Trinity Sunday A
June 01, 2020
The Trinity Sunday A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 28:16-20 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 8 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 13:11-13(14) from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 23 (Lord’s Day 7)
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 soupçon 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 2020, 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. Maybe during this time of COVID-19 pandemic and all the uncertainty it has unleashed, we need this.
Lately I have heard some plaintive pleas for prayers from some pastors I know. They are shocked at how riven their own congregations are about reopening, they are troubled that sisters and brothers in also the church are here and there questioning what is really behind this pandemic, trafficking even in conspiracy theories that seem to cause some people to cast doubt on almost everything. So perhaps right now on Trinity Sunday 2020 we need something rock solid to unify us, to bring us together, to remind us of what is utterly foundational for us as believers and what is extraneous and unimportant. Maybe what we need in this disorienting time is precisely Immanuel.
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 “Harris, Morrison, and Beckett: A Name You Can Trust.” (And of course some of us cannot help but hark back to the hilarious days of the radio show “Car Talk” and their sponsoring law firm of Dewey, Cheetum, and Howe”!!) 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. Harris, Ms. Morrison, and Mr. Beckett 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: Stan Mast
As we come to the end of the great celebrations of the church year and begin Ordinary Time, the RCL takes a Sunday to focus on the Trinitarian God who has done these great things.
The readings from the Gospels and from the Epistles are clearly Trinitarian, the first naming the Triune God in connection with baptism, the second using the Trinity as the closing words of a major letter. You might say that the Triune God is named at the beginning of life and at the end, as part of a life launching blessing and as part of a life concluding benediction.
If you choose to use Genesis 1 and 2 as your text for Trinity Sunday, you might say that the Triune God is the source of all life. Then you will offer your listeners not blessing or benediction, but beliefs. That is exactly what so many of your listeners need as they wrestle with the beliefs of scientism.
Please note that I said scientism, not science. The latter is a method of dealing with empirical facts, the former is a set of beliefs about ultimate reality. Science presents no challenge to Christian belief, while scientism erodes the faith of many Christians and prevents non-Christians from even considering the Christian faith. So, you will be doing your church a real service by preaching the Trinitarian Good News of Genesis.
Yes, I know that the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught here, but there are hints that tantalizing: the One God creates, while the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of chaos, and God creates by speaking a Word. When read in the light of texts like John 1 and Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1, there’s enough here to give us at least a hint that there is a three-ness in the One creating God.
For many people, belief in God’s creation of the cosmos is very personal, because it shapes how we answer the central questions of life—who am I, why am I here, how will I live my life? That’s why, when I preached on Genesis 1 and 2 several years ago, I used one of the old Reformed confessions as a pastoral way into this controversial passage. The Heidelberg Catechism is very personal as it deals with the Trinitarian beginning of the Apostles Creed. “What do you believe when you say, ‘I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?’ That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth, and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ his Son.”
The Catechism doesn’t talk about the scientific debate that swirls around us. Of course, that’s because there was no such debate when the Catechism was written centuries ago. But its emphasis is a very intelligent, helpful and biblical way to deal with that debate today. While it mentions the miracle of divine creation out of nothing, it focuses on relationship, on who God is for me, and ultimately on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It suggests that the whole creation story is really about the redemption story. Using the Catechism as our guide, I’d like to focus our study of Genesis 1 and 2 on the three questions that all of us wrestle with personally—who, why, and how.
“In the beginning God created….” That’s the emphasis in this first chapter of Genesis, and throughout the Bible. God created. The story of creation is not first of all about how, but about who. Just count how often God is mentioned. God created, God said, God called, God saw. The point is that it all came from God. The world did not create itself. The world did not create you. God created the world and God created you.
Now that may sound like a pretty unremarkable statement to those of us who have always believed it, but think of it the way G.K. Chesterton did in his delightful defense of Christianity entitled, Orthodoxy. “The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. The main point of Christianity is this: that Nature is not our mother. Nature is our sister.” That’s exactly what Genesis 1 says: the earth is not our mother; the earth is our sister. We did not come from nature; we are a part of nature. We both came from the same Father, my Father for Jesus sake. That’s primarily what Genesis 1 is about—God created– not how, but who.
