Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Divine Dance: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

“The Divine Dance”
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-14
May 18, 2005, Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday, which bears the distinction of being the only Sunday in the church year which celebrates, not an event, but a point of theology: the Trinity. It has been said that on Trinity Sunday, it is a custom for the aged pastor of the church to send the green young associate into the pulpit to try to explain this mysterious doctrine. Then, while the young preacher is doing his or her very best, the old hand sits quietly making notes—ticking off heresies as they are spoken, one by one. We don’t spend a lot of time arguing or even thinking about these points—I for one forgot every heresy I learned in seminary as soon as the test was over. I think I took Martin Luther’s words to heart. He said: “To deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.” Still, there were times in the church’s history when blood was spilled over matters such as the nature of the Triune God. Every once in a while it does us good to flex these unused muscles, to try once more to grapple with the question: what is the Trinity? And why does this understanding of God make a difference in our lives as Christians?

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” This is Paul’s farewell blessing to the people of church in Corinth at the end of his second letter to them. Stated like this, it sounds as if he is talking about three different persons in God. The early church councils used this very term—they stated that three persons of the Trinity existed in the One who was still, somehow, one God.

That word, “persons,” comes from the Greek word “persona,” and means “mask”—as if each person of the Trinity were somehow a mask God wears. This idea is helpful, to a point. We—faithful people throughout history—have had different experiences of God we have somehow boiled down to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The people of the Hebrew Scriptures had an experience of God we may like to think of as God the Father or God the Creator. In Jesus Christ the disciples and those who followed them had an experience that, following on Jesus’ own description of his relationship with God, we have come to think of as God the Son or God the Christ. And those gathered in the upper room had an experience of what we have come to think of as God the Holy Spirit, or the Advocate, the one who is still powerfully with us in the church. One God has been made manifest in many experiences. But here’s the problem with the “mask” imagery: the doctrine of the Trinity is not saying that there is one God who wears a bunch of different disguises, like some sort of divine CIA operative. There is something wholly Father of God the Father, that is not the same as God the Christ.

It’s typical to try to explain the Trinity to children using an object lesson: the Trinity is like a three-leaf clover, or an apple, or an egg. So each person is like one of the leaves, or the core, flesh and skin, or the shell, yolk and white. But that leaves us short. God is each leaf and all the leaves simultaneously, shell, yolk and white all at once.

Along these same lines, it has come to be popular in recent years to express the Trinity as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,” in an effort to avoid using all male pronouns for God. And I really love and appreciate the thought behind that effort. Only—it’s not accurate. We believe that the fullness of God was and is present in creation. Look at the very first verses of Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness… Gen. 1:1-3

We read here that God created the heavens and the earth. God, Creator, Father, first person of the Trinity. We read that a “wind from God swept over the waters…” In Hebrew the word for “wind” and “spirit” is one and the same: ruach. The Spirit of God, the Ruach of God, Holy Spirit, was hovering over the waters at the creation. And how does God create? God speaks: the Word, the Logos, the second person in the Trinity. The opening to the gospel of John deliberately echoes the beginning of Genesis to make just this point: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” [John 1:1] When we Christians look at this passage, we see the Trinity. We believe that all of God was present in Creation, and that all of God is still present in Creation.

We also believe that all of God was present in the act of redemption through Jesus Christ, and that the completeness of God is somehow present in the Holy Spirit’s action in sustaining us, corporately in the church as well as individually. So God the Father is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer; God the Son is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, and God the Holy Spirit is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We can’t divide God up functionally.

So we have established some things the Trinity is not. The Trinity is not God in different masks. And the Trinity is not God divided up into separate functions. Nor is it God divided up anatomically or spatially. Where do we go from here? Wiser heads than mine have suggested that, rather than focus on “ontology”—the “what is it?” question—that we should focus on relationship—the “how is it?” question. The best we can do is to hold up our understanding of the Trinity as a parable, as something that tells the truth but still leaves us to fill in the blanks. The Trinity is three persons in one God. But what does that mean? The parable of the trinity is really an attempt to explain that God is, even in God’s completely sovereign and majestic self, relational. God is not static. God is complete in God’s self, but God wants to be in relationship. Here is how one writer explains it:

God is communitarian… From all time God was several, a society of persons who know and love each other so well that They’re infinitely transparent and united. They had to be several to be God; They had to be together to be Themselves; They had to be sundry to be love.[1]

Here is how Saint John of the Cross explained it: God is the One who loves so completely that there must be a co-equal lover to God to receive that love; and the love between the two is so dynamic and powerful that it is the third person. God is Lover, Beloved and Love.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has an image of the Trinity that may be helpful. Theologians beginning with John of Damascus have depicted the Trinity as three persons engaged in a circle dance. If the very nature of God, the Trinity, is relationship, this image shows it to be an utterly joyous and interdependent relationship. As one theologian has written, “Father, Son, and Spirit join hands and spin and spin and spin, all equal partners in the dance. Some have spoken of the very act of creation as the result of the love of this dance spilling over to make a world, or of the dancers spreading out to make room in their circle for more.”[2] This same theologian shared the following hymn as an illustration:

Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun--
the interweaving of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.
The universe of space and time did not arise by chance,
but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.

Here’s what I know about God: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the Spirit of God swept over the waters. And God spoke—God said the Word—and creation came into being. From the beginning, whether it was made explicit in the text or not, the God who is, at core, community, created all that is, a great and diverse living community of creatures upon the earth. And then God made human beings, earth-creatures, in the divine image. God, who is wholly about relationship, made us to be in relationship with one another as well as with God. God, who is love and relationship through and through, made us to love and be in relationship as well. God, who in the divine essence is a joyful, loving dance, invites us into the dance as well.

In speaking of the Trinity, there always comes a point when words fail us. Supposedly Saint Augustine was walking along the beach one day, puzzling over the doctrine of the Trinity, when he came across a little child who was running back and forth with a bucket, pouring water from the ocean into a hole he had dug in the sand. (I myself remember spending hours of summer days engaged in exactly this activity.) Augustine asked the boy, "What are you doing?" The boy replied, "I'm trying to put the ocean into this hole." Augustine abruptly realized that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind. So let’s allow the rest of our reflection this morning to be in that place beyond words, imagining that joyful dance and our part in it, in gratitude to the God who invites us into the divine dance with one another. Amen.

[1] Louis Evely, That Man is You.
[2] Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, Sermon on Trinity Sunday, May 2007.


Anonymous said...

Where did you find the quote by Martin Luther?

Bruce Johnson said...

I came across this sermon by accident and found myself rejoicing. I don't know how you can describe yourself as a liberal pastor, as this understanding of the trinity makes you wonderfully orthodox. Thank you.