5-27-18 “Three-Part Harmony”
When I think of three-part harmony, the music of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary is the first thing that comes to mind. Noel Paul Stookey has a deep bass baritone voice that when combined with the late Mary Travers’ rich alto and Peter Yarrow’s light and dancing tenor blends into a tight, moving, masterpiece of harmony. I saw them perform live on three different occasions and have several recordings of their music. And while each of the three recorded music on their own apart from the trio, none of them had the success as solo artists that their work together brought them. There was a mutual “indwelling,” if you will, that was birthed when they sang together, a flow of both melody and harmony that was as unique to them and their genre as Louis Armstrong’s music and voice was to his. You just know, when you hear one of their songs on the radio, who it is that is singing.
Today, Trinity Sunday, immediately follows Pentecost in the liturgical calendar and is the day we think about, celebrate even, the idea of a triune God - or as described in song, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” And the Trinity is not an easy concept - certainly not as easy as many preachers try to make it sound. As preachers, youth leaders, and Sunday School teachers, we often try to help people understand this idea of God as “three-in-one” by comparing God’s nature to a three-leafed clover, or by thinking about God the way we think about the states of water: as liquid, as solid, or as vapor.
And if it were simply about a math problem of some kinds, then we could find other comparisons to make as well, such as the Triple Crown of horse-racing or the three periods of a hockey game. But God is not a clover, nor is God water. And the nature of God resembles neither a series of horse races, nor a hockey game. The Trinity is not an idea that is easily understood or explained. Any time we talk about God, in fact, our language is by necessity symbolic, or metaphoric, or even poetic. Our mere words do not begin to convey the essence or nature of God. As is often said, if we think we understand God, then it is not God we are understanding. God is beyond our ability to comprehend or describe, even as we are made in God’s image. So our words about God, our descriptions of God, are at their best inadequate, and can be, at their worst, destructive. But as I have said before, how we think about God matters because it shapes what we think about God. And that may be one of the reasons that many pastors avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday, taking this as a Sunday out of the pulpit to allow an associate pastor or lay minister to preach on this week.
I don’t shy away from talking about the Trinity because it allows me the opportunity to admit my ignorance upfront and to then explore ideas with you that might help us both better appreciate what truly trinitarian thinking might mean for our faith. And I say “admit my ignorance” for one simple reason - in my opinion, any preacher who claims to truly understand the Trinity is fooling him or herself. While Trinitarian theology is certainly taught in our United Methodist seminaries, I can’t say with any certainty that it is covered in non-denominational schools or in Bible colleges. The word “Trinity” is found nowhere in Scripture - it’s simply not there. A line-by-line expository teaching of the Bible will not unearth the word or a Greek or Latin relative. The concept of the Trinity and the doctrine that followed, evolved over the course of the second to fourth centuries in the church out of ideas and phrasing within scripture and from ritual practices within the early church. The Nicene Creed, the church’s most prolific creed, or statement of belief, about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, goes to great lengths to try to explain the nature of the three being of the same substance, and how the Christ “is begotten” of God while the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from God - all in an effort to explain how the three are equal, yet God the Creator is a little more equal than the others (a heretical idea for some) but not really. At the Council of Nicaea, where the Nicene Creed was formulated, the participants nearly came to blows over the wording used in this statement of faith. And while this was all well and good in the pre-modern, pre-enlightenment era, for those of us on this side of those time periods, in a post-enlightenment, post-industrial world who often feel like we have to figure out exactly how this or that works, precisely how A relates to B and why, the kind of soupy ambiguity that is often ascribed to the creeds in general and the idea of the Trinity in particular, often results in arguments akin to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin - the result of which is a general sense of irrelevance to our every day life of faith. So my hope today is to help you think about the Trinity a little differently, so that perhaps it can help guide you in living out your faith instead of just being some “religious” thing that makes no sense.