And why. Now you can talk about “why” in two very different ways. For example, there are two different ways to explain the boiling of water. You could say that it happens because of the rapid vibration of water molecules due to the application of heat. That’s why water boils. Or you could say that it boils because someone wants a cup of tea. That’s why it boils. The first speaks of physical process, the second of personal purpose. Genesis 1 and the rest of the Bible tells us why the world was created in that second sense—not so much the physical process as the personal purpose.
God’s purpose is hinted at in vss. 26-27, where God converses within himself and then creates the human race in his own image. The very pinnacle of God’s creation was a creature who would be like God, someone to whom God could relate as God relates to God in the mystery of the Trinity. Why did God create the world and us? Why are we here? For the love of God, for the sheer love of it—to express his love and to be loved back. “For God so loved the world…” says John 3:16, explaining redemption. That same love explains creation. The God of love wanted a relationship with creatures like himself. That’s why he created.
What Genesis 1 hints at is made clearer in Genesis 2. Some say this is a second creation account, a different, even contradictory account, but I don’t think so. It’s like the Rand McNally Atlas I kept in my trunk for those cross-country trips in the good old days before Google Maps. In that Atlas there was a map of the whole US and of every state showing all the major interstates. But when I got to a strange city, I turned to the inset maps, the maps that will show me the details of that city. That’s what you have in Genesis 2, an inset map, the details of God’s creation of the human race that is broadly sketched out in Genesis 1.
The most important thing is in vs. 4. The God who created everything is Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God who has entered covenant with his people and who will do anything to have a relationship with this people: everything from choosing them out pagan darkness to delivering them from bondage in Egypt to bringing them back from exile to sending his only Son to die for our repeated sins against him. This creative God wants nothing more or less than a relationship with the human race. That’s why he created all of this and all of us. And according to Psalm 33:11, “The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” That’s what Genesis 1 stresses—who and why.
When it does talks about the how, it says simply, “He spoke.” Again and again, “God said, and it was so.” Psalm 33 says, “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made… for he spoke and it came to be; he commanded and it stood firm.” Some take that to be an argument against the theory of evolution, but it is rather an argument against what Chesterton called “evolutionism.” He was talking there about evolution not as a scientific explanation of natural phenomena, but as a quasi religious philosophy that claims to explain everything. The repeated emphasis on the word of God in creation is not against science; it is against religion.
Genesis 1 was written to counter other religious explanations of the world—the religion of the Egyptians from whose clutches Israel had just been delivered, the religion of the Babylonians into whose clutches Israel would one day fall, the religion of the Greeks whose culture permeated the ancient world. Some of those religions taught that the world came into being because many gods fought or had sex or exerted themselves. Other said that there are two equal forces in the universe from which all things came, while still other said that things have always been. As Israel walked through that religiously pluralistic world, God revealed the truth about creation in Genesis 1. “In the beginning God, your God, Yahweh God created the world,” not by struggling, or fighting, or mating, or collaborating with other beings, but simply by speaking. His word is so powerful that all he had to do was speak, and it was so.
This is not a scientific statement. It is a theological statement, a deeply religious statement. Indeed, the New Testament tells us that it is part of the Gospel. In fact, it is a statement about Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word,” says John 1, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Colossians 1 asserts the same. “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created….” Speaking of the Son who is the ultimate revelation of God, Hebrews 1 says “through him God made the universe.” How did God make the heavens and the earth? By and through his Word who became flesh in the days of Caesar Augustus. When read in the light of the whole Bible, Genesis 1 and 2 is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Son of God was active in our creation eons before he became the baby Jesus for our redemption.
