Trinity Sunday A

June 09, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 28:16-20

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 1:1-2:4a

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 8

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    2 Corinthians 13:11-13

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                Clearly this text was chosen for Trinity Sunday because of the Trinitarian blessing at the end.  But what a hard text to preach!  It’s so short and there’s so little here.  In teaching students to preach, we always emphasize that they have to start with a preachable unit—not just a fragment torn from its context, but a segment of Scripture that is a complete thought, a whole story, a pericope with a clear beginning and ending.  This text doesn’t seem to meet those requirements, until we see it in its historical and literary context.

                We begin to see the importance of this short reading when we recall that no congregation received more care, advice, and personal visits from Paul than the church at Corinth.  He had stayed in Corinth for one and a half years during his first visit.  He made three visits in all (that we know of).  While in Ephesus for 3 years, he wrote at least 3 letters, and he sent another from Macedonia.  The Corinthian letters occupy more space and cover a more diverse range of topics than any other part of the New Testament.  No church meant more to him than this troublesome urban congregation.   Corinth was Paul’s problem child, which explains why his correspondence with them is full of both spiritual closeness and sharply painful separation.

                We see that tension in the 4 chapters just before our reading.  The first 10 verses of chapter 13 summarize the subject matter and tone of those chapters.  Those ten verses have a very strong, even tough, tone.  It doesn’t take any imagination to hear the threat in these words, “On my return, I will not spare those who sinned. (verse 2).”  Paul was preparing to visit them a third time and he is warning them that he is coming in the capacity of a judge.  So he speaks of verifying testimony, issues warnings about possible punishment, addresses their demand for proof of his authority, and rumbles about coming with the power of God.

    Egged on by the false teachers (“super-apostles” is Paul’s sarcastic nickname for them in 12:11), the Corinthians had been questioning Paul’s apostolic authority.  The question of chapters 10-13 is, “Is Christ speaking through Paul?”  Can Paul pass the test of apostolocity?  In these first 10 verses, Paul turns that around.  “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.  Test yourselves.”  When you do, and discover that you really are Christians, you will know that I have not failed the apostolic test.  Christ does speak through me.  You are the proof of that.

    Then, after uttering a prayer that they will be “perfect” (see my comments on this later), Paul closes this testy section of his letter with a very authoritarian word.  He explains that he wrote them this sharply worded letter so that he wouldn’t have to be harsh when he meets them face to face again.  Paul could do that; after all, he has the authority that Jesus himself gave him.  However, he wanted to use that power not to tear down, but to build up.  Paul’s opponents were accusing him being too gentle and mild to be a real apostle.  Anyone who really had Jesus’ authority would be stronger and tougher, they argued.  So Paul writes a strong, tough letter, especially in these last chapters, to show them his authority and spare the Corinthians a firsthand demonstration of what that authority could do.  We aren’t told what Paul could do to them, but perhaps 12:12 give us some hint.

    That history and those closing chapters explain why Paul ends this hard letter the way he does.  “Finally, brothers, good-by.”  He wants to remind them that even though he has been hard on them, they are still his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.  Calvin explains Paul’s motive nicely:  “Reproofs are beneficial when they are, as it were, seasoned with honey, so that the hearer will accept them, if that is possible.”  Ending a letter or a sermon or an ordinary conversation with the sting of a whip is not the best way to win people over and motivate their obedience.  Further, Paul changes the tone with the word translated “good-by” in the NIV.  It is the Greek word chairete, which means “rejoice.”  Yes, I’ve been tough on you, but it’s because I love you and only want your joy.  So, my last word to you is “rejoice.”  (Cf. Phil. 3:1, “rejoice I the Lord.”)

    Except that isn’t Paul’s last word.  He goes on with 4 rapid fire imperatives, all of them in the present tense.  Keep doing these things.  The four imperatives neatly summarize all that Paul has commanded in the letter.  The Greek for “aim for perfection” doesn’t really mean that.  Katartidzein has to do with repairing what has been broken or restoring what is lost, rather than bringing what is already good to perfection.  A better translation is “mend your ways.”

    Which ways did they need to mend?  Well, the ways in which Paul has been commanding, or appealing, or encouraging throughout these letters.  “Listen to my appeal.” Don’t turn a deaf ear to me.  If I have succeeded in establishing my authority over against these super-apostles, then do what I have been saying.

    Among the things Paul has spoken of most vehemently is the need for unity.  So, “be of one mind.”  That cannot mean that Christians have to think about everything the same way.  In a diverse body filled with Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, differences of opinion are inevitable, and perhaps even helpful.  But not when it comes to things that are of first importance (cf. I Cor. 15:3).  Be of one mind about “the truth (13:8),” about the Gospel and it life changing implications.

