Thursday, June 16, 2011

God Be with You . . . A Lectionary Meditation

Genesis 1:1-2, 4a

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20


God Be With You . . .

            Trinity Sunday provides numerous challenges and opportunities, especially if you are affiliated with a noncreedal church that doesn’t make much of the Trinity.  The lectionary texts for this week, however, raise important and serious questions about a doctrine that has come to define the Christian understanding of God.  The doctrine itself raises questions about what we mean by God and God’s relationship to God’s creation.  Of course, the Trinity isn’t the only idea that resonates from these texts, so a preacher is able if she or he so desires to focus elsewhere, but at least a hint of Trinitarianism has to be in the back of our minds as we come to these texts, whether we’re going to preach or not.  In the course of the meditation I’ll touch on other aspects, important aspects of the text, but I will also keep in mind the hints of Trinity that are present in at least two of the three texts.

            The easiest way of dispensing with the Trinity is to simply acknowledge the problems and leave the answers to the mystery of God.  But, of course, not everyone is willing to let us off the hook.  If we are to engage with any seriousness our Jewish and Muslim friends, who share with us a common affirmation of the unity of God, then we have to try to answer the difficult questions as to how God can be three and one at the same time, without ending up with tritheism or polytheism or something meaningless in the long term.  Of course, in the context of a meditation I can’t resolve all the questions that have challenged theologians down through the centuries.    

Our starting point is and must be the declaration of the first commandment, which states that there is but one God.  Whatever we say about God being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19), must be said in that context.  The early creeds sought to ground their understanding of who Jesus is for us in the context of God’s revelation of God’s self to humanity for the purpose of reconciliation (salvation).  They used philosophical language and categories that we no longer use, except when doing theology.  It worked to some degree then, but there are considerable challenges in our day. 

I think we can take something important from the debates, even if we can’t resolve all the questions, and that is – God is much more complex that we often are comfortable with.  We’re okay with a degree of mystery and unknowing, but we want God to be simple and easy to grasp.  That’s why we like images such as Father – we understand fathers and that makes sense to us, but if go too deep we find ourselves lost, and the Trinity tends to make things too complex, which is why we tend to stay away from Trinity as a piece of our regular spiritual diet.  It also makes Islam and Judaism a bit more attractive, because their concepts of God are less complex than the Christian one.  Therefore, we may not be able to come up with just the right words – even the philosophical language of the 4th century couldn’t resolve all the problems -- but God is . . .  That is our confession. 

            From time to time efforts have been made to read the Trinity into the enigmatic use of the plural in reference to God in Genesis 1:26, a passage not under consideration in this rather truncated reading from Genesis 1.   These attempts to read the Trinity into Genesis 1 is asking too much from writers who wouldn’t have known the doctrine, but, that doesn’t mean we can’t use references to the wind and the word (God speaks each element of creation into existence) to give some depth to our Trinitarian reflections on the Hebrew Bible (that is if you’re Trinitarian). 

The text itself very simply celebrates God’s acts of creation, a process that need not have yet ended.  The writer lifts up the message that in the beginning the earth was shapeless and void, and darkness covered the sea, while the wind of God swept across the waters.  I’m not sure why the lection doesn’t include the next statement:  “God said:  ‘let there be light’.”  But we do get the word of affirmation – God saw that the light was good!   There was darkness covering the earth, but God overcame the darkness with light.  Yes, there is dualism present here, but the image of light and its goodness is worth contemplating.    

The reading from the Hebrew Bible is also a word about beginnings, the start of a new thing on the part of God.  The two passages from the New Testament, however, both offer words of closure, or at least partial closure in that the particular document comes to an end.  In Paul’s benediction from 2 Corinthians 13, Paul bids his brothers and sisters in Corinth good bye, while encouraging them to put things in order, be harmonious and peaceful, so that the love and peace of God would be with them.   If the Trinity is at best present in Genesis with very generous reading between the lines, you can make something of the Trinity out of this closing verse:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:13 CEB).
Recognizing that a fully developed doctrine of the Trinity is centuries in the future, this reference is still one of the clearest hints that the early Christians had at the very least a complex idea about the nature of God.  And note here the modifiers used to define each of these three persons – grace, love, fellowship.  There is a clear relationality present in these words, giving some support to the idea of the “social trinity.”  That is, God exists in both an eternal and an internal relationship of God, Christ and Holy Spirit.  It is this grace, and love, and fellowship that will bind the community together, a community that has always seemed a bit dysfunctional.   Being that we live in a rather dysfunctional era, when everyone seems committed to their own welfare without giving any thought to the other (Praise ye the prophet of our age -- Ayn Rand!), this is a needed antidote.  God is not just a singular entity, but in God’s own unity of being there is relationality present.  The encouragement then is to live out that relationality in our own community life. 

            Finally, we come to the Gospel.  In Matthew’s closing statements, Jesus gathers the eleven disciples to himself in Galilee (Matthew doesn’t provide for the closing of the apostolic ranks by adding Judas’s replacement), and they worship him, even though some of them combined their worship with a degree of doubt. This combination of doubt and worship reminds us that in our own experiences of God and in our discipleship, there is room for both worship and doubt.   There is, therefore, no demand upon us to come to absolute certainty in order to follow Jesus, just a willingness to follow.  In that context Jesus speaks of his authority to commission them for service:

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19).

Here before us is the Great Commission, that powerful vision that has launched so many mission efforts, and pushed us to consider our own calling to be disciples and make disciples.  It’s a text that is given voice in hymns like “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.”  But, as powerful as this hymn is it tends toward triumphalism, for it encourages us to tell a story “that shall turn their hearts to the right.”  It’s a commission that pushes us from our hiding places, and yet we must beware of that temptation to combine our faith with our cultural commitments and experiences.  Remember that at the turn of the 20th century the Euro-American mission effort carried with it a sense of manifest destiny, so that it wasn’t just the gospel that got taken to the nations, it was Euro-American civilization as well.  Bibles along with white shirts and ties (and dresses) were offered to the “natives.”  Today the question remains with us – how do we share this message of God’s grace and love and fellowship with the world, when that world has a pluralistic caste?  And how can we make known our faith without being infected with this triumphalism of the past (and the present, for American exceptionalism (manifest destiny) remains with us and is still strong, which is why American relationships with Islamic countries is always problematic). 

With these questions and concerns in mind, we can attend to the task of discipleship, which according to the commission begins in baptism and continues with teaching the commandments of Jesus.  Baptism (profession of faith) isn’t enough – there is also need of embracing and following the commandments of Jesus (see the Sermon on the Mount).  Oh, and take note of the Trinitarian formula with which these baptisms are to be undertaken.     

2 comments:

David said...

Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Cube roots of infinity?

John said...

Dare I point out that the lection for today is not "1:1 - 2, 4a" but "1:1 - 2:4a"?