Lectionary Commentaries for June 15, 2014
The Holy Trinity

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20

Stanley Saunders

Each of the Gospels ends in a distinctive way. 

Mark focuses on the empty tomb and the fear of the first witnesses; Luke on the appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples, his ascension, and their preparation as witnesses; and John on a series of appearances of the resurrected Christ, especially to Peter. Matthew depicts the resurrected Jesus’ commissioning the disciples for mission. In what ways is this a fitting end — not only the right stopping point, but the goal — of Matthew’s Gospel? What does this ending tell us about that mission?

This episode draws together many of the most important themes and motifs of the Gospel, thereby suggesting that this ending is designed for this very story. As so often before in Matthew, the setting is an unnamed mountain (28:16, cf. 4:8, 5:1, 14:23, 15:29, 17:1), which Matthew associates especially with the revelation of divine presence and authority. Matthew also refers prominently here to “heaven and earth” (28:18), terminology that recalls the story of creation in Genesis 1, thereby linking this episode to a long tradition of stories about the fracturing of earth from heaven and the hope of their repair.

Jesus also provides the warrant for the disciples’ commission by affirming that he has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” Authority — its nature, source, and effects — is yet another persistent Matthean interest (7:29; 8:9; 9:6, 8; 10:1; 21:23, 24, 27). Matthew also returns in this scene to the christological identification of Jesus as “God with us” (28:20, cf. 1:23), thereby framing the entire Gospel with this claim.

Even as this ending emphasizes key themes and claims of the whole Gospel, it also marks a fresh beginning point, signaled in part by the return to Galilee (28:16), where Jesus’ own ministry began. While they are called to be people on the move in mission, the disciples must also be rooted in the story and the land where their own journeys began. They will conduct their mission between two worlds: with Jesus on the mountain — itself apparently a thin place between the human and divine realms — they stand at the edge of a new world and a new time.

The time of empire, of debt and slavery, of the reign of death, is passing away. It will continue to exercise sway only where the death and resurrection of God’s son is not proclaimed. But the truth about Rome’s empire has been unveiled for all the world to see. It has wielded its most powerful tool — death on a cross — against God’s son as he proclaimed and inaugurated God’s empire, but now even Rome’s control of the apparatus of death has been shown to be hollow. The empire of the heavens has not just begun, it has already won the crucial victory.

Living between two worlds is not easy, however, even for those closest to Jesus. Matthew introduces elements into the story that challenge the apparently triumphal character of this scene. There are not twelve disciples with Jesus, but eleven, a reminder not only of the absence of Judas but, implicitly, of the betrayals in which the eleven also participated. Matthew also notes that their initial response to the presence of the risen Jesus is a mixture of worship and doubt. Most English translations of 28:17 leave the impression that the disciples included some worshippers and some doubters (e.g., “doubting Thomas” in John 20:24-29), but the Greek may also be translated, perhaps more naturally, to suggest that the whole group of disciples both worship and doubt.

In either case, Matthew acknowledges that both responses are to be found in the community of disciples. The word translated “doubt” is found in the New Testament only here and in the account of Peter joining Jesus in his walk on the sea in 14:31, yet another story of divine presence and power, marked by both doubt and worship (13:31, 33). The Greek word distazo carries a sense of standing in two places at the same time or being of two minds. Jesus commissions not perfect disciples, but people who both worship and doubt as they stand at the edge of the world that is passing away and the one that is coming to them.

What does this new world look like? Apparently, the key differences include both the presence of the resurrected Jesus, promising to remain with the disciples to the end of the age, and a reconciled earth and heaven. Jesus’ claim to have been given “all authority” in both realms signals the culmination of a biblical drama first announced in the earliest chapters of Genesis, where we find accounts both of the creation of “heaven and earth” and the disruption of the unity of that creation through the story of the fall and subsequent human rebellion and violence.

Matthew takes very seriously this story of the ruin of the relationship between earth and heaven. The terms “heaven and earth” constitute a “merism,” a figure of speech in which an entity is identified by means of its constituent or defining parts. In Genesis 1, heaven and earth comprise a single entity — God’s whole creation. By Genesis 4, their unity has been fractured. The prayer we pray nearly every Sunday in most churches, which is largely based on Matthew 6:9-13, recognizes this divide and asks for its resolution (“thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”).

