Sun, Jun 16, 2019

Appropriate symbols

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

During the recent elections in Britain…

a new form of political protest took place…

largely directed at racist, far-right politicians.

Rather than being egged––

which, apparently, has been a long-standing British tradition––

protesters started throwing milkshakes.

In fact, one notorious politician copped three in three days!

It reached the point where police in Edinburgh asked a McDonald’s branch not to sell milkshakes…

because a far-right rally was being held nearby.

So, why milkshakes?

One commentator wondered if they were simply more convenient to carry than raw eggs…

and created a better visual effect.

However, Benjamin Franks––

senior lecturer in Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Glasgow––

suggested that milkshakes were a powerful symbol because of their association with children.

As such, being ‘milkshaked’ might be highlighting the childishness of their position;

or it may be an attempt to undermine “their self-image of power and control”––

“The bathos of the great leader brought low by a drink associated with children”.

But Franks also suggested that milk has been used by the far-right as a symbol of white-supremacy…

not just due to its whiteness…

but also because of the inherent lactose intolerance of many non-white ethnic groups.

As such, being ‘milkshaked’ becomes an ironic symbol.


Be they enacted symbols…

conceptual symbols…

or even linguistic symbols, such as metaphors––

symbols are never straightforward.

They’re always polyvalent––

that is, they can carry multiple meanings…

or they’re able to be understood in a number of ways.

As such, they can also be misinterpreted…

or end up saying something that was never intended.

Nowhere do we see the problem of symbols better than when we come to think about––

and speak about––


because, whenever we speak of God we speak in symbols.

Take this morning’s reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God”. 

At first glance or first hearing…

it may not be apparent what sort of image of God we have here.

And yet, the texture and tone of that translation has been heavily influenced by Luther.

Let me explain.

Luther reacted to certain practices of the Catholic church of his time…

which suggested that one could buy one’s forgiveness.

As Luther read Paul, he heard Paul reacting to a similar idea.

He heard Paul criticising the Hebrew religion for seeking to earn God’s forgiveness and salvation…

through obedience to the Law.

But, for Luther, forgiveness couldn’t be earned.

Rather, it was freely given––

because of what Jesus Christ had done.

In particular, Luther understood humanity to have angered God by its wilfulness…

and God needed to be appeased.

Even more than that, God was a judge before whom we stood guilty.

Through his death, Jesus received the sentence that we deserved.

And, by means of our faith in Christ–– 

by accepting that he was penalised on our behalf––

we stand acquitted. 

Thus, the language of our translation reflects the language of the law court. 


Now, Luther’s contention that God’s love can’t be earned––

but is freely given––

is really helpful.

In fact, it’s quite liberating.

Beyond that, however, Luther’s legal metaphor is quite unhelpful.

It’s helped to propagated the notion of God as angry, harsh, and vengeful…

and hence, that God needed to be appeased.

And, in so doing, Luther misunderstood the way that the Law worked;

he misunderstood the Hebrew religion;

and he misunderstood Paul.

For the Hebrews, the Law was not a way to earn God’s approval or salvation.

That was freely given.

It came simply by being a part of the covenant people.

Rather, the Law was meant to be their response to God’s graciousness.

Obedience to the Law was meant to be an act of gratitude for God’s grace.

Rather than a legal image it was a relational image.

And yet, Paul’s point was that it was a strained relationship…

because Israel had consistently failed to be faithful to God.

They hadn’t been faithful to the covenant or in keeping the Law.

Jesus, on the other hand, was.

Jesus was faithful.

Which placed him in a unique relationship to God––

one that had benefits for humanity.

So, if we put aside the Luther-influenced translation of this passage from Romans––

and some of the symbolism that goes with it––

and if we attempt a more nuanced and historically accurate translation of the Greek…

we end up with something like this:

“Therefore, having a restored relationship by means of [Christ’s] faithfulness, let us live in harmony and wholeness with God on account of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we also have an audience [with God] and access to [God’s] gracious benefaction, in which we now exist. And let us rejoice in the hope of the honour of God”.

Paul understands our relationship with God in relational terms…

not legal terms.

And yet, consider the nature of the relationship as Paul describes it.

Hopefully, my translation makes that clearer.

The underlying image of God, here, is of a king.

Not a modern-day, wishy-washy, wimpy sort of king…

but an old-fashioned sort of king;

like an oriental despot or a mediaeval potentate:

all powerful;

to be respected, feared; and obeyed;

someone who was utterly, utterly unapproachable for the ordinary person.

The image of God, here, is of a king none would dare speak to.

And what Paul is saying is that because Jesus was faithful to God…

because Jesus demonstrated true loyalty to God…

he’s able to intercede for us;

he’s able to get us an audience with God;

he’s able to put in a good word for us––

to vouch for us––

so that we would be restored to the King’s favour;

that we might share in the King’s honour and glory…

and reap the benefits of his reign.


Now, I don’t know about you…

but, personally, I don’t find that a particularly helpful image.

It’s not one that sits well with me either culturally or theologically.

And yet, it’s an image that would have made great sense at the time that Paul wrote…

and to the people to whom Paul wrote.


while I appreciate the thrust of Paul’s assertion–– 

namely, that we need to understand our relationship to God in personal terms…

and not as some sort of legal contract––

his image is, ultimately, unsatisfying as well.


In the end, maybe, that’s the point.

How we understand God…

and how we understand our relationship to God––

the images, metaphors, and symbols that we use––

have to speak to us out of our tradition…

and our culture…

and our experience.

And, in a sense, perhaps, that’s what Trinity Sunday invites us to do:

not simply to accept some historical formulation––

forged during divisive theological battles…

and reflecting different times, cultures, and circumstances––

but to seek to understand…

to imagine…

to re-conceptualise God and our relationship with God…

in symbols, and images, and language that speak to us…



and to be open to go wherever that might lead us.

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