Lectionary Commentaries for May 31, 2015
The Holy Trinity

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:1-17

Ginger Barfield

From the Apostles’ Creed:

           “I believe in God, the Father almighty,

            I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

            I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

These are the words many of us recite together each time we gather for worship. In them we affirm our belief in the Holy Trinity. Even as we say these words together, we understand so little of what we are repeating. That is the mystery of the doctrine that we hold so centrally in our faith.

This is a pregnant passage — both literally and figuratively. There is too much here to preach in one sermon so it will be important to settle on something and then to go with that focal point.

This passage contains, perhaps, the best known verse in the entire Bible. John 3:16 can be a sermon in itself. However, the context for the sermon is Trinity Sunday. I will attempt in the next paragraphs to open up some parts of the text so that you may tease out something as a focal point. All of this will not hang together. Perhaps something will spark an idea that you can run with.

Perhaps there is no story in the gospels that spells out the conundrum of belief as does the account of Nicodemus. The conversation itself and the monologue that follows are incomprehensible at best. Words may mean one thing. Then the words may mean something entirely different. This is the gospel writer at his best.

There are two identified teachers in the passage.

  • Verse 2: Nicodemus names Jesus as “Rabbi … a teacher who has come from God.”
  • Verse 10: Jesus questions Nicodemus “Are you the teacher of Israel?” (Note translation in NRSV as “a teacher” which is an incorrect reading of Greek.)

The reality is that only one of the teachers has accurate understanding — the teacher who has come from God. Jesus is clearly the teacher with the spiritual quality because Jesus comes from God. Nicodemus comes in the night and belongs to the darkness.

This sets up a dichotomy that is clear throughout the Gospel of John, those who understand and those who do not. It is the Spirit who creates the capacity to comprehend. This is the conundrum. Those who have the Spirit (born again from above) can apprehend fully. Those who do not have the Spirit cannot. Nicodemus may want to understand but without being born again from above (heavenly, spiritual realm), Nicodemus cannot possibly understand. Nicodemus is doomed to misunderstanding.

Nicodemus’ question in verse 11: “How can these things be?” is the exact question of the day. And it is the question that can never be answered. A theological treatise for a Trinity Sunday sermon will not suffice. Neither will a sermon full of analogies like the core, the meat, and the peel of an apple. The Trinity cannot be analogized.

The text itself is disjointed and illustrates the danger of preaching it as a whole.

  • Verses 1-10 are a conversation (of sorts) between Jesus and Nicodemus. However, they are not actually having the same conversation. They are talking across each other. Jesus is using slippery words that have double meanings to him and only singular ones to Nicodemus. Anothen means “again” and “from above.” It has a spiritual and a time reference. Nicodemus can only comprehend the time (“second time” of v. 4).

Because they were having a conversation but not using the same language, so to speak, effective communication did not happen.

  • Verses 11-17 move into a monologue in which Jesus no longer addresses Nicodemus. It is as if Jesus has given up completely on the incredulousness of the teacher of Israel. In fact with verse 11, Jesus abruptly brushes aside Nicodemus and others of his kind (“you — plural — do not receive our testimony”).

It is in the monologue where Jesus explicates some sense of the Trinity within the idea of his own role in salvation. Jesus descends from heaven. God gave the Son. God sent the Son. The Son of Man must be lifted up. All this is for the sake of salvation.

The monologue reveals the purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth but does so in veiled language. The ones who can understand the monologue are those who have been born again from heaven through the Spirit and the water. Understanding of Jesus (and the Trinity) comes only as gift. Just as God gave the Son out of love for the world, so the Spirit will reveal (initiate belief) and thus initiate one into the Kingdom of God (v. 5).

So, on this Trinity Sunday does it matter that we cannot fully explicate the theology of the trinity or even understand this gospel text where elements of the Trinity are present?

What is crucial in our proclamation is the reality of God’s activity in Jesus, God’s only Son, sent and given for the sake of the salvation of the world. Only through the awakening of belief through the Spirit can this be known. That is the story for Trinity Sunday. That is the good news for this day.

