Lectionary Commentaries for May 30, 2021
The Holy Trinity

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:1-17

Cláudio Carvalhaes

Dear Nicodemus, 

I have a deep admiration for you. I don’t know much about you but it seems to me you have a good heart. Surely you are a religious leader and a wise man. I write 2,000 years after you had this conversation with Jesus. I am a Christian which means I follow that precious Jew you were talking to that night. I hope you would laugh if you heard all of the ways many Christians talk about this conversation you had with Jesus. Often we hear how much you didn’t get from Jesus’ message, how you didn’t know this, how you were afraid and had to hide to talk to Jesus, how you needed to learn something or were confusing things, not quite getting what is necessary to know. Especially because of your own position as a religious leader, we judge that you should definitely know better about key things in that conversation. We all think that we are as clever as Jesus was! 

I must confess I really admire that you went to see Jesus during the night; if it was because you were embarrassed or afraid of what other people would say, you are just like any of us. I’ve done that too, going to people to ask things that I should know better. The other day I went to my student Moses, a Dalit from India, and asked all of the most obvious questions about India, the Dalits and the caste system. Some questions were even rude or stupid. But I trusted him and he was so generous with me. He taught me so much! Perhaps when I left he was saying to himself: “I thought my adviser knew better.” 

Moreover, you were very humble calling Jesus a rabbi, even when Jesus was a very controversial and disputed figure in your time. You honored Jesus! Also the questions you asked were so good! This is surely a sign of your wisdom and humble attitude. 

Your questions helped us understand Jesus better. Your concern about being born and belonging have been fundamental to Christian spiritual-material life. Here is my take on your conversation with Jesus: our birth is as much a spiritual event as it is a material one, for there is no distinction between these two realms, right? The same way that above and below are also distinctive parts of the same reality, one is not more important than the other since they complement each other. In the same way, our mothers’ wombs carry both the Spirit of life and the Waters of life. For Christians, without water there is no material birth or spiritual rebirth. Flesh and Spirit are woven into the same body, all wet by so much water! Human and natural bodies, water and spirit bodies, all are shaped in the soil/humus. 

We read your conversation with Jesus on the day the followers of Jesus celebrate the Trinity. You wouldn’t believe what that group of people following Jesus became! We call it church. Amazing things were done by this church and lots of atrocities too. Also, so much happened to your own people. Sorry I don’t have much time to write more about it all. 

I mentioned the Trinitythis is a Christian belief where God is one in three persons: God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. You would think this is craziness! But for Christians, it is how God moves, relates, dances, and manifests Godself in the worldalways through relations. In many ways, the Trinity is an entanglement that keeps unfolding back and forth, a sign and metaphor for our own ways of living together, being different and yet being a part of the same life. God, human, other beings, the earth, the rivers and oceans, the aireverything is a big relation of deep belonging and entanglements. In other words, I cannot understand God if I do not know the earth. I cannot understand human beings outside of the life of other beings: animals, vegetables, and minerals. The same way the Spirit cannot be understood without water. Thus, Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the redeemer of this world is also the Spirit of God fully alive in the “natural” world, which is not to be understood apart from the “cultural” world. For nature and culture are one thing, just like the Trinity.

I must wrap up my letter to you, but I want to mention something Jesus said to you at the end because it became one of the most well-known saying of Jesus, namely: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This text has been used to save people spiritually from their sins, but I think it is time for us to understand that the eternal life promised by Jesus has to do with the life we live now. The eternal life promised by Jesus that comes through the presence of the Spirit can only be understood if it is fully drenched in the waters of our world and the wombs of our mothers. Thus, there is eternity in every river and in all the oceans as there is eternity in the work of the Spirit and in the love of God through Jesus. For the Spirit of God is also made of waters. 

Why am I saying that? Because, my good friend, our world is running out of water right now. So much so that Wall Street (the people and big corporations controlling the financial life of the world) is now investing in water. 

We are in a dire situationreally scary! While our rivers are drying, the ice caps are melting. We will be burning soon. I believe that this situation is because the Spirit is lacking. When the Spirit lacks in our world the water starts to disappear as well. 

Oh Nicodemus, we need to care for the water so the Spirit can come back. We must start to relate the life of the Trinity, that is the life of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, with the life of the earth and all forms of life! So we can relate together, dance together, live together! Without division. More than ever, we need to gain a new awareness of the Spirit as well as of the water, so that we can finally understand the eternal love of God for the world.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8

Juliana Claassens

It is telling that the prophetic call narrative in Isaiah 6:1-8 starts with a death. 

