Lectionary Commentaries for June 11, 2017
The Holy Trinity

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20

Susan Hylen

What does the Great Commission have to do with the Trinity?

Readers today often interpret this passage as a directive to evangelize others. After all, the imperative verb is right there: “make disciples of all nations…” (28:19). Although Jesus uses the formula “Father and Son and Holy Spirit,” Trinitarian theology as we know it took many centuries to develop. Reading it backward into this first century Gospel may not be appropriate.

But if we only read this passage as a manifesto on evangelism, we may be missing out. The passage is also a strong statement of the authority of the risen Jesus. The word “therefore” in “Go therefore and make disciples” suggests that the action of making disciples results from the previous verse: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 20:18). Jesus’ instructions result from the authority he possesses.

Because of this, it is fitting to reflect on this passage on Holy Trinity Sunday. The risen Jesus, fully vested with divine authority, stands before his disciples with one final teaching. Preachers may want to create an experience in which listeners, like the eleven, contemplate Jesus in his risen form as the Son to whom all authority is given.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus’ authority has been apparent from the outset of the Gospel. His healing powers testify to his authority over demons and sickness. He casts out demons “by the Spirit of God,” which is evidence of the presence of God’s kingdom (12:28). The power of God’s Spirit comes into the world through Jesus as he shows compassion to those who need him (9:36; 14:14).

Jesus also has the authority of the Son of Man. Many interpreters identify the authority of Matthew 28:18 with the dominion given to the human one in Daniel 7:13-14: “I saw one like a human being [Aramaic: one like a son of man] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” Because Matthew has already identified Jesus as the Son of Man, the authority given to Jesus evokes this scene from Daniel, in which the human one comes to have authority over all.

As the Son of Man, Jesus already displays the divine authority to forgive sins. He heals a paralyzed man not only for the man’s sake but “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). Because the power to forgive resides with God alone, the scribes think Jesus has committed blasphemy. But Matthew presents Jesus as the one who rightly claims this authority because he is the Son of Man.

Jesus also has the Son of Man’s authority to judge. After teaching his disciples to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus adds: “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done” (Matthew 16:24-27). Having initiated the reign of God, Jesus stands as judge over all (13:41-42; 19:28; 26:64).

Jesus’ instructions connect his authority to the topic of baptism. Although baptism has not been mentioned since Matthew 3, in that context John the Baptist connected Jesus’ authority to judge with baptism. John pointed to one “more powerful than I” who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:11-12).

Jesus’ instruction to baptize in Matthew 28:19 calls to mind the baptism “with Holy Spirit and fire” that John foretold. In recognition of the divine authority Jesus possesses, his followers are also to be marked through baptism — not in John’s name or the Spirit’s name alone but “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19). The Son is evoked alongside Father and Spirit to identify the power that acts in baptism. It is a baptism that fully acknowledges the authority the Son possesses.

Finally, Jesus’ authority as a teacher comes through in these verses. The disciples should teach others “to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus is the source of commandments that disciples should obey.

Although modern readers tend to distance Jesus’ teaching from the Jewish law, this is not Matthew’s perspective. Throughout Matthew, Jesus emphasizes the importance of living according to God’s law. Like other Jewish teachers of his day, Jesus taught that the ten commandments were a shorthand for the entire law. “You shall not murder,” for example, prohibited not only murder but also anger against a brother or sister (Matthew 5:21-22; compare to Exodus 20:13). Unlike the scribes and the Pharisees whom he criticizes, Jesus interprets the law in a way that embodies God’s justice and mercy. The law, therefore, is not burdensome but a delight: “for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew11:30).

In the resurrection, these are not simply God’s commandments but belong to Jesus as well. Matthew would not say that Jesus’ commands are different from or better than God’s. Jesus shares divine authority as the speaker of these life-giving words. Obedience to his commands brings newness and life.

