I wonder if you know the tv comedy Open All Hours. British readers certainly will, though I’m not sure how widely travelled it has been. (It was filmed in my home town and I’ve got a particular soft spot for it)
In the show, the incomparable Ronnie Barker plays Arkwright, a stuttering shopkeeper whose meanness is matched only by his ability to get people to part with their money. He never gives anything away. Anything spilled, broken, dropped or sampled has to be paid for, even by his long-suffering assistant Granville. Arkwright may occasionally show a kindly face, but it is only a mask. Underneath he is a colossal and unrepentant miser who is out to get every penny that he can.
I can’t help but notice that there is a widespread view that God is a kind of cosmic Arkwright. Every debt, no matter how small, must be paid for. Every account must be settled. The books must be kept straight, even if that means extracting the price from his own son.* To misquote Cowper, “Behind a smiling providence / He hides a frowning face”. Such a god has much to commend him. He is at least unbendingly fair. But he is not the God that Jesus proclaimed, pointed to and embodied.
In John 15:9 Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” This is at the heart of Jesus’ “farewell discourse”, words of strength and reassurance given by Jesus before his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. The disciples are not only reassured of his continuing presence with them in the Holy Spirit, they are invited to share the relationship of love that exists eternally within the life of God.
This is a relationship so deeply mysterious that the ‘Church Fathers’ had to coin a word to express it: perichoresis. It isn’t a word you hear all that often (!), neither is easy to give it a succinct definition. That’s hardly surprising. Perichoresis describes the relationship of Father, Son & Holy Spirit in the Trinity. Such things are not given to being succinct. But exploring its meaning, straining afer the sense of it, can lead us deeper in to what it means to be disciples of Jesus, for it suggests mutuality and exchange, a relationship that is both passive (each person ‘contained’ in the other) and active (each person moving in and through the other). I recommend Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity by Paul Fiddes for a good introduction to this stuff. The relationship of perichoresis is one so close that, as I read once, if one weeps the other tastes salt.
And it is that kind of loving relationship into which Jesus invites us. (”As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” John 17:21) We may never expect to achieve relationships of that quality, but that is the life to which Jesus points, the life he offers. It is a love without “ifs” and “buts”, a love which makes no demands and certainly requires no payment. It is the gift of God, a gift we are called to share.
Arkwright would never understand.
* I know. A lot of substitutionary theology is much more subtle than this. But there is a great deal that isn’t. And the more ‘popular’ the substitutionary theology, the less likely to be subtle it is. In my experience.