Lectionary Commentaries for June 3, 2012
The Holy Trinity

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:1-17

Meda Stamper

Most people know John 3:16, but a great many may not associate it with Nicodemus.

John in particular among the gospels seems liable to have its verses taken and cherished out of their literary context.

Read against the backdrop of Nicodemus’ nighttime visit, John 3:16 becomes the culmination of the response to him and people like him, and perhaps like us, who believe they know Jesus and who come to him not to be turned upside down by his holy newness but to have their understanding affirmed and settled.  Read in its entirety the passage becomes about realizing that rather than our faith resting on our knowledge and love, it is, in the first place, we who are known and loved by God, drawn into a mystery that is beyond our understanding and our wisdom.

The connection between Nicodemus and John 3:16 may not seem immediately evident.  That is in part because the conversation is so confusing to Nicodemus that the reader is swept into some of that feeling with him.  But it is not so strange that a conversation about birth, to which there are eight references in six verses, should end in a statement about life.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night.  In John where the life is the light of all people (1:4) and night will fall as the betrayer leaves the table (13:30), the nighttime setting of Nicodemus’ appearance helps to suggest that he is among those to whom Jesus does not entrust himself in the verses immediately preceding these.  He comes in darkness and does not ask Jesus who he is, but tells him what “we know” on the basis of Jesus’ signs, which seem not to offer the firmest foundation for belief (2:23-25). 

Jesus immediately begins to undo Nicodemus’ certainty.  No one can see anything clearly about God and God’s kingdom, Jesus tells him, without being born from above. 

Above and below are directional signifiers for alternative worldviews, alternative lives even, in John.  Unless a person is born into the worldview of God, that person cannot see the kingdom or, Jesus goes on to say, enter it.  There has already been a reference to this birth into God in 1:13.  God’s life comes into the world’s dark unknowing in 1:1-14, and the same happens here.

The passage is marked by spiraling repetition and the presence of doubles entendres, both typical of John, where words are picked up and repeated with their meaning developed and deepened in the repetition and where misunderstandings move the dialogue forward.

Jesus picks up on words and concepts introduced by Nicodemus and turns the conversation toward deeper truths again and again (see, for example, the repetition of God, enter, and being born).  With each repetition Jesus shifts the conversation from the smallness of Nicodemus’ view to the largeness of life in God, from the signs on which Nicodemus and others base their hope to the invisible mystery of the Spirit/wind (the two words are the same in Greek), which can give him birth into the truth that he is missing.

The phrase from above is a translation of a single word in Greek (a!nwqen).  The word also appears in 3:31 (“The one who comes from above is above all.”), in 19:11 (“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”), and in 19:23 (“The tunic was woven in one piece from the top.”).  The word can also mean simply again, and Nicodemus hears only this.  So Jesus elaborates on this birth from above; it is a birth of water and Spirit.

The association with water in verse 5 will be picked up again in 4:10-14 and in 7:37-39 but might also remind us of the descent of the Spirit in 1:32.  Spirit then is placed over against flesh in verse 6.  These are not two parts of the human person, not body versus soul, but two perspectives from which the complete person, body and soul, can live.  Birth from above into a life in which God’s kingdom is visible and accessible places the whole person in a new light, which Nicodemus, who has not experienced it, cannot see or understand. 

It is unclear whether (and, if so, when) there is a shift in the passage from Jesus’ speech to the narrator’s.  There is in any case a movement beyond this particular dialogue to a broader discourse, which draws in the whole future “we” of Jesus’ community of followers and their “testimony.”  The passage moves from the attempts at earthly analogies, which Nicodemus failed to understand, to the purely heavenly perspective of the one who has descended from there in the incarnation and will ascend there again in his glorification, which brings the passage to the great lifting up of the Son on the cross.

This is the first use of the term lifted up to refer to the crucifixion in John.  It occurs again in 8:28 and 12:32-34 (corresponding perhaps to the threefold passion prediction in the Synoptics).  The cross in John forms part of Jesus’ glorification and so is both his exaltation and his lifting up to death.

Finally we reach the verse that shines like a beacon over the whole Gospel.  John 3:16 brings together the Gospel’s first references to eternal life and to love.  Love appears again with reference to the Father’s love for the Son in 3:35; in fact, 3:31-36 reiterates and develops many of the ideas from our passage.  This first reference to love in 3:16 is, perhaps surprisingly, not for the Son or for Jesus’ followers, but for the world. 

The world has already made an appearance in 1:9-10, and there as here it is cloaked in darkness.  But God’s intention for the dark, confused world is not condemnation, even when it lifts up the Son.  On the contrary, in that moment especially the Son will be the savior of the very world that does not know him.

