Lectionary Commentaries for May 27, 2018
The Holy Trinity

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:1-17

Judith Jones

This well-known passage from John is a rarity in the Gospels because it shows Jesus discussing in some detail all three persons of the Trinity.

This well-known passage from John is a rarity in the Gospels because it shows Jesus discussing in some detail all three persons of the Trinity. Jesus’ words here should not be mistaken for a theological treatise on the one God in three persons, however. Instead, in this encounter Jesus challenges Nicodemus to move from theory to practice, from knowledge to faith, from curiosity to commitment.

The narrator portrays Nicodemus as a learned man with impressive credentials, describing him not only as a Pharisee but as “a ruler of the Jews.” Jesus refers to him as “the teacher of Israel” (verse 10). By speaking in the first person plural (“Rabbi, we know…”), Nicodemus presents himself as a representative of the religious leaders. Jesus seems to acknowledge Nicodemus’ representative status as well, telling him, “we testify to what we have seen; yet you (plural) do not receive our testimony” (verse 11).

Nicodemus thinks that he, as a religious leader, understands who Jesus is and who God is. Jesus calls his understanding into question. Like a typical scholar, Nicodemus begins the conversation with a statement based on evidence. “We know” that Jesus is a teacher come from God. How do we know? By observation, logic, and deduction. Jesus’ signs provide convincing proof that God is with him. Though Nicodemus is not wrong in his conclusion, he is not right either. His perception is partial and incomplete. Along with the “many” mentioned in John 2:23-24 who believe in Jesus’ name because they have seen the signs he does, he is not a person to whom Jesus can entrust himself. Lacking both courage and commitment, he has come to visit Jesus by night. Far from being a follower of Jesus, he is unwilling even to be seen with him.

Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ opening statement cuts straight to the heart of the matter: no one can see God’s reign without being born again/from above (the Greek word anothen means both “again” and “from above,” and both senses are important here). Unless Nicodemus allows God to change his whole way of being in the world, he will not be able to perceive God at work. Nicodemus promptly demonstrates his lack of spiritual perception by missing Jesus’ wordplay and taking Jesus at the most literal level (as do most of Jesus’ conversations partners in John). Mystified, he asks, “How can anyone be born after growing old?” Jesus explains that by water and the Spirit God gives people rebirth into the reign of God. Those who are reborn in this way become spiritual beings, shaped and sustained by the Spirit who bears them.

When Nicodemus remains perplexed and confused, Jesus wonders how “the teacher of Israel” can fail to understand such things and assures Nicodemus that “we” (presumably referring to all those who participate in God’s reign, including the Johannine community) bear witness to what we have seen firsthand. We testify to a reality that we know from experience. What appears impossible to humans is possible with God.

In his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus refers to all three persons of the Trinity. God is the One who loves the cosmos and who, unwilling to let it perish, gives the Son. God sends the Son not to condemn the world and its inhabitants, but to rescue and restore them (the Greek word translated as “save” or “saved” in John 3:17 is sozo, which means save in the sense of rescue, heal, and make whole). Jesus is both the only Son of God and the human one, the Son of Man. He descended from heaven and has ascended to heaven, thus connecting heaven and earth. He remains in constant contact with God the Sender, revealing God by bearing witness to what he has seen and known. Like the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:4–9), Jesus will be lifted up both to expose human sinfulness and to save people from its deadly effects. Here as elsewhere in John, “lifted up” refers to the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as a single whole (see John 8:28; 12:32, 34).

Those who place their trust in Jesus will have eternal life, being reborn from above out of/by water and the Spirit (Greek pneuma). Pneuma can mean “spirit,” “breath,” and “wind,” and Jesus plays with this ambiguity. Like the breath of God in Genesis 2, the Spirit gives life to believers. Like the wind, God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes, and though observers may perceive its presence, they neither comprehend it nor control it. Strikingly, Jesus says that those who are born of the Spirit share in the Spirit’s mysterious freedom (John 3:8).

