Texts: John 16:12-15;
Prov 8; Rom 5:1-5
COME, JOIN THE DANCE OF TRINITY1
I like to begin with another story from my friend, Christian author and teacher, Brian McLaren.2
Brian was sitting on the balcony of a high-rise hotel room in Southern California. The Pacific Ocean sparkled under a smog-free sky. A rabbi we’ll call Sol was enjoying the view with him. Brian had originally met Sol a few years earlier through a phone call: “I represent a group of several dozen rabbis,” Sol had said, “who have read all of your books. We would like to meet with you sometime.” Since that first phone call, they had met a couple times and a warm friendship had begun. On this occasion in Southern California, Brian happened to be in Sol’s neighborhood to speak at a local seminary, so Sol kindly came by to say hello.
“Sol, we’ve become good enough friends now that I can ask you something kind of personal, right?” Brian asked.
“What do you think of Jesus? I’m not asking that as a test question or as a prelude to an evangelistic presentation,” Brian explained. “I’m just curious.”
“Of course, Jesus was one of ours,” Sol said. “He was a Jew in the prophetic tradition. And many of my colleagues would agree with me when I say I think he spoke from God and the leaders of the priestly tradition were wrong to reject him.”
There was a pause. Brian and Sol surveyed the Pacific Ocean shimmering in the afternoon sun. Then Sol continued, “But look, after two thousand years of anti-Semitism, I hope you won’t expect us to get excited about the doctrine of the Trinity anytime soon.”
I hope you can feel the power of Sol’s words. Through much of European history, confessing the Trinity served as the litmus test of acceptability, forcing Jews into the status of outsiders and outcasts, noncitizens in “Christian nations.” This exclusion and marginalization led to ghettoes and pogroms, and eventually to gas chambers. The doctrine of the Trinity has been used to clobber and exclude folks from many other religions — Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and members of indigenous religions.
The Trinity has even been used as a weapon of sorts against other Christians. It’s actually an unfortunate part of the history of the creeds. The Nicene Creed was created, for example, in the 4th Century, shortly after the emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. Up to that time, beliefs about the Trinity were somewhat diverse. The unity of the Christian church existed with a creativity born of a diversity of views. It was a unity-in-diversity — kind of like the Trinity itself! A diversity of persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — nevertheless forms a wonderful unity that seeks to invite the universe itself into its creative unity born of diversity.
But empires don’t form unity out a creative diversity. No, the unity of an empire is based on stamping out diversity. The unity of an empire comes through enforcement of the emperor’s wishes and wills. It comes not through a creative interplay of diverse views but rather by settling on one view, the emperor’s view, and then everyone else being forced to hold those beliefs and views. So when the Emperor Constantine called all the bishops to the Council of Nicaea, they arrived with a diversity of views but left with only one — as expressed in the Nicene Creed. There were three holdouts among the bishops, who didn’t consent to exactly every word of the Creed, so the emperor simply executed two of them and exiled the third. That’s how empires deal with doctrines like the Trinity.
And so throughout the ages the Nicene Creed was also used to oppress people of other faiths, too. At various times and places in Europe, Jews would be rounded up and made to confess the Trinitarian doctrine of the creeds. If they refused, they could be imprisoned, or exiled into ghettoes, or even killed. Do you understand a bit more clearly why Brian’s rabbi friend Sol responded as he did? Loving Jesus but not so crazy about the Trinity?
Knowing this history, it can be tempting to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. It can be tempting to quit using the creeds and throw out the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s the doctrine we try not to think or talk about too much. Most Christians understand that the doctrine of the Trinity is historically important, but we seldom understand why. As we’ve already noted, the doctrine has been abused as a sinister tool of mind and speech control, used from the time of Constantine to centralize the power of heresy hunters and to test Christian teachers on their submission to church authority — or, worse still, as a weapon against others through history, as Brian’s rabbi friend Sol pointed out. So, if we are to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater, we must recover its true value in the first centuries of Christian faith and practice. I agree that Trinitarian doctrines have indeed been part of the human problem of violence. But I also believe that Trinitarian doctrines — held in a revitalized Gospel message, not as an imperial loyalty test — can, properly understood and practiced, contribute much to the solution.
We must first of all be honest and truthful about the problem. Human beings have been trapped in Us-vs-Them thinking that keeps us in an endless cycle of violence. Because everything is approached as Us against Them, power is seen as Our power over Them, a power that assumes competition, and that thus seeks to assimilate or dominate or overthrow or . . . eliminate. It’s a power where we try to make sure that They are the victims of violence, not Us.