Matthew’s aim was not to convey a fully developed Trinitarian theology but to spread the good news about Jesus. Part of that good news is that Jesus fully shares the authority of the Father and the Spirit. He is a powerful healer, judge, and teacher, because his power is the same divine power known throughout the stories of the Old Testament. Through this power, those who become disciples may experience his mercy and learn to live by his teachings.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 1:1—2:4a

Walter C. Bouzard

Genesis 1 traditionally appears on Holy Trinity Sunday, doubtlessly because interpreters have long understood portions of the text as allusions to the Trinity.

Luther, for example, believed the “Spirit of God” (RSV)1 in verse 2 represented the Holy Ghost:

“So also the Christian Church agrees that in this description there is indicated the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The father created through the Son, whom Moses calls the Word; and over this (creative) work brooded the Holy Spirit…”2

Indeed, that interpretation of the brooding spirit of God (rua?’elohîm) reaches back to the Patristics.3

Similarly, ancient interpreters regarded the presence of the first-person plural in verse 26 (“Let us make humankind in our image”) as evidence of the Triune God. Both Gregory of Nyssa and Chrysostom understood the “let us” as a divine deliberation among the persons of the Trinity.4 Luther also heard a revelation of the Trinity in the phrase:

“Again, the words, “Let us make man” confirm the mystery of our Christian faith, namely, that there is one eternal God, in whose divine essence there are three distinct persons: God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”5

Naturally, other interpretations are possible. Many have understood the first-person plural as a reflection of God’s conversation with members of the heavenly court (see 1 Kings 22:19; Job 1:6 — 2:1-2, 38:7; and, possibly Isaiah 6:8). Others have seen the plural as a means to distance human semblance from that of God or as a way to signal that God is not actually revealing God’s self as God might by the use of a first person singular address. Westermann dismissed all of these interpretations, and instead understood the grammatical construction “let us make” as a plural of self-deliberation. Although he acknowledged that a heavenly court might be in the historical background, he maintained that the Priestly writer would not have countenanced such an image. He concluded, “The plural of deliberation in the cohortative is an attested and sufficient explanation.”6

Obviously, the interpretation of verse 26 is not settled. Depending on one’s understanding of the inspiration of Scripture, one can envision the Triune God permeating the creation account. Admittedly, this is a bit of an obstacle for those of us trained in the historical critical method.

Nevertheless, we should take a clue from the patristic fathers. Marius Victorinus, Prudentius, Augustine, and many more saw in Genesis 1:26 a reflection of the Trinity.7 The early fathers had no difficulty relating the eternal Word of John 1:1-3 to the word that God speaks in Genesis 1. Indeed, John’s Logos hymn cries out for just such a bridge, as does Hebrews 1:3. Doctrinally, the connection cannot be gainsaid: the eternal Triune God was fully present in the creation of the cosmos. The Athanasian Creed, traditionally recited on Holy Trinity Sunday, is clear on this point.

Yet, even if that connection and this text should happen to stir up an appreciation for this doctrinal mystery of the Christian faith (as it seems to have done for Luther), it is difficult to see how that might help most contemporary believers navigate their faithful way from Holy Trinity Sunday to Pentecost 2 a scant week later.

The Christian preacher’s task, moreover, is not to fashion a homiletical proof of the Trinity nor even an appreciation of it, but rather to profess the love of God in Christ.

One way to proclaim that divine love may be through a counterintuitive focus on that object of divine consideration described in verses 28 and 27, namely, the human being. Again, interpretations of what being created “in the image of God” (be?elem ’elohîm, Greek eikon theou) might mean vary wildly. Given the charge of dominion over the creation in verses 28 to 30, however, the suggestion of von Rad remains helpful. Von Rad reminded us that just as ancient kings erected images of themselves in portions of their reign where they did not actually appear, “so man is placed upon the earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem.”8 As such, the human being, both male and female, serves as “God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth.”9

As “image of God,” Christians are summoned to reflect God’s care for the world of creation and for human community. In that calling, we have an example and a model in Jesus, the quintessential image of God.

The Scriptures frequently remind us that, if we would see God, we must contemplate Christ Jesus. Jesus is the complete eikon theou, “the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4), and “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is the human being as God intended all human beings to be “in the beginning,” a perfect representation of God to the cosmos.

