The God who is Love

Today is a difficult day for priests all around the world.  The difficulty comes because today, in the midst of this great celebration of the Feast of the Holy Trinity we have to try to talk about God, and in truth we do not really do that very often.  So all around the world priests are faced with the difficulty of trying to say something intelligible about God, and congregations are faced with the difficulty of trying to listen to priests and make sense of what is said.

During the year, week by week, we talk a lot about what God wants us to do, and a lot about what God has done for us, and is doing for us – which is after all what the Gospel of Jesus is all about.  But we spend a surprisingly small amount of our time talking about who God is – we often prefer to leave that to the liturgy and the hymns, which is no bad thing.  And yet we know that on the one hand we have to talk about God – all of us I mean – not just those who stand in the pulpit, and on the other hand we feel generally unequipped to say anything much about who God is, the mystery at the centre of our wonder and our worship.

We live in a society which has largely forgotten about what the word God means, and who it refers to.  We can no longer assume that when people hear the word ‘God’ it will mean anything like the God that is revealed to us in the life of Jesus. In most cases use of that word has been consigned to the ‘fairy tale’ section. This is a challenge for us.  We know that we are called to share the good news of God with others, we know that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live it and to do it, but what are we to say about God?  If the Church does not talk about God, as we believe in him through Jesus, no one else will.  So how do we go about this seemingly impossible task of saying anything about who God is at all?

Normally as Christians we start with the Trinity.  The revelation, that we celebrate at this Mass that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that God is three and yet the three are one. We have used that formula a few times already in our liturgy. We invoked the name of the Trinity as we began our worship, we said it again in a more amplified way when we praised God in the hymn ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ and at the end of the Psalm, and I invoked the name of the Trinity again before beginning this homily.  But if the Trinity says the most that we can say about God, it is also the most difficult thing Christians say about God, and hardly passes the simple-language test.

So let’s start somewhere else, with the shortest and most profound statement of the New Testament: ‘God is love’. It is one of the most important things that the Bible says about God: ‘God is love’.  Some people might say that nothing more needs to be said, but the problem is that love can mean all kinds of things. God is not love in the same way that some of us love chocolate, neither is God the same love that we live out imperfectly in our human relationships.  If we are going to say something about who God is we need to say something about what God’s love is.  This is slightly more complicated, because to do that we need to know the story of God’s love for the world.   That is the way the Bible spells out what it means to say that God is love.

It tells us about God’s love in the best way of talking about love: it tells us about God’s love in practice, which is after all the only way that you can know what someone’s love for you really is.  We all know that saying ‘I love you’ means very little if it is not backed up by actions.  The Bible tells us what sort of love God is by telling the story of God’s love for us. It tells us how God created the world out of love, and the story of how God continued to love the world he had created and got involved with it in his love for us.  It tells how even when we rejected God’s love and spoiled God’s world with sin, God still went on loving us and did all that he could to rescue us from that sinfulness.

That is the Old Testament story of God’s involvement with the people of Israel. It is the story that comes to a climax with Jesus, when God in his love for us sent his Son to be actually one of us, to live a human life with us and to die for us.  It is the story that continues with God’s loving presence in the Holy Spirit, in the Church, in our lives: because the story of God’s love for the world goes on; we are part of it.

The story that we find in the Bible tells us who God is because we see what kind of love God is. God is self-giving love.  He does not just sit up in Heaven and wish us well. He gets involved with us in his love for us.  He gives himself for us in costly self-sacrifice in Jesus’ suffering and death for us.  He gives himself to us when he gives us his Holy Spirit as the gift of himself present with us in our lives.  When we say ‘God is love’ we mean that God gives himself – for us and to us. That is God’s nature.

But there is something else to notice about that story of God’s love for the world.  We can only tell that story by talking about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I have already done so. I could not help it.  God the Father cares for us, nurtures us, watches over us, directs us in his love.  God the Son is God in loving solidarity with us, God as Jesus, with us in our human world, giving himself for us in his human life and death; and God the Holy Spirit is God’s love in the depths of our being, sharing God’s love with us so that we can love with God’s love.  It is only because God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that God can love us in the way that he does.  Just one of those three aspects of the revelation of God as love for us is not enough. We need all three if we are to say that God is love, as God has himself said about himself.

We need to tell the story of God’s love for the world: what God’s love is in practice. And to do that we need to say that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And then we need to take one further step, which is the most difficult.  I have been talking about God’s love for us. But if God is love, God’s love must be more than his love for us. God is love in his very being, quite apart from us.  Or to put it another way, even before we existed, even before God created the world, God was love in his own being. God did not start loving when he loved his creation. God’s love for us is the overflowing of the love that God is eternally. God does not exist to be source of our love, he was loving before we were ever created. And that can only be so because God is a community, three yet one.

Now of course God is infinitely more than all of this. But the Bible and the Christians tradition says that whatever else God is, he is love.  So what might we say about who God is, who the Trinity is, when we are asked by our families or friends, or indeed, when we are asking ourselves?  We can say that God is like a perfect family, in which perfect love resides, not in a closed self-serving way, but in an ever increasing circle, which has room for you and for me. The technical term for this is Perichoresis, but let that word pass you by and focus on this image instead.

Think of a very loving family, one in which people are devoted to each other; but not the sort of family whose love is a closed circle, excluding other people.  This is the sort of family that is always befriending other people. The family’s own love is constantly being shared with others. Other people are welcomed into the home and made to feel that they are virtually part of the family.  We have all come across families like that, some of us have been fortunate enough to be part of one. But it only happens when there really is love within the family.  There has to be love between the members of the family so that they can share that love with others and open their loving relationships to embrace others. Others feel welcome, they can feel they belong to the family, because there is a loving family there already.

It is a little like that with God. It is the eternal love within God: the love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, which God shares with us.  If we can draw together our reflections from the first two weekends in this Season of Celebration, we might say that on the Feast of the Ascension we remembered together that we are called to change ourselves, to mould our lives on the action of Jesus, and that this is possible because our Ascended Lord intercedes for us, praying that the Father’s will will be done in us; Oon the Feast of Pentecost we remembered that this transforming work of God within us and with us is not just for us, we have been gifted with God’s Holy Spirit, to live without fear of the future, to share this good news with others.

Today we add another layer to all of this, when we say that God sends his Son into the world to befriend us and when he calls him to intercede for us at his right hand,  and when God sends his Spirit into our hearts, and that when God does those things God is opening up his own life of love for us to share in. It is like being welcomed into the family.

That more than anything is what we celebrate today.  The family of the Triune God welcomes us into his family.  The God who is love, shares that love with us, and calls us to share it with others.  Not just by what we do, certainly not just by the words that we say– but like God – by who we are.