Trinity Sunday A
June 09, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Worship and Doubt.
Apparently they have been together from the beginning.
As Rev. Leonard Vander Zee pointed out in a recent sermon that I heard at my home church, 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 2014, 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 “Varnum, Riddering, and Schmidt: 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. Varnum, Mr. Riddering, and Mr. Schmidt 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!
A friend of mine was frustrated some while back at a meeting where at least a couple of people were hemming and hawing in liberal-fashion about taking this or that aspect of the Bible literally. This prompted my preacher friend to relate a story of something that happened to him probably thirty years ago. One Sunday he preached about Jesus’ resurrection. Monday morning, first thing, the phone rang. It was a high-powered, big city lawyer who had been in church the day before. “I need to talk to you right away,” the lawyer said. The pastor invited the man over and as the lawyer came into the study he immediately said,
“I have just one question for you: do you believe that Jesus was really raised from the dead? Do you really believe it?”
“Yes, I really do,” the pastor replied.
The lawyer smiled and said, “Thank you, that’s all I needed to know.” And then he left again.
Jesus really was raised from the dead. He really is still alive and he really is still right here in our every act of love, kindness, grace, compassion, and hope. Jesus lives and so do we. That’s all most people need to know.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Science has long been fascinated with both the cosmic beginning and its ending. Both involve a certain amount of speculation, though at least with the universe’s beginning there is real evidence to look at. But since the end has not yet come, there is no data to examine, and so theory and speculation are all science can offer. Scientist Fred Hoyle is the man who is credited with coining the phrase “the Big Bang.” He did so because over the last century or two there has been mounting evidence that at some point long about 13.7 billion years ago (give or take a bit) all that we now know burst into being in a super-hot explosion of unfathomable power. So amazing was the shockwave of that explosion that its effects have yet to die out. Indeed, some new evidence suggests that this shockwave of energy essentially never will die out.
The universe continues to expand, hurtling ever-deeper into the far reaches of space. For a long time it was an open question as to whether that expansion outward from the Big Bang would continue to push the cosmos outward or whether the universe would reach an outer limit and then, rubber band-like, snap back in on itself. Then all that we know would hurtle back together in one huge and dense mass the way an entire skyscraper can pancake down into a single heap of rubble after some demolition crew blows it up.
But a few years back the Hubble Space Telescope happened to snap a picture that indicates that such a re-collapse of the cosmos may never happen. Instead the tremendous power of that original explosion will continue to drive matter outward. Eventually, however, the universe’s energy will become too diffuse to sustain life. Suns will flatten and wink out, space will grow colder and colder until finally the ultimate result of that first Big Bang will be a cosmos spread too thin. If so, then the seeds of the universe’s end were sown already at its explosive beginning. The fire, heat, and energy that gave birth to all we know will end up becoming too much of a good thing as that same outward rush of power that brought us to this current moment in galactic history will push the universe to extinction.
Of course, even if this scenario were ever to prove true, it is something like a trillion years away, so I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it. But how curious that science would now say that something of the universe’s end could be contained in its beginning. Truth is, the Bible has said the same thing pretty much all along, except that from our faith-informed perspective this is good news.
Listen: “In the beginning God.”
In the beginning God.
You don’t need to read much farther than that in the Genesis text to discern how the cosmic end is contained in the cosmic origin. “In the beginning God.” So simple, yet so majestic. Because if that is true, then it’s very close to being all we need to know. Because contained in that little statement is the keynote of faith: namely, God has something to do with everything. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning God created everything.
Throughout Genesis 1 we have a majestic series of repeated phrases: God commands, and it is done; God sees, and it is good; there is evening, there is morning, and so another day. The order and regularity of this narrative–as predictable as sunrise and sunset each day–is a mirror image of the larger cosmic order and regularity that has been in place since the beginning because of God’s work alone.
There is something soothing about Genesis 1’s rhythm and predictability. Authors of children’s books know that and so construct stories which can have a similar effect on young children. A classic example is the story of the Three Bears wherein first Goldilocks, and then later upon their return also the three bears, methodically move through the house. They proceed from porridge bowls to chairs to bed and each time from too hot to too cold, too hard to too soft, until finally something is “just right.” Similarly in the wonderful book Goodnight, Moon young readers systematically work their way through a young boy’s bedroom, noting each item and then, after each set, saying “Goodnight” to one of the items.
