Trinity Sunday A
June 05, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Worship and Doubt. Apparently they have been together from the beginning.
As Rev. Leonard Vander Zee pointed out one time in a sermon, the Bible is eminently realistic about such things. Matthew did not sugarcoat this for us, did not try to place shining halos behind each disciple’s head as they all stood on this mountain in Galilee. The risen Jesus was there, in the flesh. And he did, properly enough, receive some worship.
But he also generated some doubts. We are not told what exactly was doubted. What did the doubters doubt? Their own eyes? Possibly. Did they doubt the continuity between the Jesus they once knew and whoever this was before them now some days after the death of their former Master? Possibly. We know from the other gospels that there was something sufficiently different about Jesus’ appearance after the resurrection that it was possible to spend quite a lot of time with him (as, for instance, when a couple of folks were en route to Emmaus along a seven-mile hike) and still not recognize him as the rabbi from Nazareth.
Or did they doubt even more fundamental things? Did they believe this was their old friend Jesus all right but then wondered if he had really died after all? Did they believe this was Jesus but thought they were seeing a ghost, a vision, an apparition of Jesus from the other side but not a newly alive, flesh-and-blood person?
It is difficult to say. But whatever the precise nature of the doubt, we cannot escape the striking fact that on the very day when the most famous commission of all time was given to the then-budding Church—and on a day when the Triune formula for the divine identity was given as unambiguous an expression as anywhere in the entire New Testament—right then and there on that very day, there was doubt. There was uncertainty and a hint of skepticism.
Anyone who has ever had a furrowed brow over some of the knottier complexities of the Doctrine of the Trinity should appreciate a soupcon of doubt in the air in one of the key passages on which Trinitarian theology is built! But all of us latter-day disciples of Christ should likewise appreciate the fact that even the physical presence of Jesus was not always enough to chase away every specter of doubt.
Sometimes we’re all tempted to think, “Ah, if I had only been here on earth when Jesus was here, then faith would be an easier matter. If I could have seen him feed the 5,000, heard with my own ears the preaching of the Beatitudes, stuck my fingers in the nail holes the way Thomas was invited to do . . . if only I had been there, faith would seem more rock solid to me.”
Perhaps. But then, perhaps not. Faith is finally a mystery whether we can bolster it with physical proofs and evidences or not. And yet even in the presence of worship tinged with doubt, Jesus is there and promises his abiding presence to the end of the ages. Doubt doesn’t disqualify us from being in the presence of Jesus. Instead and in the midst of the doubt, Jesus is there, he brings to us the fullness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and asks us to move forward into still more ministry as we witness to his Name and to his gospel to the ends of the earth.
It was not easy then to be a follower of the Triune God. It’s not easy now. After all, this passage not only contains the doubts of some, it comes hard on the heels of what Frederick Dale Bruner has called “The Great Counter-Commission” of the religious authorities who bribed the Roman guards to spread the false report of grave robbery as a way to explain Jesus’ now-empty tomb. Counter-stories, other stories, debunking of various aspects of the whole Gospel story: these have been floating around from the beginning. Maybe by the time the disciples caught up with Jesus clear up in Galilee (some 70-80 miles north of Jerusalem), a few of the disciples had themselves already been exposed to this or that counter-story. Maybe that was part of the doubt.
This is mostly speculation, of course. The text itself is pretty spare. Yet on this Trinity Sunday 2017, we come back yet again to the rock-solid declaration that a new life is possible through baptism into that Triune Name and what’s more, the Jesus who holds out this promise and prospect of new life promises to be with us. Always.
Matthew began on a note of profound mystery: the child who was known as Jesus was Mary’s son but not Joseph’s (Mt. 1:16). And once Joseph gets wind of the child’s presence in his fiancé’s womb, he is confused and scandalized enough to want to flee the whole situation. But God tells him to stay with the mystery, with the confusion because somehow out of all this topsy-turvy, heart-upsetting, mind-addling business would come the arrival of the One Joseph was to hail as “Immanuel,” as “God with us.”
It’s the theme of Matthew’s Gospel and so Matthew bookends the narrative by returning to “God with us” from the lips of this same Jesus in Matthew 28 and the very last words of the narrative. Things are still confusing as the book Matthew wrote comes to an end. Matthew 1 and Matthew 28 are twin chapters in some ways. Minds are still addled. Hearts are still troubled.
They worshiped. They doubted.
As it was in the beginning, so it remains for us in the church today. But it’s OK. Jesus is still with us. And through him we get engulfed in the full Trinitarian mystery that just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Trinity Sunday, like the Doctrine of the Trinity for which it is named, can seem rather dull, academic, a bit remote. But it’s not. The fullness of the cosmic God is with us, is on our side, is nestled right in next to us even in our most profound times of both worship and doubt. That’s not academic information. It’s very, very personal. And it is very, very lovely. Thanks be to God, to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!
In ordinary speech, we would not say to someone “This is Jeremy, Jill, and Judy so be sure to remember that name.” When introducing or referring to a plurality of named persons, we’d ask someone to remember their “names” in the plural, not their “name” in the singular as if we were talking about just one person. In the Greek text, as in all translations, Jesus refers to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in a distinct way and yet does not say to baptize into the nameS of those three person but singularly into the name. There may be no neat parallels but we may do something similar when we refer to a corporate identity that, although involving a plurality of names, points to a singular entity with a singular purpose. And so in advertising a law firm, it would not be unusual to say something like “Dewey, Cheatum, and Howe: A Name You Can Trust.” Now actually we were given three names but since the law firm has a monolithic identity and a unity of purpose, it’s OK to sum up all the people who work there—including the three lead partners—as a unity with, in essence, just one name among them. Obviously when dealing with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Holy Trinity of God, we are talking about an identity among the three persons that is vastly thicker and tighter than any human analogy (Mr. Dewey, Ms. Cheatum, and Mr. Howe are finally three different persons after all with no fundamental connection to each other—but there is something striking about our common use of baptizing into “the Name” and then going on to mention three persons.) There may be more three-in-one and one-in-three Trinitarian theology tucked into those familiar words than we realize!
In a story I have no doubt used before on the CEP website—and I got this from a sermon by Tom Long—we find that although we might like to keep things “simple” in the church and in preaching, it is not always the best way to go. Yes, the Trinity is a mystery and it is a hard doctrine to understand. But in the richness of the mystery there are things we need to know and should want to know about. Simplicity is not always a virtue.
The fine preacher George Buttrick was once on an airplane scribbling out sermon notes on a legal pad. The man next to him asked what he was doing and so Buttrick said, “I’m working on next Sunday’s sermon–I’m a preacher.” “Oh yeah,” the man replied, “religion! I like to keep my religion simple–I don’t like complicated doctrines. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule–that’s my religion!” “I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what is it that you do.” “Well, I teach in the science department at the university. I’m an astronomer.” “Ah yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get very technical about such things. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy–why would anyone ever need more than that!?”
Author: Doug Bratt
Questions about the age of the universe, earth and the human race intrigue at least some 21st century Christians. Some wonder just how God guided the development of creation and its creatures. So God’s people sometimes turn to passages like this Genesis 1 and 2 for answers to those hard questions.
However, it’s important to ask if Genesis is even interested in those sometimes-divisive issues. To honestly answer that question God’s adopted sons and daughters need to ask just why God inspired someone to write the book in the first place.
Texts like 1 Timothy 3:16 at least suggests that God inspired someone to write books like Genesis in order to, among other things, teach us about our gracious God who creates and sustains life. After all, once we know about God, we’re better equipped us to thankfully respond to God’s grace with our good work.
Confusion about God was rampant in the ancient world. Not just the Israelites but also virtually everyone believed gods existed. They believed those gods had all sorts of different roles. The Acadian creation story, for example, mentions gods that are tired of all the work they have to do. So they create humans out of clay and the flesh of a god in order to lighten their workload.
So how could God teach an Israel that had spent millennia enslaved in spiritually confused Egypt about God’s true nature? How could God prepare Israel for life in spiritually chaotic “neighborhoods” like the land of promise and the Babylon into which God later exiled her?
How does the Church prepare its children for life in a world that samples from a perhaps even bigger buffet of gods? How does the Church prepare its members to live and work in a world that has so many different ideas about God?
Genesis 1-11 is in part God’s inspired response to the plethora of gods in which people have nearly always believed. In fact, it’s, among other things, perhaps even primarily, a passionate argument against the false gods we naturally and eagerly worship.
Our text, for example, insists right from its beginning that only one, not many gods exists. The sun, moon and stars are not, as Israel’s neighbors assumed, creators, but creatures. The planets are part of God’s creation and so do not, as some of our contemporaries believe, shape our destiny. Even “the great creatures of the seas” (21) that Israel’s contemporaries assumed were gods are only creatures.
So while God is intimately involved with what God creates, Genesis reminds us that creation isn’t itself divine. As a result, things like the sun and moon can’t destroy us because they’re not gods. The “creature” that is the seventh day of the week brings not bad luck, as the Babylonians assumed, but an opportunity for rest.
Genesis divides its description of God’s work of creation into six “days.” Each follows the same pattern. Every “day” begins with an announcement: “And God said …” So Genesis 1 reminds God’s people that while our world’s origins may look random, its design isn’t accidental. Creation is what it is because God both somehow both speaks it into existence and guides its development.
Our text then insists that on each “day” “there was,” or “God made,” or “God created.” When, after all, God speaks, things happen exactly as God commands. As Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke, from whose commentary Genesis (Zondervan, 2001) I drew many ideas for this piece, notes, God’s word is finally irresistible and creative.
So while many religions believed that creation emerged from a battle among the gods, Genesis insists that God fights no one to create the heavens and the earth. God simply speaks, and creation somehow happens.
Yet when God speaks, things also begin to separate: light from darkness, water from land, and fish from birds. Boundaries are, after all, as Waltke points out, important in both creation and society. When everything does what God created it to do within those boundaries, there is order. When, however, creatures blur boundaries by failing to fulfill the purpose for which God made them, there is chaos.
Our text notes that once God creates, God also “grades” God’s handiwork. The narrator repeatedly tells us that “God saw that [it] was good.” In fact, verse 31 reports that when “God saw all that he had made, it was very good.”
Yet when God evaluates God’s creation, God is assessing not its moral quality, but its fulfillment of the purpose for which God created it. So, for example, God calls the sun “good” because it emits light and warmth. Humanity is “good” when it increases in number, subdues the earth and rules over other creatures.
Yet while our text speaks of God doing such good work on successive “days,” those days weren’t necessarily 24 hours long. Studies of God’s creation at least suggest that God’s creative work lasted longer than 6 24-hour days.
So to understand what Genesis wants to communicate by talking about “days,” we look at verse 2’s, “the earth was formless and empty.” This suggests that before God’s creation of days, that creation was a chaotic place that didn’t produce life.
Verses 3-13 then report that on creation’s first three “days,” God gives “formless” creation form by creating various functions. On those days, after all, God creates things like light, the sky, dry land and vegetation.
In the second three “days” God then fills the “empty” earth with things that carry out those functions. So on days four through six, God creates things like the sun, moon, stars, birds, fish, and animals and, finally, human beings. This movement from verse 1’s chaos and formlessness to verse 2 and subsequent verses’ “days” may least at least suggest that “day” largely refers creation’s proper functioning on it.
Yet while God spends those days somehow speaking all of created things into existence, God graciously speaks to only to human creatures. God addresses our first parents in order to bless us by giving us work to do in God’s creation. What’s more, while verse 25 reports that God creates other creatures according to their “kinds,” to resemble each other, God creates people, according to verse 26, to somehow resemble God.
So while we’re not gods, God creates us to imitate God in fundamental ways. Among those ways, much like God fills the earth, people “fill the earth” by bearing children. What’s more, just as God rules over the earth whose chaos God subdued, people carefully “rule over” every living creature that God makes.
Our text closes its description of God’s creative work by noting that God graciously gives people food to eat. After all, in order for us to be “good” in the sense that we do what God created us to do, we need the energy that God provides through food.
At the end of those creative six days, Genesis 2:2 reports, God “rested from all his work.” Yet were God to completely rest, we’d die. What’s more, passages like Psalm 104 use present tense verbs to describe God’s ongoing creative activity. So we’re not surprised that when we read the “book” that is God’s creation, we see God still creating things like babies, streams and valleys.
How, then, might we understand God’s “rest”? It suggests that God recognizes that the initial work God had set out to do is finally complete. What’s more, God now has people and creatures that can help with some of the ongoing work of not just of caring for what God makes, but also of creation.
So how might we invite students and worshipers to think about Genesis 1? It doesn’t teach science in the way we usually understand that term. After all, the kind of scientific writing with which some of us are familiar is only a few centuries old.
What’s more the Israelites simply didn’t know as much about the “hard sciences” as we do. So had the Lord spoken to them in modern scientific terms, no one would have understood what God was talking about.
Nor is Genesis history in the exact way we think of it. It certainly does tell about God’s creative acts. Yet there are no human eyewitnesses to those acts to record the kind of history we record in, for example, textbooks. What’s more, Genesis 2’s order of creation differs from Genesis 1’s.
Yet Genesis does teach extremely important things. It teaches a culture that suspects that matter is eternal that God created matter. Genesis 1 and 2 teach a world that can’t agree on what God’s like, to say nothing of whether God even exists, that God is a loving creator and caretaker.
In a society that increasingly lives largely for its own pleasure, Genesis 1 reminds us that God created us to fill and take care of the earth. In a culture that finds it hard to rest, it insists that God created us for weekly rest.
That rest provides God’s adopted sons and daughters with, among other things, opportunities to bless the Lord in praise. Our text, after all, reports that God blessed “living things,” human beings and the Sabbath.
So in order to know God you and I study the two “books” that are creation and the Scriptures. Yet Christians don’t study things like Genesis and genomes, Song of Songs and cell biology just to learn more about them. We also see classes in science or history as opportunities to learn more about what God’s does. Peeks into telescopes or solving physics problems help us to understand what God makes. Even our time with other people brings praise to our lips because they resemble the God who created us.
Sometimes it’s easier to notice a creature than its creator. One of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web’s special creatures is a pig named Wilbur. He’s enjoying his new home until one day he learns that eventually farmer Homer Zuckerman will probably kill him and turn him into bacon and ham.
So Charlotte the spider hatches a three-step plan to save Wilbur. First, she writes the words “SOME PIG” in the middle of her spider web. This makes everyone think that Wilbur is something special. In fact, they think he’s “some pig.”
Charlotte then launches the second slogan in her Save Wilbur Campaign: “TERRIFIC.” This convinces Zuckerman that Wilbur is so terrific that he should take him to compete in the county fair. Finally, Charlotte weaves the third catchphrase into her web: “RADIANT.” This summons the whole county to visit the Zuckerman farm to see this radiant piggy.
Charlotte has definitely convinced people that Wilbur is a special little guy. Yet once the Zuckermans get to the County Fair, the spider has one more chance to show off her friend. So Charlotte weaves her final sign. This time it says: “HUMBLE.” All the fairgoers agree: that’s one humble pig.
E.B. White adds: “Everybody who visited the pigpen had a good word to say about Wilbur. Everyone admired the web. And of course nobody noticed Charlotte … Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.” [Italics added]
Author: Stan Mast
On this Trinity Sunday, the other three Lectionary readings can legitimately be used for sermons on that great Mystery. Both Matthew 28 and II Corinthians 13 explicitly mention Father (God), Son, and Holy Spirit. Genesis 1 is a bit more difficult. Although many scholars express reservations about such exegetical movements, an enterprising preacher can work with the plurals in Genesis 1 (“let us make humans in our image”) and with the cryptic reference to the “Spirit/wind” of God. And reading backward from John 1 and Colossians 1 will give some plausibility to the notion that the Son is active in Genesis 1 as the Word that God spoke.