What does all this mean for us? Two things– one academic, the other personal. First, it means that biblically faithful Christians don’t have to argue with the findings of science. Now, of course, science is a purely human activity and thus as prone to error as anything human. And in fact, many of the assured findings of science in one age have been unceremoniously dumped in the next. So, we must be careful about being swept away by scientific theories, however widely held they are. But there is no reason for Christians to argue with the facts or the methods of science. Genesis 1 doesn’t call us to that.
It does call us to faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that means that we should resist any faith that challenges that Christian faith. We don’t have to argue with the facts of science, but we should argue with the faith of some scientists who move beyond the facts to give their own religious explanations of the facts. Christians are perfectly willing to say, with Heb. 11:3, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command.” Non-Christian scientists must be equally honest and say, “By faith we understand that physical reality is all there is.” With such faith held by some scientists we ought to argue, not with the facts of science.
The second conclusion we can draw from our study today is deeply personal. As I reflected on it, a sexist song from my youth started running through my head. A guy trying to hook up with a girl sings, “What’s your name, who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me? Has he taken any time to tell you what it is to live?” That’s the question that haunts the hearts of even the most devout believer in Mother Earth. “Who’s your Daddy?” The Christian faith replies, “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created the heavens and the earth and me, is my God and Father for the sake of his Son, Jesus Christ.”
This is why the creation/evolution debate is such a personal thing. It has to do with who you are, and why you are here, and how you should live your life. Because of the message of Genesis 1 and 2, we don’t have to wander forlornly through the world wondering who, and why, and how. We are not alone in the universe, the victims of hostile or impersonal forces that rule our lives. We are children of God.
You don’t have to reject science in the name of God. And in the name of science, you don’t have to reject God. Come to Jesus, and know your Daddy.
Years ago, I read The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene’s blockbuster book about string theory. I found it both fascinating and faith challenging. So did Jeffery Kluger who interviewed Greene in the March 2-9, 2020 issue of Time.
He writes, “If you’re feeling all dreamy about the universe, here’s a pro tip: don’t tell Brian Greene. That guy can chill your cosmic buzz fast. I recently swung by the office [of Greene] full of happy, giddy questions and came away pretty much empty. Is there such a thing as a natural moral order? I wondered. Not in this universe there isn’t. What about a purpose to the universe, then—the reason the whole 13.8 billion-year-old shebang with its hundreds of billions of galaxies and trillions of planets happened in the first place? Nope, Greene says, no such purpose, adding, ‘And that’s Ok.’ Surely, though, Greene will grant the existence of free will…. Sorry, not a chance. ‘Your particles are just obeying their quantum-mechanical marching orders….’”
Doesn’t such a cold, cruel, mechanical universe depress students? “I’ll be frank. I have some students who come in crying. And they say, ‘This is kind of shaking my world up,’ and I say right back at them, ‘That’s not a bad thing. It’s fine to have your world shook. The pieces may fall back in the end to where they were, and they may not.’”
In the end, says Greene, “My feeling is that the reductionistic, materialist, physicalist approach to the world is the right one. There isn’t anything else; these grand mysteries will evaporate over time.” Note, “my feeling.” Read, “my faith.’
Author: Scott Hoezee
Matthew 28, 2 Corinthians 13, and Genesis 1 are the other Trinity Sunday readings in the Year A Lectionary, and they each make a certain amount of Trinitarian sense. The first two passages explicitly mention Father (God), Son, and Holy Spirit. Genesis 1 is a bit more difficult but you can make it work. Although many scholars express reservations about such exegetical moves, an enterprising preacher can work with the plurals in Genesis 1 (“let us make humans in our image”) and with the reference to the “spirit/wind” of God. What’s more, 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 and the Spirit is active as the power behind the whole creative shebang. The Apostles John and Paul explicitly make Creation a Trinitarian affair.
But preaching a Trinitarian sermon on Psalm 8 will prove more challenging 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 (not to mention the baseline assumption that since we believe God has always been a Trinity of Three Persons, then every Old Testament reference to God is to God as Triune even if it was by no means understood that way at the time and thus is never hinted at in the text).
