“The Dance of God” Proverbs 8:1-4, 21-31, John 16:12-15 5/26/13
Now that the Holy Spirit has arrived, as we heard last week in the Pentecost story, the Church moves on to this Sunday, called, with not a lot of imagination, “Trinity Sunday.” It’s the only festival based on a doctrine instead of an event. As the Church moves from the “Age of Belief,” as Harvey Cox and Diana Butler Bass describe it, when doctrines and “what you believe” were the standard, to the Age of the Spirit, when the experience of the Holy is primary, what are we to make of the doctrine of the Trinity and why does it matter? What difference does “the Trinity” make in my life and how would I ever explain it to my kids?
The word “trinity” doesn’t appear in Scripture, at least as a doctrine referring to God, though there are places, like the ending of the gospel of Matthew, where the early church reports Jesus’ telling them to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” It’s the early church speaking, not Jesus, because those are the words of an institution, even a young one. And yet, this “command of Jesus” has been, even fairly recently, the cause of church arguments and division. In discussions about church unity and mutual recognition, the words used in baptism have been a source of contention. When members of the United Church of Christ advocate for expanding the language we use to describe the God in whose name we baptize–to, say, “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer”–other churches insist that baptism can only be performed “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” otherwise there can be no unity.
It’s this kind of thing that drives more and more people to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”–the “nones,” as in the survey question, “What religious tradition do you consider yourself part of?” “None” reply a growing number of people, according to a recent Pew Research study. One seminary professor suggests that the question that more and more people are asking, including the “nones,” is “How can my life be re-enchanted?” (Cheryl Jones, in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost, 2013, p. 4) Our culture, she says, is suffering from EDD–Enchantment Deficit Disorder, the “loss of a sense of wonder, a skepticism of anything that smacks of the supernatural or the miraculous,” yet many of us long for “the wonderful, the holy, and the genuinely spiritual.” (Ibid.) Protestants–like us, quite frankly–especially from the Reformed tradition, have been “part of the modern project of disenchantment,” with our rational, word-centered worship, and our distrust if not ridicule of other more mystical or emotional or movement centered forms of worship. We’re not sure we should laugh or clap or dance or move or do anything spontaneous in worship, and there will be no losing of control, God forbid. We are the “frozen chosen,” as some have called us, and on a cold, rainy weekend like this, it seems a pretty apt description.
So what does this have to do with the Trinity? It has to do with the kind and character of the God we worship. What is our God like? The doctrine of the Trinity was the response of the early church–and by early I mean 3rd and 4th century–to explain how the one God could also have been experienced through Jesus and whose Spirit was poured into ordinary people empowering them to be extraordinary and do extraordinary things. The language and way of thinking available to those early church thinkers was Greek, and while much of their explanations may seem tortured and abstract to us, this was a matter of ultimate concern to them. Actually, some of the earliest descriptions are the most intriguing. Tertullian, an early church father, used terms from the performing arts to describe the nature of God. He suggested that, like the masks that actors put over their faces to convey a certain character, so God puts on different masks when acting as creator, redeemer, or spirt. All the aspects of God are present when any one mask is on, so they dance around behind the mask, in a kind of whirling circle dance, called perichoresis. When the Greek got translated into Latin and then into modern languages, the word for mask turned into persona, which implies distinct, self-contained beings, and then all sorts of tortured explanations followed from that.
What the Trinity communicates is that God is a community, dynamic, flowing, inter- personal, creative, not necessarily limited to three, but like our bodies and Paul’s image of the church as a body, made up of many different parts. In fact, the community that God is like might even be described like the community formed on Pentecost when tongues of fire and energy touched down on all those gathered in the upper room, transforming them, empowering them, giving them languages and the ability to communicate with people all over the world. “The lively, energizing, relational vision of the Trinity,” writes Bruce Epperly, is in contrast to the “disembodied, abstract, and irrelevant description” that the doctrine often implies. “I believe that the Trinitarian God is constantly dancing, growing, choosing, and changing,” he goes on, and “hasn’t decided everything in advance without interraction with the creation.” (Adventurous Lectionary, 5/26/13) That is what Process Theology says–God is still speaking and moving and interacting and responding.
The image from Proverbs of Sophia, Lady Wisdom, calling to all who live to “wise up,” to listen to wisdom, is another aspect of God. It is a playful, creative, even child-like part of the Divine, deeply involved in the creation of the universe and delighting in it. The universe was created for joy, abundance, and delight, so that spirituality is “about fiery, passionate love of the earth, not otherworldly withdrawal.” (Epperly, op cit.) Paul writes to the Romans in today’s epistle reading that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,” and the reading from John tells us that the same Spirit that was in Christ is now in us, that we are embodiments of the divine creative wisdom.
The Feast of Pentecost was originally a Jewish harvest festival, the festival of bringing the first fruits to God. The Eastern Christian Church still celebrates Pentecost as a “green” holiday , a feast of the earth, and people decorate their churches and homes with greenery. All life is filled with God’s Spirit and like Wisdom delighting in God’s creation, so nature is re-enchanted.
Former Archbishop if Canterbury Rowan Williams writes that “the present ecological crisis may be attributed to our failure to think of the world as existing in relation to the mystery of God, not just as a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (William P. Brown, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2013, p. 12) Indeed, Rachel Carson, one of the early environmentalists, said that “wonder is a virtue necessary for the long-term survival of our species,” if not the planet. (Ibid.) Mission 4/1 Earth goes on.
So what kind of life results from this understanding of God? It is communal, participatory, hand reaching out to hand in an on-going, colorful, earth-delighting dance. It is a dance that carries the Cross along within it, bearing the burdens of those who are still suffering and being crucified, including the earth itself. St. Augustine described the Trinity as the Lover, the Beloved, and Love Itself.
It is into this circle that we are called to join in. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts the invitation this way–
Go to the limits of your longing
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Give me your hand.
May we join in that dance. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark