"Batter my Heart, three-person'd God"

a sermon for Trinity Sunday


onight, we stand before a mystery. Not in the sense of a mystery story, which is more like a puzzle that can be solved if we’re sufficiently clever; follow the clues in the right way, and the suspect will be caught.

No. Tonight we are invited to place ourselves before the mystery of God, the “divine fox” as Robert Capon has it.  The theological task is like a fox-hunt, but one in which we know from the outset that we will never catch and corner the divine fox.  We’ll catch a glimpse now and then, but the delight is to be found in the chase, in the ride.

Other riders who have gone before us have caught glimpses, and with laughter and tears, they’ve left signs along the trail.

The ride commenced long, long ago, in the world of our Jewish forebears in this faith.  Fundamentally committed to a belief in one God – “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut 6:4) – there were these glimpses along the trail that spoke to the mystery.  As N.T. Wright says, “Deep inside classic Jewish monotheism there lies a strange, swirling sense of a rhythm of mutual relations within the very being of the one God: a to-and-fro, a give-and-take, a command-and-obey, a sense of love poured out and love received.”

We catch a glimpse in the text we read tonight from the 8th chapter of the  Book of Proverbs:, when we hear the voice of holy Wisdom saying,

22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

We catch another glimpse in the Gospel according to John, when Jesus says that the Spirit “will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:14-15a).  God is one, yet we begin to see signs that this divine one-ness is somehow relational, dynamic, shifting and flowing.  God is the maker of the heavens and the earth, yet God is also incarnate in Jesus the Christ – God with us – and God is present to us and with us and through us as the Holy Spirit.

How do you begin to say that, much less fully comprehend it?  That is the challenge that faced our forebears in this faith over the first several hundred years after the death and resurrection of Christ.

It was in the 4th century that Gregory of Nazianzus first fell upon this wonderful word perichoresis, which means mutual indwelling. For Gregory and those who followed him in the use of this word, it was a way of saying that the triune God can be imagined as a swirling, ongoing and eternal dance, in which the movement of the three participants is so fluid and so relational that it is one… yet three.

You see? Don’t try to freeze the dance, and say too much about how it works, because if you do that you won’t be looking at the perichoresis, at the holy dance.  Some of you will recall the times we’ve had a juggler join us on Trinity Sunday, using the three-fold movement of the balls as an image for this dance; if you freeze the juggler’s hands, it all falls to the ground, and you’re no longer looking at the fluid icon of the Trinity.

The moment you begin to think you might have cornered the divine fox is the moment to confess that you can’t.  Let the images sing, delight in the fox-hunt, marvel at the dance that holds all things in being, and embrace the mystery.

And here is the other thing.  These images of dance, of juggler and of divine fox are all playful images of delight, and that is good stuff.  But there is other vocabulary that we have to use, if we’re going to be at all faithful to the tradition in which we stand, “for indeed our God is a consuming fire” as the writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us (12:29).

In the early part of the 17th century, a young John Donne wrote a series of poems called the Holy Sonnets, in which he struggled – wrestled and agonized – over the nature and shape of his own life.  Literate and theologically educated, he felt himself all but consumed with a kind of sexual desire he was afraid was destroying him. Filled with doubt as to whether or not his life would ever be anchored in anything other than his own sorry self, in the 14th Holy Sonnet he cried out, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”  It was not enough for God to “knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend” him, for Donne feared that he was beyond repair.  Rather, in this poem he begged God to “o’erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn,” and in doing so to “make me new.”

And then the agonized young poet cried out to the “three-person’d God” – the dancing and swirling, mysterious and consuming God – using language that is still more than just a little startling.

(I) am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

“Except you enthrall me, never shall be free / Nor ever chase, except you ravish me.” Do we have even the faintest idea of what to make of such a prayer? Only if we know something of our own wounds, limits and brokenness.  Batter my heart, overthrow me and break me, and in doing so draw me into the dance of the Trinity; a dance not merely beautiful and glorious, but wild and dangerous.  The power and the glory.

Tonight we stand before a mystery.  Always we stand before a mystery.

Let us pray.

Batter our hearts, three-personed God.
Let us glimpse both the delight of the dance
and the fire that consumes.
Undo us and remake us,
that we might more truly reflect
your image planted deep within us.
The power and the glory.

Jamie Howison

God is not an undefined sort of energy or function in place somewhere waiting for us to show up with the right technique or the correct password to swing him into action.  He is already active, enormously and incessantly active, creating and saving, healing and blessing, forgiving and judging.  He was active in this way as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit long before we showed up on the scene, and he has clearly made it known that he wants us in on what he is doing.  He invites our participation.  He welcomes us into the Trinitarian dance… the ‘perichoresis.’ (Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places)

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