When we talk about the Trinity what we’re really talking about is the relationship between God the Creator, Jesus Christ the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer. These three together are referred to as the Godhead. Now, in our creeds and in much of the language used about God, we often hear God referred to as Father. Jesus refers to God as Father, translated from the word abba, which is an intimate term comparable to “daddy.” Some take Jesus’ words to the disciples, when telling them how to pray “Our Father, who art in heaven” as not only instructive but as prescriptive. But that is not the case - Jesus’ wording is about intimacy, not gender. The intimacy Jesus felt with God was as if God was his “daddy.” That may or may not be the case for you. It isn’t for many people. If your father was cold or abusive, that may not be a healthy God image for you. It isn’t for me for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t have a strong father-figure growing up since he died when I was a child, my father was absent in that sense, so my concept of God has never been tied to a Father figure. But second, the title Father implies gender, it suggests maleness, and God is not male, God has no gender. Scripture describes God in many more ways - including with female pronouns or attributes - than just as Father. So I, like many others, strive to use gender inclusive language when I speak and think about God - not because it is “politically correct” as some accuse - but because it is generous and inclusive, and the Trinity is, if nothing else, an inclusive concept and description of an extravagantly generous God.
It is helpful, when thinking about the triune nature of God, to think of it as the ways in which we experience God in our lives and in our faith. So for example, we experience God as Creator when we see and experience creation all around us, but also when we consider that we are created in the image of God and that we, too, are creative and creating beings. We experience God as Redeemer when we hear and experience the words and teachings of Jesus Christ and understand that our redemption and salvation come to us through him and the way he taught us to live and to be with one another. And we experience God as Sustainer in the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit, the way that Jesus promised he would be with us always, to the end of time, and when we see the Spirit at work in people, in the church and in our own lives, giving us the power to follow Christ’s way.
But it goes deeper than that. One of the $1.50 words theologians use when talking about the Trinity is the word “perichoresis.” The official theological dictionary definition is on the screen: A more practical way of thinking of it, and as it has been described by others before, is as a dance - the dance of the the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer together.
The Rev. Peter Samuelson, a Lutheran pastor in Atlanta, Georgia, referred to the trinity as “the ultimate dancing with the stars.” He writes, “In ballroom dance there are two partners: a lead and a follow… And as they say - it takes two to tango. More specifically, it takes a lead and a follow to tango. When the two are properly positioned ("in frame" to use ballroom dance lingo) they really then move as one. This is the magic of ballroom dance: that two bodies become one - they move as one. There is a lead who initiates the movement and a follow who responds to the movement but they move as one unit. They are two in one.
“If ‘it takes two to tango,’ how can a dance represent the Trinity? Well, you can't really have a dance - and you certainly can't have ballroom dance - without music. In this way you need three parts to make a ballroom dance: you need a lead; a follow; and you need music.
The Holy Spirit is the music, the beat, the pulse, the rhythm by which the Trinity moves. The key element of this image of the Trinity - the reason that a dance is a good picture of what God in three persons is like is that it depicts God as movement. God is nothing if not on the move. Consider how God moved over the waters in Creation (Gen. 1) or how the Spirit drove Jesus into the Wilderness (Lk. 4) or how the Spirit (Acts 2) appeared as tongues of fire moving the reluctant disciples to witness.
While ballroom dance has certainly become a popular spectator sport, it is much more joyous as a participant. How do we participate in the "dance of the Trinity?" It is through our participation in Christ. Paul teaches us that through baptism we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ (Romans 6). Paul provides an enduring metaphor for our participation in the resurrected life of Christ when he declares in 1 Corinthians 12: "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (v. 27). In the dance of the Trinity, then, we participate as Christ's body, following God's lead, into community. God indicates to us to do those moves that God has led throughout the ages: moves of justice, mercy, peace and love. It all moves to the music of the Holy Spirit who provides the inspiration, the pace, the occasion and the heart of the dance.”
In addition to movement as Rev. Samuelson offers, though, I would also suggest that the nature of the Trinity is community. That is, the presence, the essence of God is community - an inclusive community of three in one. And that to dance the dance of Trinity means dancing both in community and with community. IN community of fellow Christ followers and WITH community of those we are called to engage, as in the passage from Matthew’s gospel known as the Great Commission.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.: (Mt. 28:19)
We may think of this passage typically in connection with sending missionaries or in terms of evangelism. In these contexts, we probably hear it as something like "go and get people into the church to do what Jesus taught.” But today we are invited to hear it more deeply, and differently.
A little sentence diagramming reveals that the first word of this text in Greek is not in the form of an imperative, but is a participle. That is, the idea of going somewhere else is not commanded, but rather is assumed.
