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You asked for a sermon on “How Are We To Understand Life As Relationships, and What To Do When Relationships Break Down”


        John 20:24-28      Isaiah 49:13-16         


I: — “That food chemist certainly knows peanuts.” When we say that a food chemist knows peanuts we mean that he has investigated the chemical properties of the peanut. And having ascertained its chemical properties, he can now do many different things with the peanut. He can produce peanut oil for cooking, or a fine lubricant for delicate engines, or petfood, or plant fertilizer. To know a thing is to be able to manipulate that thing, program different uses of that thing, control that thing; ultimately, to change that thing.

“Maureen (my wife) certainly knows Victor.” When someone says that surely the speaker means more, much more, than “Maureen is aware that Victor is fond of books, listens to all kinds of music, prefers vegetables to meat, and rides his bicycle absent-mindedly.” Surely the speaker means more than “Maureen is more aware of Victor’s peculiarities than most others are.” Surely the speaker means…. What exactly does the speaker mean?

In 1923 Martin Buber, a superb Jewish thinker, wrote a brief but pregnant book, I And Thou. In the book Buber distinguished two kinds of relating, “I-it” and I-thou”.


(i) “I-it” refers to a subject investigating an object. These three words are crucial: “subject”, “investigating”, “object”. (For “investigating” we could substitute “experiencing”, “probing”, “analyzing”, “controlling”.)

George Washington Carver is esteemed as the researcher whose scientific investigations of the peanut exposed the “inner workings” of the peanut, with the result that scores of uses were found for the peanut beyond eating it out of the shell at a baseball game. As George Washington Carver unlocked the secrets of the peanut, scores of industries developed around the manufacture of peanut products.

Make no mistake: “I-it” relationships are important. Without them there would be no science (since science is “subject investigating object”), no industry, no commerce, no civilization.

Let’s pause here for a moment and note several features of “I-it” relationships:

“I-it” entails investigating something that is below us in the
created order; i.e., investigating something that is non-person.

“I-it” aims at mastering something, mastering it so thoroughly
that it yields its “secrets”.

“I-it” attempts to harness the “secrets” it has pried out, harness
them so as to use them and ultimately profit from them.

“I-it” entails de-mystification. As the secrets of something are
pried out of it, that object becomes less-and-less mysterious (in
the everyday sense of “mysterious”.

“I-it” has to do with the question, “What is it?”

Think of electricity. For primitive people electricity (lightning was the only form of it they were aware of) was simply terrifying. Then as electricity was investigated its secrets were pried out, it was harnessed so as to be used for both refrigeration and cooking, for communications broadcasting and for navigation. As electricity was mastered, harnessed, used and rendered profitable, it was de-mystified.


(ii) Martin Buber also spoke of “I-thou” relationships. “I-thou” is never subject-investigating-object; “I-thou” is always subject-meeting-subject, subject-encountering-subject.

Let’s pause for a moment and note several features of “I-thou” relationships:

“I-thou” has to do not with operating on something that is below
us in the created order, but rather has to do with encountering
someone who, is on our level of the created order (person, spirit)
or even above us in the created order (Spirit).

“I-thou” does not aim at mastery, domestication, control, harnessing;
above all, “I-thou” does not profit from the relationship, does not exploit it.

“I-thou”, so far from becoming less mysterious, becomes
more mysterious. Whereas the more we understand the properties
of a peanut the less mysterious it becomes, the more we “know” a
person, the more mysterious she becomes.

At the level of “I-it” I possess information about neurology and brain chemistry; at the level of “I-thou” I meet a person whose mind (“heart”) can never be reduced to his brain or to anything about him quantifiable by the life-sciences or social sciences.

At the level of “I-it” I possess information about hormones and body chemistry; at the level of “I-thou” I encounter a person whose mystery is magnified by the immeasurable depths of sexual fusion.

At the level of “I-it” I study theology and accumulate much information about God. At the level of “I-thou” I meet him of whom theology speaks. Even if information about God (doctrine) is essential to our meeting God himself, “information about” and “meeting” are categorically distinct.

I said a minute ago that at the level of “I-it” we are always asking the question, “What is it?”. At the level of “I-thou”, however we don’t ask a different question; rather, we don’t ask any question at all. We simply recognize; we acknowledge. “I recognize you; I know you; I have met you.”

If ever we try to control that person, manipulate her, use her, profit from her, we turn her into an “it”, an object. The worst form of this, of course, is slavery. Slavery reduces a person to a tool to be exploited and experimented with. To be free, on the other hand, is to be a person, a spirit, a subject in dialogue with other human spirits, able to recognize and be recognized. Ultimate freedom is to be a subject in dialogue with the Subject, the Spirit, God himself.

Martin Buber gathered it all up in one pithy statement: “All real living is meeting”.


