In a culture celebrating individual responsibility and rights, idioms that talk about passing something to another can create negative images. While it is a good thing to pass an exam or to pass go and collect $200, to pass the buck is a bad thing. It means to try to avoid responsibility for something by making someone else the responsible party. Passing the baton is perhaps a tad better in its nuanced meaning, but a quick online search still pulls up hits that would seem to have a negative connotation at first glance. To pass the baton—a metaphor pulled from the world of track and field—suggests someone has finished one’s part and has handed the responsibility and spotlight to another. Of course, in a relay race that’s exactly what you want to happen for the team to win the race. But outside of racing, passing the baton could imply in a worst-case scenario that one is wishing to duck the limelight and avoid contributing to the collective enterprise at all. It is a potentially dangerous image.
But, despite the danger, I’d like to suggest it is a helpful—even necessary—vision for the Triune God we are to love and with whom we are to be in relationship. Obviously, I am not suggesting that God the Father was the only one active in creating and saving until Jesus came on the scene, and then the Father passed the baton on to Jesus who did a great job until He ascended into heaven and handed the baton on to the Holy Spirit.
What I am suggesting is that, when we direct our love to God, there is a deference that takes place among the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In other words, when we seek to love One of these, that Person directs our attention to Another within the Trinity. The baton of love is passed among the Three.
Understanding the Triune God
The idea of the Triune God as a baton-passer when it comes to our loving God is not completely foreign when we consider how the Bible portrays the love we receive from the divine.
“As the Father has loved me,”
Jesus told His followers toward the
end of His life, “so have I loved you.”
I like to think about this verse whenever I wonder how Jesus could love me (He loves me!), or what it means for Jesus to love me (He loves me!), or, for that matter, whenever I sing that children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It’s a staggering thought: the boundless, overwhelming, unifying love the Father has had for the Son for all eternity is the same love that Jesus has for me and you. Pass that baton, please. Indeed, I often find myself now singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Father loves Him so.” That’s what this Bible verse tells me.
But what about when the issue is our love for God? I think even then the baton-passing still occurs among the Father, Son, and Spirit. Indeed, I’ve become more and more convinced this realization is a key to Christian maturity in the faith. Let me tell you how I’ve come to that opinion; it’s been a forty- year journey of contemplation.
It all started when I was a new Christian decades ago in college. I was reading my Bible closely for the first time ever and had begun to notice the most interesting phrase in the Acts of the Apostles: so-and-so was a person “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” As a new Christian, I wasn’t quite sure what this meant, but Luke, the author of Acts, always seemed to portray each particular so-and-so as someone who was a good Christian. “If it was good enough for them,” I thought forty-plus years ago, “it’s good enough for me.” My problem was that I didn’t quite know how to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit. And so I began to pray about it. And that’s when I learned the first instance of God’s baton passing.
The Passing of the Baton
“God, make me to be a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” I prayed. Okay, admittedly, it was not the most original of prayers, being so dependent upon the Scriptures themselves, but the direct approach seemed fitting at the time. As I prayed this prayer time and again, do you know how it was answered? My attention was turned more and more to Jesus Christ. The key to becoming more full of the Spirit, I learned, was not just to focus narrowly on the Holy Spirit, but it was to focus on Jesus Christ. I looked for the Spirit and had the divine hand adjust my alignment to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Specifically, the answer to my prayer to be more full of the Spirit was to love Jesus Christ. Listen. That sound you hear is one Person of the Trinity passing the baton to Another.
Love Jesus and do that more and more. I had my direction set, one that shaped my discipleship for decades. Eventually, however, I started to ask the natural (“supernatural” is perhaps the better word) question: how can I love Jesus even more than I do now? After several decades of dedicating myself to loving Christ, I found I had no more quick answers to that question. And so, I decided to take the issue up with Jesus Christ Himself, again posing the question in prayer. Do you know what I heard as the answer? I was to love the One whom Christ loved. To plunge into an even deeper pool of love for Jesus Christ meant to concentrate on the One whom He loves, that is, God the Father. As soon as the fog lifted in my mind and spirit and that realization became clear, it seemed obvious: how could I grow in love for Jesus if I wasn’t as mesmerized, taken up with, dedicated to, and in love with the One with whom Jesus Himself was mesmerized, taken up with, dedicated to, and in love with? Look. That sight you see is one Person of the Trinity passing the baton to yet Another. To love Jesus deeply and fully involves loving God the Father deeply and fully.
And so, it seemed, my course was fixed: to be someone full of faith and the Holy Spirit means loving Jesus Christ. And to love Jesus Christ involves loving the One He loves, God the Father. But you can guess where this is going. What does a Christian do to love God the Father ever more deeply? Get ready for one more passing of the baton of eternal, triune unity. As I contemplated what it might involve to love God the Father more fully, the period of wondering was relatively short. (Being a Christian for a while doesn’t necessarily make you smarter; it may just mean obvious answers can come quicker.) The path to loving the Father more robustly? Seek the Spirit. Who searches the depths of God? Who knows the mind of God? Who knows the things of God, including the love of God (1 Cor 2:10-11)? The Holy Spirit. The power to love God the Father more fully is only found within the fullness of the Spirit. Ponder. The wonder you feel is the baton being passed yet again.
And so, after more than forty years, I am back to where I started: seeking to be a person full of faith and the Holy Spirit. But I am not disappointed or frustrated. In fact, I have grown to believe that the way forward in the race, which starts in this life and continues onward through eternity, is to become enamored with the baton-passing, eternal relationship of loving mutuality between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Compared to that divine passing, our passing exams and passing go are mere trifles.