Dancing with the Trinity

Genesis 1:1-2:4a | Psalm 8 | 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 | Matthew 28:16-20

Jeremy Richards

So, today is Trinity Sunday, a day that celebrates a core Christian belief. Possibly the most confusing, paradoxical of our beliefs, and also, perhaps, our most distinct: that God is One and yet God is Three. That God is made up of the Parent or the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that these three are somehow distinct and yet they are One. We don’t believe in 3 gods, we believe in one God who is made up of three distinct…persons (it’s not even clear what we should call them)?

In the last couple of years, I’ve taken a special interest in the Trinity. I think it’s fascinating. I’ve mainly been interested in the Trinity because I’ve come to understand the Christian life as, basically, a life that has been joined to and caught up in the very life of the Trinity.

Basically, the idea goes something like this: the Trinity exists in perfect community with one another. No one is dominating anyone, they’re all existing together in perfect love. There is a Greek word, perichoresis, that’s been used to describe the Trinity. Perichoresis means “to dance around.” The implication is that the Three are always moving, interweaving, enveloping, and indwelling one another in a perpetual dance.

In the words of the feminist Catholic theologian Catherine LaCugna, the divine dancers “experience one fluid motion of encircling, encompassing, permeating, enveloping, outstretching. There are neither leaders nor followers in the divine dance, only an eternal movement of reciprocal giving and receiving, giving again and receiving again... The divine dance is fully personal and interpersonal, expressing the essence and unity of God. The image of the dance forbids us to think of God as solitary.”[1] God is not alone, but in community from the very beginning. God is not stationary, but is moving!

So, the Trinity is dancing with each other in perfect community, and Jesus, through the incarnation, joins this dancing life of God – which is the life experienced in the Trinity – to the lives of humans. So now we are caught up in this dance with the Trinity.

In fact, the two most helpful books I have on the Trinity both include the word “dance” in their title. One is Dancing with God by the Womanist theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher and the other is The Divine Dance by the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr.

Early in his book, Richard Rohr describes an icon by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev. This icon depicts the three members of the Trinity sitting around a table, but the most important part of the icon is what’s missing. There’s a space at the front of the table, and in that space there’s what appears to be a little rectangular hole. Art historians say there’s bits of glue stuck to this spot, which means something was once glued there, and do you know what they think was glued to the painting? A mirror!

Andrei Rublev’s depiction of the Trinity included you! And me!

The other day, my brother-in-law Phil told me that it’s funny how I think theology is interesting because everyone else thinks it’s boring.

But this isn’t boring is it?! Isn’t it so cool to think that Salvation isn’t a contract you sign that gets you into heaven in the next life, but an invitation into the very life of God, an invitation that starts now? That we are somehow enveloped in the life of God. That, according to Andrei Rublev, the Trinity is sitting down for a meal and we get to sit down with them!

This is why I was so excited for Trinity Sunday that I waited to start our sermon series on Philippians until next week, even though the Season of Easter ended last week, so it would have made sense to start the series this week.

But, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in the texts the lectionary gave me for this Sunday. All we got was the creation account, written long before the Trinity was even a thought in any human mind (as far as we know); 3 verses at the end of 2 Corinthians that really have nothing to do with the Trinity, except Paul ends with “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you”; and the Great Commission from Matthew 28, which, like the text from 2 Corinthians, does nothing to explain the Trinity, but simply mentions the Trinity: Jesus tells his disciples to make disciples and baptize them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

That doesn’t give us a lot to work with as far as describing and understanding the Trinity. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the Trinity isn’t meant to be described and understood. I mentioned that I have two books I really like on the Trinity that have the word “dance” in their titles, but as I was preparing for today I also looked at two other books. One was the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology and the others was the baptist theologian James McClendon’s systematic theology simply titled Doctrine.

And I’ll be honest. I read less than half a page combined in those two books. It was so boring. Don’t get me wrong, in the right context they’re interesting, but when it comes to preparing a sermon, it was so dry and technical and utterly unrelatable.

Maybe that’s because the Trinity is not something to be comprehended, it’s something to be caught up in.

Because the Trinity is, by Its very nature, not a concept but a movement. Richard Rohr calls the Trinity “a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion…a circle dance of love…And God is not just a dancer; God is the dance itself.”[2]

The Trinity is not something to be understood intellectually, but something to be caught up in and carried by.

Maybe the the only problem with Andrei Rublev’s icon is that the Trinity is sitting down, when a better depiction would be the three persons dancing or running or playing on a jungle gym.

Maybe the point is not so much how the Trinity works, but what the Trinity does, and if that’s the case, maybe our readings from today are not so irrelevant as I first thought (except the 2 Corinthians passage, that one still is).

As Christians, we believe that any time we talk about “God” we’re talking about the Trinity, so when we look back through the Old Testament, we should think “Trinity” every time we read “God,” even though the authors of those texts probably didn’t have any concept of the Trinity, because it hadn’t been revealed yet.