But preaching a Trinitarian sermon on Psalm 8 will prove nearly impossible, as there is no hint of even a plurality in God. God is simply “Yahweh, our Adonai.” At best, we could say that Psalm 8 attributes praise to the Triune God for his work of creation and his care for the pinnacle of that creation, the human race. But there is no solid basis for a Trinitarian sermon here, unless we work with some angle that will lead us to the Trinity.
I want to suggest that we have such an angle in the concept of mindfulness found in verse 4: “what is man that you are mindful of him?” When I focused on that phrase, I saw a picture in my mind’s eye. It is a picture of a lovely blond, her eyes closed in clear contentment, a blissful smile upon her lips, the perfect picture of serenity. She was on the cover of Time magazine with this headline next to her peaceful face: “The Mindfulness Revolution: The Science of Focus in a Stressed out, Multi-tasking Culture.”
The mindfulness revolution is everywhere, even as that woman’s picture is found in nearly issue of Time since that first one. If your ignorance is as thick as mine was, you may benefit from the article accompanying that article in Time. Mindfulness, said the article, is learning to think about one thing at a time, to quiet a busy mind so that we are aware of the present moment and less caught up in what happened earlier or what’s to come.
Time pointed out that technology has made it easier than ever to fracture attention into smaller and smaller bits. We answer a colleague’s question from the stands at a child’s soccer game; we pay the bills while watching TV; we order groceries while we’re stuck in traffic. In a time when no one seems to have enough time, our devices allow us to be many places at once—but at the cost of being unable to fully inhabit the place where we actually want to be.
Sounds true, doesn’t it? So, said the article, if distraction is the pre-eminent condition of our age, then mindfulness is the most logical response. The ultimate goal is to give your attention fully to what you’re doing. The Mindfulness Revolution is sweeping our land because it promises a more peaceful and purposeful life. Some research suggests that mindfulness can actually do what its promoters promise, and that’s a good thing.
But Psalm 8 suggests a better thing, the best thing. It calls us to join another mindful revolution, a way of thinking about God that will enable us to live more peacefully, more purposefully, and, best of all, more praisefully. It invites us to join a mindfulness revolution that will enable us to start and end each day with the words that bracket this great Psalm. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
This mindfulness revolution is based in those words of verse 4 that are addressed to God. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care about him?” Hmmm. The mindfulness of God. What can it mean that God is mindful of us? Well, put it in contemporary terms. It means that God never gets pre-occupied with the affairs of someone else’s life and forgets about you, that God never dreams off in the middle of a conversation with you and just watches the TV. It means that God’s attention is never distracted as he drives your life with the result that accidents happen. God’s attention never wavers from your life, even as he multi-tasks in his providential care of the universe. God always gives his full attention to each one of us. To paraphrase country singer Willie Nelson, we are “always on his mind.”
Now, of course, by itself that isn’t necessarily a comforting thought. I mean, a psychotic stalker might have a laser-like focus on the object of his sick attention so that he can hurt her. Some people are most uneasy that God is always thinking of us, because they have a guilty conscience or because they have experienced some awful things in life. (Think of Job protesting God’s attention to him.) Some folks picture God the way a Far Side Cartoon did a few years back– a beady eyed CEO hunched over a heavenly computer with his finger poised over the SMITE button ready to devastate our sinful lives at any time.
The mindfulness of God won’t lead to a peaceful and purposeful and praiseful life unless we believe what the Psalmist says next in verse 4. God cares for us. That’s such a familiar idea for church-goers that it evokes little more than a bored smile or bitter skepticism, but it is an idea so ridiculous to many people that it evokes blistering scorn. Going all the way back to the Deists of the 18th century, people contrast the vastness of our clockwork universe with the puny humans who populate this tiny grain of sand. And they have concluded that “God couldn’t care less about us.”
In another issue of Time, there was an article about a scientist named Lisa Kaltenegger who is a leading researcher into the question of life on other planets. She and her fellow scientists claim to have found over 1,000 other planets. In a galaxy of over 300 billion stars, they say, there are surely more planets capable of sustaining life. In this immense and complicated universe, how can we claim that God, if there is a God, cares about these hairless bipeds we call human beings? God could be mindful of us in the way we might think once in a decade about a third cousin twice removed. But God certainly doesn’t care about us personally.
