Texts: Gen. 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Cor. 13:11-13; Matt. 28:16-20
First a few words about the Trinity, since it is Trinity Sunday on the shared Christian liturgical calendar. To be sure, each of the readings for today is meant to point us to reflection on the expansive nature of God, that is, the Trinity, and how God is known.
The theologian Elizabeth Johnson traces the origin of Trinitarian thinking to early Christians who, she writes:
…”experienced the saving God in a threefold way as beyond them … that is, as utterly transcendent, ineffable; as with them, that is, as present in time and space in the person of Jesus; and within them, that is, as present in the Spirit within their community…. . Accordingly, they began to talk about God in this threefold pattern: “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” …. In the process, the monotheistic view of God flexed to incorporate Jesus and the Spirit…. Their language expanded creatively to accommodate their threefold religious experience.”
As members of the denomination known as the Disciples of Christ, our approach to this concept of the Trinity has been neither for it nor against it, holding to the principle: where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” The Bible nowhere uses the word Trinity, altho’ as I have noted, there is a pattern in later New Testament writings of speaking of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It was not until almost 200 years after Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that the Christian apologist Tertullian, writing in the early 3rd century, attempted to apply the Greek word “Trinity” to Christian theology. And it was yet another century before the doctrine of the Trinity was more fully formulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381. In other words, it was 350 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus before Christians were able to articulate a full-fledged doctrine of the Trinity.
But there is another theme in our Scripture readings for today: each speaks of what it means to be human, and of how we are to live. Genesis tells us that everything that God made, God saw as good, including the human beings. The Psalm tells us that we are a “little lower than God, and crowned…with glory and honor.” The Epistle calls us “brothers and sisters”, part of a household, a family. The Gospel gives us a mission, a purpose in this life.
I decided to go with these themes this week after reading a short piece on Jonathan Miller’s blog, The Recovering Politician, written by former Ky State Supreme Court Judge, John Roach who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Fletcher, and who shared that Governor’s world view. Roach was writing to answer the question of why a supposedly smart man like Anthony Weiner (or we could mention Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter, John Ensign, or scores of other men—and women)–could have done such stupid things. John Roach’s answer: human beings, without God’s election and salvation, are totally depraved, fallen, captured by sin. It’s a strict Calvinist view of what it means to be human, and sadly from my perspective, is shared by millions of people within the Christian religion. Personally, I believe this belief in the total depravity of human beings holds an incredibly negative view of human nature, and creates a culture of distrust, suspicion, and alienation that is not reflective of the message of Jesus, or the prophets before him.
Our Scripture readings for today offer us a different perspective: at the core of what it means to be human are the words “dominion” and “mission”.
To have dominion for the Hebrew authors was to steward, to hold in trust, to care for and nurture creation….it was not the autocratic exercise of power that the word has come to mean. Our fellow (mostly strict Calvinist) Christians who hold to the Bible as scientific truth and empirical history—true scientifically and historically in every jot and tittle– understand dominion as a command to rule…through whatever means. Because they believe that God will bring the day of judgment and create a new heaven and a new earth, we do not need to worry about such things as ecology and global warming. God’s providence, they say, will provide, or will bring the day of judgment, so why worry about such little matters as mountaintop removal; the destruction of rain forests; and end of biodiversity in plants and animals.
Our fundamentalist co-religionists also connect “Dominion” to the great commission as given by Jesus in the words we read from the Gospel of Matthew earlier, to go and make disciples of all nations. Their emphasis is on the word nations. That is, Christians are called, according to these sorts of dominionists who believe themselves to be among God’s elect, to convert not just individuals, but nations, and bring nations to strict adherence to biblical law. The odd thing, of course, is that these same dominionists prefer the book of Leviticus to the Sermon on the Mount.
But again, word studies in Aramaic and Hebrew, suggest that the word nations does not mean political entities that govern people, but rather all the people of the world. The call is to make disciples, that is followers of Jesus, of all the peoples of the world, not national entities.
In our readings for today, I think Scripture is telling us that creation is the place where God has everything in its place, everything right, everyone all right. We call it paradise, or Eden, or, if we have an adult view—not a childish conception, it is heaven. Interestingly, the Hebrew word “created” does not mean something that was done just once, but has connotations of being an on-going process, an unfolding continuing creation. Jesus said he came to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven. Simply put, this means the place where God reigns. What is special and unique about human beings, as Jesus saw us, is simply that our mission is to try to straighten up creation so it more closely resembles heaven, or God’s intention for humankind and every living creature, including all the creatures and plants that are part of the whole inhabited earth—the oikoumene, a Greek word that means household, family, and from which we get the words economics, and ecumenism.
Contrary to a view of human beings as totally depraved, this perspective suggests that human beings are held in deep trust and high esteem by the God, and by the one in whom we see God revealed.
Jesus says, according to Matthew that there are three things for his followers to be and do. First, be witnesses. The word Mission means “to have a charge that one is sent to carry out.” In other words, we should be letting people know what heaven looks like. What is it like when people take care of each other? What is it like when they take care of the earth that God made full of goodness? You know what those experiences are like: we just ought to say so more often. It means to tell people that, in this itinerant preacher from Nazareth, who was executed by the Romans for upsetting the religious and political establishment with all their rules and power systems, we see the divine image most clearly and we want to be like him. Witnesses never brow-beat; witnesses never threaten.
Secondly, Jesus tells us to baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. That has meant for centuries in the church, that people are invited to participate in a ritual that is, symbolically, and existentially, a dying to all other allegiances, and a rising to life in the grace and “community” of God. When we do that, we become much more involved in our communities of family, of town, of even of nation. Because we see ourselves part of a household, again—an oikoumene—God’s inhabited community, we don’t condemn and castigate, or seek to exclude. Rather, we dig in for a lover’s engagement with everyone and every entity of which we are a part.
Third, Jesus instructs them to teach all that he has commanded, which, summed up is: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Lastly, he tells them he’s with them always. Interestingly, some of those who were given that commission and that promise were doubters. They were people like us. It is a promise to those who walk the way of Jesus that they will be sustained, led, supported—but not necessarily successful or protected. God is not in the success business, the power business, the dominion business, or the protection business. God is in the relationship business.
Let it be said, however, that we human beings are also prone to error, to gross behaviors, and subject to the attractions of false identities and false gods. It is perfectly true, as St. Paul wrote, that all of us sin, which means to miss the mark of the high calling in which we were created and for which we were meant. Hence we pray, as Christ taught us, “lead us not into temptation”, or as more modern translations put it: “Deliver us from the time of trial.” But I think Christ’s purpose was to touch and bring out the image of God in everyone he met, no matter how broken, or what awful errors in behavior and attitudes they may have known.
As Irenaeus, an early church father once said: The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.