We are not now perfect representations of the image of God. The good news, however, is that God has already determined who and what we shall be. God has declared that we are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). We are slated to “bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49). We who trust in Jesus, in spite of our imperfection and sin, can live in the confidence that we, “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Because of Christ, our new selves are being “renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10).

None of this happens by our own understanding or strength. God has determined that we will be reshaped into the image of God, as God intended us to be from the sixth day of creation. God has determined that we will participate in the community that is the Trinity, that we all may be one with each other and that, as Jesus prayed, we may be in community with the Triune God (John 17:21).

Male and female, sinner and saint, God has decided to reshape us, to recreate us, into Christ’s perfect relationship with God. In some way beyond our imagining, we will participate in the relationship of the Trinity and thus in the life of God. We are not there yet, but God promises that — whatever our failings — thus we shall be.


 

Notes:

1. The NRSV translation of “a wind from God,” is grammatically possible and finds a conceptual parallel in the Priestly writer’s Genesis 8:1 (see Exodus 15:10; Numbers 11:31). The “wind from God” may anticipate the division of the chaos waters in verses 9-10. On the other hand, the expression spirit of God (rua? ’elohîm)) appears in connection with some pneumatic emanation sent from God. In Exodus 31:3 and 35:31, the spirit of God inspires Bezalel’s artisanship. Frequently, the spirt of God is associated with prophetic behavior (Genesis 41:38; Numvers 24:2; 1 Samuel 19:20, 23; 2 Chronicles 15:1), although Saul was plagued by an “spirit of God” that was described as evil: 1 Samuel 16:15, 16, 23; 18:10. English translations are divided on the matter.

2. Martin Luther, Luther’s Commentary on Genesis, translation by J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Dervan, 1958), 11.

3. Andrew Louth, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, volume 1 (Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 5-6.

4. Louth, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, 28.

5. Luther, Luther’s Commentary on Genesis, 28.

6. Claus Westermann, Genesis: A Commentary, vol. 1, trans. Bu John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 145.

7. Louth, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, 29-31.

8. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, revised edition (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1973), 60.

9. Ibid.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 8

Paul K.-K. Cho

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8 is a psalmic interpretation of creation, comparable to Genesis 1-2 and Job 38-41. More specifically, it is a panegyric on human excellence (Psalm 8:4-6) couched within a pious frame (8:1a, 9). For the psalm celebrates not so much God as the God who created human beings. Human beings, according to our psalm, occupy the honored center in the great chain of being — “a little lower than divine” (8:5 JPS) but above all earthly creatures (8:6-8).

All of this raises the question that the psalmist appropriately places at the structural heart of the psalm: “What is humanity?” (8:4). And the psalm provides an intricate response: Humanity plays the intermediary role of articulating creaturely praise to God and of mediating divine sovereignty to creation.

The structure of the Psalm and the cosmic order

The structure of Psalm 8 mirrors the structure of the cosmos.

God and humanity anchor and animate the structure of the psalm. On the one hand, the praise of God frames the psalm at the beginning and the end (8:1a, 9); and, on the other, at the structural center of the psalm, is humanity (8:4-5). This is not a static structure. Far from it, mutual regard between God and humanity dynamically connect the outer frame and the core of the psalm: God, from the outside, looks inward toward humanity with care and concern: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (8:4 NRSV); and humanity, from the middle, looks outward toward God in praise: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (8:1a, 9). The entire psalm, then, is an echo chamber of divine love and human adoration, pulsating in rhythmic response inward and outward.

Filling out the rest of the psalm are creatures above and below humanity. Above human beings are the heavenly bodies: the sun, the moon, the stars, and divine beings (in Hebrew, ?elohim, which may be translated as “God” or “gods” [8:5]) (8:3, 5). Below humanity are all earthly creatures: domesticated and wild animals of land, sky, and sea (8:6-8).

The total picture is of an orderly world that mirrors exactly the structure of the psalm. God embraces all of creation all around, and humanity sits crowned and, I dare say, enthroned at the center of the created world. Human beings, even more than God, are the stars of the psalm.