The death of King Uzziah discloses that this is a traumatic time in which the prophet Isaiah is called to perform his prophetic duties. The chapters immediately preceding and following this week’s lectionary text yield further insight into the context of trauma that informs this prophetic call narrative. The political power plays informing the Syro-Ephraimitic war, set against the backdrop of the reign of terror inflicted by the Assyrian Empire, would have caused great anguish for the initial audience. Also, in terms of the final form of the book Isaiah, the cataclysmic events associated with the destruction of the capital city Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire contribute to the sense of foreboding permeating this week’s lectionary reading.

Reading the classic prophetic call narrative in Isaiah 6 as a response to the multiple layers of trauma shaping the different parts of the book of Isaiah generates insights that may help us consider the nature of prophetic leadership amidst the trying times that are facing communities all around the world. First, the prophet’s vision of a Holy God breaking into the turmoil of this world offers a stern warning to the doers of injustice, but also a word of hope to those who have been weighed down by the desperate geopolitical situation of their time. 

In Isaiah’s vision, God is shown to be sitting on a grand throne, attended by seraphs singing God’s praises: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (verse 3). God is portrayed in this vision as the Eternal King, the Lord of Hosts, whose reign offers a sharp contrast to the transience of the earthly kings and their wheeling-and-dealings. Indeed, even the mighty Assyrian empire which instilled so much fear and trembling in the hearts of not only King Ahaz, but every inhabitant of Judah who heard about what the Assyrians did to Lachish and other towns in the path of destruction, will not rule forever. Empires rise and empires fall. But God’s reign is forever. Isaiah’s otherworldly vision offers a striking counter-reality to the manifold earthly kings and emperors who have been responsible for this tumultuous time.

Second, Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6:1-8 with its elements of the classic theophany (fire and smoke), similar to David Garber’s description of the vision of the divine presence in Ezekiel, is “aesthetically and perceptively overwhelming … overpower[ing] the prophet … [by] taking possession of him.” Regarding the prophet Ezekiel, Garber cites the work of Cathy Caruth who argues that as a “traumatized witness … [t]he prophet could be characterized as one whose self is radically altered” in the theophanic vision, being utterly possessed or “haunted by his experience of God.”1

The prophetic call narrative has the function of establishing the authority of the prophet and the prophetic book. It is therefore noteworthy that, as in the case of prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, Isaiah’s call narrative is closely connected to the trauma the prophet himself experienced. Serving as a witness to the political turmoil associated with imperial invasion and exile was surely a heavy burden to carry for the prophet, demonstrating how the prophetic vocation itself is also a source of anguish. Even though the prophetic book had been compiled by the community around the prophet Isaiah, it is revealed in the section following the lectionary selection how the prophet’s words will fall upon deaf ears, and how the people will be blind to the truth (Isaiah 6:9-10). 

And yet, despite the reality and the risk of suffering associated with the prophetic calling, the prophet Isaiah nevertheless responds with the words: “Here am I, send me.” Inspired by the vision of God’s presence, the prophet remains faithful to his calling, serving as a channel for God’s word amidst trying times.

Third, the prophet’s admission in Isaiah 6:5 that he is unworthy or unclean is typical of trauma victims who engage in acts of self-blame to explain travesty like that which had befallen the people of Judah. In solidarity with his people’s attempts to make sense of their trauma, the prophet exclaims: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” 

In response to the prophet’s confession in Isaiah 6:6, one of the seraphs enacts a purifying ritual of placing a hot coal on the prophet’s lips, signifying absolution through the lifting of the heavy burden of guilt from the prophet and by implication, the people. The idea of flaming hot coals touching the prophet’s lips continues the theme of pain and suffering that marks the prophet’s present and future reality as well as the people’s. This act of absolving the prophet as well as the community speaks also of the significance of releasing and relieving trauma victims from the extra burdens they put on themselves. 

For contemporary believers who, as evident from the events of these past months and years, are doing their best to survive in a dark world which seems to be becoming darker by the day, the prophetic call narrative in Isaiah 6 may speak anew, calling upon contemporary prophets and ordinary believers to continue to proclaim words of justice and righteousness. Not exempt from pain and suffering that comes from speaking truth to power, the prophetic call narrative itself serves as a sign of hope as it shows how a prophet like Isaiah, and also his counterparts Jeremiah and Ezekiel, fully immersed themselves in the darkness and continued under difficult circumstances to speak words of judgment and hope that have the potential of saving those who hear this prophetic word from themselves and their worst inclinations. 

Notes

  1. David G. Garber, “‘I Went in Bitterness’: Theological Implications of a Trauma Theory Reading of Ezekiel”, Review and Expositor 111/4 (2014): 354.