Jesus’ words are better understood as "As you go," not as simply "GO!"
The only independent verb in the Commission is often translated "make disciples." However, to our modern ears, where the word make brings to mind perhaps production lines or business models, this may easily sound like disciples are something to be produced like so many widgets on an assembly line! In Greek, "to disciple" is a verb, and the command here might be better understood, not as “make disciples in every nation,” but more as "disciple people in every nation,” or “be disciples in every nation.”
Discipling means to do with others what Jesus has done with his own disciples, and with us. It's not about putting people through classes or programs. It's not even about conversion or getting them to agree to become professing members of a congregation. It's about coming alongside people, walking with people in community, in the power of the Spirit so they, and we, learn to live the way of Jesus, the way of God's reign. And not just live it — participate in it, announce it to others, go where the Spirit sends us, and act fully as Christ's representatives in the world. Discipling others is coming along side them, and inviting them to experience and respond to the fullness of the Triune God alive and active - always and everywhere.
The participles that follow specify parts of what that involves. The first is "baptizing people in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit." One image, seen more readily in the practice of baptism by immersion, is the drowning of death and sin and the raising again to life freed from the power of sin and death to walk in newness of life in Trinity, in community.
This is not a call to baptize everyone we see, offering no instruction or relationship prior. To baptize someone in the name of our Triune God implies at least some process of coming alongside and helping them understand the nature of this Three-in-One God who gives new life and new birth in baptism. The community nature of this sacrament is one reason why we only do baptisms within the worship community and not separately or privately.
And so the second participle is "teaching them to keep what I have instructed you." The act of teaching here is not a synonym for the verb "discipling" above, but it is one part of the way discipling happens. The verb here especially means to help people learn the story, but it’s more than that. The teaching to be passed on faithfully is about how a disciple lives more than it is what they know. It’s something to be modeled rather than explained.
Jesus asks those first disciples, and us, to teach others "to keep" or "to commit to practice" what he has instructed - not just know it but practice it - do it. There is content to be learned and lived. The stories, parables, and other teachings of Jesus and the church that continue to express that teaching are part of that. But the reason those stories, parables, and other teachings are there is not simply so we'll know them, but so we'll live them. So here Jesus commissions his own disciples to disciple others — not simply to teach them about Jesus then, but rather how to live fully as citizens and agents of the Triune God, in whose name we are baptized.
The Holy Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to enter into more deeply. It’s a mystery of of inclusion. And such inclusion prevents us from understanding one Person of the Trinity without the others. God the Creator must ALWAYS be understood together with Christ the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit the Sustainer and so forth. They are ALWAYS together - distinct yet inseparable. Remember, one aspect of that definition of perichoresis was the idea of “interpenetration.” They are an inseparable part of one another. And the nature of God in this sense is more than our human thoughts and language can bear at times.
Now, someone might think: So there are three gods? There would be if they were alongside but unrelated to the others; there would be except for the relating and inclusion of the three divine Persons - that perichoresis word. To think in terms of the metaphor of voices in three-part harmony - the Trinity is not three musicians who come together to play a trio - it is the harmonious song. And it is a song that has always been playing...for eternity. The Three do not first exist then relate. There wasn’t a start date for God - God is and was and always will be - another concept that is difficult for the modern mind to grasp. Without beginning and without end, the three - God, the Christ, and the Spirit - live together and are interconnected. That is why they are the one triune God, here and everywhere, in whom we live and breathe and have our being. They are the song, they are the dance. When the Godhead chose to take on human form, to incarnate, to show God’s love for all of creation, God the Christ took on flesh as Jesus of Nazareth that we might begin to know the true nature of God. The Trinity is the community in which we are a part and into which we are called to live, with and for others. Living in that way is what it means to be a disciple.
What is this space in which we gather but a sign of our life together as the body of Jesus Christ? Here we listen for the Word of God the Creator, the Teaching of God the Redeemer, and find the power and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit who sustains us as we travel from Font, to Table, to the world to bear witness to all that we have known and seen and experienced in the deep fellowship of this all-inclusive community, this Triune God.
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord, God Almighty! God in three persons, blessed Trinity. Amen.