When I was at Grammar School back in the late 1950s I was a real sports fanatic – you name it, I played it. Unfortunately the only way you could get selected for any of the school teams (if you were a boy that is) was if you also went to Scottish Country Dancing?! Scottish Country Dancing was an ‘after school activity’ – very popular with the girls but shunned by the boys. It was run by our Games Master – ‘Jock’ Hall (the clue is in the name) – who hit on this cunning plan to recruit more males to Scottish Country Dancing, and ‘macho’ guys at that! Needless to say I was useless at it! My wife and daughter would both say that I remain useless at all kinds of dancing to this day – typical ‘Dad dancing’ my daughter calls it – and they are probably right! There is, however, one kind of ‘dance’ that we can all enjoy – but more of that later!
Trinity Sunday is (as the name suggests) a Sunday when those churches that follow the Church Calendar explore the fact that God is a Trinity – three Persons but one Godhead. Many of the clergy openly confess that they find this difficult. On the other hand, the majority of Free Church Evangelicals and Charismatic Churches have no problem with Trinity Sunday – they just ignore it!? But, why are the clergy so reluctant to talk about the Trinity, or so turgid and tortured when they do so? I know that for some preaching on ‘The Trinity’ can be a difficult task. But sometimes we preachers make it difficult – not only for ourselves, but for those who listen to us. I also wonder why so many of those who do get into the pulpit to preach on Trinity Sunday either descend to the depths of heresy or rise to the heights of lunacy?
The novelist Dorothy Sayers (who was a professing Christian) wrote a humorous essay entitled The Dogma is the Drama on the relevance of Christian doctrine to real life. In this essay she draws up a kind of questionnaire with the sort of answers she felt ordinary people would give to questions about God and the Trinity. I quote:
Question: What does the Church think of God the Father?
Answer: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment. He is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgment and miracles, distributed with a good sense of favouritism. He likes to be truckled to, and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.
Question: What does the Church think of God the Son?
Answer: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault that the world was made like this and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did his best to reconcile man and God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it’s best to apply to him.
Question: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?
Answer: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whit Sunday. There is a sin against him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.
Question: What is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?
Answer: ‘The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible’ – the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult. Nothing to do with daily life and reality.
Incomprehensible? Nothing to do with daily life and reality? These are some of the difficulties both clergy and laity confess to when it comes to thinking and talking about the Trinity? An academic colleague of mine, who teaches doctrine at a well known theological college, asked his students to write an essay on the meaning and significance of the doctrine of the Trinity. One student sent in an essay on a completely different subject, with a covering note: ‘I don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity … so here is an essay on the Kings of Israel instead!’ To a degree I have some sympathy with this student. Understanding (and communicating) the concept of God as Trinity is not easy … and yet it is vital. God is not the Father alone, or Jesus alone, or the Holy Spirit alone, but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three Persons in one God-head – each perfectly equal in divinity to the other. There is much more to God as Trinity than this, of course, not least the idea of harmonious activity between the various members of the Trinity, which is the aspect I am seeking to emphasise here. The concept of God as Trinity lays at the very heart of the Christian Faith and Gospel – which is why it needs to be clearly taught and explained, not just on Trinity Sunday but repeatedly throughout the church year and church programme.
We find the concept of God as Trinity throughout the Bible – from their involvement in the Creation narrative (Genesis 1-3; John 1), in Abraham’s encounter with God at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18), in Isaiah’s recognition of God as Trinity (Isaiah 6), in the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17), to Paul’s great Trinitarian blessing to the Corinthian Church (2 Corinthians 13:14), to give but a few examples. Another classic example comes during what is known as ‘The Upper Room Discourses’ where Jesus (shortly before his arrest and crucifixion) seeks to explain to his disciples that they will not be left on their own with his departure, but ‘another Helper’, God the Holy Spirit, will come to them in a new way. Jesus explains to them that ‘when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.’ (John 16:13-15). Here we see the members of the Trinity not only engaging meaningfully with each other, but engaging with the believer, and the believer engaging with each member of the Trinity! What we see here, once again, is the harmonious activity of the various members of the Trinity – a harmonious activity into which we are invited!
Because the concept of God as Trinity is a living reality – not dry old incomprehensible doctrine irrelevant to daily life and reality – we need to explore lateral ways of thinking of God as the Trinity. The best theological minds have always understood the need to do this. Two of the great Early Fathers of the Church, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint John of Damascus, used the term perichoresis to describe the mysterious union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The word perichoresis comes from two Greek words, peri, which means ‘around’ and chorea, which means ‘dance.’ Perichoresis is a theological term referring to the mutual indwelling and intersecting of the three persons of the Godhead and, if anything, helps in some ways to better clarify the concept of the Trinity. It is a term that expresses intimacy between the persons of the Godhead. Perichoresis has been called the ‘divine dance’ – that profound union of Father, Son and Holy Spirit that has gone on since eternity past, goes on now, and will go on forever! Perichoresis is a fellowship of three co-equal beings perfectly embraced in love and harmony and expressing an intimacy that no one can humanly completely comprehend. Perhaps the most amazing fact about this eternal dance – for us anyway – is that God himself invites us to join in the dance! There is an open invitation for all those whom the Father has foreknown, the Son has redeemed, and the Spirit has enlivened and sanctified. It is this invitation to dance with God that John 16:13-15 best expresses. In fact everything about us as Christians – our individual walk with God, our family life, our church community, our mission, and so on – should reflect this wonderful truth. It is surely time for us to junk institutional religion and recover what it really mean to be in a joyous relationship with the Living God!
One of my favourite artists is Henri Matisse (1869-1954), a French painter known for his wonderful use of colour and his fluid and original draughtsmanship. And one of my favourite paintings by Matisse is La Danse (or The Dance). There are, in fact, two versions of the painting, one painted in stronger colours than the other but essentially both the same in design. They both show five dancing figures set against the background of a simple green landscape and blue sky. The dancing figures suggest, at one and the same time, a sense of deep concentration and connection with each other coupled with a genuine sense of freedom and sheer exhilaration. I don’t know if Matisse had any kind of understanding of God as Trinity, or any kind of ‘faith’, but the painting always reminds me of perichoresis – the divine dance, which we are all invited to join in with! In fact here is a dance that even the non-dancers and the Dad-dancers amongst us will be able to do because, as Karen Baker-Fletcher says in her book, Dancing With God, ‘the Trinity [is] God’s invitation for us to dance with God!’
God is not a belief-system.
Jesus is not a religion.
Christianity is not a check-list.
Church is not an address.
The Bible is not a book of doctrines.
Community is not a meeting.
Grace has no exceptions.
Ministry is not a program.
Art is not carnal.
Women are not inferior.
Our humanity is not the enemy.
Sinner is not our identity.
Love is not a theory.
Peace is not a circumstance.
Science is not secular.
Sex is not filthy.
Life is not a warm-up for Heaven
The world is not without hope.
There is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’
Tattoos are not evil.
Loving the earth is not satanic.
Seeing the divine in all things is not heretical.
Self-actualization is not self-worship.
Feelings are not dangerous and unreliable.
The mind is not infallible.
Jim Palmer, Notes From (over) The Edge