 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

From one perspective, it may seem that the poet who composed Psalm 29 was an ancient version of what we might today call a storm-chaser.1

After all, the heart of Psalm 29 (verses 3-9) is an enthusiastic and extended report of a powerful thunderstorm that apparently formed over the Mediterranean Sea (verse 3) and that proceeded to crash onto the coast of Palestine and to make its way inland. The storm damage is in view in verses 5 and 9. It was result of high winds (verses 6, 8) that were accompanied by sharp lightning (verse 7) and the constant rumble of thunder, which is what is meant by “the voice of the LORD.”

Lord of the storm

Of course, the fact that the constant thunder is communicated by the seven-fold repetition of the phrase, “the voice of the LORD,” is an unmistakable clue that we are not really dealing with a weather report. This is theology, not meteorology. For the psalmist, the storm is a symbol not of the power of nature, but rather of the power and sovereignty of Israel’s God. Seven, the number of completeness, is significant. Israel’s God is completely powerful and ultimately sovereign. There can be no competing claims.

Competing claims

But we know that, in fact, there were competing claims in ancient Palestine. In particular, the Canaanite god Baal was acclaimed to be the cloud-rider, the lord of the storm, the one who brought the rain that made the crops grow. And we know too that the people of God were tempted to give Baal the credit for the land’s productivity (see Hosea 2:8-13). Given this situation, it is clear that Psalm 29 has a polemical edge. The true lord of the storm—the real power in and behind the universe—is the LORD, not Baal.

Of course, the literary framework of verses 3-9 also makes it quite clear that we are dealing with theology. Characteristic of a song of praise, Psalm 29 begins with an invitation to praise (verses 1-2). What is unusual is the addressee, which is normally a human audience. But here, “heavenly beings” or “sons of gods” (NRSV note) are invited to praise the LORD. These could be members of the heavenly court, God’s divine council (see 1 Kings 22:19; Job 1:6); but given the polemical cast, it is quite possible that these “heavenly beings” represent the deposed members of the Canaanite pantheon. What the “heavenly beings” are called upon to recognize and celebrate is God’s “glory and strength” (verse 1), elsewhere attributes of royalty. In short, whoever the “heavenly beings” are, the effect of verses 1-2 is to invite the universal, cosmic acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty. Later in the Psalter, the nearly exact invitation will be issued to the “families of the peoples” (Psalm 96:7). Like Psalm 96 and the others in the collection to which it belongs (Psalms 93, 95-99), Psalm 29 is generally categorized as an enthronement psalms—that is, God’s kingship is explicitly in view.

The cosmic sovereign and comprehensive well-being

Given the invitations to praise in verses 1-2, it is clear from the outset that the poetic description of the thunderstorm in verses 3-9 is meant to offer evidence of God’s sovereignty. And the evidence is convincing! Just as they have been invited to do, “in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9). Is this the earthly temple in Jerusalem, or the cosmos construed as God’s dwelling? A similar ambiguity exists in Psalm 150:1, and the answer to our question is probably both. That is, the psalmist envisions earthly worshippers in Jerusalem and “heavenly beings” joined in praise to proclaim God’s universal, cosmic sovereignty.

Lest there be any doubt about the meaning of the exclamation “Glory!” (verse 9), verses 10-11 offer an explicit explanation, “The LORD sits enthroned over the flood” (verse 10). Again, of course, this is not a weather report. “The flood” symbolizes the chaotic waters (see Genesis 1:2) that God has tamed and ordered, and it is precisely this creative power that marks the LORD “as king forever” (verse 10).

The duty of kings in the ancient Near East was to protect, provide for, and empower their people (see Psalm 72 for a job description of the Judean king); and God as king is requested to do exactly that in verse 11. The Hebrew shalom in verse 11 (see Psalm 72:3, 7) is the final word of the psalm, and it represents the ultimate goal of both human and divine kingship—that is, the comprehensive well-being of the people.

Celebrating God’s claim today

What do we do with this ancient poem and its theo-poetic description of an event—a thunderstorm—that we almost certainly think about in exclusively meteorological terms? Let the poetry speak on its own symbolic level! True, we are not tempted to worship Baal as were the ancient Israelites. But there are all sort of other things to which we often attribute our blessedness and well-being—technological progress, the stock market, a capitalist economy, our own ingenuity and hard work. What difference might it make to recognize and celebrate God as the ultimate sovereign and origin of life and all that sustains it?

