Lectionary Commentaries for May 30, 2010
The Holy Trinity

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 16:12-15

Sarah Henrich

There is always a degree of finagling that goes on when any biblical text is called upon to support a doctrine or understanding of the church.

When that doctrine, in this case a way of understanding God, is as complex and counter intuitive as the Trinity, much is demanded of the preacher’s ingenuity. And when a complex doctrine, the Trinity, is little thought about by those in the pews, striving to be succinct, clear, evocative, and scriptural, creates considerable difficulty.

That reality having been described let us dig into this short text from John’s gospel with some hope that we preachers may be inspired and inspiring.

In this passage Jesus continues the farewell speech that extends from 13:31-17:26, with only a few strategic interruptions from the eleven who remained with Jesus after Judas had gone out from the group gathered for the last supper. The questions from the disciples (Simon Peter in 13:36-37; Thomas in 14:5; Philip in 14:8; the disciples in 16:17-18; the disciples in 16:28-30) not only provide literary impetus for Jesus to speak, but suggest questions in the hearts and minds of all disciples since they seek to understand their Lord and their lives. “Where are you going?” (13:36) “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5) “Lord, show us the father.” (14:8) Jesus speaks words of promise and reassurance to the confused and frightened followers. Among those words are those we hear from Holy Trinity Sunday.

These four verses are loaded with the vocabulary of speaking and announcing (six times). It is safe to say that Jesus is passionately interested in communication in these verses, more exactly, reliable communication of truth for the sake of guidance (verse 13). He has already promised the eleven that the “Advocate,” the Holy Spirit” would come from the Father after his own departure (see 14:25; 15:26; 16:7). He has already pointed out that he must “leave” for the Advocate to come, that it will be much to the advantage of disciples that the Advocate should come (16:7) for finally the truth about sin and righteousness will be made clear. Jesus’ disciples are to trust the Advocate, also called the Holy Spirit, and spirit of truth because the coming Advocate comes from the Father (“another Advocate, 14:16) and will remain forever because the Advocate will testify to Jesus (15:26). So many repetitions of the promised one, the Spirit who is to come, help us hear that Father, Advocate/Spirit, and Jesus will all speak the same truth about relationship with God.

This is perhaps the most important power in affirming the Trinity—that the witness of Jesus is a true witness to the power and will, the glory in a word, of the Father. The witness of the Advocate that comes after Jesus will speak the same truth. The Holy Spirit is a reliable leader in the way of truth, precisely because the Spirit witnesses to Jesus who shares all things with the Father. The Trinity helps the disciples in John and in our assemblies trust that we have indeed seen the Father and can continue to see the Father in our own time and place.

What seems to me both provocative and liberating in Jesus’ promise is that he begins by telling the eleven that there are still many things, not just a few, but many things, which he has to say, but that his hearers are simply “not able to bear them” at that time.  There is a definite sense that speaking, even of the deepest truths, depends on circumstance, the spirit of one’s hearers, and purpose.  John makes this clear in Jesus’ speech in chapter 16.

  • In 16:1 Jesus declares that he has “said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.” He cites the growing intensity of opposition to Jesus and the kind of harassment or peril to which his followers will be subjected. To help in such difficult times, he has “said these things.”
  • In 16:4b, he reminds his disciples that he “did not say these things to you from the beginning because I was with you.” But the times have changed. Jesus has declared that he must part from his followers and in their sadness he has added new words of a promised Advocate who will attend them.
  • In 16:12, Jesus declares that he does not have enough time to say all that he would like to his followers and they do not have the ability to hear it. Again, the promise of a future with the reliable witness of the Advocate is declared to them. “It will be just like having me around,” Jesus might as well be saying.

This is good news for the disciples. Even though they do not fully understand Jesus, as John makes clear in 16:17-18, the last line of which is “we don’t know what he is talking about,” reflection for them and for us can lead to encouragement in tough times, times of sadness, and times of confusion.

The future is open. It requires our discernment, our listening, watching for, and trusting that God will continue to reveal Godself through the Spirit of Truth. We, along with the eleven, can trust that the God Jesus has shown us is the God still at work for our illumination and strength to persist. We dare to humbly acknowledge that there may still be truths that we are not able to bear, and that God accompanies us along the way.

We may say with the eleven that we do not understand. But God’s sending of the Spirit of Truth is not dependent on our understanding. The spirit will not be taken away from us in the times we are least able to trust, understand, or persevere. For Father, Son, and Spirit of Truth witness to one truth, all of which we cannot see, but all of which we dare to trust is God at work for us, revealing righteousness here and preparing a place suitable for each and all of us in the fullness of God’s reign.