So, when we read Genesis 1 about God creating the heavens and the earth, we’re learning something about the work of the Trinity, and if we’re learning about the work of the Trinity, we’re learning about the work we’re called into as well, since we’ve been drawn into this life of the Trinity through Jesus.

In Genesis 1 the earth is one way: it’s a “formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” but where the Trinity sees a formless void and darkness – what we might call chaos – the Trinity sees potential. In Genesis 1, the Trinity enters into this chaos. 1:2 says, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

From the very beginning, God is all about new possibilities. Where there’s darkness, God sees the possibility of light. Where there’s a void, God sees the potential for a good world, teeming with the life: plants, animals, and even humans who are made in God’s image.

That’s a really intriguing thought, that we’re made in the image of God, in light of what we’ve been learning about the Trinity.

If Richard Rohr is right, and God is not just a dancer, but God is actually the dance itself, then being made in the image of God means we were also made to move, to be in relationship, and to create. Maybe “image’ is misleading because it implies a static, stationary form, but what we’ve inherited from our Creator is movement in and with the God who created us. Participation with the three who are one, so that, somehow, we become part of that One. We humans become part of the eternal One.

That’s pretty mystical stuff, right? I love it!

But it’s actually really biblical, I’m not just going off on a tangent. Jesus actually prays for just this in John 17. Praying for his disciples and future disciples he says, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…” (vv. 21-23). Do you see how there’s a kind of interweaving, dancing feel to this? God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God, but we’re also in them, so if they are one we also are one with them.

To be a Christian, or a disciple, is to join our lives to the life of the Trinity and enter into the work that God started way back at the dawn of time, in Genesis 1, and is continuing to do today, even in the most broken places, especially in the most broken places. God is always entering into places that lack in order to bring about an abundance. In Genesis, the Trinity started with a dark void and creates a world of unimaginable beauty. In Exodus the Trinity brings hope to an enslaved people, the Israelites, and creates a story and a future for them that was utterly unimaginable. In the incarnation of Jesus, the Trinity starts, once again, in an unimaginable place: with a little illegitimate baby, born to a poor, scandalized mother, and says God will save the cosmos through that baby. And then when that baby grows up, he dies on a cross, and the Trinity, once again, does the unimaginable, transforming the cross into an instrument of salvation. And then the Trinity takes the staunch Jewish Pharisee named Paul, who’s persecuting and killing Christians, and makes him the most prolific New Testament writer and the one who brings the Good News to the Gentiles (us), the one who wrote some of the words we read today about the Trinity. Who, other than the Trinity, would have thought that would be possible? The Early Church couldn’t believe it, even after it happened. It was unimaginable.

In Matthew 28, when Jesus gives the disciples (and us) the Great Commission, he’s calling us into that kind of unimaginable work. Jesus is leaving, but he doesn’t want the disciples to hunker down and simply hold on. He wants them to enter the world, a world that is chaotic, that sometimes feels void of life and hope, and trust that the Trinity is already there, hovering over the waters of pain, discontent, and fear, and to step out onto those waters, as Peter stepped out onto the sea, trusting that we won’t walk alone. Or, more accurately, we won’t dance alone. The Trinity is already there, doing the unthinkable. Already dancing, and inviting us into the dance.

Our world feels especially chaotic right now. There’s unrest the world over, but our city especially has been in the spotlight. It’s easy to want to avoid the chaos, to hunker down, but in Genesis the Spirit hovers over the waters. Jesus’ great commission calls us to enter the chaotic places, as God is famous for doing, knowing the Trinity is already there (as Paul knew Jesus was already in Athens a few weeks ago) and join up with the new thing God is inevitably doing.

But knowing where the Trinity is working, and how the Trinity is working is not always easy. We must enter into this work with prayer. We talked about this a few weeks ago in light of the violence that’s taken place in our world, and we looked to the disciples, who returned to their home and dedicated themselves to prayer as they waited for the Spirit to come.

The thing about God doing a new thing is that new things always require change, because it’s breaking the mold. There’s no “this is the way we’ve always done it” with God. But the chaos doesn’t want to change. The formless void wants to stay a formless void. The darkness that covers the face of the deep wants to keep covering the face of the deep. So change is usually met by resistance.

So as we watch the news, or we look at our city, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the unrest is contrary to the work of God. Maybe the Spirit is causing the unrest, revealing things that have been broken and festering for a long time, and the chaos, the void, is resisting that work. Maybe these ruptures are the Trinity beginning a new work we don’t know about. Sometimes God is the still, small voice, but sometimes God is a pillar of fire. Maybe we should pray that the Trinity shows us where it is working, and then we should pray that we would have the courage to join it in that work.

Going out into the world and baptizing new disciples in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” doesn’t mean taking new believers through an empty ritual so we can put another notch in our Bibles, counting all the people we’ve saved. It’s bringing the life of God to those who desperately need it, as it has been brought to us, and baptizing them into that life – a beautiful life that can really only be described as a dance.

[1] Catherine LaCugna, God For Us, 272.

[2] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, 27.