In light of this exaltation of human beings in the psalm, it is important to note that human beings are nowhere subjects of verbs of action in the psalm. Rather, God is always and everywhere the one who acts: God “makes [human beings] less than divine,” “crowns them with glory and honor” (8:5), “makes them rulers,” and “places” all other creatures under their authority (8:6). That is to say, whatever glory, honor, and power humanity possesses, their source is God. Humanity rules, but it does so at the pleasure of God as God’s ambassador.

The proper understanding of humanity’s relationship of authority over creation as a mediation of divine will attenuates the temptation to misinterpret the psalm as a theological carte blanche for human beings to use and abuse creation solely for their own ends. For, if we remember that God’s desire for creation is that it be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1), then it becomes incumbent on humanity, as God’s faithful representative, to work toward making life on earth flourish, not only for human beings, but also for all of God’s creation. The duty and the privilege to do so constitutes the honor and glory of human beings.

The enigma of infant lips

The world according to Psalm 8 is orderly and resplendent and, as noted above, reflected in the structural artistry of the psalm itself. But not all is right angles and straight lines. In verse 2, God’s cosmic foes, the enemy and the destroyer, appear — curiously in the same frame as babes and infants.

God’s enemies, in the context of creation, are the forces of chaos and evil that appear elsewhere in the Bible as Leviathan, Rahab, and sea monsters (Isaiah 27:1; 51:9-10; Psalm 74:13-15; Genesis 1:21). And God’s ongoing work of creation involves maintaining a cosmic boundary to keep the sea monsters at bay, lest they penetrate creation and work death and destruction on earth (Psalm 104:9; Job 38:10-11; Daniel 7). According to Hebrew thought, shared by our psalmist, evil persists in the world, and God actively battles forces of evil in continuous assertions of divine and creative power.

Divine combat, however, does not appear in Psalm 8. To our great surprise, the psalm does not assert that God battles the enemy but that, remarkably, human babes and infants do! How can we resolve this enigma?

As noted above, human beings are passive beneficiaries of divine action; God creates, empowers, and authorizes them to rule. But human beings are not utterly inactive, and their modest activities have cosmic consequences. First, human beings see,“When I look at your heavens…” (8:3). The result of sight, it appears, is appreciation of God’s majesty which is manifest in creation, the works of God’s fingers and hands (8:3, 6-8). This leads to the all-important second human activity. Human beings speak and declare God’s praise: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” In sum, human beings perceive God’s glory manifest in creation and so give praise to God.

The observation that should be underlined at this point is that human declaration of praise constitutes the outer frame of the psalm, which we said above is analogous to the outer boundary of the cosmos that God maintains in order to keep out chaos and evil. In other words, according to the theology of the psalm, human praise somehow makes God present as a protective reality for creation. Praise keeps out evil.

This is not mere speculation on the structure of the psalm but may be the solution to the enigma of the “mouth of babes and infants” (8:2). Verse 2 says that God founds a bulwark, one might reasonably surmise, against God’s cosmic foes “from the mouth of babes and infants.” If we assume that these are human babes, what the psalmist may be saying is that even the mumbled praise of babes, no less than the fully articulate praise of human adults which frame the psalm, constitute the bulwark erected against evil. Not only professional temple singers but also little children participate in the duty and privilege of all humanity: In declaring God’s praise, babes and infants defeat the enemy and make real God’s orderly reign on earth.

So we join in the unending song:

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matt Skinner

Relating this biblical text to the liturgical context is no easy thing. Because the setting is Trinity Sunday, many preachers will feel pressure to call on these verses to prove or explain the doctrine of the Trinity. The results, almost certainly, will not be pretty.1

This reading is the lectionary’s attempt to summon a passage into service to provide the theological resources for illustrating or legitimizing  an occasion in the liturgical calendar. Many preachers will focus sermons solely on this text so as to use the final verse of 2 Corinthians to launch a doctrinal sermon on Trinitarian theology. I beg you not to do that. One reason why: how many people hear sermons that try to explain the Trinity and then return home exclaiming, “Wow! That really helped!”? My other reason has to do with the need to listen to the biblical text and, in doing so, to understand a sermon’s purpose in leading people into an encounter with God as opposed to a treatise about God.

