THE HOLY TRINITY
II Corinthians 13:11–13
In the congregation where I grew up, we observed Trinity Sunday by reading in unison the Athanasian Creed. For those of you who might not be familiar with this statement of faith, it is one of what we Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Anglicans and a good many other faith communions call “the three chief symbols.” The other two symbols are the more familiar Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed. The origin of the Athanasian Creed is uncertain, but it is quite certain that it was not composed by the great theologian of the Fourth Century after which it is named. Scholarly consensus dates it from the Fifth or Sixth centuries based on its language and doctrinal foci.
The practice of reciting the Athanasian Creed in public worship has long been abandoned in most churches and for good reason. It is long, repetitive and filled with abstract language hard to digest in a single reading. Most disturbing of all are the dire warnings at the beginning and end of the creed to the effect that “whoever does not keep [the catholic faith] whole and undefiled will without doubt perish for eternity.” Athanasian Creed printed in The Book of Concord, translated by Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 19. I don’t feel at all comfortable declaring the doubtless condemnation of anyone for any reason. That decision is far above my pay scale.
Nevertheless, I don’t advocate discarding the Athanasian Creed or even excising from it that troubling condemnation language. Though I might wish that it had been phrased differently, the creed quite properly lets us know that it matters what we believe about God. People do sick and twisted things for the gods they worship. Shooting little girls in the face for reading books, bombing Planned Parenthood Centers and disrupting funeral services with angry and hateful protests are only the more extreme acts of faithful obedience to perverse and cruel deities. More common are the cases of individuals burdened with self-hatred and guilt because they have been raised to worship a god who cares more about rules than people. I cannot tell you how many people I have met over the years who left the church because the god they met there was angry and judgmental, cold and distant or just too silly to warrant serious consideration.
A good deal of religion seems designed merely to perpetuate and justify the status quo for those in power. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard it said that the church’s job is to uphold public morality and decency. Nowhere does the Bible say anything remotely like that. That, however, was largely the role of Babylonian religion as we will see in our exploration of Sunday’s reading from Genesis. Sadly, religion bearing the Christian trademark has also been used to that end as well. We have mistaken middle class morality for the righteousness to which Jesus calls us. As a result, the church has found itself on the side of racial segregation, disenfranchisement of women and numerous other societal movements that are contrary to the righteousness to which Jesus calls us in the Sermon on the Mount. Make no mistake about it, religion can mislead, deceive and even kill. You are destined to become what you worship, so you need to be careful about who you worship.
That is why it is important to understand that God is Triune: the lover, the loved and the love between them. It is important to understand that the eternal love between Father and Son spills out over the formless deep calling nothingness into being, making time for us in eternity. It is important to understand that there is no hierarchy in God; no domination; no compulsion; no rivalry. It is important to understand that God does not ordain oppressive governments that exploit and neglect their people. It is important to understand that each human being bears the indelible image of his/her Creator and that the greatest blasphemy against the Triune God lies not in the desecration of shrines and sanctuaries or in the mockery of stand-up comedians and situation comedies but in violence, abuse, neglect and insult to human beings. The only God worthy of worship is the God who has made us capable of sharing the love known within God’s Triune self from eternity.
For these reasons, it is important that the church roundly condemned and rejected doctrinal formulae that denied the Triune nature of God; subordinated the Son to the Father; minimized or denied the incarnation. It is important that the church stood firm against attempts to introduce into our creeds the structures of hierarchy, domination and injustice that characterize human civilization in every age. It is also important that the creed makes clear how what we say about God is not a matter of irrelevant abstractions. You are what you worship so be careful who you worship.
This marvelous poetic portrayal of creation is a product of the Priestly author chiefly responsible for editing and contributing to the final form of the Pentateuch constituting the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. This editor(s)/author(s) composed during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to about 530 B.C.E. Throughout this period Israel lived as an ethnic minority in a culture that was hostile to her faith in the Lord of the Exodus. The people were surrounded by and immersed in the religious symbols, practices and mores of their captors, whose decisive victory over Israel called into question the validity of their faith. The temptation to become assimilated into Babylonian society was strong. Should Israel continue to worship a God that seemed to have been overcome by the deities of Babylon? If Israel’s God was God, how could this God allow his holy city and temple to be destroyed?
