Saturday, 18 June 2011

Trinity - Perechoresis: The Dance of God

Genesis 1:1-2, 26-31
In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water.

Then God said, "And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us. They will have power over the fish, the birds, and all animals, domestic and wild, large and small." So God created human beings, making them to be like himself. He created them male and female, blessed them, and said, "Have many children, so that your descendants will live all over the earth and bring it under their control. I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds, and all the wild animals. 29 I have provided all kinds of grain and all kinds of fruit for you to eat; 30 but for all the wild animals and for all the birds I have provided grass and leafy plants for food" - and it was done. 31 God looked at everything he had made, and he was very pleased. Evening passed and morning came - that was the sixth day.

Matthew 28:18-20
Jesus drew near and said to them, "I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age."

Today is Trinity Sunday and I’ve heard those who are superstitious say that things come in threes. However, when it comes to God we have great difficulty because we know in our heads that God comes as both three and also as one. What I want to do this evening is to give you another way of imagining the Trinity, in terms of relationship, and then we can ask what that means for us.

However I also want to add a note of caution. When it comes to thinking about the nature of God, although we are in his nature, something I’ll talk about shortly, he is also totally other to us. So I can give you logical pictures to help think about the nature of God, but these are pictures, mere illustrations to help us start the process of thinking. The truth will be much deeper.

But because we make such a meal of understanding the Trinity, we are often apt to get it wrong and we have unfortunately done that on a number of occasions, and many of us often give up thinking about it because, well frankly we don’t know what we’re supposed to think. So let me tell you what the Trinity is not like, before we consider what it is like.

The most common mistake that is made is that it is one God who sometimes reveals himself as Father, sometimes reveals himself as the Son and sometimes reveals himself as the Spirit. The idea is that behind the Father, Son and Holy Spirit masks there is just one person. But that’s wrong. There is no one behind the three masks. The Father is the Father and is God. The Son is the Son and is God. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit and is God.

Incidentally, that’s a heresy called modalism; one God operating in three different modes. But it’s wrong. The Father is God, but is not the Son or the Spirit. Likewise the Spirit is God, but is not the Father or the Son. And the Son is God, but is not the Spirit or the Father,

Another one is that God is actually three separate gods working together as if they were one. That’s what Jews and Muslims tend to accuse us of believing. But that’s called Tritheism, three gods, but it’s wrong. God is one God. But God has revealed through scripture that within the one God there are three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So if that’s what the Trinity isn’t like, what actually is it like? To explain that I want to introduce you to a theological term that may be new to you, perechoresis. This word is really important because it describes something about the character of God as Trinity. But what does it mean? Well bear with me and I’ll come to that in a minute, and I’ll show you a visual description of perechoresis which tells us something about ourselves.

But first let’s lay the foundations by thinking about the readings and how they are relevant to the Trinity. Both of our readings are tied to this. In the second one we heard Jesus expressly telling the disciples to baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, perhaps one of the first times the Trinity was named, and certainly before a deep theological understanding had been put together, but if we go right back to the beginning I think we find a suggestion that all three persons are present right at the beginning of Genesis too.

In the beginning, when God began creating, the writer of this section tells us that the Spirit of God was moving over the water. But this isn’t the only description of the Creation. John wrote the most amazing preface to his Gospel with these words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

Now I can promise you that John intended that we read his Gospel in conjunction with the creation story from Genesis. How do I know that? It’s because there is a mistake in Genesis, but not in the Hebrew. However in the Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, the translators missed out the definite article.

If you do a word-for-word translation of the first few words of Genesis 1 it actually says, ‘In beginning’, not ‘In the beginning’. It’s an error. But guess what you find at the beginning of John’s Gospel? Exactly the same error! So John is saying, ‘Look, that story that has God the Father as creating with the Holy Spirit brooding over the waters; well the Word of God, the Son, he was there too and his were the hands that the Father used to create with’

But what I find so interesting about the creation stories is that when God is about to create humanity God says to himself, ‘Let us make human beings in our image.’ This isn’t meant to be a Trinitarian statement, but it’s certainly rather interesting that the word ‘us’ creeps in!

So there is something about us which is very like God, which is exactly what God intended, and that brings us back to the big word, Perechoresis. So now let me tell you what it means. The word Perechoresis basically translates as intermingling. It’s important that we see there is a difference between mixing and intermingling.

In mixing, you take two or three things and mix them up and once they’re completely mixed you can’t separate them. That’s a bit like taking an egg yolk and egg white, and when you mix them up you have a mixture of both.

But intermingling is different. What it means is that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are of one essence, ie God, but they intermingle very closely. They are in an intimate relationship. Now that’s not easy to understand which is why I’d like to do a chemistry experiment to show you what I mean.

Now I said this morning that this only deals with two aspects of the Trinity and not with three but actually, tonight I can explain why this is about three parts. But first let me show you the demonstration.

What I have here is some blue water and some clear oil. They are of the same essence in that they are both liquids, but you can’t make them mix. You can, however, make them intermingle.


See how they move in and out of each other. They are in intimate relationship. They are one essence, one type of thing, a liquid, but two characters intermingling in an intimate dance, a beautiful colourful relationship, and that, my friends, is what perechoresis is, and that is what the relationship is like between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Now at this point you may be thinking, ‘But I can only see two things. Where’s the Holy Spirit?’ Well the Holy Spirit is present. We often think in theological terms as the Holy Spirit as being the One through whom the Father and the Son express their love to each other, just like when we are filled with the Holy Spirit we also receive the love of God.

So the Holy Spirit is present right at the boundary between the Father and the Son, or here between the pink and clear liquids. The Holy Spirit is the contact between Father and Son. This is one of the reasons why a nickname given to the Holy Spirit is, ‘The Go-Between God’

So what is God like? God is one essence, and three persons. They are all one God, but they are intermingling in a beautiful dance of intimate love and fellowship.

And that, I believe, is what God intended when he made human beings like us to be in the image of God. God, the Holy Trinity, is a community and we were created to be a holy community too. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all in an intimate dance of love. They intermingle closely.

We can’t be quite like that because each of us are separate individuals in separate bodies, but the image within us that is God’s nature inspires us to live and love in community. We are meant to be engaged in a loving dance with each other in a network of friends and family, and that is what is meant by being created in the image of God.

What’s more it is the Holy Spirit through whom we love each other. It is the Holy Spirit who is the loving bond between us and through whom we communicate. God is a community of three who are one. We are a community of many, but we need to remember that Jesus also prayed that we, too, would be one, just as he was in the Father and the Father in him.

So my message to us tonight is this. We are like God, and we are meant to love each other too, and if we’re not sure how to do that, then we also should pray to be filled afresh with the Holy Spirit, that She may minister the love of God through us to each other, and then out into the wider world. Amen.

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