We celebrated Trinity Sunday last week and I had the privilege of going into our youth church and help out. The topic was of course, the Trinity, and the materials were well presented and theologically sound, but there was something wrong. Later that night my wife and I went to movies and saw ‘The Shack’, and were shaken back to my deeper understanding and love of the Trinity
We, in the west, have been guilty since the reformation and enlightenment of turning our living faith, which is a gift, into a set of doctrines requiring intellectual acceptance and belief. Faith has been reduced to believing doctrines, rather than trusting in the person of God. The first requires a part of the person, the intellect, the second requires the whole of the person to engage, because it is relational.
I learned this principle many moons ago while I was a young and enthusiastic Pentecostal, bent on sharing my faith with others hoping to see some people converted. People were not interested in doctrines at all, you could literally see people switch up and get their defenses up at one mention of the bible. You could not quote scripture or anything regarding doctrine to people.
This went against everything I was taught regarding evangelism according to the evangelical way. I remember Franklin Graham, son of famous evangelist, Billy Graham, coming to Adelaide to do a crusade for mass evangelism. Prior to this many churches were given training material concerning witnessing and evangelism.
The basic doctrines were what’s called ‘The Romans road to Salvation’, which was a series of proof texts from the book of Romans. The basic premise of this was this was to convince people that they were sinners in need of salvation. I have found this formula so ineffective so quickly that I gave up on it almost immediately. Hence began my long journey into Soteriology and mission in an Australian context.
Let me first say that the Romans road may be factually right, but have you ever tried convincing someone to completely give up on their whole worldview, friends, family, values and lifestyle, to submit to a stranger’s opinion on God, salvation and the afterlife. Let me tell you it doesn’t happen! There used to be a group in the city of Adelaide, who would ‘preach’ the ‘gospel’ (I use those terms very loosely) in Rundle Mall.
They were accusatory, inflammatory, arrogant and rude. If someone pointed this obvious thing out, they were met with a tirade of condemning scripture and judgment. It made me angry that these people thought they were representing the same God as me.
I have witnessed many people over the years that have exploited and abused people in and around the church. These people were generally better at doing doctrine (or using doctrine to justify themselves and their selfish motives) than doing real relationships. Relationships require vulnerability, risk and sacrifice, just as God demonstrated in the incarnation.
It requires people to open with their weaknesses and failures and negate any power indifferences. This is time consuming and can feel draining, but need not be done outside the energy of grace. It is love in action and in motion, it is dynamic and living. It cannot be taught as much as it is received and practiced. The Eastern Orthodox Church holds to three parts of the Christianity, the scriptures, the sacraments (baptism, Holy Communion), and living tradition. It is the third thing, living tradition that I want to talk about.
I came up with an analogy years ago when I became frustrated when I was studying ministry and theology academically. It’s the difference between the mentality between the East and the West in terms of religion, philosophy and epistemology. If the question was, ‘what does it mean to be a dog’, there would be two very different responses.
A western person would follow a dog around with a tape measure and a note pad. Calculations would be made, things measured and eventually the dog would be dissected to see how it really ticks, obviously killing the dog. The eastern person would get down on all fours and start behaving like a dog; they would eat some dog food, smell some dog bums and cock their leg on a tree. You see one wants to measure and control, but keep a distinction between humans and dog, the other wants to experience and participate and enter into what it means to be a dog. One ends in death, the other in transformation.
How does this relate to the Trinity? First of all I’m not interested in the doctrine of the Trinity; I’m interested in the PERSONS of the Trinity. I want to participate in the relationship that had existed from all eternity, that I was invited into, and what Jesus Incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension opened up, and what the Spirit breathes life into. It’s experiential, it’s relational, it’s not a formula – it’s a story and a dance. It doesn’t require intellectual approval, but a willing and vulnerable heart to participate, that faith isn’t a thought but an action.
How does this relate to mission and evangelism? When we live in participation with the Trinity, we realise that evangelism is about friendship. It’s sharing our lives with people. We condescend in humility and vulnerability, not in judgment and religious requirements. We don’t speak down to people as we have all the religious answers, just because we have read the bible or done some study.
We listen… We listen and try and hear God in mysterious and living ways, with and from people, in the midst of mess, chaos and sin, we listen. We become a friend of sinners just as Jesus did; we condescend in humility and weakness just as he did in the incarnation. We bear with people’s burdens, weakness, sins and prejudices - being forgiving and understanding. I’m not talking explaining sin away and becoming so liberal and progressive that Jesus is merely a moral teacher and example. He is the living Christ and he calls all of us to new creation.
Mark is married with 3 kids. He has been a youth worker for 10 years. He has worked in lay and paid church roles in various denominations for 15 years and is currently a member of the Adelaide Anglican Diocese. Mark has a B.A from Tabor College Adelaide.
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