Genesis 1 is like that, though on a much more sophisticated level. But there is predictability here–you as a reader know what’s coming because it will echo what came before. And you always know that at the end of the day, no matter how wildly diverse that day’s creative activities were, it’s going to turn out just right. God is going to see that it is good–and in the end he will see that the whole kit-n-kaboodle is “very good.” How profoundly comforting it is to know this as you move along.
In the beginning God.
But there are other, more subtle features to this text which are striking once you see them. The Genesis 1 creation account has a bit of an axe to grind. The author was well aware that this was not the only creation story available in the world. Myths on how the universe began were a dime a dozen in the ancient world: the Egyptians had their story about the sun god Re and his creating of all life. The Babylonians had their grand epic of Enuma Elish in which the goddess Tiamet is responsible for birthing many gods, out of whose warfare eventually the earth was born. The universe is filled with gods in most such tales, and some of these gods could be identified with certain portions of this world: so some people worshiped the sun even as others bowed down before trees, some sought to honor the spirits of the rivers while others adored the god of the mountain.
Genesis 1 was written, in part at least, to counteract these alternative narratives of creation and the view of the world which those stories supported. Over and over the true God of Israel is shown as superior to any portion of the natural world by virtue of God’s being the one not just to make all things but to move them around so they would do precisely what he alone desired. God is shown here as being so grand that he can accomplish great wonders well beyond the “normal” operation of things. Many in the ancient world worshiped the sun and/or the moon as a god in its own right. So Genesis 1 quite literally puts the sun in its place by having God create light–just pure and stunning light–three whole creation “days” before the sun and moon. Why worship the sun when the true God doesn’t even need it to make the purest of all light!?
As if that were not an amazing enough feat, God even creates green plants on day three also before the sun was made. This is not an example of ignorant science on the part of this author–although ancient people lacked a knowledge of photosynthesis and its relation to the production of chlorophyll, they nevertheless were well aware that without the sun, plants just don’t grow. But Genesis 1 shows the whole earth sprouting with every kind of green plant imaginable even before a sun was in place. God alone, and not the sun, is to be worshiped. God alone, and not any supposed spirit living inside a plant, is to be honored.
In the beginning God.
We have also noted before the wonderful dramatic understatement in verse 16 where, in an almost casual manner, this author just happens to mention “He also made the stars.” Amazing! Untold billions of nuclear furnaces pierce the darkness of space, spewing forth the heat, radiation, radio waves, and blazing light that result from their hydrogen-helium fission. The ancients maybe didn’t know what the stars were precisely, but we now are staggered to know how many of them there are and how great a variety there is, too: yellow suns, red giants, blue stars and binary systems. Yet God created them all without breaking a sweat, it seems. “Oh yes, and he made the stars, too” verse 16 mentions in passing.
But that’s part of the nature of Genesis 1: to show the enormous power which allowed God to do it all. God is not reserved in his act of creation but wildly lavish. He is profuse, filling the oceans with vast schools of fish, blackening the skies with vast flocks of birds, setting the very ground of the earth in motion with “swarming swarms” of insects and every kind of land animal.
The last animal in Genesis 1 is a very special one: human beings. The wonder of the man and woman’s creation is the divine image in which they were fashioned. That image potentially means so very much–it may even define the essence of who we are. There is a procreative component to this image, as Genesis 1:28 indicates. There is a relationship component to the image as humanity is the only creature not only made by God but spoken to by God. There is a divine command to take care of the earth in a way reminiscent of how God himself would tend it. All of that has something to do with being made in the image of God.
But as part of this whirlwind tour of Genesis 1, perhaps one last item to highlight is how being made in God’s image allows humanity to take note of and deepen our understanding of everything else God made. Unlike other creatures, we humans busy ourselves not merely with our own kind and with what it takes to ensure our own survival. Instead we seem unable to resist the urge to snap pictures of distant stars, to catalog the different kinds of grass found on prairies, to fill up libraries with guide books detailing the vast array of fish species, bird species, ant species. It is the spark of God in us that leads us to do the same thing God did at the dawn of time: namely, to look at all God made and to recognize once more that it is good, so very, very good.
Eugene Peterson once noted that according to Genesis 1, Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day. But that means that the first full day of their existence was the next day, which was the Sabbath. Adam and Eve kicked off the human race by getting a day off, a day of rest! That fact sounds the cosmic keynote for what life is all about finally. It is about glorifying God and enjoying God and his works forever. There is a lesson in that for our busy lives.