The “enthronement movement” and the Triune God

In conclusion, it might be helpful to not forget what might be called the “enthronement movement”—from glory proclaimed by “heavenly beings” to peace on earth. It probably sounds familiar. In the Gospel of Luke, this “enthronement movement” appears to interpret the significance of Jesus’ birth. In Luke 2:13, there is a “heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” In short, Luke interprets the birth of a baby as the very enthronement of God. This Holy Trinity Sunday is a good time to contemplate the good news that the cosmic creator and the baby in the manger are two of the three “persons” of the Triune God—that is, the character and purpose of these “persons” are one, and their work is mutually reinforcing. Such contemplation may lead us to the simple but extraordinarily far-reaching conclusion that God does indeed love the world (see John 3:1-17, the Gospel for the day).


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on May 31, 2015.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:12-17

Jennifer V. Pietz

Romans 8:12-17 does not give a systematic account of the nature of the Trinity, but it does present a compelling snapshot of what it means for Christians to live in the very life of the Triune God.

Central to this text is the affirmation that Christians are children of God by adoption, having been claimed by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:15-16; see also verse 9). No one can acquire this status through observance of the law or any merit of their own (Romans 8:2-4; see also 3:21-31). God’s law is good, but ultimately it does not have the power to free people from the grip of sin and transform them into ones who live out God’s righteousness (for example, Romans 7:7-12). Only Christ does this, taking on sin to the point of death in order to defeat sin and give his righteousness to those who trust him (Romans 8:2-4, 32). The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is the same Spirit who dwells in believers, assuring them that they are heirs to God’s promises to Abraham and members of God’s family (Romans 8:11; also 4:1-25).

In the best cases, to be adopted is to be chosen, included, and loved. A friend of mine who adopted her children recounted how she told them that they should know they are especially loved because their parents chose them in particular to be part of their family. By telling her children this, she hoped it would instill in them a deep sense of belonging and being loved that would shape their identity and how they lived their lives.

We might see something analogous in Paul’s exhortation to the Roman Christians in Romans 8:12-17. As also indicated in other parts of the letter (for example, Romans 7:14-25), Paul informs the Romans in verses 12-13 that even though Christ has already freed them from sin and death, these powers of “the flesh” still wage war against them, seeking to reclaim them for an existence defined by bondage and fear (verses 13, 15). He reminds them that their obligation is not to the old way of life—which in fact leads to death—but rather to the new, real life that God has given them in Christ through the Spirit. Something or someone will always capture people’s allegiance, so Paul exhorts believers to make this Christ and the corresponding life that reflects their identity as valued children of God.

This is not something that Christians do in their own strength. Paul doesn’t give a list of ten tips for righteous living, but rather calls believers to continually let themselves be led by the Spirit who dwells in them (verses 9, 13-14). The foundation of Christian life is an active awareness that we have been brought into the very life of the Triune God, where we are loved, secure, and empowered by God’s Spirit. This gift is what enables us to reflect Christ in daily life.

It is the Spirit who enables us to cry out in intimacy to God as “Abba! Father!” (verse 15), using the same expression that Jesus used when he cried out to God before facing his crucifixion (Mark 14:36). When we are tempted to pursue the vain idols that the world offers, or when accusations about our failures or standing with God assail us (see Romans 8:33-35), the Spirit gives testimony to what is already true in the core of our being—that we have been claimed by God in Christ as God’s children. And not only children, but heirs together with Christ, sharing in the blessing of intimate relationship with the Triune God and other believers. “Be who you already are in Christ” seems to be the heart of Paul’s message.

We might like the text to end there so that we can ponder the vast privileges that have been bestowed on us as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. But Paul goes on to remind us that suffering is an inevitable part of sharing in the life of the crucified and resurrected Christ (verse 17). He does not specify exactly what this entails, but the following passage (verses 18-25) shows that the entire creation is suffering as in labor pains as it waits for the full realization of God’s redemptive purposes. 

Paul’s insistence on the relational nature of life as children of the Triune God provides many avenues for preaching. In societies and churches that tend toward individualism, it is an important reminder that Christian life is not just about one’s private relationship with God, but also about treating one another as beloved members of the same family. It can also provide reassurance that we are not alone when we suffer. Just as believers are united with Christ in both joy and pain, so too are we called to support each other in all circumstances. Indeed, the Spirit also intercedes for us in our weakness (verses 26-27).

The passage also encourages us to name and reject the various ways we are confronted with the lie that our identity and self-worth depend on anything other than the Triune God’s self-giving love for us. Becoming more successful in our careers, acquiring more followers on social media, or working on our physical appearances will not ultimately fulfill us. Such pursuits—while not necessarily bad—can return us to a state of bondage if we let them define how we see ourselves and others. Life in the Spirit frees us from such judgments so that we can love each other with the same love we receive from God.