Lectionary Commentaries for June 7, 2009
The Holy Trinity

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:1-17

Sharon H. Ringe

Today’s Gospel lection is a theological key that can unlock several aspects of this often puzzling Gospel of John.

We will begin by examining the details, then step back to look at the overall thrust of the story.

To begin with, as re-readers who already are familiar with this Gospel, we are struck by several details of the setting of the story. We have already learned that in the lexicon of this Gospel writer, hoi Ioudaioi (usually translated as “the Jews,” though the term clearly does not refer to the entire ethnic and religious community that we would mean by it) are often portrayed as hostile to Jesus and his message. We even suspect ulterior motives when Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “leader of the Jews,” pays a night time visit to Jesus. Throughout the first eleven chapters of this Gospel, Jesus encounters people in public spaces or gatherings during the day. What could Nicodemus want from Jesus at night?

Nicodemus respectfully greets Jesus as “Rabbi” and marvels at the sēmeia (“signs”) that Jesus does. However, Jesus seems to change the subject by delivering an apparent warning of a prerequisite for seeing the “reign of God.” That term does not surprise us if we are used to the language of the first three (“synoptic”) Gospels, where Jesus’ message and ministry are summarized as proclaiming the reign of God. In the Fourth Gospel, the term is rare, in addition to not being what Nicodemus’s polite comment was about. Our puzzlement grows when the prerequisite is identified as that one must be born anōthen (3:3).

This Greek adverb can mean either “again” or “from above,” with nothing in the way the word is written to indicate which way the meaning is to go. Nicodemus clearly hears it as “again” , as his questions indicate, while Jesus’ continuing commentary shows he meant it to be heard as “from above.” In the theology of this Gospel, one’s identity depends on the place from which one comes and the place to which one goes. Thus, one’s participation in the new reality Jesus brings and represents depends on being born “from above.”

That particular play on words works only in Greek, not in the Hebrew or Aramaic of Jesus’ daily life in Palestine. In contrast, the analogous wordplay on “wind” and “spirit” (3:8), which both translate the Greek word pneuma and the Hebrew word ruāh, would be effective in either setting. The key word anōthen, however, makes it clear that whatever the historical core of the story may be, it received its theological polish in one of the Greek-speaking communities of the early church. That point is driven home even more dramatically when Jesus goes on the offensive with his question in 3:10, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” What exactly should Nicodemus have understood, and why?

Using a classic rabbinical argument from the lesser (“earthly things”) to the greater (“heavenly things”), Jesus sends Nicodemus back to Torah, which as a teacher of Israel he ought to understand. Specifically, he recalls the story of the plague of venomous serpents that were threatening the Israelites (Numbers 21:6-9). The anti venom to the bites of the “fiery” poisonous serpents was to look at the “fiery” bronze serpent that Moses lifted up on a “pole” (Numbers 21:9). We should imagine a vertical pole with a cross-bar at or near the top and a bronze serpent entwined around it, like a caduceus. In Greek, the word for the “pole” is sēmeion, which can also mean “sign.” With that final riddle, the theological importance of this passage becomes clear.

According to the book of Ezekiel, the prophet is addressed by God as “Son of Man” (NRSV, “mortal”) whenever God is about to send him to proclaim God’s judgment against the people. In Daniel, the same term refers to the one who will sit in judgment of the people on the last day. In other words, like the poisonous serpents, the Son of Man decrees and even executes God’s judgment against the people. In this Gospel the identity of Jesus as the Son of Man is determined by his heavenly origin and destination (John 3:13). But just as the bronze serpent lifted up on the sēmeion/pole brought life in place of death in the story in Numbers, so also when the Son of Man (Jesus) has been “lifted up” on another kind of pole–the cross–he will bring, not judgment, but eternal life to all who believe or trust in him (John 3:14-15).

The word s̄meion is thus the ultimate play on words in this passage. Nicodemus opened the conversation by praising the “signs” Jesus had been doing. This Gospel identifies many of Jesus’ deeds that demonstrated his power as “signs” (see for example, 2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:54; 6:14; 12:18). They are “signs,” though, as they led the story forward to its inevitable conclusion on the cross.

