is our challenge to act in such a way that the God we disclose through our lives will not allow us to be charge with false advertizing.

Have a wonderful week and see you in chapel as we explore what it means to be a sign-act for God in the world.

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