Benediction Online

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Dancing God

If we could transport ourselves back one thousand six hundred and eighty two years to the year 325 in Nicea, a town which is now known as Iznik in modern Turkey – not far from where the Maruskas are on vacation – we would find about 300 bishops from across the known world in deep discussion about the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Each bishop was accompanied by priests and deacons so altogether there were about 1500 people – an enormous gathering for its time though only about one in five bishops attended. They met for more than two months, starting the meeting on May 20 and not completing it until July 25.

By the end they had the first draft of what we now call the Nicean creed. Some changes were made later, but the creed we will say together in a few minutes essentially dates from this council.

Jesus did not provide his followers with any systematic belief system. Neither do the holy scriptures. So ever since Pentecost, Christians have tried to understand how all the bits of the jigsaw puzzle fit together. They have debated what is true and what is not true. The questions have changed through the years. Today we debate the relationship of gay, lesbian and transgender people to the church. Back in 325 they debated the relationship of God the Father to God the Son. Later the question of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to Father and Son became equally contentious.

That’s why there’s that tricky phrase in the Creed. Most of us have had the experience of saying it from memory and finding that as we say we believe the Holy Spirit, ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’, the rest of the church has suddenly stopped after ‘the Father’ leaving us the embarrassingly lone voice adding ‘and the Son.’ This phrase ‘and the Son’ is known as the ‘filioque clause’ – filioque is Latin for ‘and the Son’.

Seven hundred years after the council of Nicea, in 1054, the Church split, forming in the West what became known as the Catholic Church and in the East, the Orthodox Church. One of the arguments was about the ‘filioque clause’ which was being used regularly in the West. Since it is theologically speculative and became a cause of division it has been left out of the Creed in the alternative service booklet.

This all doesn’t seem a big concern to us. Most of us don’t lose sleep trying to understand how the three Persons of the Trinity relate to each other. In fact most of us don’t think much about the Trinity at all. We tend to think of God, period.
I imagine, though I can’t be sure, that if one of those 4th century bishops were to time travel into our time they would be horrified at the heretical and brazen disregard we have for the Trinity.

The images we use for God effect the way we understand ourselves and our world. When we imagine God as a king, we tend to think of someone who is quite distant and authoritarian. When we think of God as a companion and friend, we think of a close, sympathetic easy-going forgiving person.

So what difference does it make thinking of God as a Trinity rather than as a Unity?

As women have searched for positive images of the feminine in the Christian tradition, they have looked at the Trinity as providing a picture of God which is essentially relational. The three persons of the Trinity are in constant relationship to one another. Exactly what that relationship is, as we have seen, is rather difficult to define with certainty.

One way of thinking about it is as a mutual indwelling or an enveloping. The Greek term perichoresis is sometimes used to describe this, and it may be understood as a pun, meaning also to dance. So we have the image of the Trinity dancing together.

This is a very different idea than of a single, rather static monolithic God. A dancing God. A God in constant motion.

Some people see a parallel here with the energy in constant motion that forms matter as we know it. Perhaps the dance of the tiniest particles can be understood as the dance of the divine. Are the subatomic particles that make up this lectern kept in their motion by the dance of the Trinity? Is the nuclear force really God, or the force of God relating to Godself? If so, it gives a whole new meaning to God present in creation.

If we see God as Trinity, as fundamentally relational, then that raises up the importance of relationship in our lives. The Christian journey has often been imaged as the hero’s way – a solitary journey in which the hero battles serious odds in order to win the prize of the Holy Grail or to reach the New Jerusalem, heaven’s gates. But if God is first and foremost relational then the journey cannot be entirely a solitary one. Our pilgrimage will always be in a group. We will find God as much in our relationships with one another as in the silent times of personal prayer and reflection.

We think of the early hermits of the Egyptian desert as solitaries, but Antony the Great – the earliest monastic teacher – said ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour.’ ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour.’ We do not come to God alone. We cannot be the Body of Christ as an individual. This is a challenge to our individualistic culture which sees the search for God as a private and personal journey.

For several years I lived in a spiritual community in Scotland. One of the founders, Eileen Caddy, had over the years received guidance when she was in meditation. The young community gathered every morning to listen to the guidance about how it was to order its life together. But one day the guidance told her that this was to stop, that she was no longer to share her guidance every morning.

That was many years before I lived there, but even when I was there we struggled with how to know divine will for the group in the group. It was no longer OK for one person to dictate for the whole group – it was necessary for all of us to listen and then to reach consensus on how Spirit was leading. Not an easy task.

Today’s gospel reading shows a similar moment in the life of the disciples. They have been used to listening to Jesus and doing what he says. But now he is leaving and promising to send the Spirit who will guide them into the truth. Jesus is speaking to the group not just to the individuals. The group that became the church.

The church that is still struggling to hear what the Spirit is saying and to interpret that together.

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into the truth.’ In other words, there will be more that God reveals through the activity of the Spirit. One of the big questions the Christian church disagrees about today is whether God’s revelation is complete and finished in Christ Jesus or whether there is more, whether God reveals Godself in new ways as society changes.

It seems very clear to me that God continues to surprise us, that God continues to lead us in new paths. I have no doubt that there are genuine new insights about God and our relationship with God. The difficulty lies in discerning what is divine will, hearing what the Spirit is saying today. We often hear different things. Or perhaps we hear the same thing but interpret it differently.

This month we will elect a new bishop for our diocese of El Camino Real which stretches along the coast from Nipomo to Palo Alto. That person will be part of the council of the Episcopal Church as it continues to wrestle with the difficult questions of our day including our relationship with gay and lesbian persons, and our relationship with the international Anglican Communion. There are those who see this debate in terms of inclusion or exclusion, of cutting away those parts of the church that are in disagreement.

If God is a Trinity in constant relationship, if God is a dancing God engaged in a mutually enjoyable round dance to which we have been invited, then the priority of or mission is not exclusion but inclusion. The question is not ‘what do you believe?’ but ‘will you dance?’

It is only as we dance together that we will come to a deeper knowledge of the God who created us, redeemed us and now sustains us. As we dance together we will find that it is in our relationships as well as our worship that God is glorified. As we dance together we will be led into new revelations of truth.

Let us ask God to send us a bishop who will lead us in the path of the dancing God.


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