1 + 1 + 1 = 1 … I’ve seen pastors write it on chalk boards, I’ve stood in the pulpit pondering whether this might be the one day in which my poor math skills actually work to my advantage, but at the end of all such illustrations the message is generally the same: The trinity is a mystery. Although during my studies in seminary we read the appropriate books and attended the appropriate lectures, exploring in all the doctrine of the trinity in all its mystery and all its complexity, but the advice that most clearly sticks in my head from that time is, “Whatever you do, be careful of your illustrations – particularly in the children’s sermons – because it’s easy to commit heresy!” Modalism is, quite naturally, easily lurking when one cuts open an apple and begins to talk about the one apple with its flesh, skin, and core and relate these elements to the one true God. Ever since, I’ve been just as happy not to volunteer to preach on the festival of Holy Trinity.
However, the other thing that I remember from that seminary course is that it was my first introduction to Richard Leach’s enchanting hymn, Come Join the Dance of Trinity.
Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun– the interweaving of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son. The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.
Now it’s been 8 years since I sat in that seminary classroom, I’ve cut apart a number of apples since then, and I’m pretty sure I’ve committed far worse heresies along the way. And so, with the readings from today in hand, I am ready to face the “threat” of modalism head on as I humbly join Paul and John in their dance, and invite you to join us on the dance floor.
Interdependence, in political theory, is defined as a situation in which “across state borders, intensive transactions (flows of money, goods, persons and information) are taking place” (O.R. Keohane & J. Nye, Power and Interdependence, 2001, p. 9). When such relationships are stabilized, each party is equally sensitive and vulnerable toward the actions of the other. When this is not the case, and, for example, one party would find itself at an extreme disadvantage were the exchange relationship to alter or cease (as, for example, is often the case between oil producing countries and the countries that depend upon them as a sole or substantial source of fuel), then a situation of assymetric interdependence exists. Were one party to have no sensitivity of vulnerability should their relationship cease (as, for example, may be the case in the distribution of international aid – although, even here, a more complex interdependence exists than often meets the eye) then the relationship might be described as one of dependency.
To illustrate the complexity of interdependence in nearly (if not all) social relationships – between and among individuals, associations, states, and so forth – it is necessary to look no further than the quarterly giving report that I receive from my congregation’s financial secretary. In order to allow me to claim my contributions on my IRS forms, it is necessary to note, “No goods or services were provided in exchange for your contribution.” However, many churches like mine append to this legal notice, “except for intangible spiritual benefits.” This latter statement has, in my opinion, the benefit of being both legally correct and theologically profound (all in an IRS giving record!) The experience of living in relationship is one of interdependence. I do not pay my church so that they will pray for me, nor would they stop praying for me if I stopped giving, but I give to them out of my resources and they give to me out of mine – and if I stopped relating to the church in every respect, or they stopped relating to me, eventually the relationship would cease. To put it more poetically – relationship requires that all partners participate in the dance.
What, then, can the doctrine of the Trinity reveal to us about relationship?
Saint Paul writes,
“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5, NRSV)
And in John’s gospel, Jesus assures the disciples,
13When the Spirit of truth comes, he (sic.) will guide you into all the truth; for he (sic.) will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he (sic.) hears, and he (sic.) will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He (sic.) will glorify me, because he (sic.) will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he (sic.) will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15, NRSV)
Pouring…giving…guiding…hearing…declaring…sharing…glorifying. What is how God—Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another. These are the steps to their dance.
I began with a definition from international politics. To begin to understand the distinction between this world and God’s world – a contrast as sharp as the image of darkness and light that John uses to describe it elsewhere in his gospel – it might be helpful to consider the verbs that best describe the dance(s) in which our governments and politicians engage. Perhaps even more striking given what might be assumed to be the increasingly embodied nature of our interdependence on the local level, we might equally consider the dance steps of our communities, organizations, churches, families, and other intimate relations.
In John’s gospel Jesus speaks these words to his disciples in the upper room, as he is preparing for a betrayal by which he knows that he will be laid bare on the cross. This is the dance of Trinity.
What dance are you dancing? What tangible and / or “intangible spiritual benefits” are a part of your exchanges? How vulnerable do these make you? How sensitive are you to the needs and vulnerabilities of those with whom you dance?
1 + 1 + 1 = 1 isn’t such bad math after all. My school-aged daughter is learning multiplication now. 1 x 7.085 billion = 1 isn’t too difficult to conceive either if we make the space to share in a sensitivity toward and appreciation of the vulnerability which as children of God and creatures of this planet we intimately share with one another.
The Rev. Amy Lindeman Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.
[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]