The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

We are the church

Umbutu logo

The Ubuntu logo of the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church was adapted from a design submitted in a contest by the Rev. Paul Fromberg, of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church, San Francisco, Calif. The Trinitarian design depicts God the Creator in the bright center, God the Son in the cross formed by the longitude and latitude lines and God the Holy Spirit, swirling around the Father and the Son. The swirl is composed of male and female dancing figures, with faces of many colors, symbolizing the interconnectedness of humanity. “Ubuntu” is a Bantu term once defined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as being open and available to others, empathetic and standing for justice.

The story of the church begins with the first generation of Jesus’ followers, not only his inner circle of disciples, the Twelve, but also hundreds, perhaps thousands, of first-century Palestinian Jews and a smattering of Romans and Jews from elsewhere in the empire who witnessed the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Christian tradition is rooted in the experience of those who followed Jesus then and now. It didn’t happen all at once, though. Christian theology – the way Christians talk about God – developed as the community reflected upon its experience, which by all accounts was profound, not just in Jerusalem at Pentecost, but wherever the gospel was preached, from Judea to the ends of the earth. (In those days, it was what we now know as the Strait of Gibraltar.)

We surmise from Christian scripture and from forms of ministry that grew out of that first-century experience that the earliest followers of Jesus thought of themselves as people called out of the world into a new relationship with the living God, the God of the Jews – of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, Moses, Miriam and the prophets and wisdom teachers of old. As those “called out,” these people of God were the “ekklesia” (Greek, “those called out”), the church.

Jesus had taught his first followers that God was especially present whenever two or three of his people gathered in his name. As the church discovered on the day of Pentecost 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus, the gathered church is empowered by the Holy Spirit to glorify God, whom Jesus called “Abba,” an affectionate Aramaic term for one’s father. The church, it turned out, was called to fellowship with God as a community of faith, a community willing to let itself be loved by this “community of Being” that came to be known as the Holy Trinity: God our Father, creator of the world, who calls us into being; God our Mother, Holy Spirit of wisdom, who leads us into truth; and God our brother, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who calls us to the way of the Cross.

The Trinity, then, is not an abstract “doctrine” contrived by an educated elite, although it smells like that most of the time, but a reflection of the first Christians’ experience of God Emmanuel, “God with us” – the presence of the risen Lord Jesus, the healing and reconciling power of the Holy Spirit and the glory of Abba who from all eternity calls the world and all its creatures into existence. The community of faith, followers of the Way of Jesus who were despised in their own day as “Christianoi” or “little anointed ones,” were imbued with the presence of God as Trinity – a tri-unity of persons understood traditionally as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

A word about language: Referring to God as Mother, while not unknown in Christian tradition, is not a conventional way of understanding the Holy Spirit; however, in our time and place, it makes no sense whatever to maintain the patriarchal language customarily assigned in our teaching on the Trinity. Indeed, it makes sense to our ears to understand God in the generative sense of male and female. In fact, the Greek and Hebrew terms for “spirit” are gender neutral; however, large portions of Jewish scripture speak of “wisdom” in feminine terms, and in Christian theology, it is the Spirit who leads us into truth, or wisdom. “Sophia,” of course, the Greek term for wisdom, is a feminine term understood as such in traditional wisdom literature. It’s not at all far-fetched, then, to think and to pray with God as Ama, or mother, in our minds and heart. This conception of God is not to be confused with feminine deities cited in Jewish scripture that were less about wisdom than fertility within a theological complex and understanding of reality wholly different from that of Judeo-Christian tradition; which is not to say that conception is without merit, but it should not be confused with Christian understanding of God as Ama.

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