Jesus refers to God’s gift of new life both as eternal life (John 3:15, 16) and as the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5 — the only occurrences in John of a term that is central to Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels). Both phrases refer to the same reality, though they emphasize different aspects of it. Eternal life is life shaped by and utterly dependent on God’s love. It is not simply life in heaven after death. It begins now, in the moment that believers entrust their lives to Jesus. When believers receive eternal life, they enter into God’s reign in the here and now. They become citizens of God’s kingdom, submitting to God’s rule and depending on the Spirit’s guidance. Citizenship in God’s reign is not a solo affair. Believers are reborn into God’s new family.

Rebirth into God’s reign comes not by knowledge or doctrine, but by faith. If religious training were enough, Nicodemus, as a representative of Israel’s religious leaders, should have all that he needs. But he is baffled, unable to enter into new life through his intellect. Only after the crucifixion does he take a step toward commitment, bringing myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial (John 19:39-40). This risky act signals a change of heart, the beginning of a transformation — though it is clear that he does not yet understand who Jesus is. As Gail O’Day says, “We cannot determine who Jesus is, but who we are must be determined by who Jesus is” (The Word Disclosed, [St. Louis, Missouri: CBP Press, 1987], p. 27).

Jesus invites all of us to receive life as God’s gift. The crucified Son of God shows us God’s love, scorned and rejected but triumphant. Those who trust Jesus, staking their lives on divine love, will be reborn from above through the Spirit. By God’s mercy they will be not merely forgiven, but made whole, remade in God’s image as participants in God’s new creation.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

Is faith in God an escape from reality?

Does the prophet offer “opium” for a dispirited people? Might Isaiah simply seek to distract Judeans from facing their problems by concocting an otherworldly scene up above the clouds? Do preachers have something substantive to offer to 21st century Christians in the midst of political turmoil, cynicism, corruption, and constant fear of explosive violence? These few verses from Isaiah raise the question of how we discern “reality.” Do the crushing problems we face define reality, or does faith offer a reality beyond what we can see and detect with our senses? When the church responds to God’s call to do ministry in a “post-truth” world, can we claim the powerful God of Isaiah’s vision? This text deals with these very questions.

The first five chapters of Isaiah lay out the spiritual problem of the Judeans. They have forgotten and forsaken the Lord (1:4); their worship is futile (1:11-17); corruption marks their leadership (1:23). Greed has led to injustice (5:8). Isaiah 6:1 then describes the political crisis: the long-serving king who brought stability has died. We should not look for chronological order in the early chapters of Isaiah, but a comprehensive picture of the situation within which Isaiah sees his vision.

One can fruitfully read this vision by imagining the scene Isaiah evokes. Scholars typically label this text a “vision report,” but Isaiah’s words involve many senses. He sees God sitting on a throne; he hears the calling of the seraphs; he smells the smoke; he feels the shaking of the temple; he tastes the live coal. Isaiah does not simply dream, with seeing and hearing. His experience reveals things not available to one’s normal senses, but his experience draws him in by all of his senses.

Isaiah describes a scene both powerful and awe-inspiring, if not downright frightening. The Lord sits on an elevated throne. The words suggest that Isaiah can see the deity only from the waist down, so that Isaiah does not see God’s face. Nevertheless, Isaiah can see the seraphs above the deity, so his perspective creates some confusion.

The Lord’s robes — from the waist down — fill the heavenly “temple.” This detail indicates that Isaiah sees a massive God, evoking a sense of power and strength. Like the seraphs are flying serpents, with six pairs of wings. One pair covers their eyes, so that they cannot see the divine face. Scholars typically consider the term “feet” as a euphemism for genitals, so that they do not expose their “naughty bits” to the divine eyes. Smoke billows out; the whole temple shakes. The cries of the seraphs lift up God’s holiness and glory. The scene conveys no hint of weakness. God is strong, holy and glorious.

When I preached on his passage in my churches, I often threatened to bring live charcoal briquettes for the next prayer of confession. Most of the time, the congregation understood the humor. Nevertheless, the scene in our text communicates an important truth. Isaiah recognizes his sinfulness and undergoes an act of intense pain to gain forgiveness (remember, this is a vision!). The live coal represents the cleansing fire. Isaiah’s sinful lips must be burned. This passage, when not taken literally, communicates the seriousness of sin. We do not think that sin originates in our lips, but our words often betray our sinfulness.