All else is mystery. All else is code language. All else is an attempt to render in our words what is God’s word to tell. This is not a reality that we can claim to believe. It is a truth that we receive by faith through the Spirit as gift from God.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8

Patricia Tull

Finding a text for today from the Hebrew Bible, which knows nothing of the Christian Trinity, must have been quite challenging for the lectionary’s creators.

Year A opts for Genesis 1, and Year C for Proverbs 8. Genesis 1 and Isaiah 6 evidently owe their slot to traditional exegetes’ understanding of the plural divine language in both passages. Isaiah 6:3’s “holy, holy, holy” also helped commend it, as the hymn by that name shows: “Holy, holy, holy … God in three person, blessed trinity.” Proverbs 8 actually portrays a plural Godhead, with Wisdom, a precursor to John’s Logos, coexisting with God before creation. So what can we do with Isaiah 6 — or rather, with a truncated version that stops before the punch line?

The narrative places the prophet in the temple. Though Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord,” his description only reveals the edge of God’s enormous robe, as if he had quickly averted his eyes. The seraph’s hymn juxtaposes divine transcendence and immanence in a single chorus, setting God apart from all creation as thrice holy, yet nevertheless seeing divine glory in creation’s fullness. As they voice praise, God’s descent to meet the people at Mount Sinai is echoed through the smoke and shaking (Exodus 19:18). The theophany in the day’s lectionary psalm, Psalm 29, resembles Isaiah’s vision, especially in verse 9: “The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’’’

Like the Israelites witnessing God at Mount Sinai, the prophet fears for his life. But whereas they retreated, insisting that Moses mediate for them, Isaiah continues standing in God’s presence. Some scholars associate his concern about “unclean lips” with Akkadian texts depicting mouth purification rituals, in which the mouth symbolizes the entire body. Isaiah suggests that he is not ritually prepared to stand in God’s presence, nor are his people prepared to stand trial in the holy tribunal. A seraph touches his mouth with a hot coal and pronounces his guilt “departed” and his sin “atoned.” Though Isaiah has expressed concern for his community too, this atonement applies only to him. Yet atonement so easily obtained suggests a God ready to forgive others just as quickly.

It is only after Isaiah is purified that he hears God’s voice. It is not clear whether God is speaking only to the heavenly attendants or to the prophet as well, nor whether Isaiah is meant to participate in the discussion. In the prophet Micaiah’s story of the heavenly council in 1 Kings 22, Micaiah had stood in God’s court as a spectator only, witnessing one of the heavenly host offering to carry out God’s mission. On the basis of this precedent and that of the conversation between God and the Satan in Job 1-2, it’s reasonable to think God expected a heavenly, not human, response.

What happens next contrasts intriguingly with other key moments of divine-human encounter. Abraham (Genesis 22:1, 11), Jacob (Genesis 46:2), Moses (Exodus 3:4), and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4-6) all responded “Here I am” to God’s calling them explicitly and repeatedly by name. Isaiah is not called in this story, but rather volunteers. In only one other place in Scripture does someone answer “Here I am” to a call that has not been extended, and that was God:

  I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,

to be found by those who did not seek me.

I said, “Here I am, here I am”

to a nation that did not call on my name. (Isaiah 65:1)

This verse from close to the end of Isaiah communicates pathos in God’s fervor to be found by a nation that still rebels after centuries of drama and suffering. Similarly, Isaiah’s response to a call that has not been issued suggests eagerness to bring a message to people with whom he identifies. Unlike Moses with his myriad excuses, Isaiah is hardly able to contain his excitement, waving his hand like a student raring to speak up in class. He is Scripture’s only figure to cry out: “Here I am! Send me!” In a very few strokes the story paints a prophet who, despite discouragement, remains eager to mediate between God and his community.

If we read beyond verse 8, we find that the message Isaiah is given could scarcely be more incompatible with prophetic sensibilities. Isaiah is told to tell his neighbors, who so far have played deaf to him, to neither see nor hear. He might have taken ironic comfort in realizing that those not listening would not hear this terrible word either. Still, the directive is strangely out of step with everything else the prophet has understood God to say.

