Today is Trinity Sunday, the only principal feast of the Church that’s devoted to a theological doctrine rather than the life of Jesus and his followers. As your three priests talked about this coming feast day and how we would manage it homiletically, Fr. Marcus looked at me and said, “Don’t we have a seminarian somewhere we could make preach that Sunday?” It’s a notoriously awful day to draw the short straw as the preacher because, frankly, you’re set up to fail from the start. The whole point of the Trinity as a model for understanding God is that God can’t be understood in human terms. So, Mr. Preacher, good luck with that.
Our readings this morning do a great job of illustrating God’s incomprehensible reality. This God is the transcendent, majestic sovereign of the universe, attended by flying serpents and towering above the holy Temple, filling the whole place with just the outer hem of a regal robe. This God’s voice thunders, breaking the cedar trees and making the giant oak trees writhe. And – not “but,” but “and” – this God adopts us as beloved children, the Holy Spirit joining with our own spirits in an eternal bond, giving us the love of a parent from which nothing can separate us. And, unbelievably, that love comes to dwell among us in Jesus, spending time with everyone from criminals to doctors of the law like Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading. In his interview with Jesus, we hear Nicodemus, a brilliant man, mystified by the paradox that we must be born not just once but twice, not just of human parents but of God – the God who loves us deeply enough to die that we may live, defeating death so that we “may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Frankly, all this makes little sense from a human perspective. Everything about God is paradoxical. As the theologian and church pioneer Ian Mobsby says, we know “God through mystical encounter rather than knowing God as a set of objectified facts.”1 A couple of weeks ago, Fr. Marcus was preaching about dogma and its tendency to undercut the mystery that is God; and he lamented that we often try to explain rather than encounter the divine, that we rely on prose rather than poetry to know God. We face that temptation especially on this Sunday, when the doctrine of the Holy Trinity can quickly deteriorate into a nonsensical numbers game – “three in one and one in three” and all that. It doesn’t usually work too well to say “I love you” with an equation.
Well, the ancient Greek theologians knew how to talk about the triune God in appropriately mysterious terms. To describe how the three separate persons of the Trinity interrelate, they used the term perichoresis. If you break that word down, it means distinguishable parts making up a whole, and relating to each other dynamically and in close proximity.2 OK, picture that: distinguishable parts making up a whole, and relating to each other dynamically and in close proximity. In other words, it means a dance. As Ian Mobsby says, perichoresis tries to capture the reality that “the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer are interpenetrative, embracing and permeating each other” in a “profound sense of fellowship.”3
Well, if that doesn’t make things immediately clear for you, try this: Experiencing the Trinity is sort of like watching an old Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie. You know you’re seeing something more than simply two individuals taking predetermined steps at a predetermined pace. It isn’t just scripted movement; it’s dancing – partners knowing where each other plans to go but making the steps new each time. By the same token, the Holy Trinity isn’t a mathematical formula for God, some complex equation to explain everything. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a poem, a poem that narrates a dance.
So, this morning, I want to preach you a poem. You’ll find it in the bulletin this morning, and you can follow along if you’re someone who likes to see words on paper along with hearing words out loud. Or just close your eyes and listen – whatever works best for you.
Now, for those of you who think you don’t like poetry, please hang in there and at least give me a minute or two before you check out. I used to think I didn’t like poetry either. For those of us who are wired to be practically minded, people who like to get things done – we may see poetry at best as a nice diversion, or at worst as an incomprehensible jumble. Maybe I’ll be guilty of a jumble, too, but at least hear me out. If nothing else, it means the sermon is shorter than usual – two Sundays in a row! That’s worth something.
Anyway, here you go, in honor of this Trinity Sunday.
God strode across time and space together
And said, “Let’s dance.” Light and darkness
Split as Trinity cut a rug, planets spinning,
Cells dividing, fish swimming, bugs creeping,
Birds flying, cattle grazing. Then God said,
“Let’s change the steps and make one more
Like Us.” So dust and clay coalesced. And
Whispering into Adam’s ear, God took his
Hand in theirs and said, “Dance with us.”
For no point but love, God then looked to
The lost and said, “Who will go for us?”
Maybe wandering and dancing aren’t so different
After all. So Israel went forth on stumbling feet,
Learning steps as they took them, love on the
Hoof. Some steps were true, God’s own;
Some they squandered, cheapened to
Base marches soaked in blood, or trampling
Those who’d fallen down, or traipsing off
In exile. Shackles don’t allow much
Dancing; and far away, you forget the steps.
So God said, “Let’s go home, and try again.”
But the dance floor was no longer theirs, and
Foreign feet got tangled in the mix. So
God said, “Let’s dance Redemption’s
Steps. We’ll squirm cold in a manger,
Slice strong hands on chisels and knives,
Wander the countryside and drink with
Outcasts, high-tail it from the cops until
The time is right. And all the while,” God said,
“We will hold you. You have to hug a child
A hundred times for every tear she sheds. So
We will sweep you up in open arms, even though
You nail them down. No matter. In morning’s
Light, we’ll dance again and welcome you
Back in our circle, too, trampling Satan down
With the Spirit’s soft shoe.” So Redeeming God
Stepped aside as Sustainer took the lead. This
Dance gets a little crazy sometimes – twists
And turns above the ground, fire juggling fire.
“Come on in,” Sustainer says, “the water’s
Fine” – and from baptism’s pool we emerge,
Born of water and of Spirit, bound in light embrace
That lets us improvise our steps yet never
Lets us go. We are dancers, every one,
Called to trip the light fantastic with the
One and One and One who loves us best.
© John Spicer
1. Mobsby, Ian. God Unknown: The Trinity in Contemporary Spirituality and Mission. London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2012. 27.
2. Mobsby, 26.
3. Mobsby, 27.
2. Mobsby, 26.
3. Mobsby, 27.