An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Stumbling into the Love Dance of the Trinity

A sermon for Trinity Sunday by Nathan Nettleton

This Sunday is not only the 160th anniversary of the original formation of our congregation, but in the wider ecumenical church calendar, it is known as Trinity Sunday, and there is an expectation that preachers will address the Church’s traditional teaching that while there is just one God, this one God exists as three intimately related persons, usually identified as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Now at first glance these two events might seem to want to take us off in two different directions, but I don’t think they need to. The teaching that God is a trinity is actually all about relationships, and the life of any local church is also about relationships.

When we begin following Jesus, we begin to be immersed in the social world of his relationships. Most importantly, we find ourselves invited into the deep and intimate relationships that are the inner life of God. We are also drawn into the life of the Church which seeks to both mirror and participate in this relational inner life of God.

This understanding of God as Trinity is not explicitly taught in the Bible, but it developed as the early church sought to make sense of the diverse ways it experienced God and the various ways that God is described in the scriptures. Unfortunately, over the centuries, this teaching has been grossly abused. At worst, it has been used as an identity test in the persecution of Jews, Muslims, and others. More often it is just treated as a kind of mathematical mystery which seems to have no other purpose than to test our willingness to believe in things that are unprovable and seem improbable.

There have been thousands of attempts to depict or explain how God can be both truly one, and yet three, and all of those attempts have been either pretty inadequate, or so complicated that no one can even begin to work out whether they worked! But understanding can be overrated in relationships. If you have ever fallen in love, you will know that being able to understand and explain your beloved was not a pre-requisite for becoming deeply involved in the relationship. God does not care how well you can understand or explain the nature of the Trinity, but God is longing to draw you into full participation in the intimate dance of self-giving love that is the inner life of the Trinity. So if we approach the teaching about the Trinity as a guide to finding our way into that dance, rather than as an intellectual puzzle to be solved, it will begin to liberate us instead of intimidating us.

It is probably the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that gives us the clearest window into the trinitarian relationships. At first glance, the crucifixion is just another barbaric act of human violence, but after seeing it again through the eyes of the risen victim, the gospel writers can reveal something of the drama of mutual self-giving taking place within God. The Father sends his Son among us as an expression of generous love. The Son, who models himself on the love of the Father, freely gives himself to us and surrenders himself to our compulsive victimising. On the cross, when the agony of self-giving was so intense that it felt like abandonment, as though the Trinity itself was tearing apart, Jesus gives up his Spirit to the Father. The Father raises the Son back to life by breathing the Spirit back into him. Then, through the Son, that same Spirit is breathed into us, setting us free from the cycles of violence and vengeance and drawing us into the new dance that is God’s culture of self-giving love.

What is being revealed to us in this drama is a God who exists as a dynamic community of mutual self-giving love. And what that means for us, is that the life for which we have been created is not a life of self-contained individualism, but a shared life of mutual self-giving love. Just as God is made up of persons whose existence is defined by their relationships to one another, so too we can only find our true identity in healthy relationships, as we offer ourselves in self-giving love to God and one another. The Father is not the Father in isolation, but only as the Father of the Son. The Son is only the Son by being thus related to the Father. And the Holy Spirit exists only as the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. If somehow one of them were to leave, all three would cease to be.

Like this relational trinity, our existence is inter-dependent, not independent. People often talk of the need to find your true self, but there is no true self that can be discovered before engaging with others. Obsessive attention seekers often seem driven by a fear that they will cease to truly exist if others are not aware of them. They are not entirely wrong in this. We do only discover and become who we truly are as we relate to God and one another. The tragedy for such fearful people is that their obsessive neediness is so grasping and jealous that it destroys the very relationships that they seek to find themselves in. The paradox, as Jesus said, is that it is only in giving our life away that we gain our life (Mark 8:34-37). Only as we cease aggressively asserting our personal rights and grasping at love can we surrender ourselves to being loved, by God or by anyone else. It is then that we are drawn into the love dance of the Trinity as it expresses itself in relationships of self-giving love in the world, and in that we are set free to truly be.

So, at its best, the Church reflects and participates in this love dance of the Trinity. Which of course means that it is characterised by relationships of generous mutual self-giving love among its members, and that, in imitation of Jesus, it gives itself to and for the rest of the world in self-giving love. That’s not your experience?! Well, the fact that no church you have ever seen measures up to this ideal does not mean that the whole project of the Church is a failure. We can only experience it as a work in progress, and actually, we can be very thankful for that. Our own hope depends on it.

If God’s primary concern was pure perfection, then God would have written off the world and just enjoyed the perfection of love that already exists within the Trinity. Because God exists as community, God does not need us in order to enjoy love. In fact God could have gone on enjoying perfection without ever creating the universe in the first place. But God’s love is always expansively self-giving, and it overflows in create energy, creating more and more that can share in the love. That’s why we often read that creation story that we heard earlier on Trinity Sunday. Not only are there hints of there being more than one person in God in that account, but the creation itself is an expression of this expansive enthusiasm for relating that characterises this triune God. And of course a God who is all about loving, self-giving relationship is going to create a universe that is capable of and hungry for loving, self-giving relationships. But because genuine love also requires freedom, which includes the freedom to reject love, this creation is capable of trashing the love for which it was created. But God does not give up on it. In that expansively self-giving love, God does not write off anything or anyone. Not you, not me, not anyone. Not even anyone’s worst enemy. The Holy Spirit is restlessly seeking to draw everyone and everything into the healing and transforming love dance. Which means that the Church, as the most explicit expression of God’s communal life in the world, is always a dance floor on which some have clearly achieved some measure of grace in the dance of love, others can put the steps together but manage only occasional flashes of emerging grace, and others are still so wounded and suspicious that they have done well if they remain on the floor for any length of time without giving in to the urge to stomp someone to death.

Of course, giving himself over to be stomped to death by us was exactly how Jesus revealed the depth of God’s love and invited us into the dance in the first place. We learn the steps by following him, and we grow into gracious dancers as we continue to follow and practice and relax into the arms of love.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.