In fact, the message is logically impossible since, in order to obey its imperative, “Do not understand,” one must first understand. A prophet who repeated such a paradoxical message enough times would certainly stop listeners’ ears and shut their eyes, and if not dim their wits, at least administer a severe headache. But Isaiah’s preaching tends toward punchy irony. So here, the prophet depicts himself as privy to a noncommunicative message, a command to make his hearers do exactly what they are already doing. Had Isaiah taken this message at face value, we would have record of his going and saying little else besides a terse, Jonah-like “Keep listening, but do not comprehend.” But instead, in the very next chapter, Isaiah gives King Ahaz a message of reassurance, and practically pleads for the king’s response.

The prophetic message Isaiah conveys through describing his vision in the temple is not “Keep listening, but do not comprehend,” but rather, “I saw the Lord, and he told me to tell you, ‘Keep listening but do not comprehend.’” Such spilling of divine secrets amounts to a paradoxical intervention, when straightforward communication has failed, an intervention designed to goad listeners into hearing.

Within the temple, all say “Glory!” God’s voice shakes the foundations and causes plain members of the natural world to whirl. What about us humans — what does it take to shake us into response?


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.

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).


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:12-17

Arland J. Hultgren

At first thought, the readings for the Festival of Pentecost and the Festival of the Holy Trinity in Year B seem to have been inadvertently reversed.

The reading for Pentecost, a week earlier than Holy Trinity, is from Romans 8:22-27. The reading for Holy Trinity (Romans 8:12-17) requires one to back up to an earlier place in the chapter. But the arrangement is understandable. The choices for each of the Sundays are governed by the needs of the church year. While both texts have Trinitarian elements, the reading for Pentecost is directed more to the ongoing operation of the Spirit in believers and in creation; the text for Holy Trinity refers more explicitly to each of the persons of the Trinity. The verses speak of God the Father (Abba), the Son with whom we are joint heirs, and the Spirit who leads the children of God.

As with the text for the previous Sunday, this one is located in a chapter in which Paul writes concerning the new life in the Spirit. He declares that those who are “in Christ” can and should put to death “the deeds of the body” and live as children of God; in other words, they should become what they are.

Paul begins in Romans 8:12-13 to make a contrast between two ways of living, which consequently have two outcomes. To live according to the flesh ends in death, while living by the power of the Spirit leads to life. Living “according to the flesh” is to live for that which is transient, pursuing self-interests at the expense of others, and ignoring the presence of God. As an entry into the meaning of the phrase, one can think of “creature comforts,” those things that a person indulges in to please oneself without thought of God or other persons. Paul is not talking about flesh that adheres to one’s bones. He uses the term “flesh” (sarx in Greek) as a metaphor for the human tendency to seek and to possess all that brings immediate and imminent satisfaction to one’s own self and without regard for a spiritual perspective. The consequence of this way of living is death. Again Paul uses a metaphor. The term “death” in this context does not mean physical death, but a dying of the self as God intends one to be, spiritual death.

The alternative is to put to death “the deeds of the body.” Paul associates the “body” (soma in Greek) with human weakness. It is mortal, and although it is not sinful in itself, it is the place where sin seeks to have dominion (Romans 6:12; 8:10); it is open to failure and corruption. But Paul is confident that the believer can put to death those deeds of the body that are sinful “by the Spirit.” The consequence of this way of living is life (8:13, “you will live”). The metaphor refers to life that is truly life, the life that God intends for his own, a life led by the Spirit. It is also a life that has an ethical significance. Paul says elsewhere: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).

At Romans 8:14 Paul indicates that those led by the Spirit are “children of God” (NRSV). The Greek term translated as “children” in the NRSV is huioi (masculine plural for huios). Older English versions (KJV, RSV, NIV, and others) translate it as “sons,” but the word obviously refers to both males and females, so the inclusive “children” is to be preferred. In any case, believers are in an intimate relationship with God, comparable to that of children with their parents.

In the next two verses (Romans 8:15-16) Paul elaborates on the theme of being children of God. Believers have received the Holy Spirit. For Paul, whoever confesses Jesus as Lord does so by the power of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). That is evidence enough for being a person in Christ. They have thus already been adopted as God’s children. By faith and baptism and through the power of the Spirit they have a new relationship with God. There is evidence of this whenever they cry out “Abba, Father.” That conviction was obviously important for the apostle Paul. He uses the same formulation in his Letter to the Galatians: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father’” (4:6).