I want to suggest that we have such a Trinitarian angle in the concept of mindfulness found in verse 4: “What is humanity that you are mindful of them?” There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the need to be mindful, to slow down, to cut down on the myriad distractions provided by our devices and screens to focus on what is really important in life.
There has been precious little anyone has found to be remotely good about the COVID-19 pandemic. Mostly this has been a sorrowful, disrupting, deadly disaster whose end is not yet even in sight. However, a lot of people on social media and in major newspaper articles have noted that the coronavirus has accomplished one thing nothing else has managed to do in recent decades: it slowed us down. Now and then it has stopped us in our tracks. We are home together. We are learning to be with one another. We’ve dusted off the boxes holding our Scrabble and Trouble games and played together. We have been learning to cook together from whatever crazy combo of things we can throw together from the pantry. We are watching TV together and not in four separate rooms, each watching his or her own Netflix choice.
We have been made mindful. Mindful of one another. Mindful of what is really important and what is not. Some years ago Time magazine highlighted what it called “The Mindfulness Revolution.” But it never really took off. It never forced too many to slow down the way they have been quite literally forced to do of late.
But Psalm 8 suggests a better thing, the best thing. It calls us to join another mindfulness revolution, a way of thinking about God that will enable us to live more peacefully, more purposefully, and, best of all, more praise-fully. 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 humanity that you are mindful of them, 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, let’s 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 drifts off in the middle of a conversation with you and just watches the TV over your shoulder instead. 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: “Look somewhere else, would you please, O God!”) 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 the last 10-20 years alone astronomers have identified around 4,000 exoplanets—potentially habitable worlds orbiting distant stars. In a galaxy of over 300 billion stars there are surely more planets capable of sustaining life than even just these 4,000. (And that’s just the Milky Way galaxy—there are a billion more whole galaxies too!) In this immense and complicated universe, how can we claim that God (if there even 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 are humans that you are mindful of them and the son of man that you care for him?” But the Psalmist gives a very different answer than some contemporary scientists give. God does care, and here’s the proof: astronomers and other scientists today 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 plural word for “God” (elohim in Hebrew). Psalm 8 harks 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.
The idea that we matter to God is not easy to prove or to see. In a time of global pandemic and suffering, many are wondering “Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t God stop this? Why couldn’t God have prevented it in the first place?” These are not easy questions and they brook no simple answers.
But our Gospel-informed faith tells us that 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. Philippians 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 musings after all. The God who created us a little lower than the angels has lowered himself to the cross in the Person of God the Son. 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.
This may not be a fully apt illustration or analogy but I am reminded of a couple scenes from the fine movie A Beautiful Mind. On his first date with Alicia, the woman who will become his wife, the absent-minded professor John Nash seems completely distracted when at a big party at the Governor’s Mansion Alicia comments on the beautiful paintings on the wall, saying at one point, “God must be a painter or else why did he invent every possible color.” Nash does not respond. But later in the film—in the scene you can see here—Nash shows up late for a birthday dinner. Alicia is annoyed. But then he gives her a gift—a crystal that disperses light so you can see every possible color and he reminds her of what she had said many months before at the Governor’s Mansion. “I didn’t think you were listening” she says. “I was listening” he replies.
Maybe sometimes God seems remote from our lives. Maybe our prayers seem to bounce right off the ceiling and come back at us as a kind of whistling in the dark. But maybe once in a while by the Holy Spirit God comes to us and helps us, answers us, touches us (perhaps through another person even) and we say “I didn’t think you were listening.” “I was listening” God replies. “I always listen.”
For God is mindful of us.
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (14)
Author: Doug Bratt
The Revised Common Lectionary’s choice of this Sunday’s particular Epistolary Lesson is rather quirky. Of course, at one level, we get it. On what we’ve designated as Trinity Sunday, this Lesson contains a stirring and lovely benediction that flows from all the members of the Trinity.