First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Amy Erickson

A Facebook friend recently posted an article on parenting entitled, “Good Parents, Bad Results: 8 Ways Science Shows that Mom and Dad Go Wrong When Disciplining Their Kids.”

As a mother of a five-year-old, I quickly clicked on the link to learn what motivates children to behave. Apparently yelling, reasoning with, and punishing children have absolutely no positive impact on their behavior. Instead, the “evidence-based” research indicates that a parent’s best bet is to “praise effusively, with the enthusiasm of a Powerball winner.”1 It strikes me that Woman Wisdom’s approach to raising children is similar. The lectionary text for this week features Woman Wisdom enthusiastically praising God, creation, and humanity. 

One of my struggles with the text — and, I suppose, with parenting! — has to do with ethics and justice. In Proverbs 8, Woman Wisdom looks at the world and sees only the good. She does not speak with the voice of a prophet, condemning those who oppress and ignore the poor and the needy. She does not lament suffering, disease, war, violence, and apathy. She does not protest God’s apparent lack of interest in subduing the forces of evil and chaos that threaten to overcome the world. Instead she looks at humanity, the world, and God, and she delights in them all.

To appreciate the nature of Woman Wisdom’s praise, one must attend to the Hebrew Bible’s interest in wisdom in general. In the Hebrew Bible, to seek wisdom is to seek knowledge and understanding of the world and life because the world is permeated with God’s wisdom. That process of discovering God’s embedded wisdom in the world is crucial for the shaping of a good human life. By examining the workings of the world and reflecting on one’s experience in and of it, one is able to discern the will and desire of God more clearly.

Seeking wisdom is not, however, a purely intellectual exercise. In Proverbs 8, the holistic and relational qualities of wisdom are illustrated, in part, by the personification of wisdom as a human woman. Wisdom does not lie passively waiting to be discovered by scholars or philosophers. Instead, Wisdom calls out to “all that live” from the heights (8:2), then from the ways and the crossroads (8:2) until she makes her way to the gates where the people are gathered (8:3). Wisdom is not content to address the people from on high; she is not inaccessible or only for those who have the proper credentials or education. Instead, she walks directly into the people’s midst and styles herself in terms accessible and desirable to all (8:4-21).

In verses 22-31, we learn of this Woman Wisdom’s origins. It may surprise us to learn that there was someone else with God at the time of creation — a woman someone, no less. Those of us familiar with the creation accounts in Genesis might ask, “Where on earth did she come from?”

It may be that this text explores and fleshes out nascent images of God engaging others in acts of creation seen elsewhere in creation texts. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us create humankind in our image – male and female.” Perhaps Proverbs 8 is like a midrash on Genesis 1:26, seeking to supply the voice of the one whose image resulted in the female half of humankind. Perhaps God’s desire to engage the man in the creative process, as God sought to create a proper partner for him, is here given fuller expression. Proverbs 8 may elaborate the divine inkling, evident in Genesis 2, to create, not by fiat as a single all-powerful being, but in a dynamic way that seeks creature’s response and participation. This emphasizes the connectedness and cooperation of the creator. Proverbs 8 stresses that God did not create the world in isolation.

By placing her with God at the beginning, the text is surely interested in establishing wisdom’s authority to speak. However, what this poem also communicates is that wisdom was present with God at the beginning of creation, and she continues to be present not only with God but with humanity. Woman Wisdom represents God’s desire to continue to delight in, interact with, and renew God’s creation. By calling all people to seek her, Woman Wisdom offers humanity access to the living God. She is at once the embodiment of God’s delight in the world and a dynamic portal to the creating God.

Could viewing the world as good and seeking the divine in all aspects of life have negative consequences? Could it lead one to conclude that when evil things happen in the world, it is “God’s will”? It is crucial to emphasize that wisdom is always provisional. That wisdom is dynamic and ever-changing is evident in the fact that wisdom is personified as a living, breathing human being. Like a human woman, who grows and changes and is different in different places at different times, wisdom cannot be pinned down or spoken of in absolute terms. The person who pursues wisdom knows that pursuit must be grounded in humility and fear of the Lord. The wise person knows that she will not always be able to perceive God’s will and work in the workings of the world. The wise person also knows that God’s creation is on-going; it is not perfect and complete for all time. Evil persists, and God is opposed to it. As Woman Wisdom says in Proverbs 8:13, “fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.”

Through Woman Wisdom, God expresses the enthusiasm of a Powerball winner for humanity. In inviting all humans to join her in her dance of delight, Wisdom invites humanity to engage in a joyful search for God’s dynamic presence through and in the world. God willing, the process of seeking the divine in the world and in each other just might drive out some of the darkness.