When we become too sure of what we know about Jesus (or indeed the Trinity on this particular Sunday), when we believe that we have grasped him at last, that is when we can perhaps expect to be undone like Nicodemus.  That undoing — that overturning of our certainty — may be a very good thing if it allows us to experience anew the miracle of our birth from above into eternal life, which has nothing to do with what we know or what we are (any more than our birth from our mother’s womb did).  It is a gift of life from the heart of the Father, breathing the Spirit wind over us and through us, and opening our infant eyes to the Son, our Teacher, lifted up to draw all people to himself and his lesson of love.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8

Melinda Quivik

Holy Trinity Sunday is the First Sunday after Pentecost, ushering in the season when the church hears about Jesus’ ministry and then about the church’s own ministry.

This day focuses on the doctrine of the triune God, a practice begun in the Western church in the 10th century. The sermon on this day is, in essence, given a theme that challenges the preacher to let the readings articulate how we are to understand the Holy Three who are also the Holy One.

None of the readings lays out in explicit terms the trinitarian divine structure, but it is inferred. The preaching on this Sunday is difficult because a doctrine is an abstraction, but also vital for the church’s faith because the relations between the members of the Trinity constitute a crucial way to understand not only God but God’s involvement in the life of the world.

The preacher can use the imagery of this text to draw out the elements that accompany God’s presence. (In fact, this text might invite a simple, expository sermon structure.) Standing in the holy sanctuary, the narrator has a vision which tells something about the Holy One and also about the narrator. God’s presence is so large, the narrator says, the hem of the Lord’s robe alone fills the temple space. This is vastness. Strange but faithful creatures envelop the throne. Smoke obscures the whole scene. We are used to the images of fire and smoke, cloud and height being associated with God. It is all here. And, in comparison with that grandeur, we see ourselves, along with the narrator, as puny and inadequate. But God’s power to cleanse and make whole is ready to do its work.

The vision is one of grandeur that lies outside the scope of normal human experience, and yet it is described as happening at a specific historical time, namely, when King Uzziah died in 8th century BCE, the time of the prophets Amos and Hosea. Uzziah was admired for having enhanced the kingdom’s agriculture with new wells and watchtowers in the wilderness, and he built up the army. When he contracted leprosy, he had to turn his rule over to his son, Jotham. The image of the Lord of hosts is, thus, planted in history, conjoining the palpable and the unbelievable. As a doctrine, the Trinity is deeply entwined with our lives. It is not simply an abstraction!

Faced with ultimate majesty, the narrator is brought to a realization about his own lack. He has “unclean lips” which signifies his inability to stand before the Holy One. The purity codes of the ancients are foremost in his thought. He must be purified by another agent; in this case, a seraph who touches his mouth with a coal from the altar. The purification, it must be said, is not something the narrator can do for himself. Christians do not need to shy away from noticing imagistic relationships between the coal on the altar touching the lips and the bread on the table where Christ is the host taken into the mouth. The result, in both cases, is forgiveness.

As a call narrative, this is a unique text in that the narrator (the prophet), rather than being “called” by God to serve, volunteers to be the one sent. We note, however, that the offering of the self is made only after the purification has occurred. Once made clean, the narrator stands in a position from which it is acceptable to respond to the holy call.

Please note: This Isaiah 6 reading contains important liturgical language: the sanctus. The song is an acclamation from the congregation honoring the presence of the Lord. The presider has just said, “The Lord be with you… lift up your hearts… let us give thanks…” and then prayed a prayer of acknowledgment (the Preface) for what God has done in language that calls up the time of the church year.

On Holy Trinity Sunday, the Preface speaks of God’s revealing “the glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: equal in majesty, undivided in splendor, one Lord, one God, ever to be adored…” which orients the assembly to the day and names the Trinity. In response to that naming, the people sing the words also given to the seraphs flying around the Lord’s throne in this vision, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (verse 3).1 By singing the seraphs’ own song, the assembly is imaged as surrounding the throne of God.

This is, of course, exactly what the assembly is doing at worship: standing before, beside, or around the signs of God’s grace. We honor the enormity of God’s power in the language of Isaiah’s vision however we sing. The singing may be accompanied by organ, orchestra, simple instruments, or we may sing with only voices, a capella which means “in the manner of the church.” We may sing many different tunes. Evangelical Lutheran Worship contains at least 17 versions of this hymn — one in each of the ten settings and as hymns #189-193, 413, and 762.

While this vision is, on the surface, at least, a prophet’s call narrative, its reach moves far beyond an individual prophet. The doctrinal focus of the day — the trinitarian construct — serves to place the identity and energy of the Holy Three at the heart of the preacher’s exegesis. In the end, the sermon will have to contend with the three legs of the trinitarian stool — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — or, in Augustine’s construction: Love, Beloved, and Lover. By any names, the Trinity needs all three legs lest the stool be found unable to stand.