Yet the choice of this passage from 2 Corinthians is, nonetheless, rather strange. After all, the RCL appoints verses 13:11-13 as this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. But were the New Kings James and New International Versions of the Bible’s readers to end there, we’d never get to the Trinitarian blessing. We’d end with “All the saints send their greetings” (NIV). So those who formulated the RCL clearly intend for us to read through what at least the NIV and NKJV refer to as verse 14.
On top of that, consider the quirkiness of selecting a passage that’s both only four verses long and is mostly devoted to a letter’s farewell. My colleague Scott Hoezee compares it to asking those who study literature to analyze only a piece’s signature line. Of course, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (14) is an inspired signature. Yet so many other passages in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians seem far more worthy of preaching and teaching.
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (14) includes a good-by, closing exhortation and final blessing. So it might make the gist for a three-point sermon or lesson. Yet this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may also seem like relatively thin Scriptural porridge for consuming, digesting and analyzing.
So what if this Sunday’s RCL’s preachers and teachers chose to focus on how much that good-by and final exhortation depend on the final blessing? On how God’s adopted children can’t have a meaningful good-by or live faithfully without the blessing of the Triune God?
Paul begins this Sunday with a final “good-by” for his brothers (and sisters) (11). Ralph P. Martin suggests that this use of the Greek word for “brothers” at least suggests that the apostle assumes that Corinthian divisiveness is not irreversible. He still thinks of the Corinthians as his brothers, and God’s adopted children.
The Greek word for “good-by,” chairete, can also be translated as “rejoice” or even “greetings!” That at least suggests that Paul’s farewell to the Corinthians is not sad, but joyful. It’s the kind of joy that is possible only through the blessing of the Triune God that ends both this Lesson and letter.
Yet as New Testament scholar Ernest Best notes, Paul’s readers wouldn’t have read this as an especially unusual greeting or farewell. He even suggests that it conveys “about as much feeling as sincerely yours.” Thankfully, then, at least to Best’s mind, Paul softens his farewell by addressing it to his “brothers.” But again, when leavened with the Triune God’s blessing at its end, we can see this farewell as offered with the love of both God and God’s servant, Paul.
Paul’s closing exhortations are not easy to translate. In fact, they’re not even easy to delineate. Martin, among others, suggests that what the NIV thinks of as Paul’s farewell is actually a command to rejoice.
What’s more, verse 11’s katatarzisthe is variously translated as “aim for perfection” (NIV) and “put things in order” (NRSV). Its passive verb suggests that the Corinthians can’t be perfect or put things in order on their own. They need the Triune God’s help to act, talk and even think in the complete ways for which God created God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Paul’s second exhortation’s meaning isn’t much clearer than his first. His parakaleisthe is translated as “listen to my appeal” (NIV) or “be of good comfort” (NKJV). Best even suggests that it may mean something closer to, “Encourage one another.”
In any case, Paul calls the Corinthians whose divisions have been the subject of so much of his letters to unite in order to encourage each other to be more and more like Jesus Christ. Again, however, this isn’t possible without the help of the Triune God whose blessing Paul extends to his readers at the end of this Epistolary Lesson.
The apostle’s two final exhortations are closely linked. “Be of one mind [and] live in peace,” he begs the Corinthians. This is a startling plea in the light of the divisions and infighting that so often characterized the Corinthian Christians. While Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church at least hints that the Spirit is slowly drawing its members together, his first letter leaves us with an indelible impression of Christians who treat each other more as enemies than as siblings in Christ.
So how is such Christ-like behavior even possible in naturally sinful people like not only Corinth’s Christians, but also 2 Corinthians 13’s proclaimers and hearers? Because “the God of love and peace” is “with” us. Whether in the context of human conflict or relative human peace, God’s love and peace equips Christ’s Body to be faithful, not only to God but also to Jesus’ other followers. Whether God’s peace and love are conditioned on Christlikeness or necessary for such faithfulness, they lie at the very heart of the life of a follower of Jesus.