Matthew repeatedly tells stories that recount the ways Jesus, and sometimes his disciples, cross and blur the boundaries between heaven and earth. But it is only with Jesus’ defeat of death that the breach between heaven and earth is mended. Jesus sends the disciples into the world not only to announce the salvation of humans, but to bear witness to the end of a broken creation. Jesus’ words at the Great Commission are thus not merely the fitting end of Matthew’s story of Jesus, but a vision of the end of a broken world and the beginning of new creation.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 1:1—2:4a

Roger Nam

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth … ”

The opening words of the creation account in Genesis are a familiar story to many of us. In our valiant attempts to read the entire Bible in a specified period of time, we confidently zip through this passage.

For some of us, the creation account recalls the overly-interpretive illustrations from children’s Bibles, or felt-board Sunday School materials with the modest Adam and Eve and uncharacteristically happy animals. Others recall the glorious image of the creation of Adam that covers the Sistine Chapel. Still others might recall a crisis of faith when juxtaposing the creation account with the content of high school biology.

For this week’s reading, I ask you, Working Preacher, to set those images aside as you begin to look at the text. The ancient Israelites had never heard of felt-board, nor the concept of evolution. Rather, in ancient Israel, Genesis 1-2:4a likely triggered other accounts of the origins of the world. These ancient Near Eastern creation narratives were unapologetically polytheistic.

There were many deities, and they each had changing roles and forms. Marduk was associated with water, vegetation, and eventually magic and the head of the pantheon. Assur was leader of a rival pantheon in northern Mesopotamia. Back of Egypt, a different set of gods quarreled over legitimacy beginning with Osiris and Seth and then Seth and Horus. Each of these major pantheons had hundreds of lesser deities, contending for prominence or even survival.

And these deities were fickle. According to the Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish, they created humans, or at least some of them did. But at the same time, they latter regretted the decisions and schemed to destroy the human race because we were too “noisy.” These deities would battle, kill, enslave and retaliate against each other, and humans were often caught in the midst of these disputes.

Within this cultural narrative, the creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:4a presents a completely different account of the world’s origins. First of all, the creation in Genesis 1-2:4 is fiercely monotheistic. Not only is there one God, but this God is sovereign and powerful. God says, and it happens. God does not have a singular specified area of competence, but rather he is the creator God of all things. In this power, God has no spatial limitations:

  • “God created the heavens and the earth” (1).
  • “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters” (6).
  • “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (9).

Similarly, God has no temporal limitations:

  • “In the beginning” (1).
  • “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years” (14).

As well as creating the vast cosmos, God also created the animal and vegetable life, a meaningful feat for an agrarian society like ancient Israel. In particular, the creation of “the great sea monsters”(21) represents a veiled polemic, championing the power of God. In Enuma Elish, the sea monster Tiamat gave birth to the first generation of deities, and was later defeated by Marduk. But in Genesis 1, God has no such struggle with even the sea monsters.

Most significantly, Genesis 1-2:4a provides a unique account of the relationship between humans and divine. Somehow, God decides to makes humans “in our image, according to our likeness.” Of course, understanding the precise theological nature of “image/likeness” in Genesis 1:26-28 is elusive, and probably deliberately so.

But minimally, we can infer that humans are not created out of the capricious whim of certain deities, but rather, we stand as the pinnacle of the creation event. After the creation on humans, God, in his powerful word, blesses them and declares them as good.

As you consider the wondrous nature of creation, it is important to recognize the radical, remarkable, and revolutionary nature of the Genesis creation in its original context. This presentation of God comes as a wonderful relief and assurance to the family on ancient Israel.

The God of Genesis 1-2:4a provides assurance to those, who work to raise crops against the numerous natural challenges. The God of Genesis 1-2:4a brings peace to the nation struggling for survival against the numerous encroaching enemies from all sides. God is one. God is powerful. And God created us in his image. This opening passage of our Bible constitutes the essence of good news.

Of course, this is not the only good news of the Bible. In addition to giving a refreshing account of creation, canonically, Genesis 1-2:4a parallels the start of another biblical narrative of that reads, “In the beginning was the Word,” and the ensuing narrative assures, comforts, and challenges all who hear.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 8

Elizabeth Webb

While Psalm 8 is addressed to God, it’s really mostly about us: about the human relationship with the rest of creation and about the right exercise of human dominion.

