Lectionary Commentaries for June 19, 2011
The Holy Trinity

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20

Craig R. Koester

The concluding verses of Matthew’s gospel give a vivid glimpse into what it means to be disciples of Jesus.

The scenes that have preceded it have been filled with drama and struggle. The power of the resurrection seems clear in the account of the resurrection, as the earth shakes and an angel descends to roll back the stone. The guards are overcome, the women are terrified, and the tomb is empty.

The angel’s voice is one of command, for he tells the women to direct the disciples to Galilee where they will see Jesus for themselves. Then, before the women can follow through, the risen Jesus appears and repeats the command that the disciples should go to Galilee. The plot thickens as rumors spread that none of this resurrection news was true, and that the disciples were the ones who had stolen the body. Against this backdrop, our passage begins.

The disciples who go to the mountain have not seen any of the Easter drama. They have not seen an earthquake or the angel descending. They have not seen the risen Jesus or heard his voice. Their reputations are soon to be tarnished by rumors that they have perpetrated a hoax to get others to believe that Jesus is alive. All they have is the directive from the women, “Go to Galilee.” So they go, trudging northward from Jerusalem to Galilee, not knowing whether the women’s word is true. To set out on this journey into an unseen future with only a word–this characterizes discipleship.

Jesus does encounter the disciples as he promised, but the response is mixed. When the travelers meet the living Jesus, some worship. Others doubt. Both responses are possible from the same group. Among these disciples there is both worship and uncertainty, both devotion and hesitancy. One might expect something clearer and unequivocal. They are in the presence of the living Christ, after all. But this mixture of faith and doubt also characterizes discipleship.

We understand this from our own experience. We too are called to “go” to where Jesus will meet us. We too are called to worship. We are directed to the place where we will meet the living Christ, yet one wonders why anyone would listen. Perhaps it is the hope that the message might be true and that by coming to the community where Jesus promises to meet people, he might meet us as well. So we come to see if Christ will keep his promise.

We trust that he comes as he said he would, and for many in our community this is reason for thanks and worship. Making confession, offering prayers, voicing our faith, singing our praise–all of this is worship in the presence of the living Christ. And along with the worship, many continue to wonder whether any of this is true. Yet like the first disciples, we bring our doubts to the place where Jesus promises to meet us. And this too is discipleship.

How does Jesus respond to this mixed group of worshipers and doubters? He gives them all the same commission: “Go and make disciples.” The command to “go” is what brought these disciples here to Jesus and the command to “go” is what will take these disciples out to others. One might have expected Jesus to do something else, like calling for the uncertain to get things figured out, and for the hesitant to answer their unanswered questions. But instead, Jesus simply speaks to them all in the same way, “Go and make disciples.” They are again being called into an unseen future, since there is no guarantee that anyone will listen. Nonetheless, the word is “go.”

One wonders whether this is a good idea, to have this group of disciples who do not all have their act together going out to make other disciples. Jesus might have been more selective in whom he called and sent. But apparently Jesus sees things differently. These disciples whom he tells to “go” are in no position to make themselves the object of faith. That is part of the good news. The invitation to follow Jesus.

When I was in college, a professor made some comments in one of my religion classes that prompted me to ask what he meant by the word “authority.” Perhaps it was one of those attempts by a college sophomore to press a point in a manner that sounded profound. Perhaps it reflected a genuine desire to grasp something that I had not fully understood. But the professor responded with a single word that brought a level of clarity I have never forgotten. He said, “Authority is followability.” Followability. He probably coined the word on the spot, but it did what it needed to do. True authority is what gives people the confidence to follow. And this is what Jesus says about himself.

No one can make anyone follow Jesus. What the disciples have is the word from the living Christ that continues beckoning them to follow. What the disciples have is the word from the living Christ that beckons others to follow. His promise is that “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” How does one know in advance if this is true? The answer is that no one can know in advance. But the word keeps beckoning the worshipful and the doubtful into a path of discipleship. And it is along the way that Jesus will prove his word, his presence, to be true.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 1:1—2:4a

Joseph Scrivner

It is easy to miss the wonder of a well-known biblical passage.

This is certainly the case with the opening creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:4a. Few passages have endured as much scrutiny for a variety of purposes. Yet, one must not allow familiarity to breed indifference. This account highlights God’s care for the cosmos and its human inhabitants.

Condescension
It is important to note that this is a creation account from the ancient Near East. Its ancient perspective includes the primordial presence of water, the separation of water to create a potential living space, and the location of water above and below the dividing dome (Genesis 1:2, 6-8; see Job 26:10; Psalm 104:3; 148:3).

This dome is solid and named “sky” (see “dome” in Ezekiel 1:22-26). God puts luminaries in it like lights set in a ceiling (Genesis 1:14-19). But before the lights are inserted, God commands another movement of water so that the land appears as a plane called “earth,” enclosed by the sky as a clear, concave lid (Genesis 1:9-10).

Obviously, this view of the sky and earth cannot be harmonized with present day knowledge. It is not the view properly taught in a modern science textbook for middle school. Yet, this is not a fact to be denied or belittled, despite the protest of many. Instead, it is a cause for praise as it illustrates God’s willingness to communicate with humans in terms appropriate for a particular place and time.

God inspired this description because it conveys important images about God’s fellowship with humanity, the goodness of creation, and human dignity. Yet, these images are expressed in undeniably ancient terms, not in an unattainable universal form. Thus, this text is an example of God’s accommodation for the sake of covenantal communion. This is divine condescension.

Communion
Indeed, this covenant communion is the ultimate point of this creation account. God carefully constructs a world for the sake of human flourishing. Each of the first three days prepares the space for an aspect of creation later filled in the final three days. This meticulous attention indicates creation’s importance. Repeatedly, God views creation as “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Accordingly, God creates humanity as the apex of this process. Humans are the image of God in the new habitation.1

Day 0 — Void and Vacuum (1:1-2)
Day 1 — Light (1:3-5)
Day 2 — Firmament, Waters above (1:6-8)
Day 3 — Land, Vegetation (1:9-13)
Day 4 — Lights (1:14-19)
Day 5 — Aviary and Marine Life (1:20-23)
Day 6 — Land animals, Humans, Food (1:24-31)
Day 7 — Creation Completed, Holy (2:1-3)

This importance for humanity is echoed in another text for this Sunday. Psalm 8 describes humans as a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8:3-5). Yet, we know that sometimes people do not experience life in these terms. In fact, Job turns this psalmist’s praise on its head when he pleads for relief: “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?” (Job 7:17-19).

Christ
Further, Paul tells us that sin has ensnared creation and humanity: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19). Yet, Paul also informs us that just as sin, suffering, and death entered through human agency, now forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation re-enter through the human life of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:17).

Likewise, the book of Hebrews describes Jesus Christ as the human who redeems his siblings. In fact, the writer cites Psalm 8, but now applies it to Christ: “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:8b-9).

Thus, Christ’s incarnation is the culmination of God’s condescension begun in creation. This confirms that there is no end to God’s grace. God created humans in the divine image as creation’s caretakers. Yet, when humanity proves irresponsible, God accommodates in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit’s power, human beings are called again to represent God’s mission in the world. Indeed, Christians are called to model God’s grace in their expressions of congregational communion, thereby attracting outsiders to a new identity. For the minister, this expression is encapsulated by imitating God’s condescension through the proclamation of Holy Scripture. May each sermon address its listeners where they are, calling them to a renewed life in Christ for the sake of the world.


1 For this schema of the days, see William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Wonder of Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 38-39. Brown ends the first creation account at 2:3, instead of 2:4a.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 8

Fred Gaiser

A problem with our hearing of Psalm 8, as with so many other biblical texts, may be our affluence.

Most of us are so used to being more or less well off and more or less comfortable that we have difficulty hearing the text from the margin, from the perspective of the underdog or the endangered. The result is not only confusion, but potentially destructive misuse.

The issue in Psalm 8, as in Genesis 1 to which it refers, is the relationship between humanity (us!) and the rest of creation. The psalm sings the old creation story into the present, rejoicing again in being made “little less than divine” (NJPS), which means having “dominion” over the works of God’s hands, over all creation. Creation is not merely a one-time act “in the beginning,” but an ongoing work and gift of God that makes us realize ever anew “how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

The problem, as we have heard often, is that one generation’s “dominion” becomes a later generation’s exploitation, and woe to the earth and woe to us if we think the psalms gives us license to do whatever is now in our power to ravish the earth and use up its resources. If this creational dimension of the psalm becomes a part of our preaching, we need to make people hear as clearly as possible that exploitation is not the message of Genesis 1 and not that of Psalm 8.