This passage raises important questions for the contemporary church. Can we, through our sermons, ministry, and proclamation of all kinds communicate the reality of God’s power, glory, and holiness to a world that considers the church irrelevant and/or corrupt? What does it mean for us that Isaiah paints a picture of God so large and imposing that the lower half of the divine robe filled the heavenly temple? Is that vision more real than the problems of the world and the infighting of the church itself?

Does an imposing God both empower us and chasten us? As we battle the evil of the world, does a powerful God stand behind us, and if so, in what way? Does a powerful God act as a disciplinarian to the church for our pettiness, selfishness, and worldliness? What does this image of a powerful, imposing God do to our assumptions about God as our friend, therapist, and problem-solving assistant? We need not fear the overwhelming problems of the world, because God is high, lifted up, and surrounded by flying snakes. We should also respect God for the same reason.

The Revised Common Lectionary cuts this passage off at a convenient place, right as the prophet responds to the call to go on behalf of this imposing God. God sends the prophet into an uncertain, sinful, unstable situation. The verses that come after verse 8 raise even more interesting issues. God specifically tells Isaiah that his preaching and ministry will not “work,” in the sense of positive response. The people will not listen. Isaiah’s words will even create the dullness. The church confronts the reality that true proclamation will not necessarily lead to “church growth,” especially in a numerical sense. The passage offers hope in the form of a God strong enough for the evil in the world. Nevertheless, Isaiah’s ministry and preaching will not necessarily motivate the people to listen or to buy into the vision.

The passage, within the context of the whole chapter, does not excuse sloppy work in the church, but it does not promise outward success either. The vision does not excuse self-righteousness if the people do not respond. Isaiah recognized his own sinfulness. The church does not present this vision simplistically, but the church accepts the challenge of the vision. The passage calls the church, clergy first, into ministry with integrity. That ministry holds out Isaiah’s fantastic vision as more real than reality. The church, despite the response of the world, claims that vision, gains power from that vision and draws hope from that vision.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

From one perspective, it may seem that the poet who composed Psalm 29 was an ancient version of what we might today call a storm-chaser.1

After all, the heart of Psalm 29 (verses 3-9) is an enthusiastic and extended report of a powerful thunderstorm that apparently formed over the Mediterranean Sea (verse 3) and that proceeded to crash onto the coast of Palestine and to make its way inland. The storm damage is in view in verses 5 and 9. It was result of high winds (verses 6, 8) that were accompanied by sharp lightning (verse 7) and the constant rumble of thunder, which is what is meant by “the voice of the LORD.”

Lord of the storm

Of course, the fact that the constant thunder is communicated by the seven-fold repetition of the phrase, “the voice of the LORD,” is an unmistakable clue that we are not really dealing with a weather report. This is theology, not meteorology. For the psalmist, the storm is a symbol not of the power of nature, but rather of the power and sovereignty of Israel’s God. Seven, the number of completeness, is significant. Israel’s God is completely powerful and ultimately sovereign. There can be no competing claims.

Competing claims

But we know that, in fact, there were competing claims in ancient Palestine. In particular, the Canaanite god Baal was acclaimed to be the cloud-rider, the lord of the storm, the one who brought the rain that made the crops grow. And we know too that the people of God were tempted to give Baal the credit for the land’s productivity (see Hosea 2:8-13). Given this situation, it is clear that Psalm 29 has a polemical edge. The true lord of the storm — the real power in and behind the universe — is the LORD, not Baal.

Of course, the literary framework of verses 3-9 also makes it quite clear that we are dealing with theology. Characteristic of a song of praise, Psalm 29 begins with an invitation to praise (verses 1-2). What is unusual is the addressee, which is normally a human audience. But here, “heavenly beings” or “sons of gods” (NRSV note) are invited to praise the LORD. These could be members of the heavenly court, God’s divine council (see 1 Kings 22:19; Job 1:6); but given the polemical cast, it is quite possible that these “heavenly beings” represent the deposed members of the Canaanite pantheon. What the “heavenly beings” are called upon to recognize and celebrate is God’s “glory and strength” (verse 1), elsewhere attributes of royalty. In short, whoever the “heavenly beings” are, the effect of verses 1-2 is to invite the universal, cosmic acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty. Later in the Psalter, the nearly exact invitation will be issued to the “families of the peoples” (Psalm 96:7). Like Psalm 96 and the others in the collection to which it belongs (Psalms 93, 95-99), Psalm 29 is generally categorized as an enthronement psalms — that is, God’s kingship is explicitly in view.