The Isaiah reading anchors our vision of the Trinity with Isaiah’s, set on the Lord of hosts and the throne of vast and awesome might.


1Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 117. Kaiser’s translation is: “his glory is the fullness of the whole earth” which offers a nuanced view of the relationship between God’s glory and creation itself.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

Cameron B.R. Howard

Though it is impossible to know what tune accompanied Psalm 29 in its original recitations, the rhythms of its many repeated phrases convey a sense of musicality on their own.

Repetition remains an effective musical and poetic device today, in sacred and secular contexts alike.

Michael Jackson’s classic pop song “Beat It” has several verses, but even though I can hum the whole tune, the only words I can ever remember are, “Beat it, just beat it….” Those words are repeated throughout the song in both verses and refrains; their frequency and their rhythm make them especially memorable, even when all the other words recede from my consciousness.

In a similar way, Psalm 29 is punctuated by prominent, memorable repetitions that emphasize the main ideas of the poem, ideas that stick with us even if the details fade away. The style of these repetitions, along with thematic similarities to Canaanite poetry, provides evidence to many scholars of the antiquity of this psalm, possibly one of the oldest in the Bible. Even more so, though, the repetitions remind us modern readers of the musical roots of these prayers. Each duplication of a particular phrase serves as a mini-refrain, a catchy lyric that helps us remember the “tune.” 

The psalm divides neatly into three sections, each with its own key repeated phrase that summarizes the main idea of the section. 

Verses 1-2. “Ascribe to the Lord”: No heavenly being is more glorious than the Lord. Verses 1 and 2 are governed by imperatives directed toward the “heavenly beings,” literally “sons of gods.” In the polytheistic context of the ancient Near East, it was common for religious literature to assert the superiority of one group or region’s favored deity over other gods and goddesses. The psalmist borrows this strategy, taunting other heavenly beings to worship the Lord as the strongest and most glorious deity.

When English translations use “LORD” in capitalized letters, the Hebrew text uses the tetragrammaton, the name of God, rather than the more generic term “God,” represented in Hebrew by “Elohim.” In nearly every line of Psalm 29, the name of God appears. This preponderant usage of “Lord” especially makes sense when we consider that the psalmist is naming this particular God as superior to any other claims. God’s name runs like a red thread through the center of the poem, tying together each of these three sections. 

Verses 3-9. “The voice of the Lord”: God controls creation. The bulk of the psalm consists of declarations of the might of the voice of the Lord. Three powerful elements of creation — waters, woods, and fire — are pitted against the voice (or, translated more generically, “sound”) of the Lord. God is unmatched by the might of any of them.

In Canaanite religion the god Baal was envisioned as a storm-god, a “cloud-rider,” and this psalm is clearly indebted to that description. The images of power and destruction here recall post-tornado landscapes that we see all-too-often in the news: the cedars break, fires rage, the wilderness shakes, the oaks whirl. In this psalm we are not, however, to see God as the cause of such destructive natural forces; rather, in order to understand the totality of God’s power, we observe the world around us. When we have noted the most powerful forces we can see, we know: the voice of the LORD is all of this together, yet even more.

God’s power as manifested in the confrontations with elements of creation in verses 3-9 goes hand-in-hand with God’s dominion. Not only is God as powerful as all of these; God controls all these. The “voice of the LORD” stanzas provide evidence for why God should be praised. At the end of verse 9, then, having been presented with this evidence, there is nothing left but for all in God’s temple to say, “Glory,” just as verses 1-2 have implored.

Verses 10-11: “The LORD sits enthroned”: God is king.

The idea of God as king encompasses, particularly in the ancient context, the pinnacle of power and might. Just as earthly power-plays leave one ruler besting the rest, so, too, is God superior to any other claim to authority on earth or in the heavens. The Lord’s subjects — that is, those who worship God and recognize his supreme authority — look forward to God’s benevolent rule.
In the context of Trinity Sunday, Psalm 29 can serve as a meditation on the first person of the Trinity: God as creator, sovereign, king.

The appointed Old Testament reading for the day, Isaiah 6:1-8, is a dramatic description of just the kind of worship scene that the opening lines of Psalm 29 imagine. The seraphim cry out with their own three-fold repetition, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). God, enthroned, is worshiped by heavenly beings who ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name.

Even without music, the musicality of this psalm, underscored by the poetic technique of repetition throughout, helps us hear the psalm’s main theme: God’s glory and majesty are unmatched on earth or in the heavens. We human beings, along with the universe in its entirety, are subjects of the sovereign Lord.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:12-17

Audrey West

The Apostle Paul does not explain the Trinity — how God is three-in-one and one-in-three — and no systematic explanation is to be found in the other biblical writers, either.

