The arrest and crucifixion of Jesus was a deeply disorienting experience for his followers, ruthlessly dashing in a matter of hours the great hopes and dreams they all shared.
They had lost one they loved and admired to a brutal execution. To see Jesus alive after his death, which they naturally assumed had ended everything, must have been utterly astonishing. Nothing in their history or Jewish faith had prepared them for what was occurring. To say they struggled with cognitive dissonance would be an understatement.
Matthew 28.16-20 provides the narrative of the last recorded encounter of Jesus by the disciples and the final words of Jesus close the Gospel. Directed to return to Galilee where Jesus would meet up with them, the disciples followed yet again, not knowing what they would encounter. Galilee was where it all began and Galilee, it seems, would mark the new beginning. It is difficult to imagine what their journey was like, but it had to have been a memorable one. It was the ultimate road trip, filled with long conversations that focused upon making sense of the mind-bending events that had transpired, wondering aloud what would happen next. This moment with Jesus would be an important time for them. They had lost everything in the catastrophic events that preceded this, and they were on their way to discover what, if anything would be next.
We all struggle to comprehend the astonishing work of God in Christ. Having reunited with Jesus in Galilee, the disciples’ response is somewhat peculiar. Upon seeing Jesus they worship. This part we understand; it makes sense given the circumstances of Jesus’ resurrection and the preceding events. But they also doubt. Worship is not typically associated with doubt. In fact, many feel that even if they do doubt, they cannot admit it. The text here does not so much focus on doubt in the sense of unbelief as it does on the cognitive dissonance that arises from unusual, even unbelievable, circumstances. This is one case where their understanding of the world and the way that God had previously worked in it did not match with what they saw before them.
Jesus’ parting words are commonly referred to as the Great Commission. We typically hear it during mission days at church, mission conferences, or when missionaries come to town with their slide shows, presentations and the like. But it is more than that; the reference of the text is much broader. The text frames the basis for the communal identity and life together for the movement that will become the church. Four elements emerge that draw our attention.
There are four “alls” in this text: Jesus has all authority given to him, we are to make disciples of all nations, we are to teach that we should obey all that he commanded during his earthly life, and the promise that closes is that he will be with us always. These four “alls” capture much of what the paragraph intends to communicate and also the central message of the Gospel of Matthew.
All authority: The incarnation and Jesus’ life on earth were marked by his profound humanity. Apart from a glimpse of his glory during the Transfiguration, this is a Jesus we are not accustomed to. In this scene the authority that Jesus taught with and exercised in his healings and deliverances becomes positional. He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and the disciples’ teacher is now revealed as the Lord of all. The power of passages like Matthew 11:25-30 reside in the person of Jesus. Similarly, the commission that follows has little authority if Jesus were not the Son of God.
All nations: The purpose of God is to be reconciled with all humanity, which includes every nationality and race. Jesus’ ministry was primarily limited to the Jewish people throughout Matthew’s gospel, but here the boundaries are now expanded to include all humanity. Thus the commission has an international scope. Note, however, that the text does not say to take the gospel to the nations, although it is implied. Jesus here actually says that they are to make disciples of all nations. This is the primary verb of the section, and it is a command. Shallow evangelism is not Jesus’ intent; rather, Jesus has in mind a task that is more robust. The disciples are students or pupils–learners. In this case, they are, like the twelve disciples in the gospel narrative, to become devoted followers of Jesus and together live out his teachings within broader society. Further, they are to baptize in the name of the trinity. This baptism becomes the initiation ritual that symbolically marks the movement from death to life.
All that he commanded: Of all the gospels, Matthew’s is the most teaching oriented. Matthew structures his gospel in such a way that he includes five major sections of Jesus’ teachings. The third part of the command is to teach those who become disciples to do everything that Jesus commanded. This follows Jesus’ own instructions in 5.16 and 7.21-27, in which he underlines the necessity of doing what he teaches and not merely paying lip service. Our actions should reflect our beliefs. Statements of faith are important within communities, but Matthew reminds us that faith without appropriate behavior is empty.
Always with us: Matthew closes with what is perhaps one of the most comforting statements in Scripture. Jesus, as Lord of all, promises to be with us, the church, always, even until the final consummation of everything. This continuing, abiding presence of Jesus is a profound promise. The gospel opens with a similar affirmation in 1.23, in which Jesus is named Emmanuel or “God with us”. This ending reminds us of the person of Jesus in his earthly life–the one who shared space with people, lived, and was present with them, and showed us what God is like.
The text moves us from the disciples’ insecurity and lack of understanding to focus us on the exalted Lord, who as the leader of the movement defines reality. The commission is for all who are part of the people of God and incorporates the task of making disciples with teaching and baptizing as the movement expands around the world. The church is at its core to be living out the teachings of Jesus as a witness within their world. And perhaps most profoundly of all, Jesus promises that his presence will be with his people until the final culmination of the ages.