As he tended his sheep, the Psalmist gazed up at the same heavens, the moon and the stars that God set in place, and asked that same question. “When I consider the work of your fingers, what is man that you are mindful of him and the son of man that you care for him?” But the Psalmist gives a very different answer than Lisa Kaltenegger does. God does care, and here’s the proof: Lisa Kaltenegger and her fellow scientists have been placed in a position where they can put the universe under a microscope and study it through a telescope.
These tiny bits of carbon based life are able to take charge of the world, because, says the old Psalmist, God made us only a little lower than the heavenly beings, and crowned us with glory and honor. “Heavenly beings” there is actually the word God (elohim in Hebrew). Psalm 8 hearks back to Genesis 1, where God created humanity in his own image and gave us dominion over all the earth. We’re not just floating particles of protoplasm. We are princes and princesses. “You made us rule over the works of your hands.” That’s how much God cares. Out of nothing, he made us to be his royal children.
The problem is that we don’t feel like royal children much of the time. We feel more like the pauper than the prince. If I’m a child of the king, why is my life so hard? If I’m crowned with glory and honor, why is my life filled with shame and misery? So, it doesn’t seem as though God cares. It seems as if we’ve been forgotten and forsaken by God.
We feel like that homeless man in the famous picture from a bitterly cold January in the recent past. During that terrible cold, the nation’s attention was captured by a picture of a homeless man, a young man bundled up against the killer cold, huddled over a steam vent in a large city on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. The picture was distributed everywhere as a portrait of hopelessness. Here was a young man about whom no one cared. He might have been someone’s son once, but now he was forgotten.
Except that thousands of people did care, including his family, who had been thinking of him constantly. When they saw his picture, they said, “That’s our boy!” They found out exactly where he was. They sent word that they were coming. They turned over heaven and earth to get to him. And they welcomed him home. He was not a forgotten person about whom no one cared.
Neither are you and neither am I. God has done exactly what those parents did, and more. Psalm 8 points to the majesty of humanity as proof of God’s care, but Hebrews 2 uses these very words to talk about the mercy of God as an even greater proof. According to Hebrews 2 these words about the son of man who has been made little lower than the angels are finally about Jesus. Indeed, says Hebrews 2:17, “he had to be made like us in every way.” God didn’t just send word that he was coming to take us in out of the cold and bring us home. God’s Word actually became flesh and dwelt among us, shivering in the cold, huddling by the steam vent, a forgotten, God forsaken Son of Man.
God showed how much he cares about us not only by elevating us to positions of royalty in his world, but even more by lowering himself to the position of servant and criminal. Phil. 2 puts it in terms of mindfulness. “Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.” That’s how mindful God is of us. That’s how much God cares about us.
This line of exegesis and application opens Psalm 8 up to some Trinitarian musing. The God who created us a little lower than the angels has lowered himself to the cross. The God whose name is majestic in all the earth has become a “no name” who descended to the depths of hell. That’s how mindful God is of us, how much he cares for us.
I think of that lovely blond on the cover of Time, a model of the mindfulness revolution that has its roots in Buddhism. She’s peaceful and productive, because her attention is focused on one thing at a time. That’s good. Wouldn’t it be even better if her mouth were opened in praise to Jesus, because her attention is focused on the one God who is always mindful of us? Psalm 8 invites us to take the mindfulness revolution to its theological conclusion and focus on the one who demonstrated once and for all the heart and mind of God on that cross.
That’s not easy to do. It is frightfully hard to keep our minds on God. We get distracted by the pleasures and pains of life, and we lose our focus on God. Here’s where the mindfulness revolution can be helpful to us. We need to train ourselves to be mindful of Christ, as the early Christians were. Col. 3:1 says we must “set our minds on things above where Christ is….” We need to learn to empty our minds of all distractions and focus on Christ. When we are convinced God has forgotten us or we are doubtful that he cares, we must “set our minds on Christ….”
Here’s how we can do that. As we huddle over the steam vents of our lives, over whatever it is that gives us peace and purpose in a hectic multi-tasking world, we must look up at the cross. Set your mind on the Crucified One. Then get up on your feet. Come back to Christ. Regain your place as one of the rulers of his world. Then give him the praise.
