Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 & John 16:12-15 – Caught up in the divine dance

A reflection by Dan Spragg

This part of John’s gospel is located in what is known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. Chapters 14-17 find us listening in on Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples. We are at the end of the last supper, the crucifixion is just around the corner.  Jesus at this point has a sense of what is coming and in his wisdom as a leader, in his wisdom as a friend, he decides that some parts of what is next would be too much for the disciples to get their heads around and so he leaves some bits out. It’s already bad enough that he is talking of leaving them, which they don’t really understand, they can’t see the bigger picture, and so he works to encourage them instead. Yes, he will go, but when the time is right, the Spirit will guide them and this guidance will be true and it will be as if Jesus is there with them teaching them once again of what God is up to in the world. It is exactly what they needed to hear. I’m sure many of you would have had moments with others that are similar to this. Moments in which actually the whole story would be too much to handle, so you say what is needed in that moment, and you offer assurance that all will be well. What this really cultivates is trust. And trust is at the heart of any good relationship. This is exactly what the disciples needed to hear.

As you know we are going through our Vision and Purpose and what underpins these as a church community. Our Vision, To be an open, vibrant, multifaceted, God-filled presence in our communities. And our purpose, To take notice of, point towards, and engage people with the goodness, grace and love of God, through Jesus, animated by the Spirit. I’d like to point out that the systematic theologians amongst us will be happy with our statement of purpose… it’s very trinitarian, most proper! Sitting underneath our Vision and Purpose are a number of values and beliefs. One of those is: God is three-in-one (trinity) – diverse yet one – the source of life, freedom and goodness. I’m actually wondering if we need to shorten this statement. Not because it’s too long, but because it is too short… If we are saying what God is the source of then how can we leave out grace, mercy, faithfulness, joy, love, forgiveness… etc… We included ‘trinity’ as one of our core beliefs, not because we’re meant to, but  because of the picture it paints for us about our understanding of God, therefore our understanding of how we are to be with one another and with the community around us.

The Trinity has been and is a significant thing in church history. The split of the Eastern and Western churches in 1054 is in large part because of disagreement over the understanding of the inner workings of the Trinity. The doctrine has been debated and refined and wrestled with for centuries. In the 20th Century there was a big rise in questions of the existence of God and our collective imagination answered that in a large part with our enlightenment moulded modern and scientific minds which in a few places got caught up in the mathematics of it. How can 3 be 1? How can God exist in this way, or even exist at all outside of the parameters of the natural world? God understood as the Trinity is mysterious and mystery doesn’t necessarily fit in a world understood purely through mechanics and empirical proof. Unfortunately this lack of willingness to engage with the existence of God with any sort of imagination or with a willingness to live with mystery did cause quite a few to leave the faith.

As far as trying to describe who God is to us we can build arguments and descriptions but underneath it all surely it is simply human words trying to describe interactions with the divine. John’s Gospel is a great example of this. In somewhat of a contrast to Mathew, Mark, and Luke, John’s Gospel uses quite a lot of language that is couched in mystery. It is a mysterious language trying to grasp something beyond the surface. Even in the short passage we have with us today things aren’t straightforward, it can take a number of slow reads through to get what is going on in any logical sense, but, perhaps logic shouldn’t be the aim. John points to a deeper reality. Perhaps the best way to summarise it is to call it a ‘communion,’ There is communion and there is an invitation to trust. There is communion present and there is a ‘oneness’ of purpose to the actions of the divine, that we can trust in.

Perhaps it is like a song? In music, there is rhythm, melody, harmony. There are multiple instruments and voices. These combine and create new sounds. There are these many things and yet there is one song. I don’t have to describe the feeling of what a good piece of music does to us, do I? It lifts us, it inspires us, it causes us to reflect and think, but it also causes emotion. Good music can move us, our whole being – our toes tap, our body moves, our mind engages, our hearts soar. Perhaps this is a good metaphor to describe the mystery of who God is? It’s something we get caught up in, not something we necessarily understand.

Thankfully in the later part of the 20th Century some new understandings of the Trinity began to emerge. They began to revolve around understandings that were based on relationships and that the trinity was a social thing. An old Greek word has been picked up and explored. Perichoresis, which essentially means, interrelation, or interconnection. The image most widely used alongside this is ‘the divine dance.’

And so I went looking for a dance image and this was the first result. Take a look at this image for a moment. Three dancers moving as one. There is beauty and synchronisation. If you can get close enough you will see that the dancer on the right is smiling –

there is delight, joy, enjoyment. This is a pretty good image of God. God as an eternal dance – dynamic, moving, coordinated, a sense of oneness – unity found in their differences being together.

The community John was writing to existed some 20 or 30 years after Jesus had been crucified. This gospel was written to a community who not only had their leader taken from them, but who also had been displaced from their land, and they were not welcomed by the locals whether those locals were Greeks or Romans or Jews. In their conflict, in their experience of absence and disorientation, they needed to hear that what Jesus taught was true and real, and it was true and real because Jesus was in one heart and mind with God, and it did not matter if conflict and chaos came because the Spirit of this truth, the Spirit of God, the presence of the Christ would teach them and guide them into this way. This ‘way’ of God that Jesus taught was near and at hand. They needed to hear that while things seemed to be going nowhere fast, God was with them as an active participant of one heart and mind, to bring them into the life of this dynamic dance of delight, love, and joy.

For us today, I wonder if we are not too dissimilar to that community of John’s. The church, feeling a little displaced in society not really knowing who it is or where it stands half the time. We indeed know our own challenges as The Village. Coming through the pandemic, there is still the unknown of what happens next. We are facing the complexities of financial challenges, depleted energy levels, and the busyness of life in general. Life is full of what might appear on the surface to be the absence of God and it is full of disorientation as much as it is full of delight and wonder and joy if we have eyes to see. Seeing this joy, being reminded of it, having a sense of God’s presence being real and with us is indeed the challenge. Taking up Jesus’ invitation to trust that we will be guided along the way, that is the challenge. Being open and humble enough to admit we cannot see the bigger picture, humble enough to admit that our words only attempt to describe the fullness of the dance that is found in life with Christ; but nevertheless allowing the Spirit to guide us into that life, that is the challenge.

We also have with us today the character of Wisdom from Proverbs. Wisdom is personified as one who is calling out to us, one who is ancient – there in our beginning, one who delights with wonder and joy at the creative acts of God. Wisdom is seen here as God’s partner in work, a master craftsperson, working alongside God. In 1 Corinthians Paul likens wisdom to Christ, ‘Christ as the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:24) Wisdom, or Christ as the expression of God in the world. And we are to be the embodiment of this, the church is the body of Christ in the world.

That is why we’ve included the Trinity as one of our core values and beliefs. Not because of fear of heresy if we didn’t but rather because of the dynamic, life giving, joy-filled, unifying image of God that it portrays to us. The divine dance. The dance, or the song, that we are lifted up into and caught up in and can’t help but join in with because of the sheer energy that is there to guide us and propel us along, whatever our reality may appear to be. And, because this is who God is, and this is what we are caught up in as we travel together as a church community, this is the God who we get to share beyond our walls to the communities around us. A God of life and love, a dynamic, moving, diverse yet unified divine presence that we are invited to be a part of and participate in.