Paul often ends his letters with greetings from God’s adopted sons and daughters. In that way, 2 Corinthians’ greeting is somewhat unique only in the fact that the apostle names no “saints.” Perhaps that’s why he also calls his readers to “greet each other with a holy kiss” (12). He may be substituting the greetings of local followers of Jesus for more distant ones. Best also suggests that the relatively intimate gesture of a “holy kiss” would help remind Paul’s readers that they’re all adopted members of God’s family.
Yet when leavened with the blessing of Triune God, such greetings don’t just come from one sibling in Christ to another. They’re also a kind of incarnate “holy kiss” from the God and Father of each of them to each of them.
Paul, of course, ends his whole second letter to the Corinthians with the familiar: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” On this Trinity Sunday, it is an appropriate summary of both the character and activity of the Triune God.
Yet as Best notes, Paul doesn’t seem to use this blessing to teach the Corinthians the doctrine of the Trinity. If he’d wanted to do that, he probably would have begun it with “God the Father” and spoken of God as “Father.” No, Paul seems to be emphasizing the grace, love and fellowship each of Jesus’ followers so desperately needs and that the Triune God graciously grants.
God’s grace mediated through God’s Son Jesus Christ is the avenue through which God saves God’s people. Just as we can’t fully be perfect, listen to the Bible’s appeals and live in peace on our own, we can’t earn eternal life on our own.
Yet as my friend and colleague Scott Hoezee notes, we don’t just need Jesus to be gracious with us. Jesus’ followers also need to extend similar grace to each other. We need the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ’s grace in order to keep forgiving the people who seem as endlessly creative as we are at hurting each other.
Yet, of course, God’s love is the spring from which that grace flows. It’s the kind of self-sacrificing love that God longs to produce in us for each other. What’s more, it’s the Holy Spirit through whom that love and grace flow onto Jesus’ followers to unite us in “fellowship.” Because without the power of the Holy Spirit, even God’s adopted sons and daughters would balkanize into our own little interest groups.
There are almost countless (mostly inadequate) metaphors for the Trinitarian nature of God. But 2 Corinthians’ strong allusion to one of the best may be the seed or a better metaphor. My friend and colleague Neal Plantinga likes to speak of the Trinity as a kind of “self-giving, self-surrendering community,” in which each of the Three Persons is constantly giving of themselves in order to serve each other and creation and its creatures, including humanity.
Given this Sunday’s relentless call to Christians to live in community, it might be appropriate to think of the “community” that is the Trinity working to deepen the community that is Christ’s Church. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are always serving each other tirelessly work together to help God’s adopted sons and daughter faithfully serve both God and each other.
We preach and teach this Lesson, of course, in the context of a COVID-19 pandemic. So 2 Corinthians’ 13’s proclaimers may want to explore how the Spirit creates community when our hearers are not only physically distant from each other, but are also somewhat fearful of coming together in physical community. The Spirit is, as the first Pentecost shows, endlessly creative in creating community.
Note: I am indebted for this illustration to my friend and colleague Scott Hoezee who, in turn, borrowed it from the conclusion of a Tom Long sermon on 1 Corinthians 1 that also fits the end of 2 Corinthians:
A church once asked Long to preach at an intergenerational worship service whose premise was wonderful … on paper. The church decided to worship not in the sanctuary but in the Fellowship Hall where families would sit around tables heaped high with the ingredients needed 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 filled the hall, Long would deliver a sermon followed by celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that would use, of course, the fresh bread.
In theory it was a great idea. In execution, it was chaotic. First the church Fellowship Hall filled with clouds of flour dust that children threw across tables by the handfuls. Then the ovens either didn’t work quite right and/or someone failed to realize that baking that many loaves at once would greatly increase the baking time.
Long stretched out his remarks like taffy for as long as he could even as children grew bored and restless, bickering, and crying. Families seemed on the verge of falling apart.
Mercifully, the service did end eventually. Its script called for Dr. Long to pronounce the benediction “The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Too worn-out to ad-lib, Long simply held flour-caked fingers up 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.”