Dancing with the Divine
As many of you know, we are homeschooling our two daughters and that means I not only have the roles of father and preacher, but I get to be a teacher as well. And it seems, I have a tad more patience for teaching Math to our girls than Amanda does. So, when it comes to their Math lessons, I get to sit with our daughters as they work through addition and subtraction, what belongs in the tens columns or the hundreds columns, or interesting word problems about little boys and girls with different colors of crayons and what would happen if little Bobby bought 35 red crayons or gave away 15 blue crayons. And if you’ve been out of school for a while, you may not know that Math is taught a bit differently from how I learned it growing up. Instead of teaching one way to solve an addition problem, we now teach ten different ways – which is great if you’re learning how to do Math, but frustrating if you thought you knew how to do Math.
Since I teach Math to my daughters, I thought my math skills could help me with another problem: the problem of how on Trinity Sunday every year we have to deal with 1 + 1 + 1 equaling 1. Surely as someone who can sit patiently with his kids to come up with the solution to a Math problem, I can sit patiently with all of you and with our Scripture lesson for today as we ponder this trinitarian problem? But this complex Math problem of 1 + 1 +1 = 1 is why many preachers choose to take their vacations every year near Trinity Sunday… so they don’t have to preach about it. And if you think I intentionally went on vacation this past week so I didn’t have to deal with the Trinity and so I could leave it to Reann as part of her ordination requirements knowing she couldn’t say no, you might be right. Because as good as I am at Math and as patient as I am with my children as they do Math, I am not very patient with this concept of the Trinity, this idea of three in one.
Preaching on Trinity Sunday is terribly difficult because in order to understand the Trinity we have to be ok with mystery… and most of the time we aren’t. Mystery is unsettling. Mystery is exhausting. Mystery is overwhelming. We, as a people of faith, don’t do well with mystery, do we? And I’m not talking about Agatha Christie or Murder She Wrote mystery. I mean, are we ok with the mystery of God, with not understanding everything about who God is? Because I don’t know about you, but I have a very analytical mind and I want to know how things work. And I’ve realized that I want to know how things work because I ultimately want to be in control. When mystery enters our lives it often means we have to give up control to something else, someone else, or to God. I’m not very good at that. I would guess many of us here today are not very good at that. As a critical thinker, I want to know why and how something is the way it is.
Over the years as I have studied the origins of the Trinity, and it is pretty clear to me that a bunch of white men in power created the concept of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea in 325 to try to disprove other heretical theories circulating about the roles of Jesus, the Spirit, and the Creator God. And knowing this, it would be easy to say how these early theologians’ thinking was flawed and that they were fighting over doctrine and who was right or wrong and that the concept of the Trinity was just a push for religious power. But if we look a little more closely at those first several hundred years after the life of Jesus, we see that the concept of the Trinity might have been a response to heresy, but it was also created because early Church Fathers wanted to understand the relationship of God to God’s self and to all of humanity. And I think that is why the mystery of the Trinity is important for us today. The Trinity says something about how God and humanity experience one another.
As a seminary student, I was forced to get my head around the mystery of the Trinity. I took a class at Wake Forest Divinity School about the Holy Spirit from Dr. Molly Marshall, the President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas. She helped us to view the Trinity not as persons of God that possessed hierarchical power, like the Creator God is more important than the Son or the Holy Spirit. No, she wanted us to look at the shape of the Godhead and how the three personas of God interacted with each other and the world. I had previously been taught to think of the Trinity as a shape, as a triangle, with the Creator/Father at the top and the Spirit and Jesus at the other two angles. I grew-up thinking more of where each person of the Trinity was placed in a diagram, rather than their dynamic relationship with one another.
In our course, Dr. Marshall taught us to shift our thinking about the shape of the divine relationship from that of a triangle to a circle. If the ways God works in the world and among us is more like a circle, we can begin to understand why this complicated and frustrating concept of the Trinity might be something important for us today. If we view the personas of God in a circle dancing together in mutuality, moving with each other and with us in the world, then we see how the God of the universe is not focused on power and authority, but on relationship and community.
Dr. Marshall introduced us to the word perichoresis. Peri means “around” and choresis means “dancing.” Perichoresis literally means “dancing around.” In this model, the three persons of the Godhead are dancing together in harmonious, happy freedom. The life and work of the Creator, Christ, and Spirit of God are bound together in dancing joy and these parts of God are what they are only as they are in relationship to each other.
Popular Christian theologian and author, Frederick Buechner, wrote about this in his book “Wishful Thinking.” Although he knows that the concept of the Trinity is not something Christians readily understand and for many thoughtful people should just be jettisoned altogether from the church, he feels that the Trinitarian mystery could be meaningful for us today as a people of God. Please see beyond Buechner’s masculine language and know that he is trying to understand the relationship and role of God with God’s self and with us, not necessarily God’s gender.