(iii) We must say more about the difference between “I-it” and “I-thou”. The kind of knowing that pertains to “I-it” is subject-transforming-object. To know electricity is to turn it into air-conditioning or house-heating or radio-broadcasting. The kind of knowing that pertains to “I-thou”, by contrast, is subject-being-transformed. To know my wife is to be transformed by my wife.

This point is crucial. If someone were to ask me, “Do you know your wife?”, and I were to reply, “Sure, I know her; she is an able schoolteacher who wishes she were taller, enjoys music and gardening and leaves dishwater in the sink” — if that’s all I said then I shouldn’t know her at all, according to Buber, because what I have said is mere information about my wife as object. According to Buber the measure of how well I know my wife is the change I have undergone through years of meeting her. My knowledge of my wife is the alteration she has effected in me. My knowledge of my wife is the difference she has made in me. If after thirty years of meeting my wife I am no different, then I’ve never known her, regardless of how much information I’ve gained about her.

This point is crucial in that it’s the exact opposite of what our society thinks. Our society thinks that to know another person, really get to know him, is to be able to change him. Buber says that to know another person — profoundly to know someone else as person — is to be changed ourselves.

How did Buber come up with this? Through reading the bible. Buber was a biblical thinker pre-eminently. To be sure, he acquired a reputation as a philosopher, but he used to say, with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m only a philosopher as much as I need to be, when I need to be. I’m a biblical thinker characteristically.”

Buber took seriously God’s cry to Jeremiah, “My people don’t know me; they have uncircumcised hearts!” In other words, if Israel genuinely knew God, Israel herself would be different. If Israel genuinely knew God, Israel would have a heart that has been so changed as to throb with the heart of God.

Over and over in the Hebrew bible God weeps before the prophets, “This people doesn’t know me!” God doesn’t mean that Israel lacks information about him. Why, Israel is the world’s best theologian! (Can even talk to God in his native language!) “These people doesn’t know me” means “These people are no different themselves.”

I know my wife precisely to the extent that meeting her as person has altered me profoundly.


II: — It’s plain that such knowledge is linked to intimacy; and intimacy is born of vulnerability.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should now decided to “become vulnerable” for the sake of intimacy. Caution is always in order here. Anyone who suddenly decides to become “intimate” has a psychological problem with impulsivity. At the same time, anyone so craves intimacy as to be driven to look for it everywhere has a psychological problem with compulsivity. Intimacy shouldn’t be sought impulsively or compulsively.

In fact it shouldn’t be sought at all. It should happen only as we are able to trust someone else. To the extent that we trust that person we dare to risk ourselves with him. As we risk ourselves with that person (and he with us) intimacy is forged. Whereupon we find we can trust this person even more, risk ourselves in even greater vulnerability, and find even greater intimacy. Finally the day comes when we trust someone unreservedly, risk ourselves unconditionally, and are intimate inexpressibly. If someone then asks us to explain not the process I have just described but the reality of “meeting”, the reality of encounter, we shall stammer out a few inept expressions and quickly admit that the reality of “meeting” can’t be so much as explained, let alone explained away.

The cross is the climax of God’s action and God’s self-disclosure. The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ means so much that its significance can never be exhausted. Yet it always means this much at least: there is no limit to God’s vulnerability. The cross means that God exposes his own heart, risks himself defencelessly. There is simply no limit to God’s vulnerability.

If the cross of Jesus means no limit to vulnerability, then what does the resurrection of Jesus mean? According to the scripture it means there is no limit to the effectiveness of such vulnerability.

This is a most important truth that the church always manages to get wrong. Customarily the church has said that Jesus was wholly vulnerable on Good Friday; come Easter Sunday, however, it was all put behind him. On Easter he put his cross, his suffering, behind him, and he has never looked back. Oh yes, he had a bad day one Friday, but he got over it. His resurrection means he has transcended his crucifixion, gone beyond it, and triumphed gloriously in the sense of having forgotten it.

This is wrong. According to the apostles Easter doesn’t mean that the cross is left behind; it means that the cross is made victorious. Easter doesn’t mean that our Lord’s suffering is a closed chapter of his life; it means that his on-going suffering is victorious. How can we overlook the fact that Jesus is raised wounded? The church reads right past John’s gospel where we are told that our Lord is raised with his wounds still visible. The church assumes that Jesus is raised healed. No! He’s raised wounded! Which is to say, he is raised suffering still. Think of Paul on the road to Damascus. He’s been persecuting Christ’s people. Yet when the risen One accosts him, he isn’t asked, “Why are you persecuting those people?”, nor even, “Why are you persecuting my people”? The risen One asks him, “Why are you persecuting me?” Christ’s resurrection means that his wounds rendered effective; his wounds gain us admission to his Father’s heart; his wounds, rendered effective by the resurrection, are what arrests Paul. It is the ongoing vulnerability of Jesus Christ, the ongoing vulnerability of Son and Father alike, that is now the leading edge of God’s victory in the world in the face of the world’s resistance.