The word “Abba” is an Aramaic term for father. It is less formal than “Ab,” which also means father. But Abba was usually the word used in the home, as children addressed their fathers. It is easier for a child to use a two-syllable word ending in a vowel than to use a single syllable word ending with a consonant. (So “Daddy” is easier to say than “Dad,” “Mommy” is easier than “Mom,” and so on.) But of interest here also is that “Abba” is the word used by Jesus in the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of Mark (14:36, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible … ”). The use of “Abba” must also have been characteristic of Jesus’ prayers, as in the use of “Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9; the Greek pater of the prayer is probably a translation of the Aramaic Abba). Apparently the term was familiar to the Christians at Rome as well as for Paul and for the Christians in Galatia. It is generally held that the term was used as a liturgical term to address God, first by Aramaic-speaking Christians and then, untranslated, by Greek-speaking Christians. That would have been in imitation of the prayer language of Jesus. To be sure, both Mark and Paul add “Father” after the term (so “Abba, Father”). It is possible that use of the Aramaic term was passing by the time that those writers wrote, and so it had to be translated for later and broader audiences. On the other hand, the addition of “Father” (pater) may have been primarily for emphasis.

The final verse in our reading (Romans 8:17) contains two conditional clauses: “and if children [of God], then [we are] heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” The first of the conditions (“if children … ”) has already been established. We are children of God, and the good news attached to that is that we are heirs of the promises of God in Christ. Christ himself is an heir of the promises, which were spoken to the king (messiah) of Israel, beginning with David, declaring that he is the son of God (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:7; 89:20-29). And if Christ, son of David, is an heir of God, all those who are “in Christ” are joint heirs with him. All the blessings coming upon Christ are shared with those who are one with him.

The second condition in 8:17 (“if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him”) is not so clear. Does Paul say that believers are joint heirs with Christ only “if we suffer with him,” as though our suffering is a condition for being joint heirs with Christ, and so our suffering is, in effect, meritorious? Was Christ’s own suffering for our atonement insufficient? Taking into account Paul’s theological claims as a whole, that line of thinking is impossible. More likely, Paul means that suffering is to be expected in the present era. In fact, the suffering of a disciple arises out of one’s loyalty to Christ in all circumstances.

The Festival of the Holy Trinity is a feast day, and it is about the triune God. As often said, it is the only Sunday of the church year on which the church celebrates a doctrine. Since that is the case, it tends not to be a day given to attention to the life of Christians in the world. But the text from Romans opens up the possibility to go in that direction. It provides an opportunity to take up terms that are perplexing, particularly the terms “flesh” and “body” that are used in the text. It has to be said that Paul, and the Christian tradition, are not “anti-flesh” and “anti-body,” even though so many passages from the Bible might seem to indicate that. This is a good occasion to explain that the terms have a theological meaning; that they are not about physical flesh and physical bodies per se. If we understand the words theologically (as above), they help us see aspects of the human condition.

There are of course aspects of the Christian faith that do refer to physicality. But those are in different contexts. We affirm that Jesus the Messiah came in the flesh; we also confess our faith in the resurrection of the body, although that entails a transformation of the physical body into a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-56).

Beyond the matters of “flesh” and “body,” the text from Romans also contains the word “Abba,” which can be explained. And then the point can be made that when we refer to God as Father in the church and in our prayers, we are not assigning gender to God, but are speaking of God in the most intimate way. Here one might make use of Martin Luther’s explanation to the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer in his Small Catechism: “With these words God wants to attract us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children, in order that we may ask him boldly and with complete confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.”1

That said, the preacher will do well to bring up the fact that there is feminine, indeed maternal, imagery for God in the Bible also (Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; 66:13). That imagery is also used to speak of God in an intimate way, not to define God by gender. God is transcendent and beyond human description. The biblical authors, like people down through the ages, have used words and images to promote trust and love for God. There is no reason to avoid using either paternal or maternal terms for God. Scripture and hymnody employ a wide variety of images for God, and the church is the better for it. God is Father, Mother, Shepherd, King, Lord, Rock, Redeemer, Fortress, and more. We are impoverished if we restrict the wide range of biblical images for God. We are enriched if we are imaginative and expansive, even as the Bible itself is in surprising places and moments.


Notes:

1 Quoted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 1163.