Buechner says, “The much-maligned doctrine of the Trinity is an assertion that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there is only one God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery. Thus, the Trinity is a way of saying something about us and the way we experience God. The Trinity is also a way of saying something about God and the way he is within himself, i.e., God does not need the Creation in order to have something to love because within himself love [already] happens. In other words, the love God is is love not as a noun, but as a verb. This verb is reflexive as well as transitive. If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday.”
Did you get that? We can understand the mystery of the Trinity by looking in the mirror. Since the Trinity is the communion of God within God’s self, we, as the created beings of God, are also meant to be in loving relationship with one another. Who we choose to be as the people of God reveals the community that is already possessed within God. And, God is only who God is when in close community and divine dancing along with us. And where there is dancing there is no hierarchy or power or pain or violence. No, the Trinity reveals to us that life is built upon a God who desires to be in relationship with us, a relationship of joy and passion and dance. And so, that is why we need the Trinity, even if it seems very mysterious.
Adam Ericksen, Education Director at the Raven Foundation wrote in Sojourners magazine, that he too questions the Trinity but knows that the Trinity is important in understanding a God who values relationship over power and violence. He says, “Does this mean that God exists in some kind of Trinity? I don’t know. But what’s essential to know about the early doctrine of the Trinity is that, unlike later developments, it claimed that God has nothing to do with violence. Those of us who believe that God is non-violent need to reclaim the Trinity because it describes God as an eternal dance of joy, where there is mutual giving and receiving in the spirit of love. In fact, the doctrine was based on a letter in the Bible that states that God is love. What the doctrine of the Trinity helps us understand is that for God, love isn’t so much a noun as it is a verb. God is eternally love because God actively loves eternally. In the early development of the doctrine of the Trinity, God is pure love where there is no room for violence.”
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We have such a problem with the Trinity because as people, when three of us are together, there is the chance that two could turn on one and violence and conflict could happen. We have a culture where there is so much blame and scapegoating that community is difficult. If the Trinity tells us anything today, it is that we must look to God for what community truly is. Community and love and acceptance are all part of the nature of God and must be who we are as people of God.
Ericksen continues, “Here we discover that the Trinity is as much anthropology as it is theology. Our culture is influenced by a hyper-individualism that tells us we are our own man or our own woman. But the remarkable thing that science is teaching us is that, from subatomic particles to solar systems, the universe exists in interdependent relationships. As part of that universe, we humans are not so much individuals as we are inter-dividuals, dependent upon one another for our identity and, indeed, for our very existence. We exist in a web of interconnected and interdependent relationships of oneness. The question we must ask ourselves as inter-dividuals is, ‘Will we live into the mutual love of giving and receiving by participating in God’s love, or will we live into a spirit of individualism that seeks to fulfill my needs and my desires over and against another’s?’”
That’s a good question. And I think we miss another important question raised by Jesus earlier in our Scripture for today. At the end of the Gospel of John when Jesus was advising the disciples that the Holy Spirit would come because he had to go away, Jesus became concerned that none of his followers cared about where he was going. Jesus said, “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.”
If the disciples had pushed through their grief and truly listened to what Jesus was saying about his death and resurrection and if they had sincerely asked him, “Where are you going,” they would’ve received the answer from Jesus that he was going back to God not to rule the world through political power or violence or might. No, Jesus would’ve said that he was going back to God to rejoin the divine dance, the dance in which all parts of God are connected. Jesus was going to be a part of the that eternal dance of joy where love and mutuality thrive. And not only was Jesus going back to the divine dance, he would’ve invited the disciples into that dance as well, a dance where everyone is included and everyone is loved and everyone is part of the joy, even if you don’t know all the dance moves. The mystery of the Trinity is not about solving a Math problem, it is about joining in the dance.
Friends, what does dancing with the divine mean for us? What does community look like for us at Royal Lane and as a Trinitarian people? Are we the authoritarian Parent-figure who controls all and disciplines all? Do we possess all the power as we loiter at the top of the triangle? Or can we think of love as a verb and consider community to be a dance where all can participate, join in, lead, follow, be silly, and have fun? As we participate in perichoresis, dancing with God, our views on how to be a community must change. We must do better than the disciples and ask Jesus where he is going, because where he is going is more than a mathematical mystery. It’s a divine dance. So, are our ideas of a Trinitarian God about power and position, or are we going to dance on this Trinity Sunday? Me? I’m going to dance with the divine. Where are YOU going?