In this Gospel, it is Jesus’ being “lifted up” on the cross that is the moment of triumph for the one who is God’s own presence among us. The word translated lifted up, hypsoō, can also mean “exalt” or “glorify.” In the paradoxical logic–the mystery–of God, it is the moment of a cruel and shameful death that is the triumph of eternal life (3:16). The “one sent from God” (as Jesus is known in this Gospel) and God the Sender first set the pattern of divine self-commitment. The community of believers then is called to carry that same pattern into the difficult years following the crucial and cruciform moment, where God’s love was poured out for the world.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8

John C. Holbert

This text is among the more famous in the Hebrew Bible, serving as a source for the centuries’ old shape of worship (Praise, Confession, Forgiveness/Pardon, and Response).

In addition, it offers the origin of more than a few popular hymns, the best example being Dan Schuette’s 1981 composition: “Here I am, Lord.” It could fairly be said that the words from verse eight, “Here I am, send me,” have become cliched language in the church when preachers urge their congregations to respond to the call of the gospel.

A rich text indeed, both in its own language and time, and in its subsequent influences in religious history! However, I wonder whether the fullest measure of the context of Isaiah’s call has been silenced in the shout of verse eight.

Is Isaiah’s reaction to the call of God for service−his ready and energetic reply, “Here am I, send me”−all that we moderns should take from the text? The answer is both “no” and a highly qualified “yes.”

As sometimes happens with the lectionary readings, those who decide on the texts have stopped too soon.

Of course, the lectionary is designed to offer readings with lengths that can be heard comfortably. But in this important case, the decision to stop at verse eight carries significant dangers for a full hearing of Isaiah’s answer to his Lord’s summons. And that fuller hearing is important for those who are trying to answer the call of our God in our own time.

God’s address to Isaiah did not end with verse eight. Verses 9-10 provide something of the content of the call of God. Unless we hear what it is God asks of Isaiah in some detail, we run the risk of imagining that God’s call is only generic and lacking specificity.

We might imagine that all we have to do is sing Dan Schutte’s hymn in a splendid service of worship, surrounded by familiar worshippers, and we will thereby be answering the call. Reading the tough-minded prophets of Israel makes such a conclusion unthinkable.

As Isaiah stands before the Lord in the temple, the smallest hem of the divine robe swallows the holy house in eternal fabric; the mighty seraphim, monstrous six-winged creatures now bent to the service of that Lord, screech the praise of the Holy One, and God announces what it is Isaiah is called to do.

The command is devastating! The prophet is demanded by his God to speak in such a way that no one will finally understand what it is he is saying. Their eyes and ears will be useless, so dull and sightless that their minds will be clouded with confusion. As a result, their healing will be delayed.

What the prophet is called to speak will not make their lives easier, their road smoother, or their responsibilities plainer. Everything will be more confusing and less certain. It will be more difficult to perceive just what it is that God wants from the people.

Not surprisingly, that eager prophet of verse eight, the ready follower of the mighty Lord of the temple who is so anxious to do the divine work, now sounds very different in verse eleven, after hearing what God has in mind for him. Instead of “Here am I,” we now hear the prophet bleat, “How long, O Lord?”

I hear in these words an undercurrent of “choose somebody else,” rather more like Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 4:13).

What are the words of the famous catechism? “The chief work of humanity is to love God and enjoy God forever.” The enjoyment of God has apparently drained away from the plaintive cry of the prophet in the face of these divine demands. Perhaps, he now wishes he could take back that precipitous response, made in the flush of radiant divine appearance.

Elijah comes to mind, when he bested the bleeding prophets of Baal at Carmel and rode off the mountain on the shoulders of apparent converts, all shouting “The Lord indeed is God, the Lord indeed is God!” (1 Kings 18:20-40).

But the very next verses (1 Kings 19:1-3) find Elijah now alone, running for his life from an enraged Jezebel, furious at the death of all her favorite prophets. From victory at the prophetic Super Bowl to the desire for death at the hands of God (1 Kings 19:4), it is a shockingly short journey. Isaiah’s second thoughts about what he is being called to do spring just as quickly to his timorous mind.

