Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dancing with God on Trinity Sunday -- A Lectionary Reflection

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

Dancing with God on Trinity Sunday

            Why bother with the Trinity?  It’s a distraction from interfaith conversations with Jewish and Muslim friends, who find it difficult to reconcile the Christian claim to be monotheists with our affirmation of this idea of threeness in God’s nature.  Besides, Christians have been struggling with this doctrinal statement since at least the third century if not before.   We’ve come up with all manner of definitions that veer from tritheism (three gods) to Unitarianism.  In the fourth century, feeling pressure from the Roman government, leaders of the church decided on a formula (Nicene Creed) that drew from Greek philosophical categories that we no longer make use of.  We nod in agreement even if we don’t accept the philosophical foundations as useful.  So why not just abandon this idea of the Trinity and affirm a more radical monotheism? 

            As a pastor in a denomination that doesn’t put the Trinity front and center in its belief systems (because we’re non-creedal, that system is fairly open), and being pastor of a congregation that contains a number of members who would claim to be Unitarian or feel that the doctrine is irrelevant, I could skip Trinity Sunday and no one would complain.  And yet, I continue to embrace this doctrine, believing that it helps me understand and experience God’s presence and activity in a much fuller way than I could with a strict monotheism.  So, on Sunday, I will try to lead my congregation in celebrating the Triune nature of God. 

            For the Trinity to truly have value for my faith experience, it will have to be more than a philosophical construct.  There has to be a living engagement with the triune God.  Although there is the problem of gender particularity in the traditional formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I haven’t found an alternative that brings personal engagement.  Other formulas focus on roles, not personality.  Whatever formula we choose to embrace, the point is – God is not simple.  God is complex and ultimately ineffable.  Perhaps it’s appropriate that we find it difficult to adequately define God as Trinity, but if Christ is the center of our faith, then we must delve into this belief to make sense of our relationship with God through Christ. 

            The title of this post borrows from the reflections offered by my friend Bruce Epperly, who writes that “the Trinitarian God is constantly dancing, growing, choosing, and changing.”  We see this vision of the divine present in Proverbs 8, which offers a definition of Holy Wisdom (Heb. Hokmah).  Holy Wisdom is often seen in feminine form, reminding us that in the divine nature there is the feminine as well as the masculine.  While Proverbs 8 suggests that Wisdom is the first act of creation, and then is the partner with God in creating the world – serving with God as “master worker,” or perhaps better the “master builder.”  God sets out the plans and Wisdom brings the plan to fruition. 

The first four verses invite us to hear the call of Wisdom, who stands at the city gates and cries out to us, asking for our attention.  In the intervening verses, we hear a portion of this message and a reminder that Wisdom “dwell[s] with prudence; I have found knowledge and discretion” (vs. 12).  There is a reminder that there is a practical dimension to Wisdom, and thus to the nature of God.  In the verses that run from 22 -31, we hear the message of Wisdom’s role in Creation.  The first Creation, then serving with God, as the Master Builder, all that is created is created – and Wisdom was there with God. 

The reading closes with the verses that inspire the idea that God is a Dancing Trinity.  The Common English Bible brings out this sense more clearly than the NRSV.
I was having fun, smiling before him all the time,Frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race.    (vs. 30b-31). 
I take this reference to be a key to the intimate and dynamic nature of God.  God the Trinity is not Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.”  God isn’t the disinterested Creator of Deism.  God is the Dancing Trinity, who in the form of Wisdom, likes to have fun, who smiles, and frolics with the inhabitants of earth.   Can you get your head around this image of the God who loves to play?

            The readings from John and Romans are more formal, but they too help us recognize that there is more to God than a singular view might suggest.  In the reading from Romans 5, the focus is on peace and hope, both of which come to us through Christ.  We have peace with God through Christ.  It is a peace that is received by faith and brings to us righteousness because of his faithfulness.  God is the actor, and Jesus is the mediator of that action.  Yes, there are problems, challenges, even suffering, but as we persevere or endure, character is produced, and it is this character that leads to hope.  Hope isn’t mere whimsy – it’s deeply rooted trust that God is faithful.  This hope is related to the love of God poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (vs. 5).  There is a trinity of attributes – faith, hope, love.  We could add into the mix peace, but perhaps peace is the result of these three.  There is in this accounting an incipient Trinitarian formula.  It’s not developed or explicitly stated, but if you’re looking for it, you’ll find it.  Peace comes from God through Christ, and the love of God is poured out through the Holy Spirit.  And, keeping all of this in mind, we can hear another promise.  As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out, as reflect on verse five we should bear in mind that “the gift of the Spirit for Paul demonstrates that the community already lives in the age to come”  (Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Letters Without Dismissing the Law: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 38).  God already reigns, we just need to recognize that reign.  And if as is hinted here, God is triune, then there is depth to this relationship that we can delve into.