We live in a different world from that of these texts. When singers of the psalm looked “at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established,” they saw not the many stars and galaxies light-years away that we know from our science classes, planetariums, and telescopes, with the earth a mere speck in a minor planetary system, but the stars and the moon as fixed points on a half-dome sky, surrounding an earth that was the center of the universe, indeed, that was the universe. Even so, they were overwhelmed by the grandeur! And we? We may be all the more awed by our expanded sense of universe, giving greater praise to God, or some of us might find the notion of God quaintly irrelevant given our “greater” understanding.

Similarly, when the psalmists rejoiced in their surprising ability, under God, to bring sustenance from an unwieldy planet, they lived in a time when such “dominion” was relatively new–the ability to domesticate animals and till the soil–and the alternative was a daily hunter-gatherer existence that gave little or no time for developing culture, civilization, or even communal worship. “Praise the Lord,” they sang, “for God has blessed our humble efforts and given us life!”

But we dare not say, “Praise the Lord, for God has blessed all the assaults on the earth of which we are now capable and given us bigger and better stuff.” We too rightly rejoice in God’s blessing of our works, but, to be blessed, such works must understand “dominion” in the sense of Psalm 72, where the purpose of royal dominion (Psalm 72:8) is to “defend the cause of the poor” (verse 4) and to bring “abundance” (verse 16), “righteousness” (verse 7), and “peace” (verse 7) to all. That work is worthy of praise!

There are many potential sermons on Psalm 8, of course, as with any text. One will be to rejoice in our exercise of the responsible dominion given us by God as creatures who are “little less than divine” (a better translation than NRSV’s “a little lower than God”). Amazing! We rejoice in the gift, even as we pray for humility to bear the responsibility of exercising anything resembling god-like power over the earth. We have power, to be sure, but God-like power will abuse nothing.

Another sermon derives simply from the poetic structure of the psalm. A modern, Western reading of the psalm tends to focus on the question “What are humans that you are mindful of them?” as an outburst of existential anxiety from an “I” alone in the midst of overwhelming vastness. There might be something in that, but the structure of the psalm puts the singer in a different place. Psalm 8 has a rather clear concentric structure:

A O Lord, our Sovereign… (verse 1a)
B You have set your glory… (verses 1b-2)
C When I look… (verses 3-4)
B’ Yet, you have made… (verses 5-8)
A’ O Lord, our Sovereign (verse 9)

The A/B/C/B’/A’ structure is, in part at least, grammatical or rhetorical, comprised of sections introduced by Lord/you/I/you/Lord.

The psalm begins and ends with the outburst of congregational praise of God’s majestic name (A/A’). Within those verses comes the praise of God’s particular works (overturning foes in B; blessing humans in B’), and, at the center, the wondering awe of the poet (C). Now, instead of an isolated “me,” viewing a distant universe in existential anxiety, “I” (C) stand surrounded by the gracious and protecting works of God (B/B’) and the congregation gathered to sing God’s praise (A/A’). (This structure of the psalm could be modeled for the congregation by reading or singing it in worship in three groups: A, B, and C, corresponding to the segments of the psalm.)

Now, the answer to the singer’s question “Who am I?” question is the surprised recognition that “I’m surrounded!”–which could well be the title of a sermon on this psalm. “I’m surrounded!”–surrounded by the gracious works of God and the gathered community of God’s people. It is a good and safe place to be; a place where I am not left to my own devices to figure out who I am, but am given a place in relation to God, to God’s world, and to God’s people; a place where my identity is given (not my own project) and where I am kept safe from whatever “foes” (verses 1b-2) stand in opposition to God’s good will for me and all God’s creatures.


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Walter F. Taylor, Jr.

In what might initially appear to be “just” the conclusion to 2 Corinthians, Paul lays out in chapter 13:11-13 both a charge to unity within the church and a benediction that two millennia later begins the communion liturgy and leads to Trinitarian theology.

The most popular theory at the moment regarding the composition of 2 Corinthians is that it is composed of two originally separate documents, chapters 1-9 and chapters 10-13.  The components were written around the years 54-55.  Our passage originally wrapped up the second letter and now ends the larger document.

