Rebekah LeMon: Circle Up

Last week at Pentecost, we encountered the Holy Spirit anew and again. Today, we come to Trinity Sunday, a much less-observed date on the liturgical calendar. This is one that slips under the radar in lots of churches, maybe because it’s newer than most holy days or maybe because the doctrine of the Trinity is still so doggone hard to explain. The fact that we have a Trinity Sunday at all is because people have fought for centuries about the Trinity. God in three persons, all God all the time. Who are these three persons of God? And how are they related to each other?

I was in a theology class years ago when the group tried to come up with an analogy for the triune God without reducing it to a silly mess. The professor put out a challenge: try to think of something – anything – that could serve as an adequate metaphor for a divine being that is simultaneously, eternally, three distinct and equally necessary persons. The answers were earnest, but inadequate – water can exist in the three states of ice, liquid, and steam and retain its substance as water. Yes, but not at the same tim, and ice, water, and steam don’t depend on the other. A stool has three legs – separate, coexisting, all necessary for the stool to stand. Yes, but they are identical parts, not distinct, and well surely, we can come up with something better than a stool. “Triplets!” someone said. I thought that was clever. Triplets share genetic traits, but are different persons… but they don’t have to live together in order to be whole. Finally, a voice offered this image, which has become a mental picture for me of this holy and unique mystery: the Trinity is like a circle dance.

I pictured in my head that classic moment of playgrounds and parks when a group of kids around eight years old form a circle and clasp hands. They promise that none of them will let go and then they all lean back just far enough that they are all supporting and being supported at the same time. And then they spin, leaning back, gripping tightly to one another, knowing that the exhilaration of this union comes from the fact that none of them could have this experience if the others weren’t there. Or if, heaven forbid, someone dropped hands. They can know the joy of this particularly freeing dance because they are all there.

My husband and I lived in South Africa for a time 21 years ago, and when we moved back to the United States, we brought with us a soapstone statue that we’d bought in a market. Its symbolism is wonderfully ambiguous – it shows a group of figures in a circle, vaguely person-shaped. They are individuals – you can tell because each has a head and each has something like arms extending to form the circle, but none of the figures has hands. Their arms are a continuous line all the way around and they cannot come apart. As with any circle, there is no identifiable beginning and no end, but simply this group in perfect communion. When I bought that statue, I thought of it as a powerful image of a family. I dreamed, even, of the family I hoped to someday have. That statue is on a shelf in the main room of our home, but it looks to me now not just like a family unit, but like the divine circle that is our triune God – our creating, redeeming, life-giving God. Our rock, redeemer, and friend. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When the apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth, he invokes that divine fellowship. These are the last verses of a letter to a church community that has been a hot mess, exasperating Paul and challenging his authority, fighting with one another, back-biting, and being taken in by the newest flashy apostles who’ve come to town claiming to be the real deal. The people of Corinth have given Paul a run for his money. So, he has written them. And written them. To admonish. To teach. To encourage. And to call them out for their shortsighted and unfaithful behavior. He has even had to detour his journeys to circle back and check on them, so easily distracted are these early Christians from their call to be a community of faith.

We hear today the last words of this letter and they read a bit like a summation. Like the parent who calls from the window at carpool drop-off: remember what we talked about! Remember that I love you! Make good choices! Paul sums up what the people of Corinth need to remember in order to be the righteous people they are called to be: put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with each other (for heaven’s sake, just get along), live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet each other with a holy kiss – no, not a romantic smooch, but the kind of greeting that shows hospitality and respect and love. To paraphrase: Act like you’re a family, Church!

And then Paul leaves them with a blessing, a benediction so familiar that we might not even hear it anymore: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Amen. For many of us, this blessing flows right over us, comforting in its beautiful imagery, so familiar that we can join in and say it by heart. Or we can tune it out as we start to think about whatever will happen right after we leave that benediction and time of worship. Lunch, errands or catching the game or doing the Sunday night homework, making the to-do list that will govern the new week.

But Paul wasn’t leaving the Corinthians with a banal salutation. With these last words, he invokes all three persons of the Trinity. He reminds the church that the triune God they worship calls them and dwells with them. Through their mess and their confusion and their temptation to listen to the wrong voices, God is with them. Paul calls on every part of Godself, not only to carry this community through their trials, but also to remind them about whom they follow. They follow a God who loves them. Enough to create and deliver and make an eternal covenant. They follow a God who saves them, coming in flesh so that they might know saving grace. They follow a God whose Spirit moves among them – even when they are talking behind each other’s backs – a Spirit powerful enough to transform them from a fractured bunch into a communion of believers.

The Greek word in that last phrase is κοινωνία—the κοινωνία of the Holy Spirit be with you all. It is sometimes translated as communion, as I read a moment ago. And it is sometimes translated as fellowship. It is a particular kind of relationship, not one where people can simply coexist or tolerate each other, but one where participation is required, where all offer support and are supported, where everyone is needed in order for the relationships to be complete.

Paul wants that for the church at Corinth. He wants for them to become the kind of community where all are necessary and valued, where each person can give and receive love, Paul doesn’t offer them a throw-away benediction as a way to close a challenging letter. He offers them a challenge to see themselves as a communion, as a fellowship of people who need one another. And he offers them the model of our triune God.

Now this writing from Paul was not meant to be an excursus on the doctrine of the Trinity. Paul was not setting out to give the Corinthians orthodox beliefs about the persons of the Godhead. But here Paul demonstrates that within the Divine being we get a glimpse of perfect fellowship, perfect communion. Father, Son, and Spirit do not merely coexist or tolerate one another. They do not take turns or split the work of being God. They do not occupy separate offices on the corporate hall or manage separate portfolios of responsibilities. They are inextricably bound, each necessary for the holy work of the other, each full and complete because they are together. They are a circle, spinning as one, each holding the others up and each being held, a perfect whole in which no one part is separable or removable.

The benediction we say so often to close our worship would not be the same if we left out any person of the Trinity. We could just say: the love of God be with you. Or we could just bless with the grace of Jesus Christ. Or we could simply invoke the movement of the Spirit all by itself. But we would lose the full, rich, wildly freeing gift that comes when these blessings are compounded. We would miss the mystery of divine communion.

This Trinity Sunday – often just a note on a calendar or at the top of a worship bulletin – we meet the divine circle dancing again. We know what it is to live in communities where there is disagreement, where authority is constantly negotiated, where the loudest voices often drown the humble and searching one. We know what it is to get turned around on the path of discipleship and we would prefer not to be in fellowship with so many people… all the disagreeable and annoying ones. So, Paul offers us the blessing trifecta, too – the love of a God who covenants with us anyway, the grace of a Lord who saves us anyway, the fellowship of a Spirit that dwells with us anyway. They encircle us as they work, seamlessly bound, three-in-one.

From all our messy churches, what if we saw ourselves as a fellowship, too? What if we turned away from the countless things that come between us and chose to make a circle instead? What if we clasped hands and linked arms and leaned back, holding each other up and knowing that we will be held? What a holy communion we might be.

Let us pray.

Holy three, holy one, call us again into your circle of function. Show us how to be a divine communion here, a people who trust in the love that will not let us fall. Mold us into the kind of community, the kind of family, you call us to be – a place of shared need and a place of shared love. Amen