1Nancy Shute, “Good Parents, Bad Results: 8 Ways Science Shows that Mom and Dad Go Wrong When Disciplining Their Kids,” U.S. News and World Report, June 2, 2008.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 8

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

“Are We Alone?” asks the December 2009 issue of National Geographic, against the backdrop of a sky billowing with stars.

“Searching the Heavens for Another Earth,” reads the subtitle, and the article within details the scientific search for Earth-like planets outside our solar system, planets that might be able to sustain life.

The psalmist of Psalm 8 stands under the same sky ablaze with stars and asks a different, but related, question: “What are human beings?”

Keenly aware of God’s presence, the psalmist does not wonder whether humanity is alone. He or she wonders instead how the God who created the heavens and set the stars in their courses could have any regard at all for mere human beings: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

Confronted with the vastness of the night sky, the psalmist knows his or her own insignificance. How much more should we wonder at our place in the world, we who have delved into some of the mysteries of that sky? The magnitude of the Milky Way galaxy, let alone the universe, boggles the mind. To take a smaller example, if one were to scale down the size of the Solar System so that the Sun was the size of a tennis ball, the Earth would be the size of a grain of sand about 27 feet away. And the next nearest star to the Sun would be more than 1400 miles away! The Milky Way itself is 100,000 light years across, and is only one of billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars!

“What are human beings?” Faced with such knowledge of the vastness of the universe, the answer must be, “less than insignificant.” Or, as one of Job’s erstwhile friends puts it, humanity is “a maggot…a worm!” (Job 25:6).

The psalmist, however, gives no such answer to the question. Instead, he writes, “Yet you have made them a little lower than God (or ‘the gods’/’the heavenly beings’), and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands.”

Like the writer of Genesis 1, the psalmist proclaims the likeness of humanity to the divine. Though the language of “imago Dei” is not used explicitly here, the psalm trades on the same sort of anthropology: Humanity is given a place in the cosmos only a little lower than the divine beings. Moreover, humanity is given dominion over the rest of the works of God’s hands: animals, domestic and wild, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, even “whatever passes along the paths of the sea”; that is, the great sea creatures of legend and lore. God has placed “all things under their [humanity’s] feet,” an idiom used in the ancient Near East to describe the rule of kings.

It is a bold statement, perhaps even a dangerous one in our time and place, when we know the effects of exploitative human “dominion” on this rare and beautiful planet. To guard against a distorted or dangerous reading, the preacher, it seems to me, should emphasize two things about this psalm.

First, though the psalm espouses a high view of humanity, it begins and ends with praise of God: “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Such praise puts into perspective where honor is due. We are made in God’s image. We are given a very exalted place, indeed. But we are not God. Our proper duty is to praise the Creator. It is just such a sentiment that may lie behind the obscure language of verse 2: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark [literally, ‘strength’] because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.” The Septuagint reads “praise” instead of “strength.” In other words, praise of God guards against evil. The praise even of infants exalts God and silences the enemy. “So long as they sing, the chaos is silenced, the meaninglessness repulsed.”1  Praise is our proper duty.

Second, with “dominion” comes great responsibility. If we are indeed made in God’s image, or (to use an image more pertinent to the psalm) if we are God’s viceroys, then surely we are to rule as God rules; that is, not as those who exploit and ravage the earth, but as caretakers, as stewards, as ones who will live for the rest of creation.

The same creatures over whom we are given dominion in Psalm 8 are listed in Psalm 148 as those called upon to praise the LORD! Wild and domestic animals, sea creatures, birds, all are exhorted to sing “hallelujah,” along with sun, moon, and stars, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, and people of every age and social station. Praise of God, the Creator, is not only the proper duty of human beings, but also the proper duty of every created being! But we have interfered with that praise. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” says Psalm 19:1, but not as clearly when they are filled with smog. When we interfere with the ability of creation to praise its Maker, we sin against Creator and creature alike.

“What are human beings?” The composer of Psalm 8 gazes at the vast night sky ablaze with stars, and feels an altogether proper humility. The psalmist also, however, knows the special regard God has for humanity and the great responsibility God gives humanity. Such knowledge of the place of humanity in creation leads to praise of the Creator: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Such praise of the God who sets the stars in their courses should be the starting and ending point also for the sermon based on Psalm 8.


1John Eaton, The Psalms (New York: Continuum, 2005), 81.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 5:1-5

Beverly Gaventa

Trinity Sunday presents preachers with significant challenges.