In the beginning God.
That’s good news. Very good. And when we see this text paired in the Common Lectionary with the Great Commission in Matthew 28, we are reminded that the Creator God has not abandoned his creation despite all the bad things that have happened to it. God cared enough to salvage all that he made in the beginning and it is now our glad opportunity to be commissioned by God to tell this very good news.
In the beginning God. God was the universal all in all then. So it was then, so it shall be, so it shall always be.
Some while back I read Stephen Ambrose’s book Undaunted Courage that details the voyage westward of explorers Lewis and Clark. Again and again as they pushed west in the early 1800s, these two explorers and their comrades were stunned to see prairies literally black with herds of buffalo, the thunder of whose hoof beats reverberated for miles. Some days the sunshine would be blocked from view for long periods due to passing flocks of passenger pigeons. One day the river on which they were traveling became clotted with some white, fluffy substance. Upon rounding a bend in the river they discovered the source: a mind-numbing rookery of white pelicans who were molting.
Something like that is what Genesis 1 shows us as God’s original intent: to fill the world up to the brim with swarms of creatures. But no matter how amazing their variety, no matter how huge their flocks, herds, rookeries, or schools, again and again the point comes through loud and clear: the Lord God made them every one. All that oft-repeated talk about the various “kinds” is a none-too-subtle way to head off anyone who would say, “Well, maybe your God got things rolling in the universe, but he didn’t make this, did he? Maybe he made some generic cow but the specifics of Holsteins, Herefords, and such developed without God’s help, right?”
Genesis 1 is designed to say to such people, “You’re not going to win this one! God has all the bases covered: he made all that there is and their every kind and variety, too.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 8’s poet has few pretensions. When he stares up at the night sky he recognizes how puny people at least seem to be within the grand scheme of God’s creation. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have set in place,” he breathlessly sings, “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”
Yet imagine how the poet might have felt if she’d been able to spend even just ten minutes peering through a modern telescope. The mere sight of pinpricks of light twinkling in the sky overjoyed the psalmist. Telescopes, however, don’t just show us those “pinpricks” in amazing detail; they also give us close-up pictures of Venus and Jupiter, of Saturn and Mars. Just a few years ago, in fact, the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn sent its first spectacular pictures of the planet’s rings of rock and ice back to earth. The rings’ scalloped edges, straw-like textures and rippling waves, those works of God’s “fingers,” stunned scientists.
You don’t have to travel light years, however, to glimpse some of God’s creation’s wonders. Scientists tell us that there are more living organisms on just the skin of a human being than there are human beings on the earth’s surface. Arctic terns fly more than a 10,000 mile round trip each year between their winter homes in the Antarctic and their summer home in Asia.
On both big and tiny levels, God’s creation teems with life. God’s creation, writes Scott Hoezee, is abuzz with complexity, movement and music. It is, in fact, so enormous and magnificent that some wonder how the psalmist can claim that God has a special place in it for tiny creatures like human beings.
Psalm 8’s praise is directed to God about God’s creation. Old Testament Israel was deeply interested in that creation. In fact, she thought of a part of her salvation as being a fertile chunk of that creation, of a good land flowing with milk and honey. God, in fact, repeatedly ties God’s Old Testament plans and promises to creational things like soil and water, flocks and herds, wine and wheat.
Creation matters to God’s children. After all, as passages like Psalm 8 remind us, it matters to our heavenly Father. We care for that creation because God lovingly made it and then called us to care for it almost right from the beginning of measured time. However, we also care for what God made because it’s as if so much of God’s creation has, as John Calvin wrote, God’s fingerprints all over it. The “heavens,” that is things like the moon and the stars, as well as whales and Arctic terns, somehow declare God’s glory.
Few things arouse more passion in Christians than debates about the clarity of the evidence for God’s work within creation. Those who preach and teach Psalm 8 aren’t going to settle this debate. But perhaps we can help worshipers see that at least those whom God has given eyes of faith can see God’s fingerprints in creation’s complexity. In other words, God’s children can glimpse the majesty of God’s name in what God has created.