The cosmic sovereign and comprehensive well-being

Given the invitations to praise in verses 1-2, it is clear from the outset that the poetic description of the thunderstorm in verses 3-9 is meant to offer evidence of God’s sovereignty. And the evidence is convincing! Just as they have been invited to do, “in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9). Is this the earthly temple in Jerusalem, or the cosmos construed as God’s dwelling? A similar ambiguity exists in Psalm 150:1, and the answer to our question is probably both. That is, the psalmist envisions earthly worshippers in Jerusalem and “heavenly beings” joined in praise to proclaim God’s universal, cosmic sovereignty.

Lest there be any doubt about the meaning of the exclamation “Glory!” (verse 9), verses 10-11 offer an explicit explanation, “The LORD sits enthroned over the flood” (verse 10). Again, of course, this is not a weather report. “The flood” symbolizes the chaotic waters (see Genesis 1:2) that God has tamed and ordered, and it is precisely this creative power that marks the LORD “as king forever” (verse 10).

The duty of kings in the ancient Near East was to protect, provide for, and empower their people (see Psalm 72 for a job description of the Judean king); and God as king is requested to do exactly that in verse 11. The Hebrew shalom in verse 11 (see Psalm 72:3, 7) is the final word of the psalm, and it represents the ultimate goal of both human and divine kingship — that is, the comprehensive well-being of the people.

Celebrating God’s claim today

What do we do with this ancient poem and its theo-poetic description of an event — a thunderstorm — that we almost certainly think about in exclusively meteorological terms? Let the poetry speak on its own symbolic level! True, we are not tempted to worship Baal as were the ancient Israelites. But there are all sort of other things to which we often attribute our blessedness and well-being — technological progress, the stock market, a capitalist economy, our own ingenuity and hard work. What difference might it make to recognize and celebrate God as the ultimate sovereign and origin of life and all that sustains it?

The “enthronement movement” and the Triune God

In conclusion, it might be helpful to not forget what might be called the “enthronement movement” — from glory proclaimed by “heavenly beings” to peace on earth. It probably sounds familiar. In the Gospel of Luke, this “enthronement movement” appears to interpret the significance of Jesus’ birth. In Luke 2:13, there is a “heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” In short, Luke interprets the birth of a baby as the very enthronement of God. This Holy Trinity Sunday is a good time to contemplate the good news that the cosmic creator and the baby in the manger are two of the three “persons” of the Triune God — that is, the character and purpose of these “persons” are one, and their work is mutually reinforcing. Such contemplation may lead us to the simple but extraordinarily far-reaching conclusion that God does indeed love the world (see John 3:1-17, the Gospel for the day).


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on May 31, 2015.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:12-17

Robert Hoch

After a fast-moving thunderstorm passed through our city, we woke up to a world without electricity. The house was dark.

I tried a switch; no power. I checked to see if it was simply a blown breaker; it wasn’t. The power was decisively and decidedly out. And yet, I continued to flip dead switches, knowing what I knew. Somehow, I don’t think I was alone in those habits. Meaningless switches were being flipped all up and down our street, I’m sure of it! Despite the loss of power, the behavior associated with that power, like flipping switches or going to make your coffee, or using an electric razor, or expecting traffic lights to work, all of this continues to form our daily habits. Without thinking, I flipped more switches, and made more aborted trips to the electrical appliance of the moment than I care to admit. Apparently, living off the “electrical grid” takes some getting used to.

Maybe leaving the flesh, or rendering its switches meaningless, is something like that. Christ’s Spirit disrupts a grid which, for the most part, held us fast. At least that’s where my mind goes as I read Romans 8:12-17, especially in the sense that Paul is writing about a massive change that has been inaugurated in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Perhaps the law “resisted” the flesh, or it was intended to do so. But in our case, it simply arouses the will of the flesh, becoming in a sense an anti-law, nothing like the law which, in the previous chapter, Paul called “holy, just, and good” (7:12). Despite the law’s good, according to Paul, it emboldened the flesh (8:3). Thus, the flesh — its circuits and switches, its power sources — provided the “grid” which reliably (and destructively) powered our daily life.