But as the psalm also shows, human sovereignty can only be understood in light of divine sovereignty, in light of what it means to call God “our Lord.”

The opening verse of Psalm 8 is replete with royal language, the meaning of which is illuminated by the body of the text. The very words “Lord” and “sovereign” are, of course, words used for a king (see 1 Kings 1:11, 43, 47). That the majesty of God’s name is praised also points to a royal understanding of God, and the territory over which God reigns is “all the earth.”

So what does it mean to say that God is the Lord, our Sovereign? In verse 2, while the meaning of the phrase “Out of the mouths of babes and infants” is unclear, what is clear is God’s strength in overcoming “the enemy and the avenger,” the forces of chaos that God defeats at the creation. The psalmist then turns to that creation, describing the heavens with the lovely phrase “the work of your fingers” (verse 3).

Marveling at the wonder of the establishment of the moon and the stars, the writer is struck by a particular sense of awe. It is not simply the insignificance of being one human in the midst of the vastness of the universe, a sense that many of us have experienced looking at the stars ourselves, or at mountains or a sunset.

What the psalmist is expressing here is not even the insignificance expressed in biblical passages that at first appear similar. Psalm 144:3-4, for example, begins with a similar question: “O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them?” In Psalm 144 it is human frailty that makes God’s interest in us incomprehensible: “They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.” What concern could God possibly have with beings that are here one moment, gone the next? Here in Psalm 8, however, what the writer finds so wondrous is that the very God who established the order of the heavens actually cares for human beings, for us, for me (verse 4).

Reflecting the language of being made in the image of God in Genesis 1:26-27, the psalmist proclaims that human beings, mere mortals that we are, are made a little less than divine (verse 5a). We bear God’s image, or God’s face, in the world. Like God our Lord, we are “crowned” with “glory and honor” (verse 5b). In other words, in our relationship to the world, we reflect the character of God as Sovereign.

God has given us “dominion” over God’s created world, and put all things under our feet (verse 6). Royal language like that previously used to describe God is now ascribed to human beings. The range of our dominion, like God’s, is all-encompassing, from the domestic animals that share our labor to wild animals, birds, and sea creatures (verses 7-8). We are made to share in God’s governance of the world, to serve as representatives of God’s own dominion.

By the time we reach verse 9, the repetition of verse 1, we know more fully what it means to call God “Lord” and “Sovereign,” and what it means to share in that sovereignty. The lordship of God is revealed precisely in God’s care for us. God provides for us, desires our good, and enables us to seek it. We reflect God’s image in the proper governance of our fellow creatures.

The world that is at our feet is not there for us to trample. It is there to receive our care, for us to provide for it, as a whole and in each part, and to seek creation’s fulfillment. In the psalmist’s understanding of sovereignty we can hear the echo of the description of the king of God’s choosing in Deuteronomy 17. The king who serves in God’s image keeps the covenant and observes God’s law, not “exalting himself above other members of the community” (verses 18-20). In our dominion over creation, we are to remember the covenant and God’s commands, and not seek our own good at the expense of the domestic and wild world.

The implications of this are, of course, are far-reaching. How to interpret humanity’s proper governance over the rest of creation must go into assessing questions regarding ecology; food production, distribution, and consumption; medical and technological advancements; even the morality of puppy mills. To be human is to be responsible for our fellow creatures, and we must take that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.

Moreover, at the same time that Psalm 8 recognizes our dominion, it also reminds us of our humility. We are each still that awestruck person gazing in wonderment at the stars. We bear the image of God; we are not God. Our finitude and fallibility must be kept in mind as we exercise our responsibility. We are also reminded that we are a part of the creation over which God has granted us dominion. We do not stand apart from our fellow creatures, but we stand with them.

All creatures, including human beings, live in interdependence with one another. As much as we have dominion over creation, we are also dependent upon it for our well-being. Our sovereignty can never mean that we place ourselves over-against the creation. As “lords” over creation, we are in fact servants of it.


