Juggling and the Trinity

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

 If you’re just reading or listening to this sermon, you’ll be missing part of what made it all work. At the 5:10 minute mark, John Sellick stepped forward and begun to juggle as a visual “icon” of the Triune God… though if you turn up the volume a bit, you’ll be able to hear the sound of his hands on the juggling pins. John continued to juggle through most of the remainder of the sermon, providing a rather unconventional—though quite thoroughly orthodox—back-drop to the words.

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tonight we celebrate Trinity Sunday, which stands as something of a hinge between the celebrations of Eastertide and Pentecost and our movement into what is called Ordinary Time. As I’ve noted in past years, Trinity Sunday is really the only day in the liturgical calendar that is set aside to mark not an event in the life and ministry of Christ and of his church, but rather a doctrine. And it’s a doctrine that while rooted in the scriptural tradition, actually only emerges gradually over the first three hundred years of the Church’s life. Yes, there are a few New Testament verses that use the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—for instance Matthew 28:19, where the disciples are told to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” There’s also the closing blessing in Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, which you’ll quickly recognize as the standard liturgical greeting we use over much of the church year: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” There are also those verses in the Gospel according to John, in which Jesus speaks of his relationship to the Father, and of the coming of the Holy Spirit of God, yet even those teachings aren’t set out in a particularly systematic way. Much beyond that, what the Bible contains might be thought of as rumours of the Trinitarian character of God.

That’s why tonight we read the passage from Proverbs, in which the writer reflects on holy Wisdom, personified… personified using the female pronoun no less. She raises her voice, she takes her stand, she cries out… And she was created by God, “at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” Very early in the church’s life, Christians began to see this image as a rumour of the Holy Spirit, at work and part of the divine life from the beginning.

It is in the historic creeds of the church that this doctrine is set out in a more systematic way, and tonight following the sermon we will stand and proclaim the Nicene Creed. Yet although carefully worded creedal statements provide an important anchor and framework, they don’t tend to set imaginations on fire. Yet there is this long tradition of deeply imaginative and even playful theological reflection on the Triune God. Watch.

What better theologian to begin with than Robert Farrar Capon? In his book, The Third Peacock, Capon writes, “I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash”—of a party, in other words. Capon then continues,

 All of creation, from start to finish, occurs within the bash… the raucousness of the divine party is simultaneous with the being of everything that ever was or will be. The world isn’t God’s surplus inventory of artifacts; it is a whole barrelful of the apples of his eye, constantly juggled, relished, and exchanged by the persons of the Trinity.  No wonder we love circuses, games, and magic.  They prove we are in the image of God.

“[C]onstantly juggled, relished, and exchanged by the persons of the Trinity,” Capon says, which brings us to one of that most playful, unconventional, yet thoroughly orthodox of Trinitarian icons…

It is at this point that John Sellick stepped up and began to juggle…

The one action of juggling the three pins is such a great image for the three-in-one of the Trinity. Without the three, constantly in motion, the one is simply not there. Try to follow with your eye where any one begins or ends, and you can’t do it… and yet there are three, held in perfect motion. This is what our theological forebears called perichoresis, or the mutual indwelling of the three in one.

In Greek, perichoresis literally means dance. “Imagine a folk dance, a round dance, with three partners in each set,” writes Eugene Peterson.

On signal from the caller… they weave in and out, swinging first one and then the other. The tempo increases, the partners move more swiftly with and between and among one another, swinging and twirling, embracing and releasing, holding on and letting go. But there is not confusion, every movement is cleanly coordinated in precise rhythms, as each person maintains his or her own identity. The essence of the Trinity, the centerpiece of Christian theology and sometimes considered the most subtle and abstruse of all doctrines, is captured here…

And God “invites our participation,” Peterson adds. “He welcomes us into the Trinitarian dance… the perichoresis.” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places)

Or how about this from C.S. Lewis?

[T]he most important difference between Christianity and all other religions [is] that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance… (Mere Christianity)

Ah, Professor Lewis, that’s hardly what in our time would be called irreverent.

And one more, from the 14th century German mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart:

Do you want to know what goes on in the heart of the Trinity? I will tell you. In the heart of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.

Laughter, a dance, circuses, games, magic, and a juggler… are these images all too thin to do justice to God?

The juggling now came to an abrupt halt…

Yes, certainly they’re too thin… and we so we need to pay attention to other voices as well. To John Donne, who wrote of wanting to have his heart battered and his soul ravished by the “three-personed God”; to the jazz musician John Coltrane, whose Trinitarian piece is all wildness and power; to the writer Annie Dillard, who cautions us ever so strongly against all attempts to tame or domesticate God, as she asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?”  But then again, all human language will be limited when it comes to describing the Divine. As Augustine said, “If you think you understand, it isn’t God.”

And now the juggling resumed.

And so knowing that all of our words, our images, our songs and our symbols are a kind of whistling in the dark—or a seeing as through a glass, darkly, as St Paul so poetically wrote—take delight in the playfulness. After all, when God created the world… or should I say, when the Trinitarian bash got underway—again and again it was called good, good, good… very good. And so it was. And so it is.



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