So, for instance, we can see God’s handiwork in things like cicadas’ beady red eyes and massive clusters of the stars in space. Whether we peer through a microscope or a telescope, Psalm 8 suggests it helps you and me catch glimpses of God’s glory. Whether you and I watch a tiny fawn test out its wobbly legs or study the wondrous design of a human hand, we catch glimpses of God’s glory.
However, Psalm 8 also addresses humanity’s place in that glorious creation. This psalm reminds us that our significance is disproportionate to our size relative to the rest of God’s creation. It, in fact, reminds us of the central place and role God gives people in the creation God both lovingly made and for which God continues to care.
So perhaps if anything outstrips God’s glory that we see in God’s immense creation, it’s the fact that relatively tiny people really do matter to God. Verse 4 insists that even though God has this vast creation to care for, God pays special attention to you and me. Even though parts of God’s creation are far, far, far larger, God “cares for” people like us. In fact, Jesus, perhaps hyperbolically, insists that God even knows how many hairs we have on our heads.
God has, as verse 5 insists, crowned people “with glory and honor.” In fact, Psalm 8 insists God created people to be only slightly inferior to the angels and, shockingly, even to God. We see part of that vital importance in the role that God assigns you and me in God’s creation. Genesis tells us that near the beginning of measured time, God created us in God’s image. Part of that image-bearing means caring for this creation, justly ruling it on behalf of the One who created us in God’s image.
The psalmist seems to suggest that our rule over God’s creation extends especially to animals, both domesticated and wild. After all, he mentions our rule over “flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and fish of the sea.” Yet we must confess that we’ve not always ruled over those creatures as God does. Since we can almost see God’s fingerprints all over what God makes, we might say you and I have badly smudged some of those prints.
After all, we’ve at least helped extinguish countless numbers of species that God created. We’ve spilled oil that has killed the fish that swim the paths of the sea. We’ve harmed and destroyed things like nesting grounds for various “birds of the air.” We’ve also, however, razed and destroyed large tracts of forests that God created. We’ve paved over streams and drained swamps.
Psalm 8 tells us that God has put everything under our feet. Sometimes, however, we’ve behaved as though that gives us permission to treat what God made as our personal doormat. We’ve almost acted as if passages like this psalm give us permission to wreck what God, anthropomorphically speaking, created with God’s fingers.
When God gives you and me tasks, God calls us to do them in ways that imitate God. So when we, for instance, care for the vulnerable members of society, we imitate God’s attention to them. No one, however, would be foolish enough to claim that we care for vulnerable people like widows and orphans by exploiting them. In a similar way, we don’t rule God’s good creation by somehow ripping it to shreds and polluting it. We don’t rule God’s creation by wantonly extinguishing God’s handiwork that is the shocking variety of species of plants and animals God created.
Psalm 8 doesn’t imply that we may not enjoy the good things God put in God’s creation. It doesn’t seem to suggest, for instance, that we may not use wood for building homes, oil for running cars or water for fishing. Psalm 8 does imply, however, that we use God’s creation with a watchful eye. As we enjoy that creation, we turn a grateful eye to God for giving it to us. However, we also turn a watchful eye to that creation to ensure that we don’t promiscuously scar or ruin it.
In a world scarred by sin, this requires careful thought and hard work. Yet the Bible clearly assumes that it’s possible to care for and even use creation’s fruits while still keeping it God’s creation. It is possible to care for God’s creation in such a way that the Creator’s glory remains on display for all to see.
A funny, albeit rather crude song from the musical Les Miserables offers an avenue into preaching and teaching this psalm. Cosette, a young orphan who lodges with innkeepers named the Thenardiers, is one of its central characters. Mr. Thenardier, who with his wife treats her horribly, is comically pompous. He sings a memorable song in which he calls himself “master of the house . . . servant to the poor, butler to the great, comforter, philosopher, and lifelong mate! Everybody’s boon companion, gives ‘em everything he’s got.”
Mr. Thenardier thinks of himself as the master of his inn and family, as well as everyone’s friend. His wife, however, knows better. She, after all, essentially runs the inn. So Mrs. Thenardier sings a song that parodies her husband’s pomposity. She sings, “’Master of the house?’ Isn’t worth me spit!” and a few other things that don’t make for very edifying sermon material.
While Mr. Thenardier’s lyrical pomposity is hilarious, it can also be a bit unnerving. After all, we see so much of him in ourselves. Who of us, after all, doesn’t at least quietly suspect that we’re rulers over our various domains?
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.
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.