Sermon: Holy Dance of the Trinity

31 May 2015 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: Trinity Sunday. The only feast of the Church devoted to a theological doctrine, instead of an event or a person. Also known as “Associate Rector’s Day to Preach” or “Try Not to Expound Heresy from the Pulpit Day.” It is, as you might have gathered, a notoriously difficult subject for a sermon. The doctrine of the Trinity is complicated and nuanced, not easily understood even by theologians. The Trinity is at heart a mystery, and when we try to apply words to divine mystery, we run up against the limits of human language and thought pretty quickly. Yet we can’t avoid it with integrity, because the Trinity has to do with the very nature of God, and the nature of God might say something important to us. So what is up with this doctrine, three in one and one in three? And why does it matter for our lives, anyway?

You may have noticed that while today’s readings mentioned the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they don’t seem to describe the Trinity as a full-fledged concept. While there are these hints in the Bible, and occasional references to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament, the word “Trinity” is not used in the Bible. It came later, around the year 180. The first generation of Christians were baptizing in the name of the Trinity, but it wasn’t clear exactly what that meant. It was left to Christians of the next three centuries to figure that out. Like all theology, the doctrine of the Trinity began with people’s experience of God and their practice of their faith. The experience and the practice produced the doctrine, not the other way around. These early Christians, with their Jewish brothers and sisters, experienced God as one. There was only one God. They also experienced Jesus Christ as divine, as the unique revelation of Godself to the world, and they experienced the Holy Spirit as God’s gift to the church. How were these three related? How could there be a divine Son and a Holy Spirit but only one God? The answer these early Christians eventually agreed upon, after a few centuries of heated argument, was that there were three persons in one God. The word “person” is a little misleading in English, where it refers to an individual; in Latin, persona refers to the mask worn by actors in a play. These persons are of the same substance, the same stuff. They are equal, yet different; separate, yet inextricably together. The Father is not the Son is not the Spirit is not the Father. Yet the Father is in the Son is in the Spirit is in the Father. All three of them together are the one God––not three gods, but one God.

It’s hard to use an analogy to describe the Trinity because it leads you right into heresy. But there is an image that is both not heretical and vivid enough to help our limited human reason glimpse the mystery of the Trinity: perichoresis, from Greek roots meaning “around” and “dance.” It’s a word used by early Christians to describe the eternal holy dance of the three in one. Imagine the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit dancing a step meant for three, gracefully weaving around each other, sometimes faster and energetically, sometimes with elegant slowness. Now they are holding hands, now placing arms about their shoulders, now letting go to whirl around in perfect time. They are separate, yet united in movement and purpose. Without one of them, the dance won’t happen. It requires all three of them. That dance is the mystery of the Trinity.

That image of perichoresis, of the holy dance, illuminates perhaps the most important thing for us to understand about the Trinity. And that is what it says about the nature of God. God cannot be God as one person, or even two; all three persons are necessary. God exists in relationship. God is love, as the apostle John tells us, and God needs relationship to express love. Without someone to receive love, God cannot be. And if God had not been three in one, God could not have loved before creating other beings on which to bestow God’s love. The Father needs the Son needs the Spirit needs the Father, and together they need us to receive love, to sing their praises, to rage and shout at them sometimes, to be their partners in the redemption of the world––they need us to be in relationship with them. The Trinity is in a sense the three in one plus one, plus us.[1]

When the triune God made us in God’s image, God made us for relationships; God made us to love God and to love one another. Possibly the most well-known artistic depiction of the Trinity is the icon written by Andrei Rublev some six hundred years ago. Rublev portrayed the Trinity as the angels who visited Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis. They are seated around a table with a bowl of food in front of them, preparing to share a meal. No one is sitting at the fourth side of the table, which is open to the viewer. That seat is for us, the plus one. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit want a relationship with us. They want to love us. That’s what they do. And they want us to do for others what the Trinity has done for us––to reach out to them, to be in relationship with them, to love them.

And here’s where the doctrine of the Trinity matters for our lives. One of the enduring stories we Americans tell ourselves is that we are a country of self-sufficient individuals. We take pride in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps; we tell ourselves that hard work will solve any problem. We think we should be able to do everything by ourselves. While self-reliance can be a virtue, it sometimes makes us ashamed to ask for help, to admit we can’t do it all on our own. You might know someone who is obviously struggling or in pain yet insists, “I’m fine. Thanks for the offer, but I don’t need any help.” Perhaps, now and then, you have been that person; I know I have. The Trinity reminds us that not even God can live in isolation. What makes us think we can? Are we somehow more self-sufficient than God? The Trinity frees us to accept help when we need it, even to ask for it. There is no shame in depending on others. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit depend on each other, and we are made in their image. We were created to be in relationship. Accepting help is being true to the image of God that dwells within each of us.

This feast day reminds us of the fundamental nature of God: three, and yet one; love that needs others to be fully itself. The triune God created us in God’s image, to be in relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the three in one plus one. They move together in an eternal, mysterious, holy dance, and as one, they reach out, urging us to join them.

[1] I owe this phrase to David Lose, “Trinity B: Three-in-One Plus One!” In the Meantime, (accessed May 26, 2015).

Trinity Sunday, Year B: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

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