            When it comes to the word from the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus tell the disciples that there is more to be shared, but they’re not yet ready to hear it or understand it.  It takes time and experience to begin to understand this God who comes to us as Trinity, as divine complexity.  As I read this passage I thought of Robert Wright’s book The Evolution of God.  The book itself seeks to demonstrate that over time humans have developed a fuller and more coherent understanding of God, moving from early animism, through polytheism, henotheism, and on to monotheism.  If you take his trajectory seriously, Islam becomes the culmination in this evolutionary process, which means that Trinitarian thinking is something of an aberration. While we needn’t accept Wright’s theories, it is helpful to realize that our own understandings of God do evolve.  Because we can’t handle the entire truth all at once, we build, layer by layer understandings of God.  Some aspects or beliefs will be jettisoned, because they prove to be dead-ends, but the point is that we are seeking to better understand that which we have come to believe. 

In John 16, Jesus says to the disciples, “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.”  At that point in the story, of course, Jesus is pointing toward the cross and the resurrection.  He is telling them that even if they don’t understand now, they will in time.  But, remembering that this is a Trinitarian vision, we hear a promise, the Spirit of Truth is coming, and the Spirit of Truth will guide us to the truth.  And what does the Spirit of Truth reveal?  The Spirit shares with the Spirit hears, and what the Spirit hears will glorify Christ, for the Spirit takes what is Christ’s and proclaims it to us.  The Trinitarian element is especially present in verse 15, where Jesus says that “everything that the Father has is Mine,” continuing the message that the Father and Son are one.  Then Jesus declares that the Spirit takes what is Christ’s and proclaims it to us.  And here is the promise – the Spirit makes that which is Christ’s available to us.  So that we don’t fall victim to a theology of glory that leads to triumphalism, we must understand that with any glory comes the suffering of the cross.  That is the way of God who comes to us as Trinity. 

            Returning to that vision expressed in Proverbs 8, are we ready to experience the delight of God.  Are we ready to embrace a Wisdom that seeks to have fun, who smiles before God, who frolics with the inhabited earth and who delights in the human race?   In other words, are we ready to dance before God, as one of our small children did this past Sunday as the children and their leaders sang “This Little Light of Mine?”  Is their joy in our embrace of this God who comes to us inviting us to join in the dance?    


John said...


You said: "In the reading from Romans 5, the focus is on peace and hope, both of which come to us through Christ. We have peace with God through Christ. It is a peace that is received by faith and brings to us righteousness because of his faithfulness. God is the actor, and Jesus is the mediator of that action. Yes, there are problems, challenges, even suffering, but as we persevere or endure, character is produced, and it is this character that leads to hope. Hope isn’t mere whimsy – it’s deeply rooted trust that God is faithful."

I agree with your closing mention of the children as a source of inspiration as well as invitation into the presence of God in the world.

In the picture that Emma drew on the whiteboard in the library, which depicts how God views suffering in the world. She drew a large eye, with various scenes of suffering, war, tornadoes, etc, clearly visible in the iris. Then she drew tears, pouring forth. But God is not just a witness to the tragedy, because within the tears she drew peace symbols.

For me the peace symbols were the most compelling image within the portrait, for they suggest that within the tears of God, comes the promise of shalom. While I am sure she was unaware of the connection, I was immediately drawn to the image from Isaiah 55:10 of God's words falling like rain, nurturing and healing, and which God promises will not return to him until they have accomplished his will.

A truly staggering portrayal of God's vision from a 12 year old.

Robert Cornwall said...

John, I agree that we have much to learn from the children and young people -- from the freedom to dance among the youngest to the perceptive understandings of those a bit older!

keithwatkinshistorian said...

Will Robinson told his classes long ago that the first followers of Jesus experienced in their relations with him something of the same transcendence that was associated with the one God of the Jewish people. This left them with two questions that the New Testament doesn't answer: How can we say that Jesus is in some way associated directly with God and still claim that God is one? How can we say that he is in some way God and still claim that he is fully human as we are? Theologians ever since have worked on answers, but no one has succeeded and this seems to be the way it will keep on going.