Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (May 18, 2008)

This Sunday's Bible Lessons:
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

A Few Comments:
1. The First Sunday after Pentecost is always Holy Trinity Sunday on the Church calendar. It comes one week after the Festival of the Holy Spirit, the third great festival of the Church Year, which is what Pentecost, celebrated last Sunday, is. (The other two great festivals are Christmas and Easter.)

2. Of all the doctrines of the faith, that of the Trinity, the belief that there is one God of all the universe Who has revealed Himself as three Persons, is maybe the most difficult teaching of the Church. But, while the term "trinity" is never used in the Old or New Testaments, I believe that the reality of the Three-in-One God is affirmed repeatedly on its pages. See here.

3. Of course, one unifying theme of the Bible lessons for this week is the Trinity. But another is how God imposes order on chaos to create peace. The first lesson is the first account of creation found in Genesis. There, a wind from God, the word wind being ruach, which also means breath or spirit, moves over a storm to bring life into being. (For more on ruach and its New Testament equivalent, pneuma, see here and here.) (By the way, the prologue to the Gospel of John affirms that the Son, second member of the Trinity, was present not just at the beginning, but before the beginning.)

The second lesson is from Paul's second letter to the rancorous church in the Greek city of Corinth, a congregation that tried his patience and whose un-Christian behavior might cause outside observers--in those days or today--to doubt whether the Gospel of Jesus Christ was just a bunch of hooey. The members of the Corinthian church, with their acceptance of incest, spiritual pride, and material selfishness certainly didn't look like the new creation Paul claimed thet were by virtue of their baptisms and their confessions of Christ.

Yet, Paul knew that life with Christ is a journey. No Christian is perfect. All struggle with their own temptations and sins. All fall short of the glory of God. All are saved not by their capacity for moral performance, but by what Christ did for them on the cross and from the empty tomb and by their faith in Him.

Paul is praying here that the God Who imposed order on primordial chaos in Genesis 1, will impose order on the Corinthian Christians, so that the chaos unleashed by their sins, often against one another, will be conquered and they can live in the peace of God.

Notice that the order in which Paul names the members of the Trinity. He starts with the grace of God the Son, Jesus. We Lutherans are sometimes called "Second Person Unitarians," a good-humored reproach for our focus on Jesus, often at the expense of the Father and the Holy Spirit. There's some validity to the criticism and yet, Paul's formulation of the Trinity here shows us that the key to understanding the nature and will of God is to see Him revealed in Jesus Christ.

The psalm is, as my son Philip described it aptly yesterday during a weekly lectionary study we attend with ELCA clergy, "a reverie." I like this designation even better than scholar Klaus Westermann's apt description of it as a "creation psalm," a category he seems to have invented largely for this psalm, although he claims to find other examples of the genre within other psalms.

Be that as it may, it's difficult, as my colleague, Pastor Rick Hinger noted during that same study, to theologize on the basis of this psalm. It's an expression of wonder and awe at the work of the Creator Who deigns to reach out to His children.

Psalm 8 then, is maybe the perfect psalm for Holy Trinity Sunday. At least, it strikes the right tone, acknowledging that, while we aren't expected to check our brains in the baptismal font and while there is much we can question and know about God and reality, God, the great big God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is mystery more to be savored than explained.

The Gospel lesson contains what is called the Great Commission, the orders of the risen and soon-to-ascend Jesus Christ for His followers. They're to make disciples--literally students of Christ--of all nations, teach them to observe His commands, and baptize in the Name of the Triune (Three-in-One) God.

4. N.T. Wright shows how this oft-quoted passage from the Gospel of Matthew also hits on the theme of God as the bringer of peace and order to our chaotic lives:
Despite what many people today suppose, it is basic to the most elementary New Testament faith that Jesus is already ruling the whole world. That is one of the most important results of his resurrection; it is part of the meaning of messiahship, which his new life after the crucifixion has made plain.

People get very puzzled by the claim that Jesus is already ruling the world, until they see what is in fact being said. The claim is not that the world is already completely as Jesus intends it to be. The claim is that he is working to take from where it was--under the rule not only of death but of corruption, greed, and every kind of wickedness--to bring it, by slow means and quick, under the rule of his life-giving love. And how is he doing this? Here is the shock: through us, his followers. The project only goes forward insofar as Jesus' agents, the people he has commissioned, are taking it forward.
5. The most intriguing commentary on this passage I've read is from Brian Stoffregen. See it here. Pay special attention to his comments on the co-existence of worship and doubt.

All Christians wrestle with doubt, at least about some things and at some points in their lives. But it is our willingness to believe in the Triune God, not some internal capacity for certainty, that God can turn into faith.

[Each week, I present some thoughts on the Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. In doing so, I hope to help the people of the congregation I serve, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, to prepare for worship. And because, we will almost always use the appointed lessons for the Church Year, I also hope that these thoughts can help others prepare for worship too.]

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