As discussed last week, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. The gods were ruled by the chief of these divine victors, Marduk, who in turn presided over a strict hierarchy. The Babylonian empire mirrored this heavenly hierarchy on earth with the emperor standing at the top of the social order. Under him were his officers, army and patrons. At the bottom of the pyramid were slaves-barely human and at the mercy of their owners whim. The empire was the gods will done on earth as in heaven according to the Babylonian creed.
Our reading from the first chapter of Genesis constitutes an alternative creation narrative reflecting a very different understanding of divinity, the cosmos and the social order. The story describes creation as the sovereign act of one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings do not spring up unintended from the blood of conflict, but are specially created in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made.
The command to “fill the earth and subdue it” has spawned some unfortunate misunderstanding about human responsibility in the realm of creation. I am not convinced that this verse, much less the Biblical witness as a whole, can be saddled with the responsibility for global warming. I believe rather that ideologies spun out of the Enlightenment extoling the power of reason and desacralizing the natural world are chiefly responsible for that and other ecological woes. Nonetheless, this verse has often been lifted out of its context and employed to give religious sanction for ruthless exploitation of the earth and its resources. One popular commentator recently remarked, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Colter, Ann, If Democrats had any Brains They’d be Republicans, (c. 2007 by Crown Forum) p. 104.
In all fairness to Ms. Colter, the Hebrew text actually does support her literal interpretation. The Hebrew verb for “subdue” is “CABAS” meaning “to tread down, beat or make a path or to subdue.” In at least one instance, the Bible uses this word to connote rape. Esther 7:8. The word can also mean to “enslave.” Jeremiah 34:11. For the most part, however, it is used to describe the conquest of Canaan and its inhabitants by Israel. Numbers 32:22; Joshua 18:1; I Chronicles 22:18. This is important because the land of Canaan was given to Israel in trust. Very specific provisions were made for care of the land, including a year of rest from cultivation each seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. Israel’s reign over the land of Canaan was to mirror God’s gentle and gracious reign over creation. This in marked contrast to the Babylonian empire’s brutal domination of the Near East reflecting the violence and brutality of the gods it worshiped.
Thus, I believe that the poet of Genesis 1 was using the term “CABAS” to undermine the imperial model of world domination in much the same way Paul employed images of weaponry to undermine the militaristic reign of Rome. Just as Paul points out that the weapons of the church are the good news of the gospel, prayer, faith and peacemaking (Ephesians 6:14-18), so the poet makes clear that God overcomes and rules the world by God’s exercise of patient, faithful and everlasting compassion. That is how God subdues us and that is the means by which God’s people subdue the world. Thus, if I were to forego preaching about the Trinity this Sunday, I might consider talking about the mythological framework behind the national and corporate empires of the Twenty First Century. Imperial power is as tyrannical today as it was in Sixth Century and even more destructive to the earth and its ecology. Is the assertion of personal property rights, national self-interest and territorial sovereignty consistent with the claim that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”? Psalm 24:1.
In addressing Trinity Sunday, it is worth observing that the term “Trinity” is nowhere found in the scriptures. That is not to say, however, that the doctrine lacks scriptural support or that it is inappropriate to speak of the Triune God in understanding this text. I do not share the strict historical critical assumption that the meaning of a biblical text is arrived at through stripping away all residue of the church’s interpretation and applying objectively the tools of text criticism, source criticism, redaction analysis, form criticism, literary criticism and whatever else I left out. This is not to say that these individual components of the method are not useful in some measure to critique and correct our interpretations. They are clearly important, but they are not the key to preaching the text. I believe that at the end of the day, the Bible is the church’s book and it cannot be read faithfully (by Christians anyway) apart from the Church’s confession that Jesus is Lord. So be warned that I confess unashamedly to reading and preaching the scriptures through the lens of the church’s Trinitarian faith. Historical critical tools are sometimes helpful to that end, but they don’t get to drive the bus.
At the very beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures we are told something very important: that God speaks. It is only because God speaks that it is possible for us to speak of God at all. God initiates a conversation within God’s Triune self through which all things are spoken into existence. As creation progresses, God’s speech spills over to address the creation. The earth is commanded to bring forth vegetation, the lights of the firmament are commanded to give light to the earth, the waters are commanded to bring forth swarms of living creatures, the earth is commanded to bring forth living creatures. Creation can respond with praise, prayer and thanksgiving because and only because God gives it a word to which it can respond. Then in verse 26 for the first time we overhear the Trinitarian deliberation and dialogue concerning our own creation. We learn that we are uniquely created in the image of our Creator.
