Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… (Matthew 28:19)
The first time I heard someone explain the doctrine of the Trinity, I was utterly baffled. God is One God but three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—there is just no logic here, and I didn’t know how to understand it, defend it, or make sense of it. I also didn’t have any clue on how this fundamental doctrine could inform or make any impact on our daily lives.
For more than 40 years, I’ve been praying to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and I’ve been leading thousands of people in praying to God in the same way.
I wouldn’t presume to say that I could explain how God is a Trinity of persons because that’s a mystery. Now, when we use the word “mystery” to talk about God, we’re saying that our trying to explain who God is and how God works is beyond our abilities. Our doctrines, dogmas, liturgies, scriptures, confessions, and theological formulations can simply, at best, point to God and in no way capture God, encapsulate God, or confine God.
We can’t explain how God is a Trinity of Persons, how God was able to conceive a child in Mary, how Jesus is both a human being and God, how Jesus dying on the cross forgives our sins, or how the Holy Spirit first came upon the early disciples and how it infuses and inflames our own lives.
Although I can’t fully or finally explain the doctrine of the Trinity, I can say a bit about how this doctrine was developed. We must always remember that the Jewish people are our parents and grandparents in our faith as Christians. The central foundation of their faith was monotheism—that there is only one God and not many gods. Their insistence on only one God separated them from many of the other religions in the ancient near East. Their God was called many names; among them was “Father.”
Now, Jesus. During His lifetime, very few people had any idea that He was God. Most people thought He was their friend, their teacher, their rabbi, and then some thought of Him as their Messiah. As soon as we use that word, we must be clear that their understanding of the word Messiah is that Jesus would be the “anointed one,” the one who would be a great warrior king like David. On the day we call Palm Sunday, the crowds thought they were welcoming their conquering hero who would save them from the tyranny of the Romans.
Again and again, Jesus told them He wasn’t going to fulfill what they thought or expected. Again and again, He said He was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die and not to lead an army.
They didn’t hear or absorb what He was saying because His vision of what the Messiah would do simply made no sense to them. One of the reasons why the crowds turned on Jesus is that He disappointed them. They were waiting to join the army, not to watch Him die.
When Jesus died, the movement was over, finished, done; but then on Easter morning, as we proclaim, He was resurrected, brought back to life, the tomb was empty, and Jesus was in their midst walking, talking, and eating with them, and then He ascended into heaven.
As those early disciples tried to make sense of what they had just witnessed with Jesus, they came to see and believe that Jesus was God, that His words about being One with the Father were true and real. Here was the challenge: How could they maintain their belief that there was only One God, but now there were two manifestations, or two persons, that were God?
And then things got even more complicated. On the day of Pentecost, a mighty wind rushed through the room where the disciples were praying, and tongues of fire danced on their heads and then inflamed their tongues to speak new languages. That same power then drove them out into the world to do the very same things they had seen Jesus doing: miracles abounded, healings happened, people were raised from the dead, and the dark spirits which can destroy hearts and souls were cast out.
The disciples knew they couldn’t do any of these mighty things by their own efforts or abilities, which then led them to see and believe that the power working through them was also God—hence, the Holy Spirit.
The Trinity—even though this doctrine might not seem to make logical sense, it did make experiential sense of how God was working in their lives. Maybe it’s not we who make sense of this doctrine, but it’s the doctrine that makes sense of us.
So, how can this doctrine be applied to our own lives now? Great question. Near the end of seminary, our theology professor introduced the word “perichoresis,” which says that the three-person of the Trinity “go around each other” and that they “encompass” each other. As theologians reflected more on this word, they came to see that the persons of the Trinity were “dancing” with each other, all hearing the same glorious music, all in sync, step by step, movement by movement.
Just think about this image for a moment. If indeed the persons of God are dancing with each other—and this image is the most powerful one I’ve ever considered about God—then that suggests that God created us to both love Him and to dance with Him. God didn’t simply want to love the other persons of the Trinity; God also wanted to love us. God didn’t simply want to dance by Himself; God also wanted to dance with us. And that dance isn’t just for the next and eternal life, but also for our life here and now.
As we think about our relationship with God, many of us are drawn more to one person of the Trinity than the others. For me, the most inviting way to see belief in God has always been through Jesus. Anyone who has listened to me preach or teach will know this. For others, the person that draws them into the dance with God is the Father, the creator of all life. And then there are those who are more drawn into God’s love and power through the Holy Spirit.
What’s important here isn’t which person might be most influential or important to you, but that you are drawn into God’s love. It doesn’t, in the end, matter which person of the Trinity has most often invited you into the Holy Dance with God because that person will introduce you to the other two. They are all connected, they all speak to each other, and they all share stories of love about you. If it may seem like you dance more with One of them, you need to trust that the other two will be included.
I imagine that someone might be saying, “so what?” Again, great question. If God made us to dance with Him, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and if we are made in God’s image, then God wants us to dance with each other. When we do, we delight God. When we don’t, God grieves.
I would say that our dancing together as a country has largely, and sadly, broken down. I would also say that I believe God is deeply grieving for us right now. It’s near impossible to dance with each other when we have such a hard time talking with each other, respecting the differences between each other, or giving much room for looking for and working towards common ground. How can we dance together amid the political rock fight that seems to be getting worse and worse? It seems like words and positions are being hurled at each other, and who is listening, much less dancing?
These are the first words that Jesus said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15)
I believe that all the persons of the Trinity are saying these same words to us right now: Repent; that is, turn around and change our ways, our minds, our words, our wishes, our intentions; that is, change our politics, our rhetoric, and our dismissing or vilifying all those who don’t see the world as we do. Who’s at fault for the mess we are in? We all are. Who needs to help us to come together? We all do. Who needs to repent? All of us. If we ever want to find a way to work together for the very fabric and soul of this nation, then we all need to be hearing some new music and dance some new steps.
When Jesus first said, “the time is fulfilled,” he was trying to inject a sense of urgency into the air. He wanted to wake people up. He wanted people to see that He could show them a new path to know and serve God. Jesus wanted all of God’s children to follow Him into the holy dance to God’s heart.
Is this not an urgent time? Don’t we need to wake up and see that what we are doing and how we are treating each other isn’t working? What will it take for us to stop ignoring or denying the things that are shattering and splintering us?
Although the word “repent” has often been used to scold or shame others, I see it as our way forward. I believe that our only hope is through repenting together. In order to do that, we need to be on our knees, we need to grieve for the brokenness of our common life, we need to lay down our weapons, and we need to remember that God created us to love and to dance with Him. One of the best ways that we can dance with God is when we commit to learning how to dance with love and respect for each other.
- If you thought about dancing with God, how might your faith, and even your life, change?
- Which person of the Trinity has been your path to believe in God? How come?
- How might God be asking you to repent right now?