“Community” and “relationship” are “in words” in current environmental and creational discussions.1 All creatures of God constitute a community in relationship.
The Genesis creation accounts have important resources for this conversation. What kind of God is depicted in these texts and what is the importance of the divine decision to work in community rather than alone?
Commentators often suggest that God created the world alone and with absolute control, working unilaterally. But, if this understanding of God in creation is correct, then those created in God’s image could properly understand their role regarding the rest of creation in comparable terms–power over, absolute control, and independence. By definition, the natural world thus becomes available for human manipulation and exploitation. What if the God of the creation accounts is imaged more as one who, in creating, chooses to share power in relationship? Then the way in which the human as image of God exercises dominion is to be shaped by that model.
Creatures are deeply dependent upon God for their creation and life. At the same time, God has chosen to establish an interdependent relationship with them with respect to both originating and continuing creation. God’s approach to creation is communal, relational, and, in the wake of God’s initiating activity, God works from within the world rather than on the world from without. I see four ways of thinking through this view.
1. God uses already existing matter in creating. The images of Gen 1-2 bring God, raw material, and movement together and signal a dynamic rather than a static sense to creation, an open process rather than one tightly controlled. For example, God assumes human form and shapes the ground into a human being, getting dirt under the divine fingernails (2:7). Human beings are created out of an already existent creature.
2. God calls upon already existing creatures to bring about new creations. For example, in Gen 1:11-13, God invites, “Let the earth bring forth,” and, we are told, “the earth brought forth.” The earth is the subject of the creating verb. This is mediated creation rather than immediate, multilateral rather than unilateral. The nonhuman creatures have a genuine vocational role in enabling the creation to become. That story of the creation has been repeated over the millennia as ever new creatures come into being, mediated by existing creatures, from glaciers to volcanoes to tsunamis. These texts witness to divine self-limitation in letting the world create itself; God stands back (the Sabbath day), enabling the creatures to be/become what they were created to be.
3. God invites the divine council to participate in the creation of the human. God’s involvement in creative activity with creatures who are not God is extended in Gen. 1:26:”our image, our likeness.” Most scholars understand this plural in terms of the divine council, the heavenly assembly that does the divine bidding. God is by nature a social being, functioning within a divine community that is rich and complex. Only social and relational human beings are truly correspondent to such a God; that is the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God. God here creates communally. The creation of the human community is the result of a dialogical rather than a monological act. Genuine interaction and interdependence are herein characteristic of God’s creative activity.
4. God involves the human in still further acts of creation. The word “God” in Genesis 1 primarily has reference to God as one who creates. It would follow that those created in the image of God are most fundamentally creative beings. This is illuminated by Gen 2:5, wherein human activity is deemed to be essential if the creation is to become what God intended it to be. Human beings are given a crucial role in the initial creation. Such an important role is evident also in Gen. 2:18-20, wherein the human naming of the animals is a genuinely creative act. Twice, God lets the human being determine what is adequate to move the evaluation of the creation from “not good” to “good.” Indeed, how the human being decides will determine whether there will be a next human generation! The human judgment will shape the future of the world. Human beings are not able to stymie God’s movement into the future in any final way, but God establishes such a relationship with them that their decisions regarding creation truly count.
In Gen 1:28, God gives the human being certain responsibilities and, necessarily, the power with which to do them. From the beginning, God chooses not to be the only one with creative power and the capacity, indeed the obligation, to exercise it. Given the imaging of God as Creator, this commission should be interpreted fundamentally in terms of creative word and deed. This gives decisive shape to what it means to have dominion and subdue the earth. God is imaged as one who, in creating, chooses to share power in relationship; the way in which the human as image of God exercises dominion is to be shaped by that model.
Human beings are created to “subdue the earth.” The word “subdue” makes clear that the evaluation “good” does not mean that the creation is “perfect,” in the sense of needing no further development or attention. The word “subdue” suggests the idea bringing order out of disorder, drawing the world along to its fullest possible potential. Creation is here understood, not as a static state of affairs, but as a dynamic situation in which human activity is crucial for the development of the created order.
God’s creation is built to go somewhere; the potential of becoming is built into the very structure of things. The creation is not presented as “a finished product,” to be preserved as it was originally created. God creates a dynamic world in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which creaturely activity is crucial for proper creational developments.
In pursuing these tasks, human beings cannot rest back and assume that God will take care of everything or that the future of the creation is solely in God’s hands. They are called, not to passivity relative to the earth, but to genuine engagement, the nature of which will have significant implications for the future of the environment.
1Portions of this article have been shaped by Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005). See this volume for detail and bibliography.
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.
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.