Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sunday 15 June Trinity Sunday 2014

Theme(s): God is Trinity; God the Three-in-One; The Triune God: Father Son and Holy Spirit


Collect: Grace and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ. (Revelation 1:4-5a)

God of unchangeable power,
you have revealed yourself
to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
keep us firm in this faith
that we may praise and bless your holy name;
for you are one God now and for ever. Amen.


Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20


Genesis 1:1-2:4a

We read this reading today not because we are confusing 'creation' as a theme with 'Trinity' but because this reading reminds us that God (who is Father Son and Holy Spirit, according to the witness of the whole Bible) is Creator. The work of Father Son and Holy Spirit begins (from our perspective) as the work of creating the world.

Within this reading are two fascinating phrases to reflect on today. Before citing them and offering a reflection we need to be very clear that how we approach this passage as Christian readers is not without searching questions. In its original circulation as a completed composition, this passage was published by ancient Jews, probably in the sixth century BC or later, certainly before the time of Christ, let alone before Christians began to articulate belief that God was One yet Three. No Jew then, and no Jew now, reads this passage as offering any hint of God's Trinitarian nature. Among Christians the possibility that we may read this passage along Trinitarian lines is controversial. Some see no problem: God was more than capable of inspiring Jewish scribes to write material which harboured hidden clues concerning future disclosure about the Trinity. Some say it is disrespectful to the original publication of the passage to impose a Christian reading on a Jewish document.

(1) In Genesis 1:2 we read, 'the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.' Christian interpreters of Scripture have understood the 'wind' here - 'spirit' is a possible translation - as the Holy Spirit at work in creation.

(2) In Genesis 1:26 we read, 'Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; ...' Christian interpreters have understood the plural 'us' here to be a reference to God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Note also Genesis 3:22; 11:7).

EXCURSUS: As a point of exegetical intrigue, we can readily understand how a Jewish writer would write Genesis 1:2 as no direct inconsistency regarding the Oneness of God is implied but 1:26 is more difficult, as, on the face of it, "us" implies a plurality of gods and Jews in ancient Israel believed that God was One and there was only One God. Irrespective of Christian readings of Genesis 1:26, why would ancient Jews have circulated this passage with this verse in it in this plural form? One possibility which is plausible is to think of Israel's understanding of the heavenly court of God which involved plural beings who were divine (in some sense, but not in the fullest sense of the divinity of God himself) - see 1 Kings 22:19 and Job 1:6 as well as Psalm 82:1. Thus God is saying to his heavenly court, let us make human creatures on earth who are like the heavenly beings of this heavenly court.

A Trinitarian reading of the passage - if we judge that it may be made with integrity - makes sense in this way: God as a communion of Father Son and Holy Spirit make humanity in the image of God, that is a complementary set of man and woman with capacity to form a union of love which images the union of love, or communion of Father Son and Holy Spirit. The image is not about maths (3-in-1 compared with 2-in-1)! The imaging involved is the capacity of humanity to represent an aspect or aspects of the very character of God.

In other readings, plausible for both Jews and Christians, being made in the image of God is about humanity's capacity to make decisions freely, and/or to be creative, especially to create life itself through procreation (1:28a), and/or to be lord of the world (i.e. God is Lord of the whole universe, humanity is lord (and steward) of the resources of the earth (see 1:28b).

Psalm 8

(From last year) This psalm can be read in various ways (e.g. as a pearl of praise of great price, one which has justly received the attention of very fine composers) but here we read it in Trinitarian perspective as an address to God about the ordering of the world and the place of humanity in it. Above all is God, within the glory of God we find ourselves inhabiting a marvellous world in which it is amazing that God has remembered us, ordered as we are to a rank below the angels (8:5). Yet God has not just remembered us, God has crowned us with glory and honour and given us dominion over creation (8:5-6). 

Thus when we consider God as Trinity we are considering God as God, utterly distinct in rank, status and glory from his creation and from us as his creatures yet also as God who in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ the Son of God has bridged the distinction, becoming one with us.

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

We could sing the last verse of this passage instead of preaching on it! But the very fact that the words are used regularly as a concluding prayer to Christian gatherings, whether said or sung, is an alert to think carefully about this verse and its contents. It is a wonderful prayer but it is also an important clue to the thinking of the first Christians about the nature of the God they were realising was being revealed to them in new ways compared with the knowledge of Israel embedded in the Old Testament.

Obviously Paul, concluding this letter, is not intentionally developing a piece of theological explanation. But his prayer is instructive. As a Christian community it is called into being by Jesus Christ so he prays that the grace - the generous kindness and unlimited mercy - of Jesus will be with them (and they need it, because they are a community of faith at odds with themselves). This grace is only reinforced by invoking the love of God, the love which God has for his people. A community bound together by the grace of Jesus and the love of God has an icing on this particular cake when the communion or fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the relationship the church has with the Holy Spirit which indwells them as God's personal presence in God's living temple, the church, is also with them.

We might have preferred, at least for the sake of Trinitarian neatness that 'God' in 13:13 was 'the Father', but Paul is not living in 325 AD (or later)! But this prayer looks ahead to that day. It demonstrates a Christian community aware through its apostle that God is now being experienced in the persons of Jesus Christ, who once lived among their spiritual forbears in Palestine, as well as in the person of the Holy Spirit, who now lives among them and they within him.

Matthew 28:16-20

In the Year of Matthew we could head to this passage on numerous counts: the last words of Jesus according to this gospel; the commissioning of the disciples for mission; the promise of Jesus being present to his disciples for ever. Today, obviously, we head here because of the clarity with which God as Father Son and Holy Spirit is invoked in verse 28:19, 'baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'

Given that the Gospel was written before 100 AD, this is a remarkable anticipation of full blown Trinitarian doctrine, yet to be articulated by the church's future theologians. Note, for instance, that 'the name' is singular so that some sense of the Oneness of God is present. On the other hand, the sequence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is as clear a representation of God in Three Persons, as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit, as we find anywhere in the New Testament. It is clearer, for instance, than 2 Corinthians 13:13. Other verses we might refer to are: Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Galatians 4:6: Ephesians 4:4-6; Revelation 1:4-5.

From an authorial perspective, Matthew has perhaps distilled more clearly what other NT writers were saying about the church's experience of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and connected this directly to baptism. If one is being baptized in the name of God then the name of this God (with 'name' reflecting the character of God as experienced by his people) is 'Father Son and Holy Spirit.' 

(By contrast we might note Luke's propensity to describe baptism as being in the 'name of the Lord Jesus', Acts 19:5. Here, however, is not the place to pursue further the question of the Lukan and Matthean understandings of baptism and the manner in which they differ and/or agree). 

From the perspective of Jesus, is this something he himself was likely to have said? It is tempting to understand the whole of this last speech of the Matthean Jesus as a creation of the author (not least because the Matthean Jesus says little about the Holy Spirit). But any haste to do so could be constrained by recognising that the Jesus we meet across the four gospels, especially in Luke and John) is quite familiar with the Holy Spirit, and in the latter gospel, very articulate about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

Finally, as a historical reflection, when we baptise 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' (NZPB, p. 386) we are invoking a most ancient formula, going back at least to the time of the publication of Matthew's Gospel, but likely earlier since there is a finite chance that Matthew himself is invoking a baptismal formula already in use when he composed his gospel.

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