After Isaiah’s fearful “how long,” God gives him cold comfort by announcing that cities shall lie waste and the land will be desolate, finally presenting a vast emptiness (Isaiah 6:11-12). Somehow that stirring hymn, “Here I am, Lord,” seems strangely out of place, or at least premature.

What can all this mean for the preacher of this famous text?

By all means, call your people to follow the Lord, bid them give their lives for God’s service. It is what we do!

But to follow God rightly does not always lead to great congregations, vast religious campuses, and budgets that rival those of small nations.

What we are called to say to our world is that the last are first, the least are greatest, and the greatest among us is a servant. Such two thousand year old words have regularly been met by dull ears, sightless eyes, and clouded minds; all of which have led again and again to wasted cities and empty lands, ravaged by wars and famines and hopelessness.

Another hymn rises to mind: “The Voice of God is Calling,” John Haynes Holmes’ 1913 poem. “From ease and plenty save us,” begins the fourth verse, and it ends, “Speak, and behold! we answer; command and we obey!”1 

By all means, respond to the call of God. But be careful to know that the call is never easy, never simple to grasp, never designed for ready comfort and success.

Just ask Isaiah.


1John Haynes Holmes, “The Voice of God is Calling” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), #436.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

Matthew Stith

There are a number of directions that the interpreter of Psalm 29 could take.

For example, it is generally a matter of consensus among scholars that this Psalm was originally a Canaanite text celebrating Ba’al or a similar storm god. At one point, it was then brought into Israel’s use by replacing Ba’al’s name with Yahweh’s. Presumably, one could launch from this point into an examination of Israelite religion in its context or the polemical “replacement” of Canaanite deities by Israel’s God.

Similarly, much ink has been spilled in controversy over the meaning and implications of the title of those addressed by the Psalm. The variety of translations offered of bny elohim — “heavenly beings” in the NRSV and RSV, “ye mighty” in the KJV, “mighty ones” in the NIV, etc. — attests to the potential for a discussion of the nature and character of the denizens of heaven who are here called to worship the Lord. Are these angels? Other gods? Something else entirely?

But, while such approaches to Psalm 29 do have a certain interest of their own, they clearly do not address the main concern of the Psalm itself.

By dint of sheer repetition (not to say brute rhetorical force), the Psalmist focuses the attention of the reader squarely on what matters most here: the voice of the Lord. Six times in the eleven verses of the Psalm, the divine voice and its effects are the center of attention. So it seems that faithful exposition of this text ought to focus there as well.

What does Psalm 29 have to say about this voice and, by extension, about the Lord whose voice it is?

The voice thunders over the waters. The voice shatters trees and lays forests bare. It causes earthquakes and shoots forth flame (likely intended to be lightning). This is not, to say the least, the “still, small voice” of 1 Kings 19:12. There is nothing evidently comforting or comfortable about this voice. Here, instead, is a God whose very voice is laced with all the terrifying, numinous power of the thunderstorm, the earthquake, and the flood.

This is a voice able to rip creation apart, just as it brought creation into being. The particular objects of this vocal assault are also of interest.

The voice does not break just any little, scrubby tree but rather the cedars of Lebanon — the largest, strongest, and most famous trees in Israel’s experience.

The voice does not cause just any old piece of land to shudder and shake but rather Sirion, also known as Mt. Hermon, the largest, tallest mountain in all the Levant, and the wilderness of Kadesh, the anvil on which Israel was forged.

The Psalm, with its repetition of “The voice of the Lord…the voice of the Lord…the voice of the Lord,” is relentless in driving home the awesome power and terrible majesty of that voice and of its owner. There is nothing else that compares.

In the wake of the storm, as the echoes of the voice still ring from the heavens, the focus of the Psalm suddenly turns to the hearers, to those who worship in the Lord’s temple. Whether these worshipers are the “heavenly beings” of verse one, the people assembled in Tabernacle or Temple, or the members of a contemporary congregation; there is only one possible response to what has just been experienced: doxology.

Doxology literally means “speaking about glory,” and Psalm 29 claims that in the face of what has come before, there is nothing else to do.