    If you can be of one mind about Jesus and what he has done and what that means for your life, then you can live in peace.  And you must.  But they hadn’t been living in peace.  False teachers had disrupted the fellowship.  The congregation had argued about which preacher was best.  They envied each other’s gifts.  They had entered into litigation with each other.  And even their worship had been a Babel of confusion and disagreement.  So, one last time, Paul says, “Live in peace.”

    After hitting them with four quick jabs to the heart, Paul applies a soothing balm, a wonderful promise about what would happen if they actually obeyed.  “And the God of love and peace will be with you.”  Isn’t the God of love and peace always with us?  Of course!  That’s the Gospel.  But it is also true that our obedience to the will of God will bring us an experience of God’s love and peace.  This circular reasoning is part of the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.  God freely gives what he commands, but to receive what he gives we must do what he commands.  God loves problem children like the Corinthians, but they won’t know the presence of the God of love and peace until and unless they do the will of God.

    Speaking of love and peace, Paul includes this odd bit of advice at the end of this hard letter.  “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  The holy kiss was like our handshake.  The handshake originated on the field of combat.  We shake hands as a sign that we are at peace; we hold no weapons in our hand.  With open hands we clasp the hands that formerly held weapons.  So, the holy kiss is a sign that we are at peace.  No longer are our fists clenched in anger and our lips twisted in rage.  Now we hold each other’s shoulders and lightly kiss each other on both cheeks.  This gesture is the tangible sign that we have obeyed all Paul has commanded and that the God of love and peace is again at the center of our relationships.

    That would have been a lovely last word, but Paul has one more thing to say.  It’s the best thing of all, because it is about God.  It is a benediction in the name of the Triune God.  After all the hard talk, Paul ends with a lovely blessing that includes everything these Corinthians will need in order to do what the letters commanded.  We need grace, love, and communion to do and to be all that God desires.  And those three things can come only from the Triune God.

    Many have commented on the unusual order of the blessing.  Usually, we speak of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in that order.  Why does Paul put the Son first?  And why does he attribute grace to Jesus, rather than to the Father?  We can only guess, but the early Christians always put the cross of Christ at the center of their thought about God.  It was through the death (and resurrection) of Jesus that they had come to know God as Father through the Spirit.  They understood God’s love through the cross.  And they knew that their fellowship with the Father and the Son had been produced by the Holy Spirit.  Paul gives them God’s blessing in this way because this is how they had experienced the working of the Triune God in history and in their lives.

    In other words, this Trinitarian blessing is not first of all abstract theology, though it was one of the prime passages on which the later church based its formulation of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.  This is practical theology; it’s the same kind of thing we noticed in Phil. 2:5-11 and I Cor. 12:3b-11 in the last few weeks.  It is theology designed to bless God’s people and motivate them to blessed living.  That doesn’t mean we can’t probe this theology for its deeper meaning; we can legitimately move from what God has done to who God is.  It is legitimate to move from our experience of the economic Trinity to an exploration of the ontological Trinity.  However, Paul’s first intention was not to teach us about the inner workings of the Trinity, but to motivate us to live by the grace of Jesus, the love of God, and the communion of the Spirit.

    Let me put it this way.  Paul has called us to do some very hard things here in II Corinthians, things we simply cannot do in our own strength and wisdom.  We don’t have it in us.  But God does.  We know that because of the full redemption (grace) we have received through our Lord Jesus Christ, who was sent to the world by the love of God for sinners.  And we have been incorporated into fellowship with God and with each other by the work of the Spirit.  The work of the Triune God guarantees us that we can do what we must do.

    So, after all these words about and to human beings, God not only gets the last word, but also is the last word.  The Triune God is our only hope for doing what we ought to do and finding full life.

    Illustration Idea

                On my bookshelves at home there is a very helpful little book about difficult conversations.  It is entitled Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and it is part of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  As I pondered the conclusion of II Corinthians, I realized that it is a biblical model for such conversations.  Even more, it is a model for ending sermons (which are almost always about difficult things).

    A slam bang conclusion to any sermon ought to include a parting taste of honey and a note of joy (“brothers, rejoice”).  In other words, no matter what we’ve been talking about, we must assure people that we love them and want them to rejoice in the Lord.  A conclusion should be decisive and practical.  Don’t drag out your conclusion.  End the sermon with a snap, giving people something they can actually do with your sermon.  Think of those four short punches: “Aim, listen, be of one mind, live in peace.”  And it’s always helpful if you can give the people one simple symbolic thing to do that will demonstrate their intention to follow through.  “Greet each other with a holy kiss.”

    But don’t get so practical that people think Christianity is all about “doing.”  A simple “how to” sermon will miss the heart of the Gospel.  So be sure that you end with the Truth about God.  You don’t necessarily have to explain the Trinity every time, but you should always end with God, and especially with the grace of God in Christ applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit.  Be sure your people know that being a Christian is not about working harder, but about the work of the Triune God.  End with grace in one of its many forms, so that people leave focused on Christ.