All through the Easter season,3 we have been talking about God’s power being completely different than what is most often considered power in human societies. God’s power is the power of love. It’s a power of serving others and seeking to help their lives to flourish. It’s not a power in competition with others seeking to dominate them, control them, beat them, eliminate them. So what happens if we translate this truth of God’s power into a doctrine of God? It must be something to help us overcome Us-vs-Them thinking, transforming it into Us-and-Them thinking, or even Us-for-Them thinking. Ultimately, it leads us into: there is no longer Us and Them but only Us.
I believe the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood as the solution to the problem of human violence, is just such a revolutionary understanding of God as a Them who truly seeks to embrace all things as Us. It all hinges on the Good News that God sent the Son into the world not as an Us who conquers Them, but shockingly — in the cross of the Lamb slain — God becomes a Them who seeks to unite Us. In today’s parlance of pronouns, we might say that God’s pronouns are not he/him/his, like the usual emperor who brings defeat of enemies. No, God’s pronouns are they/them/their because God is the Them who invites all of Us to be a We together. Instead of thinking of God in terms of a great competition in which there’s always winners and losers, we might instead think of God as a Dance in which everyone is always invited in. Dance, like music, seeks a unity-in-diversity.
Historically, there is actually a Dance-version of God envisioned by some early Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders. Their term for the relationships within the Godhead — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — was the Greek word perichoresis, which literally means, “dancing around.”
So let’s imagine God as this dance-version of unity-in-diversity, as this loving trinity of perichoresis, a sacred choreography of self-giving, other-receiving; of honoring, being honored; of fully seeing the other, fully revealing the self. Imagine — in stark contrast to God as emperor, God as someone who helps us win in our Us-vs-Them thinking — imagine God as an eternal one-anotherness who is by nature noncompeting, nonassimilating, nondominating, nonvictimizing, noneliminating.
Now imagine this God self-expressing in a universe. What kind of universe would this kind of God create? It would not be a universe of independent, isolated individuals because God is not an independent, isolated individual. It would not be a universe of undifferentiated homogeneity (a unity that stamps out diversity as in the domination, purification, and assimilation of imperialistic narratives) because God is not an undifferentiated homogeneity. God is not a unity-stamping-out-diversity but unity-in-diversity. Nor would it be a universe of unending rivalry leading to competition, revolution, and victimization, either, because God is not many-in-conflict but three-in-one, unity-in-community. It would not be a universe of duality, stuck in the conflict Us-vs-Them thinking, because God is a Them who invites Us into the dance. God is a One who creates the dance of one-another.
Clearly, then, this Trinitarian vision of God helps us imagine a relational universe of one-anotherness, of unity-in-community, where benevolence toward the other is at home, and hostility toward the other is foreign, invasive, out of place. Finally, imagine how people in this universe would manifest trust in this triune God. Imagine in particular how people who hold this trust would relate to others who don’t understand or hold it. Would they do so by dominating their counterparts and requiring them to assent to their vision by threat of sword or banishment? By rejecting the other and isolating from the other unless and until they see the light? By trying to overthrow or assimilate all their understandings into this one, robbing them of their individuality? Such actions would violate the very spirit or nature of the God these Trinitarians were supposedly being faithful to!
Imagine that! Imagine that vision of the Holy Trinity as dancing-around-together and how it could convert its holders from their hostile old identities to a robust, energetic, harmonious new identity. Imagine how our understanding of God as a endless dance that is endlessly inviting could help heal and convert us from our Us-vs-Them thinking, endlessly inviting others to join in the dance of life, to join in all that truly helps life to flourish. Let’s sing about the Dance.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, June 12, 2022
1. I titled the sermon after the hymn immediately following the sermon, “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity,” text by Richard Leach, and music of the English folk tune KINGSFOLD. (#412 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship; for more information see https://hymnary.org/text/come_join_the_dance_of_trinity.)
2. Not only the story but the entire sermon has been greatly shaped (portions word-for-word) by Brian McLaren’s chapter on the Trinity in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World (Jericho Books, 2012): Chapter 15, “How the Doctrine of the Trinity Can Foment Harmony and Unity,” pages 125-32.
3. Preaching primarily from the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John, we read about this contrast in the Power based on violence and armed force versus God’s power based on Love — Lamb power.