The voice that strips the cedars and the forests also strips away all human pretensions of power, control, and agency. The voice that flashes fire and lightning erases any notion of our own insight and understanding. The voice that shakes Lebanon, Sirion, and Kadesh shakes all human sureties, assumptions, and plans. Before this revelation of even a tiny fraction of the full reality of the Lord, we are undone.

We are left with no possible defense, no possible rejoinder, and no possible response, except one. All we can do is say “Glory.” And mean it. This is not an empty cheer, not an antiphon or rote liturgical response. Our doxology, our saying “glory” after hearing the voice of the Lord, is simply a fact; the only fact left standing.

It is only when we are thus utterly reduced, when all that remains is doxology, only then can we utter the prayer with which the Psalm ends.

It is not the strong, the confident, or the self-assured who can, with hope and propriety, ask the Lord for strength and peace. It is, rather, the weak, the helpless, and the chastened, those who have truly heard the voice, and have been brought to realize their utter dependence on the one who utters it.

This is the message at the heart of Psalm 29: humble doxology, followed by trusting prayer, is the first, best, and only response to who God is and what God has done.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:12-17

Elisabeth Johnson

In the ancient Roman world, unwanted children were routinely abandoned or sold into slavery.

Sadly, such cruel realities persist today in many parts of the world, where families crushed by poverty abandon infants they cannot afford to raise, or sell children into the slavery of child labor or child prostitution. In much more positive cases — both then and now — parents might give their children up for adoption with the hope of offering them an opportunity for a better life and a more hopeful future.

Roman society placed a high value on producing offspring and heirs, and childless couples of means were often eager to adopt. Under Roman law, as with our own, adopted children had the same legal status and inheritance rights as biological children.

Paul writes to the church in Rome: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15). Paul assures his readers that although we struggle in a world of sin and death, we have not been abandoned to lives of slavery and fear. In Christ, God has adopted us as God’s very own children and heirs.

We have assurance of this adoption because God’s Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” when we cry out to God as a child to a parent, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:16; cf. Galatians 4:4-7). The spirit of adoption or “sonship” (huiothesia) we have received is the Spirit of Christ, God’s Son (Romans 8:9; cf. Galatians 4:6). The Spirit links us with Christ as fellow children and heirs of God, and enables us to call upon God with the same intimate language Christ used: “Abba! Father!”

Because we are joint heirs with Christ, we can expect to share in his sufferings as well as his glory (Romans 8:17).

Suffering is not evidence of separation from God, but a sign of living in the conflict zone between “this present time” and the “age to come,” a sign of being indwelled by the Spirit of God which is at odds with the rule of sin and death (Romans 8:1-10). It is a suffering we share with the whole creation in bondage, waiting with eager longing for “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21). We, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan together with creation “while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).

Several themes touched on here might open up fruitful engagement for a preacher and congregation.

To make a connection with Holy Trinity Sunday, one might emphasize the Trinitarian threads in this passage. The Spirit of God who dwells in and among us empowers us to call on God as Father and assures us that we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ. Father, Son, and Spirit all work together for the purpose of claiming us as God’s children.

The adoption language in this text opens additional avenues to explore.

In observing several adoption processes among friends and congregation members, it has been moving for me to witness the anguish of families waiting to adopt, as well as their steadfast resolve in the face of disappointments and setbacks. The energy and resources they will expend in order to make a child their own seem to have no limits.

Perhaps these experiences of human families give us some small measure of insight into what God has done in adopting us as God’s children. In Christ, God has spared no expense in order to save us from a life of slavery and fear, thereby making us God’s very own children and heirs. God will stop at nothing to make us God’s own — not even at the cross — and God pursues us relentlessly until our adoption is complete.

The adoption metaphor also sheds light on the reality of our lives as children of God.

The adoption papers have been signed; we have been sealed by the Spirit at baptism. Yet we continue to experience anguish and suffering while we wait for the completion of our adoption, “the redemption of our bodies.” Though we are God’s children and heirs now, we look forward to the “not yet” — to the day when we will be truly “at home” with God.

Our adoption as God’s children means that we share in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of God’s good purposes — the liberation of a world in bondage. At the same time, we trust that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Whatever evil or suffering we face, we have the blessed assurance that God will see to the completion of our adoption, and nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).