Reference to the Trinity is itself enough to cause the eyes of many contemporary Christians to glaze over with befuddlement as they wonder where such a concept came from, why it continues to be important, and what it could possibly have to do with them. Attempts to explain too much in too little time can yield leaden, didactic sermons that sink right to the sanctuary floor.

The texts assigned for Trinity Sunday do not necessarily simplify the preaching task. However much they point toward the development of the church’s teaching, they do not easily lend themselves to a contemporary illumination of the unity of and distinction among the three Persons. Yet sustained reflection on these texts may yield a word about the Trinity that is also a word on target for the present.

Romans 5:1-5 is a highly compressed text, in which almost every word presupposes the argument that comes before or anticipates what will follow. “Justified by faith” looks back to Paul’s claims in 3:21-26 that it is Jesus’ faithful death that liberates humankind from the grasp of power of Sin. The “hope” of God’s glory introduces the discussion of hope that will return in a powerful way at the end of Chapter 8. What is best known in this passage is perhaps the crescendo (the stair step argument) of verses 3-4, where Paul moves from suffering to endurance to character to hope. Much here is important homiletically, but for the purposes of Trinity Sunday we look at what is said of each Person and then at how Paul’s comments come together.

Of the first Person of the Trinity, Paul writes “we have peace with God.” (As the note in the NRSV indicates, there are manuscripts that read, “let us have peace,” but even if that is the earlier reading, it is clear that peace with God comes about by God’s initiative, not human achievement.) While this expression is often passed by rather quickly, it is provocative. If “we have peace” with God, then Paul seems to suggest that the opposite situation is possible, the situation of not being at peace with God. Just a little further on, verse 10 says that “we” were once God’s “enemies.” The enmity exists, not just because human beings themselves acted badly toward God, but because they were captives to the other side of a conflict, slaves of Sin and Death (as becomes clear in the remainder of Romans 5 and in Romans 6).

Verse 2 refers to the glory of God. The NRSV translates, “we boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God,” but the Greek says nothing of “sharing” God’s glory. Instead, as in the Old Testament, God’s glory is God’s presence as in Exodus 24:16; 40:34; Psalm 56:6 (to take just a few examples). It can even refer to God’s triumphing presence in the face of God’s enemies (as it does, for instance, in Exodus 15:6-8; Isaiah 2:10). That connotation of triumph is not far from Romans, especially in 8:31-39, where Paul dramatically insists God is “for us,” so that the opposition of a whole host of enemies will come to nothing.

Verse 5 speaks of God’s love being “poured into our hearts,” a statement that can be read as nothing more than sentimental effusion. Given the larger argument of Romans, however, which focuses on God’s powerful deliverance of humanity from powers of Sin and Death, God “love” is something more like the fierce love of a parent determined on rescuing a child in trouble than a romantic valentine trimmed with hearts and flowers.

The second Person of the Trinity is mentioned only once in this passage, when Paul writes in verse 1 “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The context allows us to fill out what is meant by “through.” The end of chapter 4, which leaps from Abraham to the present, identifies Jesus as the one who was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” The remainder of chapter 5 unpacks both statements. Jesus’ death is the means of humanity’s reconciliation with God (verses 6-11) and indeed, the means of overturning Adam’s disastrous disobedience (verses 12-21).

The Holy Spirit also is referred to only once here, the first explicit reference in the letter. The Spirit is the agent through whom God’s love is poured into human hearts, and the Spirit itself is given to human beings (verse 5). This brief comment will be expanded upon in chapter 8, with its passionate claims about the Spirit’s work of intervening on “our” behalf as we stumble even to pray.

Not surprisingly, these comments reveal little that can be employed to understand the Trinity in and of itself (that is, the ontological Trinity). The notion would probably have been strange to Paul, who is far more concerned with God’s actions than with describing God’s essence. Instead, what the passage provides are glimpses of the ways in which God, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit interact with one another and act on behalf of “us” (without any particular worry about naming the “we,” although see 4:24). Peace with God comes about through Jesus Christ. God’s love is poured out into human hearts through the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is given “for us,” presumably the Spirit is given by God. All of these actions of the Triune God are actions on behalf of humankind.

We can take that a step further if we allow ourselves a peek at what follows in verses 6-11 (and the rest of the letter). The Trinity’s actions on behalf of humankind take place because we cannot act on our own behalf (“while we were still weak,” verse 6). Our need is such that only God in three Persons can redeem us. Here, proclamation of the Trinity becomes provocative, since 21st century Christians remain convinced that “we” can help ourselves, that “we” have no need of assistance from God or anyone else.