The history of the relationship between the Corinthians and Paul had been convoluted–one of great spiritual closeness but also sharply painful separation.  Even within 2 Corinthians their relationship alternates between confidence and charges that the Corinthians have fallen prey to false teachers.  Chapters 10-13 are prime examples of the latter relationship.

It is striking, then, that our passage begins with advice to rejoice (a better translation of chairete than the NRSV’s farewell).  That advice picks up on what Paul said in verse 9.  Not only in the midst of persecution but also in the midst of strife within the community, Paul calls on the Corinthians to rejoice (also in 1:24; 2:3; 6:10; 7:4, 13). 

He continues in rapid succession with four other imperatives, all in the present tense (and which are in the same Greek sentence as rejoice, despite the NRSV).  The present imperative indicates ongoing action.  And so they are to keep working at trying to “put things in order,” which does not mean organizing the basement but rather to “mend your ways” or “be restored.”  The Corinthian believers need to restore their relationship with God and with each other, which has been the topic of much of the letter.

They are, further, to “listen to my appeal,” or literally “exhort” or even “be exhorted.”  Just because the letter is ending does not mean that the need for mutual exhortation has ended.  Then the listeners are to “agree with one another,” literally “think the same thing,” which does not mean lock-step thinking but agreement on the basics of the faith and of their life together.  And finally, as the result of the imperatives, Paul wants them to “live in peace.”

The imperatives are followed by a benediction and promise:  “the God of love and peace will be with you.”  The word for love is the crucial word agapē.  The words “the God of love” appear in this verse for the only time in either the Greek or Hebrew Bibles (for “the God of peace” see Romans 15:33, 16:20; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23).  It is this God who will empower the Corinthians to do what Paul has outlined.

Verse 12 contains two greetings.  First, Paul directs them “to greet one another with a holy kiss” (also in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:26).  It was not unusual in Paul’s world for people to welcome each other with a kiss (but not on the lips).  That was especially so in the family, and so it is natural that in the fictive family called the church (in which believers are sisters and brothers) the kiss would be a form of greeting.  Today’s practice of “passing the peace” is rooted in it.  Second, Paul sends greetings from the believers with whom he is living, probably in northern Greece (Macedonia).  The kiss would have been especially poignant in congregations where disagreement had been so obvious.

If the preacher is facing a dividing or divided congregation, 13:11-12 provide an excellent framework for dealing head-on yet pastorally with division.  As is typical in Paul, not only does he give the imperatives, he also roots them in the God who is able to bring about peace and love.

The Sunday is also the Sunday of “The Holy Trinity,” and that is likely the reason our pericope is included, especially verse 13.  It is anachronistic to say that the verse is a Trinitarian formula in the sense of later church councils, but it is certainly a triadic formula and it provides raw data that the church’s theologians mined for the doctrine of the Trinity. 

Every phrase is theologically-loaded, and this one verse could easily be the focus of proclamation.  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” signals the unmerited love (grace) shown for us in the Christ event (2 Corinthians 8:9), and the fact that Jesus is “Lord” and “Christ” points to his role as Israel’s Messiah as well as creation’s ruler.  “The love of God” takes us back to verse 11, where the same words are in different order.  Lest we think that the Christ event is an abstract divine equation, Paul tells us that it comes out of the very love of God for humanity. 

More difficult is how to understand “the communion of the Holy Spirit.”  The prior two phrases (“of the Lord Jesus Christ” and “of God”) are both subjective genitives, that is, the grace and the love belong to Christ and God.  They are the “subjects” of the nouns they modify.  If Paul is parallel in structure, “of the Holy Spirit” would also be a subjective genitive, so that the communion or fellowship (koinōnia) belongs to the Spirit or is the gift of the Spirit. 

Some interpreters see the structure, however, as objective genitive, in which case the noun in the genitive (Holy Spirit) receives the implied action of the other noun (communion).  In that interpretation the sense is more “participation in the Holy Spirit” or “fellowship with the Holy Spirit.” Others take a good Lutheran approach–right down the middle.  Yes, the Spirit creates the Christian community, but also the fellowship given by the Spirit immediately implies participation in the Spirit (see also Philippians 2:1).

Genitives aside, verse 13 provides ample opportunity to rehearse the history of salvation:  Christ who brought grace, God who loves, and the Spirit that creates the church and in whom believers live and serve.

Not bad for three verses!