Much ink has been spilt pondering what it means for us to be made in God’s image. I am not convinced that the poet in Genesis gives us much in the way of an answer to the inquiry. That is not surprising given that poetry is always more suggestive than definitive. We may infer, as I have already said, that humanity’s reign over the earth is to reflect God’s gracious reign over all creation. Yet the shape of both reigns must await further development as the scriptural narrative progresses. The call of Abraham from the wastes of Babel, the sojourning of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the liberation of Israel from bondage will dramatize both God’s judgment on dehumanizing ways of existence and God’s promise of an alternative way of being human. The shape of human existence in obedience to God is spelled out in God’s covenants wherein God’s faithfulness is demonstrated and the promise of true humanity is held out. Israel is ever in the process of becoming human precisely so that by its light the world may finally learn the proper way of being the world.
The image of God is finally realized in Jesus, the “Word made flesh.” More than any of the other gospels, John’s narrative illustrates both the divinity of humanity and the humanity of God. We can say that humans are created in God’s image precisely because, as St. Augustine reminds us, we “are capable of Him, and can be partaker of Him; which so great a good is only made possible by [humanity’s] being His image.” Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity, Book 14, Chapter 8:11 (c. 2012 by Fig-books.com) p. 372. In the 17th Chapter of John, Jesus prays for his disciples, “Holy Father, keep them in my name which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” John 17:11. It is through this perfect oneness in love that the world will know the love of the Father for the Son reflected in the disciples’ love for one another. John 17:23. Moreover, this love will spill out into the world for which Jesus died to all those who believe through the disciples’ witness. John 17:20. Jesus has sheep that are not yet of his flock and who must also be embraced by the Father’s love. John 10:16. In short, Jesus is the only one ever to be truly human and our becoming fully human depends on our unity with him. God is never more truly God’s self than when God becomes flesh and dwells among us. In this way, the final yearning of God expressed in the Book of Revelation is satisfied. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.” Revelation 21:3.
This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.
The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware of it when asking “what are human beings and their descendants that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.
As noted in my remarks on the Genesis reading, it is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth] look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. Ecology is very much a biblical value!
Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.
The only reason for lifting up these final words of farewell from Paul’s Second Letter the church at Corinth appears to be that they contain one of only two full Trinitarian invocations in the New Testament. The other such invocation is found at the end of our gospel lesson from Matthew. The Trinitarian order is significant. The Grace of Christ inspires the love of God which is actualized through the Spirit producing fellowship in the church. A better translation than “fellowship” as set forth in the old RSV might be “participation in” or “communion of,” as the NRSV has it.
There is plenty to talk about in this story of the Great Commission. The commission occurs at Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples as a whole. According to Matthew, only the women who came to the tomb saw Jesus on Easter Sunday. Jesus sent them back with instructions to the disciples to meet him in Galilee. Matthew 28:10. The disciples follow these instructions and encounter the resurrected Christ who announces that all authority in heaven and on earth have been given to him and that on his authority they are to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the Triune name. The gospel ends with the assurance that Jesus will be with his disciples until the end of the age.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. Perhaps this is another way of saying, as did Luke, that Jesus is henceforth the right hand of God at work in the world. It certainly does not suggest that Jesus is simply delegating a task that he is unable or unwilling to do himself. Jesus’ continuing presence with his disciples is reaffirmed. The dialogical relationship between immanence and transcendence is at work here.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Jesus’ instruction to “make disciples” of all nations-not church members or converts. “Of all nations” does not mean that nations themselves are to be converted or drawn into the cultural orbit of Christendom. Rather, it means that disciples are to be made and churches planted “within” all nations that the gospel may be preached to the ends of the earth. One dreadful mistake we mainliners have made over the centuries is marketing to consumers instead of seeking, as the U.S. Marines would say, “a few good people.” Consumers, of course, consume. They are a demanding crowd that invariably requires more attention, more programs and more benefits than the small but committed core of disciples can meet. Consequently, they leave again disappointed that their needs have not been met. Thus, even when mass marketing is successful, it fails. Matthew’s gospel challenges the church to focus not on membership rolls, but on making disciples. Better one new disciple than twenty new members! At least that has been my own experience.
I am sure that the lectionary’s motivation for including this text was the Trinitarian baptismal formula at verse 19. I don’t know what more there is to say about this other than that it appears the church was using this Trinitarian formula from at least the 80s-90s where scholarly consensus places the writing of Matthew’s gospel. For my thoughts on the rather baseless claim that this formula was a later addition to the gospel, see my post of May 4th.