When our attempts at Christian mindfulness fail us, we can count on this. The Lord, Jesus Christ, is mindful of us. Nothing can distract him from paying attention to us and nothing in all this world can keep him from caring for us. “O Jesus, our Lord, how majestic and merciful is your name in all the earth.”
I’m not much of an opera buff, but a while back I was privileged to attend “Madame Butterfly” in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is the tragic story of a young Japanese girl who is swept off her feet by a dashing United States naval officer who is visiting Nagasaki. Though he is simply being impetuous, she falls deeply in love with him, and they marry. To cement their relationship, she leaves Buddhism and converts to Christianity. A large cross displayed in an important part of her house symbolizes her new faith and her love for her husband.
His ship soon sails, and he is gone for three long years. Every day she scans the horizon looking for his ship. Every day she prays to the Christian God for his return. After three years, she begins to waver. “The Japanese gods are fat and lazy, but does the Christian God even know where I am?” Then her husband returns, and she is overjoyed– until she meets his new American wife. In a fit of rage and grief, Madame Butterfly sweeps the cross from its place in her house, smashing it to the ground. And then she kills herself.
Only if we keep that cross at the center through all the disappointments and disasters of our lives will we be able to begin and end each day with the words that bracket this great Psalm. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
“I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you . . . Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Those are among the closing words of the landmark “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The full letter is powerful, moving. Indeed, I am assigning my students to read and study the letter for a summer elective course I am teaching for my seminary.
But wouldn’t my students find it puzzling if I assigned them only those closing words quoted above? True, they might love the brevity of the assignment but still . . . why read just the signature line?
The same could be said about this Sunday’s Lectionary Epistle reading that encompasses just the last few closing words from Paul’s much longer second letter to the church at Corinth. There is so much in this letter—why zero in on just the “Farewell” part? But of course we already in part know the answer to that: it is because this text is assigned for Trinity Sunday and it contains one of the New Testament’s classic Trinitarian formulae as Paul gives a benediction that encompasses Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. True, it’s not quite the classic “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” but it’s awfully close and surely counts as one of many places in the New Testament where reference to God goes into the triplicate modality of speech.
The Doctrine of the Trinity is—as most everyone knows and as any good Jehovah’s Witness can tell you—nowhere spelled out systematically in the Bible even as the word “trinity” itself does not occur. The early church distilled this doctrine from the wider witness of Scripture. It found building blocks for the doctrine here, there, and so on and cobbled each block together into the edifice that became the orthodox view of one God existing in three wholly distinguishable divine Persons who share but once essence and constitute but one Deity.
Of course, the perennial challenge for preachers on Trinity Sunday is to find a way to talk about, highlight, and yes, even CELEBRATE our God as Triune in ways that will not cause people’s eyes to begin glazing over or quietly reach for their smartphones to check on any breaking news headlines. In the case of the Year A Lectionary text from 2 Corinthians 13, this may be easier than you think.
Consider: the wider context of the Corinthian correspondence involves Paul’s pastoral love for a congregation that was—at its best—a headache. 1 Corinthians is clearly Paul’s long reply to an original letter he had received that was chock full of questions, controversies, and other evidences of woeful fractiousness. Scholars think the Corinthian congregation could not have been very large and yet it had quickly balkanized into large units that claimed various spiritual heads (Paul Peter, Apollos) and each of those contained further sub-units divided by social class, intellectual class, economic class even as fights broke out over whose spiritual gifts were more important, whose teaching on the resurrection was the most correct, whose notions on justice were the more Christ-like. On top of all that, men still thought it acceptable to hook up with prostitutes now and then, at least one man took up with his own mother-in-law, and a few folks hauled each other into small claims courts with lawsuits being used to settle congregational disputes.
Outside of that all was well. Really.