Considering the text, its message is not Trinitarian, strictly speaking, at least not in a “capital-T” sense of the word. That is, it does not adequately express the affirmations and nuances of the classical Trinitarian doctrine that was formulated in the centuries after Paul lived. Notice that 2 Corinthians 13:13 (which appears as 13:14 in some versions, such as the TNIV and RSV) explicitly names just two Persons of the Godhead, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. A strictly Trinitarian expression would not assume that “the love of God” was fully equivalent to “the love of the Father.” Also, Paul’s ordering differs from the traditional Trinitarian sequence of Father, Son, and Spirit. All this is to acknowledge that Paul–as demonstrated not only here but also in the rest of his letters–was not himself “Trinitarian,” as Christian doctrine came to understand the term and its implications. His aim was hardly to define God and God’s nature in precise, abstract categories.

Another problem with letting Trinitarian concerns determine our reading of this passage is that doing so easily obscures the purpose that Paul’s language about God serves in 2 Corinthians 13. The focus is relatively simple: God is the source of grace, love, and community.

It was crucial that the Corinthians were made aware–just as it remains crucial for us to be made aware–that God provides all that heals and benefits God’s people. The final four chapters of 2 Corinthians constitute a tense and combative communication to a church that had begun to oppose Paul and question the validity of his message. The testy apostle concludes his remarks with a series of rapid-fire appeals and encouragements in 13:11. The grammar is ambiguous, leaving it not entirely clear which utterances make appeals and which offer encouragements. The word for “farewell” could also be rendered as “rejoice.” “Put things in order” could be “be restored to order.” “Listen to my appeal” is better understood as “encourage one another.” Whatever the precise meaning, clearly in these and the other words of 13:11 Paul points toward the possibility of reconciliation–both between himself and his readers, and among the Corinthians themselves. It is no small thing that the verse ends with a promise about “the God of love and peace,” followed by a command to enact love and respect through “a holy kiss” and finally a benediction concerning the grace, love, and communion that God gives. In multiple ways, God makes it possible for the family of faith to affect and embody reconciliation and peace.

And so, even though this passage does not define God as One who lives and operates in relationship among three Persons, it nevertheless makes important statements about what God provides and how God provides it. Paul describes God as deeply engaged with people through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It will now be helpful to revisit my earlier insistence that these verses are not Trinitarian. It should be clear that I am not saying that this passage has no relevance for Trinity Sunday. Certainly Paul’s words here were among those that adumbrated and later provoked the theological conversations that would eventually formulate Trinitarian doctrine. In this regard, one could claim that the tripartite structure of 2 Corinthians 13:13 ascribes a faintly trinitarian (“small-t”) character to Paul’s proclamation of the gospel. That is, the verse recognizes essential overlap and connection among various ways in which God reaches out to people. Precisely this aspect of the text–the idea of God being in contact with humanity–makes the passage most interesting for consideration on Trinity Sunday. The doctrine of the Trinity makes no sense and serves no purpose if we treat it as abstract dogma. It becomes necessary and helpful only because it stems from believers’ first acknowledging that God has acted in various ways–especially through Jesus Christ and through the presence of God’s indwelling Spirit. When Paul roots grace in the Lord Jesus Christ, he (following other Christians of his time) clearly has made a foundational move of discovering and naming the reality of God’s work through Christ. In coming to name Christ as Lord and finding grace there, Paul has taken the first steps–minor yet bold first steps–toward understanding that God’s love extends to humanity in multifaceted ways.

Even if those who preach on this text should not expect to find in it a clear statement of God’s Trinitarian nature, they can lead people to explore more deeply some of the language that is at the heart of Christian belief and worship. Many congregations will be very familiar with the words of 2 Corinthians 13:13 from the greetings and benedictions they regularly hear on Sundays. This gives preachers opportunities to reflect with congregations on exactly what they mean when they pronounce this benediction before others. At the very least, it means that we acknowledge God’s commitment to us and our accountability to God to be instruments of grace, love, and community among one another and within the wider world.


Note:

1. First posted on this site on May 18, 2008