If Easter ever meant that God’s vulnerability was now behind him, never again to be found in him, Easter could only mean that you and I should also put our vulnerability behind us, as we now built fort after fort around ourselves. But to shun vulnerability is to render intimacy impossible. On the other hand, to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to be sure that vulnerability, and the intimacy born of it, will never finally be fruitless.


IV: — I am frequently asked, “Is intimacy easier to find in friendships than in marriage?” I always say, “No”. Surely it’s easier to find intimacy in marriage for two reasons. One, two people who are married to each other are in each other’s company much more of the time than are even the best of friends. Two, the intimacy of marriage cannot be misinterpreted the way the intimacy of a friendship could be misinterpreted, the way the intimacy of friendship could find itself crossing lines that ought not to be crossed. Therefore genuine, untroubled intimacy is easier to find in marriage than in friendship; at least in principle.

Yes, at least in principle! When we move from principle to actuality, however, the sad truth is that there are countless people whose marriages are relatively impoverished while their friendships are rich. If someone’s marriage is out-and-out terrible, any friendship is going to involve greater intimacy than the non-intimacy of a wholly dysfunctional marriage.

In this regard I often think of David and his wife Michal as compared to David and his friend Jonathan. David and Michal did not get along. She looked upon him as a buffoon; he found her to be a shrill stick-in-the-mud. (Michal wasn’t David’s only wife, to be sure, but still, she was his wife, for the purposes of our discussion.) On the other hand we are told, in 1st Samuel, that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul”, then in 2nd Samuel, “David loved Jonathan as he loved his own soul”. It’s plain that David found in his friendship with Jonathan what he never found in his marriage with Michal.

The question frequently put to me is, “Is intimacy easier to find in friendships than in marriage?” In principle, no; in practice, often yes, given the poverty of some marriages and the richness of some friendships.

But whether in marriage or in friendship, there is no intimacy without vulnerability. Resurrection never means that vulnerability has been left behind; resurrection means that vulnerability will never be fruitless finally.

IV: — If “all real living is meeting”, as Buber said, then what happens when people no longer meet? Where are we when relationships break down and vulnerability seems little more than an open wound?


We are devastated. We are devastated most when relationships break down because of betrayal. Nothing hurts like betrayal of trust. (Not only that, while we may forgive and should forgive the person who has betrayed us, whether we should ever trust her again is another question. Forgiveness and trust are not the same issue; many people whom we forgive we shall never be able to trust. We should trust only the trustworthy.)

Even where there is no betrayal the breakdown of a relationship is painful. And relationships do break down where there is no treachery, simply where two people grow farther and farther apart until they are no longer in each other’s orbits.

We all live in a particular orbit. My orbit and Maureen’s overlap very largely. At the same time, my orbit does not include the Peel Board of Education; her orbit does not include late mediaeval, early 16th century, and 18th century scholarship. If our orbits overlapped completely we’d bore each other; yet if our orbits didn’t overlap significantly we’d no longer be part of each other’s lives. Intimacy thrives in the area of overlap. As people involve themselves in the world their orbits change. Sometimes their orbits change so much that husband and wife, or friend and friend, wake up one day and discover that their lives no longer overlap at all. Frequently it’s found that lives no longer overlap on account of sin: sin flirted with, sin protracted, sin seared on heart and life, sin deadening what used to be alive. Try as people might, in many cases, the relationship can’t be reinvigorated. It appears dead. What then?

I am not an infallible guide as to when a relationship is dead; not limping, not sick, but dead. At the same time, I am aware that some relationships do die.

If a relationship is indeed dead, then the only sensible thing to do is to bury it. There is no virtue in staring at a corpse indefinitely. The only thing to do with a corpse is bury it; bury it, and await the resurrection of the dead.

Then we must cling all the more tightly to him who will never fail us, forsake us, or forget us. Of all the bonds that are forged in life there are few stronger, if any stronger, than the bond between mother and newborn, nursing infant. It seems so strong as to be unbreakable — almost; for there have been desperate, tragic situations where the bond between mother and nursing infant was sundered and mother “forgot” infant. The prophet Jeremiah came upon some people who wailed that God had forgotten them. Through the prophet God asked them, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.”

When relationships break down we must cling to him who never “forgets” us. As we cling to him we shall find that someone is brought into the orbit of our life where once again orbits overlap, vulnerability gives rise to intimacy, and “meeting” each other is cherished.

Martin Buber had it right: all real living is meeting.

Of all God’s good gifts the most precious is God’s gift of himself in Christ Jesus his son. Him we have been invited to know. To know him, however, is to say that our meeting our Lord has altered us and will continue to alter until that day when the arrears of sin are no longer found in us and we are found before him without spot or blemish.


                                                                                                   Victor Shepherd
March 2000