Perichoresis

Preaching and Worship Resources about Perichoresis

Perichoresis (para-cor-AY-sis) is a Greek term from the ancient Christian church describing the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Stemming from Jesus' testimony in John's gospel that the Father and the Son are "in" each other, the doctrine of perichoresis describes an intra-trinitarian hospitality of each divine person to the other two. Each person welcomes, envelops, and harbors the other two. Seemingly an arcane, perhaps speculative Christian doctrine, perichoretic thinking has some surprisingly practical implications.

In Scripture

"`The Father and I are one'" (John 10:30)

"`If I do [the works of my Father], even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father'"(John 10:38).

"`Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. . . . On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you'" (John 14:10 - 11, 20).

"`I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you'" (John 14:16 - 17).

"`As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . . I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me'" (John 17:21, 23).

Points to Ponder

In John's gospel, perhaps the pinnacle of the Father/Son relation is that the two are "one" and are "in" each other. These relationships appear to be equivalent, and neither is explained. For reasons too complex to be explained here, the Paraclete or Spirit of Truth is, by extension, included in these relations as well. And the oneness/in-ness relationship of the three John describes appears to be ontological and eternal. The three have a relationship not just of function, but of their very nature.

The Father forever loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father back. The Father glorifies the Son, and the Son glorifies the Father back. The Son just does what he sees his Father doing. He "exegetes" God the Father because he is "close to the Father's heart." And when the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit upon people, this "Advocate" or "Paraclete" reproduces heavenly life among these people (John 1:18; 14:26; 15:26).

So at the center of the universe, self-giving love is the dynamic currency of the trinitarian life of God. The persons within God exalt each other, commune with each other, defer to one another. Each person, so to speak, makes room for the other two. It sounds a little strange, but we might almost say that the persons within God show each other divine hospitality. The Father is "in" the Son and the Son is "in" the Father, and each loves and glorifies the other. The fathers of the Greek church (especially Gregory of Nazianzus, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus) called this interchange the mystery of perichoresis and added to it the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of both the Father and the Son. When early Greek Christians spoke of perichoresis in God, they meant that each divine person harbors the others at the center of his being. In a constant movement of overture and acceptance, each person envelops and encircles the others. So inside God there is a ceaseless exchange of vitality, the infinite expanse of spirit upon spirit in superlative, triplicate consciousness.

Supposing that hospitality means to make room for others and to then help them flourish in the room you have made, we could say that hospitality thrives within the triune life of God and then spreads wonderfully to the creatures of God. The one who spreads it is a mediator, a person who "works in the middle." Because of Christ, says John's gospel, the people of God may somehow one day be included in the triune hospitality ("As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us").

Seemingly an arcane, perhaps speculative Christian doctrine, perichoretic thinking has some surprisingly practical implications. Mainly, it's the basis for the Christian practice of hospitality. All kinds of people offer hospitality, of course. But Christians offer it for a special reason. They understand that when they make room for others and help them to flourish in the room they have made, then they are like God!

Christians have found a great number of ways to offer hospitality. The great hospitals of Europe came from the diaconate of Christian churches and from the hospices opened for pilgrims and travelers that eventually made room for the hurt and the handicapped, then for the old and the orphaned and the dying and the impoverished. Among European Christians in the Middle Ages, practicing hospitality wasn't just a biblical mandate; it was a life's calling to shelter those who need refuge.

Think as well of people who take in foster children. Lots of society's heroes may be found among the strong and cheerful folks who open their homes to foster children or who adopt children deeply into their lives and families. Forget about the people society fusses over. These people are typically not heroes, but mere celebrities. The real heroes are the generous people who welcome strangers, including those who come to them as their own children. These are people with a sense of adventure and a sense of humor. Such adventurous folk probably expect to gain as much as they spend on this program. But even if they don't, it's fine with them. The reason is that they don't think of self-fulfillment as their goal. They don't think of life that way at all. To them, opening a space for others isn't some grim duty we perform while searching elsewhere for fulfillment. To them, self-expenditure is self-fulfillment.

The truth is that we human beings were created to spend ourselves. We thrive only when we help others to thrive because we have been created in the image of God. Even at the center of the universe, life hums with the glad give-and-take of hospitality.

One other implication of the doctrine of perichoresis: If the inner life of God is all about inclusion and hospitality, then it's fitting for Christian worship to mirror this divine reality in all the ways we can think of. For example, we might select worship songs and hymns that come from all over the world, from every tribe and tongue and nation. Our blessing is to be hospitable to the people who write and sing them. Jonathan Edwards famously wrote that we sing our praise instead of just saying it because singing is a way God customarily uses to start human hearts. We show hospitality to hymnwriters and songwriters from all over the world, and they end up moving our hearts. This is a circle of blessing we don't want to miss.

Maybe 20 percent of worshippers have a disability. In our sanctuary architecture, in our provisions for people hard of hearing, in the training of our greeters, in our prayers and sermons, we may make provision for people with disabilities. It's part of our reverence for a trinitarian God in whom each of three persons harbors the other two at the center of their being.

Finally, to round out our hospitality, we will see to it that our worship is truly intergenerational. If possible, we'd like three or four generations of Christian believers to worship together and learn from each other. They may weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. They may instruct, inspire, and comfort each other as they together spend themselves in adoration of God.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.