Even so, “through the body of Christ” (7:4) and through the presence of the Spirit, we have died to the power of the flesh. Maybe that’s the power grid that has fallen out of use in Paul’s estimation.

In a sense, you could read Paul’s dialectal reflections as a dramatic transfer of power to the Spirit of God in Christ, the power source for a new life illuminated by God’s presence, giving us our life in the Spirit. Perhaps this is why Paul frequently repeats this “no longer” reality: we are “free from the law of sin and death” (2); we no longer “walk according to the flesh” (4); we do not set our minds on the flesh (6); “you are not in the flesh” (9); we are not “debtors to the flesh” (12); we do not “fall back into fear” (15). If the Spirit of Christ dwells in us, those switches and outlets which fueled our old identity have gone utterly dead —  there is no power in them.

And yet, isn’t it easy to slip into old habits, even hose we have solemnly rejected? Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam comes to mind: “Oft before I swore, but was I sober when I swore?” Those lines suggest a weary struggle with an addiction. Of course, it’s not “an” addiction only. With addiction, it’s not simply one switch but a grid of interlocking connections which gives power to the self-destructive behavior. Paul Achtemeier, biblical theologian, puts it this way: “Life pursued according to the flesh is the life . . . in which the entire perspective of the human being is turned in on himself or herself and the person [addiction] becomes the center of all values. Life in the flesh is essentially life carried on under the lordship of the sinful self. It is a life of self-idolatry.”1

A system rather than a switch. We might say it’s like a car that’s not running right. So, you take it in to the mechanic. That morning, when you drop it off, the mechanic says that it’s a single part that needs replacing, an in-and-out job, relatively inexpensive. But by the end of the day, it turns out that it will be a much larger job, in fact, a complete overhaul. It’s that way with addiction. You think it’s just one thing when you start out, but it turns out it’s the whole system than needs to be rebuilt!

Continuing the analogy, it’s one thing to say that the Spirit has invaded, disrupted, and dialectically dislodged the grid of sin, rendering it powerless; it’s another thing to liberate human beings from their captivity to that grid, mentally and physically. It’s the whole system. The switches are not only external but, in some way, internalized and collectivized into patterns of behavior that are not easily dislodged, or perhaps impossible, under our own strength. We can know that we are free but, out of habit or entrenched patterns, we return to those switches which, while ultimately powerless, still drain us of the triumphant life proclaimed in Christ.

Paul understands this and, thus, turns to the question of community as he suggests that we are no longer “rebels” or “disobedient” (isolated and alone in our misery) but children of God, led by the timely interventions Spirit (14). What does this suggest? Maybe it affirms that our new grid, if you like, is the body of Christ, the church. That Paul has in mind a family or a new community is evident: we are “children” (14); we are “adopted” (15); we know God intimately through the Spirit “who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (16). What Paul envisions is not an “individual” but a community or network of relationships formed in the wisdom of Christ, guided by the disruptive presence of the Spirit.

As we think about this text, we should be mindful of Paul’s notion of adoption. The nuclear (biological) family, while familiar, isn’t exactly what Paul has in mind here. Since this text is set for Trinity Sunday, it might be interesting to explore how, through various metaphors of adoption, our identities have to be renegotiated, from top to bottom, as we participate in the life of the Triune God. Through adoption, we now know a radically new source for our life and being. Adoption is a deep metaphor. Adopt a second language and one adopts a different world. Becoming an in-law may give us an imperfect but useful glimpse of what that could look like. My mother-in-law confided that it was a whole new thing, learning that relationship, being a mother to a son (me) through an “adoption” by marriage.

Step-children and in-laws don’t fare very well in the popular imagination, but in Paul’s estimation the adopted child is the honored child, “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (17a) — an identity born, sustained, and intimately connected to our heavenly parent, by God’s will through the power of the Spirit.


Notes

1 Paul J. Achtemeier, “Romans” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 132.