Text: 2 Corinthians 13:11-14
"Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty. . . . God in three Persons, blessed Trinity."
"I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Or as the Apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all."
For centuries Christians have sung, confessed their faith, prayed, received new members into their community, and gone out into the world to live--with worship of a Trinitarian God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we want to know the answer to the question: "Who is God?" we must begin with the doctrine of the Trinity, the three in one.
We Western Christians picture the Trinity as a triangle. The Father is on top because He is number one. The Son is at one bottom corner. The Holy Spirit is at the other bottom corner. We think of God as the Supreme Male who stands with unlimited power and control over everything and everyone below "him." God is the number one man. The Big Daddy. The Boss Man in the sky. You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the ole' Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with Him. (To paraphrase Jim Croce's song.)
We tend to think of God the Father as the "number one" top God with absolute power. But there are other ways of thinking about God? Are these other ways worth thinking about? That depends. That depends on how secure we are in our faith. Are we secure enough in our faith to think of God in new ways? I hope we are. I hope we can be open to new ideas--because that is what the 21st Century will be all about--new ideas.
There is yet another way of picturing God. Although this view of God may be new to us, it is not a new idea. In fact, this view of God comes from a Greek theologian, John of Damascus, who lived in the seventh century. This is how the Eastern Orthodox church understands the Trinity.
The concept is called perichoresis (perry-ko-ray'-sis). This Greek word is worth learning because it gives us a lovely picture of God. Peri (as in perimeter) means "around." Choresis means literally "dancing" (as in the choreography of a ballet.) Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like three dancers holding hands, dancing around together in harmonious, joyful freedom. To us Westerners, this image of the Trinity seems to suggest not one but three personal gods. But perichoresis invites us to think in a new way about the very meaning of "one" and "personal." The oneness of God is not the oneness of a distinct, self-contained individual; it is the unity of a community of persons who love each other and live together in harmony.
God--Father, Son, Holy Spirit--dances in a circle of love.
God--dancing? Why not? The English poet, Sir John Davies, wrote:
This wondrous miracle did Love devise,
For dancing is love's proper exercise.
If dancing is love's proper exercise, why should God not dance? God dances in a circle of love. Jesus Christ showed us that God is love. God's circle of love includes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and God's circle of love includes us. God's circle of love includes the whole world. Even our enemies. Even people we don't like. Even people of different. All are included in God's circle of love? How do I know that? Because I memorized John 3:16 in the second grade:
For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever should believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
If God's circle of love includes everyone, so will ours. As we read in 1 John 4:8: "He that loves not, knows not God, for God is love."
God's circle of love includes all people. God invites us to dance in God's circle of love... But that circle is wide--and it includes all people. If we want to dance in God's holy circle, we better get ready to tear down our fences. Because God's dancing partners include creatures of every color, every nation, every time in history, and every planet in every solar system.
I heard a story in a sermon that struck with me, partly because of my own struggle in seminary with Greek participles.
My story concerns a high school student who was seriously burned in a car accident. It was touch and go as to whether he would live or die. The boy's high-school English teacher didn't know how bad his burns were, just that she didn't want him to fall behind in his homework. So she arranged for a tutor to go to the hospital and work with him on what the class was studying: irregular verbs and dangling participles.
When the English teacher finally went to see her student, she was horrified. She found him still in the critical care unit. He was totally mummified in white gauze. He could only move his mouth, and that only barely. She couldn't believe she had been so insensitive to send him a tutor to help him learn "irregular verbs and dangling participles."
But on the way out, the head nurse said: "You've worked a miracle with that boy. You know that, right?" The teacher said, "I'm so embarrassed at what I did…sending him a tutor. How could I have done such a thing?"
"No," the nurse said. "You saved his life. He had been so depressed and unresponsive, we didn't know whether he would live or not. He had given up. He was just lying there, waiting to die. But then the tutor came, and suddenly his attitude changed completely. He started talking. Now he is working with us. He is fighting back, and is beginning to respond to treatment. Now, we believe he's going to make it."
The teacher had no idea what the nurse was talking about. But after the boy was released from the hospital, he explained himself why that tutor had made such a difference.
He said, "They told me I would live, but I didn't believe them. I thought they were just saying that because they didn't want to tell me the truth. But when that tutor came in, it made all the difference. I realized that you wouldn't send a tutor to work with a dying boy on irregular verbs and dangling participles!"
In a similar way, it's not the irregular verbs and dangling participles that make up the Trinity. The Trinity is not mental gymnastics such as learning to decline Greek participles. In the end, the Triune God in three persons is not so much a mystery that needs explaining as a reality that needs experiencing. The main point about the Trinity is not whether we envision it as a triangle or a dance. The most important thing about the Trinity is where it is located. The Trinity is located not somewhere up high in the heavens above the earth. The Trinity is located right square in the center of your body. The Triune God dances in a circle of love deep inside each human being. This is the truth that Christianity wants us to experience.
The Bible emphasizes the number three. For example, when Jesus stayed behind at the temple after his bar mitzvah, Mary and Joseph searched for him "for three days." Jesus is said to have had compassion for the hungry crowd because "they continue with me three days." (Mt 15:29-32) His message to that "fox" Herod was that "on the third day I shall be perfected." Three-day symbolism is found all through the Old and New Testaments.
This emphasis on the number three came to humanity through the observance of nature. The ancient sages had observed that the moon, the monthly manifestor of the reflected light of the sun, went through a cycle of twenty-eight days, which always included a three-day period when the sun lit up no part of the orb's surface visible to us from the earth. This critical period of waiting to see the "birth" of the new moon was a symbol of both heavenly and human gestation and dramatic renewal. The full moon was a monthly symbol of the maturation of the divinity, or Christos, in everyone. (Tom Harpur, The Pagan Christ, 106)
They mystery of the Trinity is the mystery of Christ in us, the hope of glory. This Triune God is gestating within us, growing inside our souls. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is maturing within us. As the Apostle Paul recommended, then, let us work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.
Let us come to God in prayer...
Loving God--Divine Trinity--Father, Son, Holy Spirit--you dance together in a circle of love. Teach us, your children, to join in this holy circle dance. Give us a new understanding of what it means to be a child of God. Give us a heart of love rather than fear. Give us a heart of forgiveness rather than resentment. Loving God, give us the courage to join you in the dance of love, which is the dance of life. The divine dancers, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dance within our bodies in the secret chamber of our heart, in our very soul. Open us to the Triune God within us, the hope of glory. Amen.
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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2010 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.