Here’s where it starts …
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God called the light Day, and the darkness Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
A little later on as creation continued, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness …” So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them, and God blessed them. And God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.
In the image of God, God created us. Stunning thing, really. As the Psalmist says in today’s psalm, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”
There’s our first question … What does it mean, to be created in the image of God? More questions step right up in our New Testament readings (below), both offering variations on trinitarian language. I think there’s an invitation in the collision of these texts … an invitation to consider, what does it mean that we are made in the image of a triune God, a God who lives in community?
Well, for starters, it means we are made to live in community, too, with God and with each other.
But is there more to it than that? Are there ways God is in relationship in Godself and with us, that can teach us more about how to be in relationship with each other?
I think there is more here … and that makes this funny idea of a trinitarian God worth struggling with.
So, trinity. Where does this idea come from? First of all, from biblical texts like the ones before us this Sunday.
You heard Paul’s words, closing the letter now called 2nd Corinthians: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” There was more trinity language in the gospel reading; from Jesus’ commission to the disciples, telling them to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Early church folk had to make sense of that language, and they tried, in the middle of particular challenges. There were multicultural, multiethnic challenges, dealing with their Jewish monotheistic forebears, and Hellenistic or Greek newbie believers, and of course the Roman imperial power over all. There were hungry people to be fed … wealth disparities, arguments over which religious leader had the right take on Jesus.
We have to try – in our generation – to make sense of how we relate to God, in the middle of these questions and challenges.
One God. Revealing Godself to us and engaging us in three ways.
God. Father, mother, creator, originator.
Jesus. Child of God, Beloved of God, Messiah, Christ, redeemer.
Holy Spirit. Love, comforter, advocate, sustainer, sanctifier.
God in three persons … but not so separate as three Gods. Rather, three who are connected and co-inhering so completely as to be living in what the Greek folk called “perichoresis.” What early theologians called “perichoretic intimacy.” Very sexy notion. Worth unpacking.
“Peri” is from a Greek preposition meaning around. “Choresis” … related to the Greek words for dance, like in choreography. So, this description of God’s trinitarian being implies that all three persons of God are involved in an intimate dance.
Each belongs to the others. Each is intimately and completely involved in what the others are doing.
So, God is creating? Jesus and the Holy Spirit are right in there with the mud and the breath.
Jesus is saving? God and the Holy Spirit are right in there with the heart-knocking and the grace-giving.
The Spirit is sanctifying? God and Jesus are right in there, with the power and the glory.
But here we come to the “so what?” Is this just academic theological geekery? After all, who God is and what God is ultimately remains a mystery. If we are going to have theological ideas, they are only worth as much as the work they enable us to do. So, what work is this idea of a God who lives in perichoretic intimacy going to do?
Jurgen Moltmann has a suggestion: “Unity in the trinity is secured through perichoresis.”
Unity among the persons of the trinity comes about because of the way each is intimately involved in the dance of the other’s life. And death. And resurrection.
I think that idea will do some work.
If we are made in the image of a triune God – and we are – and that God lives in perichoretic intimacy, then so do we. If God achieves unity through perichoresis, so do we. There really is a four-leaf clover*, and here it is.
God has revealed Godself to us as God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, living in intimate communion. And, as Paul says in Romans 8:16, “The Spirit, by its joining with the human spirit, brings people into relation to God in Christ.”
The Spirit draws alongside our spirits to bring us into this intimate communion, making us children of God alongside and in our forerunner, Jesus Christ.
But wait … there’s more.
God not only draws us into perichoretic intimacy with Godself, God offers us this grace as a gift for human relationship. We are gifted, graced, called to live in perichoretic intimacy with each other. Our unity … in community … is secured through perichoresis. By each of us being all up in each other’s lives.
It’s like that thing Jesus prayed, remember? “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Well. It sounds very pretty, in theory. Reality can be … not so pretty.
For example. Here in our own Southern Conference, recent conversations have made it clear we are still polarized by differences in thinking about social realities like race and sexual identity. And our attempts to experience unity in community are complicated by ways these dynamics interrelate. My own experiences are a microcosm of this. At Annual Meeting, listening to people talk about a Welcoming and Faithful identity framed in part on a rejection of the full humanity of gay people created a painfully toxic environment in which to try to listen and work. That was an experience of exclusion, of feeling oppressed.
There were other times of feeling the differences between the ways people of color and white people experience and express life and faith in the UCC … I am troubled when I feel I am the excluder, even the oppressor.
And then there is this dream Aleese and I are exploring, to take Michelle and Marvetta’s vision of a radically inclusive, Afro-centric worshipping community and expand it even further, to midwife a community where everyone can bring their whole selves to God and each other. And knowing that every difference which has caused harm both complicates and creates the need for such a community.
We will not find a way forward by focusing on and trying to resolve these differences. Rather, we will find a way forward by focusing on work that God calls us to, that we are impassioned about, that we love more than our ideas about our differences. And while we are working on what God is calling us to … who knows. Something might be getting done in our spirits behind the scenes on those seemingly intractable differences.
It’s worth asking … what good does the trinity do me now? When I am struggling to stay in the room with – much less work with – someone who devalues my very humanity, my very soul? When I am struggling with the realization I may be creating those same experiences for others?
Here is the good that the trinity does …
The trinity gives me the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, incarnate in the willingness of people of color to struggle with me, a white woman.
The trinity gives me the love of God, spacious enough to encompass my full humanity and that of persons who do not recognize me yet as a child of God.
The trinity gives me the communion of the Holy Spirit, a mystical and yet powerful intimacy that can heal and make whole, as it draws me into your life, and you into mine.
The trinity gives us a community that is a calling, a hope and a respite, as we move toward reconciliation among each other and in each other, that holy kiss of righteousness and peace.
* Earlier in the service, I used this poem in the children’s time, leading up to talking about a four-leaf clover when God brought us into the picture …
Three folds of the cloth,
yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger,
but still only one finger fair
Three leaves of the shamrock,
yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snow-flakes and ice,
all in water their origin share
Three Persons in God;
to one God alone we make prayer.
From Eleanor Hull’s The Poem Book of the Gael, from the section “Religious Poems of the People,” verses without attribution.