Father Lawrence Jenko is an American Roman Catholic priest who was held hostage in Beirut, Lebanon, for 564 days in the 1980’s. He was secluded in various apartments and was most often chained blindfolded to a radiator. (In the Arab world, if you see your captors you must die.) When he was moved he was gagged with a dirty rag in his mouth, wrapped like a mummy, placed under the chassis of a truck, and driven around for an hour or two to a new location. Because of the constant blindfold, he never knew, when he was being touched, whether it was a touch of violence or a touch of compassion.
In the beginning he was imprisoned alone, but later he was held with William Buckley, Ben Weir (a Presbyterian Minister), John Jacobson (a CNN reporter), and Terry Anderson. Both the heat and the cold were unbearable. There was torture and abuse. He was allowed to leave his cell once a day, to go to the bathroom, when his captors felt like it.
Father Jenko said that he survived by repeating over and over several phrases. One is an old Jewish proverb: “When violence happens, first you cry, then you sing, and then you remain silent.” He also said to himself during periods of torture, “I am a person of dignity. I am loved, I am worthy, and I do have a destiny.” He also celebrated the Eucharist every day, even when all he had to offer was a small pile of dust from the floor.
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His guards were often cruel. Sometimes, however, they would ask if he needed anything. His little joke with them was, “only a little money for a taxicab to Damascus.” One day, the cruelest of the guards slipped something into his pocket. Then once again he was bound, gagged, and blindfolded, driven two hours under a truck to the outskirts of Damascus, where he was dumped by the side of the road. When he finally freed himself, removed the blindfold and a gag, he found in his pocket enough money to take a taxicab to the center of the city.1
I believe Father Jenko’s story offers us a powerful word regarding what it means to be created in the image of God. We often fall into the trap of thinking of God as either God the Father, or as Jesus the Son, or as the Holy Spirit, and we fail to comprehend one God in three persons. For Father Jenko the key to his survival, with dignity intact, came in his refusal to be anything less than his whole person. He refused to play the singular parts of the victim, or the eternally angry man, or the depressed apathetic sufferer. Instead, he allowed himself, to cry, to sing, to be silent. He allowed himself to do the things he would have always done — celebrate the Eucharist daily, tell jokes, trust in God, believe in a greater purpose, believe in a destiny, and live into hope. But more than anything else, Father Jenko allowed himself to be in community with others, with the other hostages, with the memory of friends and neighbors, even with his captors.
When God is divided up into parts or roles or job descriptions, this is called modalism. When we think only in terms of God the Father as Creator, and Jesus the Son as Savior, and Holy Spirit as the Comforter, we run the risk of dividing God up like so much pie.
The same is true for us. We see this most vividly in the political process: Whenever we “compartmentalize” to the point that we deny having been created to live together in community, we run the risk of isolating ourselves and effectively lopping off whole sections humanity. As if to say, “You, Democrat — belong over here! And you, Republican — belong over here! And you, Independent — over here. Now stay there!”
We’ve been created in the image of God. We are complex creatures, who, like God, cannot be permanently separated into parts, roles, or job descriptions, or even nations, races, cultures, religions, or ideologies. We are our healthiest, we are at our best, we come closest to what God intends, when we seek to live in community and relationship with one another despite the barriers the world throws up.
This is Trinity Sunday. This is the time when we proclaim loudly and clearly, that we believe in One God in three persons, not three god’s pretending to be One. What this means in the simplest terms possible is that all of God is involved in all God does all the time. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All of God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All of God was involved in Creation; all of God was involved in the calling of Abraham and the prophets; all of God was involved in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, all of God was involved in the birth of the Christian Church; and all of God is involved in the world around us today.
So why do we say “One God in three persons,” why not just “One God” and stop there? Why add the three persons part?
Well, again, the simplest way to try and communicate what this means takes us back to Creation and the fact that God made us male and female. God made “humankind” in God’s image. Notice that what is said in Genesis is that “humankind” is made in the image of God, not individual people. So to be made in the image of God is to be in community, to be with others. Together, we are made in the image of God.
In the second Creation Story in Genesis (Yes, there are two Creation Stories!) where God creates a companion for Adam by taking a rib from Adam and fashioning the woman Eve, there is a word play going there that we don’t pick up on in English. The Hebrew word for “rib” also means “side room” suggesting that males and females are different sides of one another, suggesting that we need one another in order to be truly whole. What this says to us is that God knows something pretty significant about the importance of community, the importance of being in relationship. Within God, there is community, there is relationship.
Now granted, the essence of this community is the “Trinity Mystery” that I can’t begin to fully understand, let alone explain, but the Trinity — God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit — is God in community, God in relationship; the kind of communal relationship that God intends for us to have when we get together like this.
But this is also the place where it all breaks down. It’s easy to see how much of the world is at odds with itself and how we have marred and scarred the image of God within humankind through wars, violence, hatred, and prejudice. But in the Church things are supposed to be different. And most of the time, I’m glad to say, they are. But as soon as I say that, we have to account for the times when the Church has been responsible for much of the separation and lack of community the world has known. History tells us the Church was behind the bloody Crusades, the Inquisition, and the defense and advocacy of slavery, all done in the name of God. And even though that’s all behind us, we still meet in our separate houses of worship on Sunday mornings and define ourselves by titles like Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, and Pentecostal.
Father Jenko may have survived by himself, but he lived and was his most whole when he was in community with others. Even the uncertain touch of his captors brought some strange sense of community to him. And when he found that taxicab money in his pocket, he knew that some strange sense of community had found them too.
What we have is far from perfect. After all, we’ve been created in the image of God, we’ve not been created God. What we have in the Church requires effort and intentionality to maintain. We come herebecause we need each other and we are a gift of God to one another. We matter here, as individuals and as a congregation. Our stories matter here, our lives matter here, our joys, our pains, our births, our deaths — all matter here. It’s only if we stop making the connections between our stories, and God’s Story that we fall into meaning-less-ness and our time here together becomes a boring obligation, devoid of purpose.
To be created in the image of God is to give ourselves to one another in community; It is to bring the story of our lives to this place and trust that it is a safe place. It is to live and die among God’s family in the sure and certain knowledge that it is only as we come together in the name of the Triune God that we truly know what it means to be whole, to be human, to be one with our God and with one another.
Jesus’ “Great Commission” does not say go off by yourselves and be the Church. No, Jesus says go to the world, go and be among the world, and teach and obey and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Go out there and be and share the fellowship and community that makes you children of God, that makes you the image of the Triune God
Friends, we allow ourselves to be held hostage when we refuse the community and relationship God intends for us in the Church. And we are hostage takers when we are dismissive of others whose ways and traditions are different than our own.
The Good News is that there is a foundational unity to our humanity that God has created, that God sees, that God wants us to see and participate in.
The Good News is that we are constantly being re-created, re-molded, re-fashioned through faith so that we might come to live the image of God within us and reflect the loving community that exists within God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So what better way to celebrate our oneness than through the gift of Communion.
(GO TO TABLE)
1Anderson and Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals (San Francisco:Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), page 181.
Copyright 2012, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.