Although the passage does use Trinitarian language — mentioning Father, Son, and Spirit — its focus lies not on doctrinal explications or intellectual precision but on the action of God as experienced by the people of God.

On this Sunday celebration of the Holy Trinity, the preacher would be wise to follow Paul’s example and leave Trinitarian explanations aside in favor of the proclamation of the good news into the nitty-gritty realities of life.

The specific notes of good news will differ depending on the preaching context, but the melody that plays throughout this passage represents multiple variations on a theme: through the power of the Holy Spirit God can change your life.

Starting in the Middle

The assigned pericope begins in the middle of an extended argument. It is as if we have entered the classroom after the morning bell and we are trying to make sense of what the teacher is dis-cussing. Whatever the topic, it is closely connected to something that has been said previously:  “So then,” writes Paul. So then. These opening words suggest that what follows is a conclusion or outcome to whatever has been laid out prior to our hearing. 

What Paul has described is a fundamental dilemma facing humankind. The power of sin, dwell-ing within us, prevents us from doing what is good and right despite our best intentions (7:14-25).

Paul asserts that the solution to this human dilemma is the indwelling power of the Spirit (8:1-11). “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (8:11). Again, although the language is thoroughly Trinitarian, it points not to doctrinal under-standing but to the real, life-giving power of God.   

A Dilemma

However we name sin’s power to overwhelm — whether with traditional lists such as the seven deadly sins or with reference to sin’s systemic manifestation through, e.g., sexism, racism, and classism — Paul’s words remind us that many people living among us, perhaps including our-selves, feel powerless against the clutches of sin. Others do not realize how thoroughly trapped they are in the grip of such forces.  The preacher may want to spend enough time on this topic to bring it to the surface of people’s awareness before moving on to the periscope’s main focus: God’s desire that we receive the true life that God so willingly offers to all.

To Life

Life is yours! That is a powerful promise, affirmed many times through Paul’s letters and again in our passage: if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (8:13). The resurrection is promised not for Jesus alone, but for all the brothers and sisters who are in Christ. No one is so dead in sin that the power of God cannot bring that person back to fullness of life. 

God’s power is for all in the gathered community who face death-dealing forces in their lives. In the midst of all the ways we might feel trapped — unable to see a way out, weighed down by thoughts, feelings, or circumstances beyond our power to control — Paul invites us to receive the Spirit of God as earnestly and completely as the Spirit of God receives us. 

Children of God

The life-giving power of God is active in several ways. Most notably, perhaps, that power makes it possible for us to receive life through our adoption as children of God.

Adoption into God’s family is the work of the Spirit: it is the Spirit that leads us (8:14) that bears witness with us when we cry, “Abba! Father!” (8:15-16), that dwells within us (8:11). Elsewhere in Romans we learn that this Spirit intercedes when words fail us, “with sighs too deep for words.” (8:26). It is the same Spirit through which the love of God is poured into our hearts (5:5). 

As loving adoptive parents everywhere will attest, children who enter the family by the miracle of adoption are every bit as beloved — and every bit “family” — as those who are born to the par-ents in the old-fashioned way.  God makes it possible for the family of God to encompass all of us. 

Joint-Heirs with Christ

At a recent family gathering, my nine-year-old niece cried to her mother, “I wish I was adopted, like my cousins. Then we’d have more in common with each other.” Her lament may surprise some of us, but it reflects a very human concern for belonging and identity. My niece is looking for something in common with children who seem to be quite different from her. She wants to know that she fits in with the rest of the family.

The good news of our pericope is that all God’s children, adopted into the family of God, share together as common heirs of God. Further, the identity we share with one another as children of God is shared also with God’s own Son. This is more obvious in the Greek of Romans 8:14, where “children” derives from the Greek huioi (“sons”). 

Christ is a joint heir with us; he suffers and is glorified, and we suffer and are glorified right along with him. What happens to Christ (resurrection life), happens to us; the glory that is Christ’s (God’s son), belongs to us as well (God’s children).

A Trio of Dualisms

Paul’s argument trades on oppositions between death/life, flesh/spirit, slavery/adoption. Death, flesh and slavery stand on one side, with life, spirit and adoption on the other. On any given Sunday, any member of our congregations or any visitor who walks through the church’s doors may feel trapped and dead, outside of the realm of God. Or they may feel alive and free in Christ. It is the preacher’s task and joy to ensure that the fullness of Paul’s gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to everyone in the room.1  


1I am grateful to the Rev. Dr. Frank Crouch, Dean of Moravian Theological Seminary, whose reflections on this lectionary passage have influenced portions of this essay.