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Carla Works

The final remarks in 2 Corinthians encapsulate Paul’s advice in this letter and highlight the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit that make “new creation” possible (2 Corinthians 5:17).

On this Sunday that celebrates the mystery of the holy trinity, Paul’s final words to the Corinthians underscore the church’s reliance on the power of the divine for hope of its transformation.

Paul’s closing remarks in 2 Corinthians include stern admonition and loving exhortation. It is, perhaps, fitting that 2 Corinthians should close with both warning and with love. Paul’s emotions have been bubbling close to the surface throughout this text. In the beginning of 2 Corinthians, he recalls both a painful visit and a tearful letter (1:15-2:4). In 2 Corinthians 7, he has learned good news from Titus, and his joy for the church is not concealed (7:5-16).

In chapter 10, however, the tone of the letter changes to a defense against the teachings of the so-called “super apostles” (11:5, 11). As the letter draws to a close, Paul is still stung by the charges of his opponents and the Corinthians’ failure to commend him (12:11). He warns that a third visit will be a painful time of mourning over those who continue to harm the community. By now the vices that he lists are no surprise — “quarreling, jealously, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (12:20).

First Church Corinth is a community torn by factions. In fact, the Corinthians’ divisiveness has taken center stage since the first canonical letter. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, the apostle writes, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united (katertismenoi) in the same mind and the same purpose.” In the closing of 2 Corinthians, the apostle expresses the same wish: “mend (katartizesthe) your ways,” “agree with one another,” and “live in peace” (13:11).

For Paul, agreeing with one another or, more literally, thinking the same way should not be read as an appeal to uniformity. The apostle has recognized and has applauded the diversity of this congregation (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Rather, this appeal to think the same way is an appeal to think “according to Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5) or to have the same mind as Christ when he voluntarily humbled himself and died for the sake of the world (Philippians 2:5-11). Having that kind of love for another will facilitate living at peace and mending the factions that have torn this congregation.

That kind of love, however, is not possible without the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work in the congregation. Paul’s exhortations urge the Corinthians to demonstrate fruit of the Spirit — particularly joy and peace. In verse 11, what the NSRV translates as “farewell” is more literally “rejoice.” Paul uses the verb in a similar way in Philippians 4:4 where he calls the Philippians to rejoice always. This rejoicing is modeled for the church by Paul’s own rejoicing throughout Philippians as he recounts his joy even in the midst of his present distress (Philippians 4:10-13). Joy is only possible because of the believers’ citizenship in heaven (Phi1ippians 3:20). Joy is a marker of God’s kingdom.

Likewise, the appeal to peace is also a marker of the Spirit’s work (5:22). The mind that is set on the Spirit is a mind that knows peace (Romans 8:6). Those who are justified have peace with God (Romans 5:1). Living peaceably should be a marker of the church (Romans 12:18; 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:13), since God calls the saints to peace (1 Corinthians 7:15) and God is a God of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33; Phil 4:7, 9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23).

In short, the presence of joy and peace are the indicators of the Spirit’s transformative work to reveal God’s kingdom: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Paul’s closing in 2 Corinthians is not simply an appeal for the church to get along, it is an exhortation for the Corinthians to be the new creation that the Spirit is equipping them to be.

Greeting one another with a holy kiss is a tangible way to show love and fellowship in this community of folks who are still struggling to love one another and who are still learning how to be Christ’s body in their world. This exhortation is common in Paul’s letters, as is the reminder that there are other saints elsewhere who send their love.

The final remarks include one last reminder of the theological bedrock that makes the church’s existence possible. The trinitarian framework of 2 Corinthians 13:14 is striking: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” At the time of this letter, the doctrine of the trinity had not yet been fully articulated, yet here we find a reference to all three persons.

The mention of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in one breath, however, should not be surprising to any reader of Paul’s letters. Paul has already claimed that the Corinthians have but “one Lord and one God” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Furthermore, it is the Spirit who has come from God (1 Corinthians 2:12) who enables the church to have the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Of course, it is only through the grace of Christ that the church enjoys fellowship with the Spirit.

This final appeal for the presence of Christ’s grace, God’s love, and the Spirit’s fellowship bears witness to the divine power that has created and sustained both the Corinthian church and the church today. God is the very source of our life in Christ Jesus, and in Christ we are a new creation.