But then sometime between their reception of Paul’s corrective letter taking on all THAT, a few among the Corinthian faithful began to become persuaded by some so-called “Super Apostles” that the teachings of their beloved founding pastor Paul were not necessarily all that great and the Corinthians needed to start following a whole of other new notions. So in what we now call 2 Corinthians (that may have really been 3 Corinthians in that it appears there was another in-between letter we no longer have access to) we find Paul going to at times some rather bizarre rhetorical lengths to defend his credentials as an Apostle not to mention the orthodoxy of his teachings.
Taken together the 2 letters we have from Paul to the Corinthians—and the missing but apparently nicknamed “Painful Letter”—are a roller coaster ride of controversies, raw emotions, and just a whole lot of the hurly burly nature of life inside a Christian congregation.
All in all, it should sound plenty familiar to most any pastor.
And then comes the end of it all. I can hear The Beatles in my head: And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make. Well, not quite but close. Because at the end of this surely exhausting correspondence, Paul raises two weary hands to speak one last blessing. His wrists and his every finger don’t have the strength they had when he first planted that church in Corinth all those years before. He’s been through the wringer a few dozen times since then and has shed his share of pastor’s tears over the Corinthians themselves. Still, he raises his now tired hands and says “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
And what more is there to say really? From the fullness of our Triune God comes everything we need to exist as the often fractious communities of believers that we are.
We need Jesus’ grace. We need that grace to get saved in the first place, to be spiritually relocated to dwelling ‘in Christ’ as baptized people—a new identity Paul returned to again and again in trying to straighten out many a Corinthian ethical knot—and we need that grace just as much to keep forgiving and re-forgiving the myriad ways we manage to wound each other in the church too. We need Jesus to be gracious with us. We need to extend that same grace to one another.
We need the love of God the Father. Where would we be without it? For it was while we were yet sinners that God . . . well, that God LOVED us and sent his Son to die for precisely the undeserving and wretched lot of folks we tend to be.
And we need—oh, how badly we need—that koinonia, that abiding fellowship of the Holy Spirit who took up residence in our hearts after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit alone is the glue that can hold together people who sometimes (let’s be honest) don’t have a whole lot in common outside their common commitment to the faith.
Yes, when it is all said and done, the weary pastor holds up wrinkled, tired hands to shower down on oft-difficult people the whole Trinitarian blessing of grace, love, and fellowship and through that—though Paul does not explicitly say it here—of that crazy peace that passes all understanding. Peace that passes understanding descends on people whose actions often defy easy understanding, too. But there it is. We live in the tension of the already and the not yet even as we find a million creative ways to test the patience of one another and of our pastoral leaders in the church.
But if the Trinity means anything at all, it means this: from all eternity three divine Persons have had an unbounded love affair with each other and then, once upon an eternity, they decided to share that love with a universe of other creatures. That those creatures turned out to be wholly unloveLY eventually did not, even so, render them finally unlovABLE. And so the grace and the love and the fellowship keep coming. It’s just God’s Triune nature to send it. It’s just our awesome opportunity to keep getting it.
Thanks be to God, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. Amen!
Note: I have used this conclusion to a Tom Long sermon on 1 Corinthians 1 before but it bears repeating and fits the end of 2 Corinthians as well:
Tom Long was once asked to preach at an intergenerational worship service, the premise of which looked great. On paper. The idea was to hold the service not in the sanctuary but in the Fellowship Hall where families would sit around tables laden with all the ingredients necessary for making loaves of bread. The families would make the bread during the first part of the service and then while the smell of baking bread was to waft through the hall, Dr. Long would deliver a sermon followed by the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that would use, of course, the fresh bread.
It was a great idea. On paper. Off the paper, it was chaos. First the Fellowship Hall filled with clouds of flour dust as children threw handfuls across tables. Then the ovens did not work quite right and/or someone failed to realize that baking that many loaves at once would significantly lengthen the baking time. Long stretched out his remarks like gluten for as long as he could even as children grew bored and restless, bickering, crying. Families seemed on the verge of falling apart.
Mercifully, it did end eventually and the script called for Dr. Long to pronounce the benediction “The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Too weary to improvise anything else, Long held flour-caked fingers aloft and pronounced peace over the Fellowship Hall chaos.
“The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” . . . to which a small child’s voice from the back of the Hall replied “It already is.”