John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
‘Once, in a moment of total stillness, I became aware of a mysterious otherness that filled the void so that it was no void. I was enveloped by this otherness; I was very near to it. It was gentle and calm and calming.' 1.
This was a glimpse of the Other, of Beyond-in-the-Midst, seldom experienced and never really understood. It is the ‘more’ of which Marcus Borg speaks when (with William James) he talks about: ‘“a more”, a stupendous wondrous “more” that is more than what we had imagined even as it is also present everywhere and capable of being experienced everywhere. 2.
This experience is closely related with an understanding of God as Ground and Source and Purpose of all Being, as Being-in-itself. But it also has common ground the Christian concept of the Trinitarian God, the clue to which lies precisely in the concept of relationship. As the twentieth century rediscovered the Trinity as relationship, and as perichoresis 3., so the relationship between God as Being-yet-wholly-other with the traditional doctrine of the Trinity is to be found in the mutual dance of connection, and in the deep connection between this mystery (which is so difficult to grasp conceptually and yet is strangely experiential) and humanity.
In order to communicate, the Source of all Being (in traditional language the first person of the Trinity) is also the eternal Word (second person of the Trinity). This Word is incarnated or instantiated (for there can be no clearer communication medium for humanity than a human being). But the self-imposed limitation of the incarnation is ‘dealt with’ by the continuing breathing of the breath of Being that is the Spirit (third person of the Trinity), bringing consciousness of God into every present moment. So here is a Trinitarian understanding of God which, while not using the philosophical categories of the first Christian centuries, nevertheless expresses our experience of God as relational both within Godself and with us as source of all being, as eternal Word (Jesus) and as sustaining Spirit.
So what is this sustaining Spirit about? Traditionally Christians have talked about the Spirit giving gifts. We might want to use different language and talk about breathing life into potentialities that are waiting to be exploited. These are not for our own individual benefit and enjoyment - and anyone who thinks they are, and treats them as such, must be getting very near to that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit about which Jesus himself warns us in no uncertain terms. No; they are given, breathed into life, in order to build up, to improve, to enrich the whole community, so that together we may grow in Christlikeness.
There's a great variety of gifts, from preaching to administration, from teaching to tongues. None of us has them all, and none of them is more significant than any of the others. But we all may expect to exercise one of them, even if only for a particular purpose and period of time.
The Spirit also produces fruit. Jesus is recorded as saying: "By their fruit you shall know them." Fruits are a bit different from the gifts, and infinitely more important. Everyone who tries to follow Jesus should expect their lives to show the fruit of the Spirit, co-operating with Being’s breath in us, so that we are visibly full of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’. 4.
The Spirit opens up new possibilities. Jesus tells us there’s more to learn, more to know. ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth.' 5. As Christians, living on this side of Pentecost, we live in the age of the Spirit; and that has enormous implications. Jesus, talking to his worried and confused disciples before the crucifixion, told them about his follow-up plan, about the successor who ‘will take what is mine and declare it to you'. 6. And because we hear these words on our side of the Jesus event, we discover that we are included in what Jesus started even though we did not know the Jesus who walked and talked and died and inspired the disciples ‘to boldly go’.
And, says John’s Jesus, ‘it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.' 7. Furthermore ‘he will guide you into all the truth.' 8. Of course, what we are led into has to be consonant with Jesus, the norm of the Bible: ‘he will take what is mine and show it to you.' 9.
So the Spirit is about continuance, and the opening up of new possibilities, even we may dare hope about the completion of the work of God in Jesus. And as well as exploring dimensions of truth, the Spirit and the promise of the Spirit is also about witness and mission: ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You are also to testify…'. 10.
1. From the author’s own experience
2. Borg. M, 2104, Convictions¸ London: SPCK, p42/3 (and passim).
3. A word that has re-entered the theological vocabulary in the last 50 years, perichoresis literally means rotation, but is used to describe the interplay, the dance, of relationship between the three persona of the Trinity.
4. Galatians 5. 22-23
5. John 16. 12,13
6. John 16. 14b
7. John 16. 7
8. John 16, 13
9. As above, note 6
10. John 15. 26-27a