Divine choreography: Made in the image of community

If you take a good look at your average dollar bill, you’ll notice that the reverse side features the Great Seal of the United States—you know, the eagle holding both an olive branch and a bundle of arrows. And above the eagle’s head you’ll find the traditional national motto of the U.S.: E pluribus unum.  Don’t be scared off by the Latin; it simply means “Out of many, one” or “one from many.” It refers to the fact that though America is a land of great diversity, we still find common unity in our identity as American citizens.

Humans are, indeed, a diverse group. Social science has long insisted that we are not merely homo sapiens but homo duplex, meaning we exist on two distinct levels: as individuals and also as participants in a larger social fabric. We need each other. “No man is an island,” as they say. And what we’re talking about can ultimately be traced back to God’s perfect character.

In the creation story of Genesis, we’re told that men and women were created in the “image” of God (Genesis 1:26). In the original context, this had to do with being a ruling representative of God, an agent of God’s sovereign kingdom on earth. Human beings are capable of this because we share certain characteristics of God—we “take after” God, so to speak, much the way we might say a toddler “takes after” one of his parents.

But, as we’ve been emphasizing this week, God reveals Himself as an eternal community of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are one, yet they fulfill unique roles within God’s divine community as well as the gospel story.

If you and I are made in the image of a divine community, it follows that we are made for community with one another. In Bruce Ware’s careful study of the Trinity, he points out that “we are created to reflect what God is like, and this includes a reflection of the personal relationships within the Trinity.”

So it should not surprise us that the pattern of unity-and-diversity can be found in so many places of our society. In what ways does the Trinity impact the way humans reflect God’s image? We can highlight three:

  • WE ARE WIRED FOR INTIMACY

First, we must acknowledge that the members of the Trinity exist in a perpetual state of intimacy. The early Church even found a word for this—they called it perichoresis. If you look closely enough you’ll see the resemblance to the word “choreography.” “God is not a static thing,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” What we find in God is a kind of “divine choreography,” where the various members of the Trinity exist in close, intimate fellowship, such as when Jesus tells His followers: “I am in the Father and the Father in me” (John 14:11).

More recently, Cornelius Plantinga says it this way:

“The persons within God [Father, Son, and Spirit] exalt each other, commune with one each other, and defer to one another…Each divine person harbors the others at the center of his being.  In constant movement of overture and acceptance, each person envelops and encircles the others…God’s interior life [therefore] overflows with regard for others.”[1]

If we are made in the image of this “divine choreography,” then it follows that you and I are called for relationships with one another. Jesus hints at this when He prays that the Church “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (John 17:21).

Marital intimacy, of course, is the deepest expression of this divine community. Two becoming “one” is the closest expression we have to the intimacy found in the Godhead. But even outside of marriage, the Trinity forms a pattern for how we as individuals form relationships with one another in society as well as in the Church.

  • WE MAY SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY WITHOUT LOSING DIGNITY

Some of the hardest teachings in the Bible have to do with submitting to authority. Wives are called to submit to their husbands, children called to obey their parents, and all people are called to submit to human government.

In our Western way of thinking—nay, our human way of thinking—submission is more than a loss of personal freedom, but an affront to our personal dignity. Submission is assumed to be a sign of inferiority. “Who is he to tell me what to do?” we might catch ourselves thinking, and on a larger level we can see the consequences of a society that refuses to recognize anyone’s authority except their own.

In John’s gospel Jesus tells the religious leaders: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). Jesus submits to the Father’s authority. Granted, there are other passages that indicate that Jesus still had a will of His own, but Jesus emphasizes His desire to do the will of the Father who sent Him (John 4:34). Jesus never stopped being God, never ceased to be worthy of honor and praise. Yet Jesus was willing to obey the authority of His Father in His earthly mission.

If Jesus could submit to authority without losing dignity, why can’t we?  The Trinity helps us understand that sometimes hierarchy is necessary for an ordered society, and we should never see our submission to authority as indicating inferiority.

  • WE VALUE HARMONY, NOT MERE “UNITY”

Sometimes I suspect that we use the word “unity” all wrong. Sometimes we take the word “unity” to mean “uniformity”—that is, if we are to truly be “one,” we must think and act the same.

The Trinity teaches us that because Father, Son, and Spirit are one God yet different persons, they exist not only in unity but in harmony.  They are different pieces coming together to make a whole.

No one goes to the symphony to hear a group of flautists all playing the same note. No; a symphony—like all forms of art—requires both unity and diversity in the way the varied notes and instruments come together to form a unified, beautiful composition.

In the book of Revelation, we find something similar going on in the worship of God:

9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Read that carefully; note all the plural nouns: “all tribes…peoples…languages” but “crying out with a loud voice.” From the many, one.

If this is what God’s future is meant to look like, should we also not seek to embrace diversity in our midst even today?

*   *   *

It hasn’t escaped my notice that you’re reading this on inauguration day. Few things divide us like politics. In the coming years, I can easily imagine there will be a great many opportunities to witness social and political division. But this is all the more reason to pursue harmony and to not allow ideas—however precious they may seem—to damage the kinds of relationships that reflect God’s image.

And I realize, of course, that there are many ideas that cannot coexist harmoniously—just as there is a limited range of notes that can be played together to make a musical chord. This side of the resurrection, it’s rare that our ideas about morality and human society are ever in perfect agreement. There’s room for dialogue, even debate. What there’s not room for is anger and childish name-calling. For if we are indeed fashioned in the image of a divine community, there is something noble about seeking peace where others stir division. We are many indeed, but in God we can be unified.

[1] Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2002), 20-23.

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