…Always and Everywhere… (Genesis 1:1-2:3; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20)
Today the Lectionary is not subtle. It’s Trinity Sunday, and we are assigned two of the most obvious statements of God as triune in all of scripture: the Great Commission and Paul’s benediction from 2 Corinthians 13. Anyone who thinks that the New Testament knows nothing of the Trinity has to climb over these texts.
I remember once being invited to speak to a group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim university students, along with a rabbi and an imam, to explain the view of God in our respective traditions. It quickly became clear that Christianity was different in that it had this man Jesus about whom claims were made within a few decades of his death, that showed that even the earliest Christians were devoted to and worshiped the man Jesus in a way their Jewish neighbours considered idolatrous. There were prophets and great holy men and women in Judaism, but they were never elevated to such a status as Jesus was. The same became true five or six centuries later, of Muhammad. “Allah is God and Muhammad is his prophet.” But Muhammad is nowhere near God’s status. What do we do with Jesus?
In a recent book called Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, Larry Hurtado, the fairly recently retired professor of New Testament at New College in Edinburgh, Scotland, claimed that Christianity was unique in the ancient world in many ways, and, fairly quickly, eclipsed other faith expressions. He estimates that in the year 40 CE there were about 1,000 followers of Jesus in the world, whereas by 300 there were about 5-6 million. One reason for this incredible growth was the devotion of followers of Jesus to him, and, growing out of this experience, the exalted status he was granted in worship and in determining ethical, social, and family life. Very quickly (within a few years of his death) words began to be used of Jesus that had only been used of God. Now, some of Hurtado’s claims are merely one way of looking at things and are debated, but much of what he says rings true.
As it was with that little presentation of the three religions in which I participated, it was clear that what Christianity does with Jesus really matters, and it has always been so. Christians have been considered polytheists and idolaters from early days. Our New Testament passages today show that it has always mattered deeply what we do with Jesus.
Today, we begin the season of Ordinary Time. We begin it every year by thinking about God, and what kind of a God we have. And, pretty quickly, we come to “What do we do with Jesus”? and, at least classically, this issues in the doctrine of the Trinity. I know that some of you are not all that interested in all this, and a few of you really wish I wouldn’t say anything at all about it. I hear you. In my view, the Trinity has been made into something it was never meant to be, which is simply one explanation of what we do with Jesus. It has become so encumbered with minutiae that it is virtually no good for anything but debate in order to decide who’s right and who isn’t, who’s headed to heaven and who’s not. Frankly, I have neither the time nor the spiritual inclination to get into all of that detail, especially when it leads to such exclusionary results and doesn’t help us to love God and one another better for the most part. If, however, we limit ourselves to thinking and speaking about the God we experience in life and worship at the very beginning of this walk through Ordinary Time, then it’s worth a little exertion. And the question, yet again, comes back, “What do we do with Jesus”?
I will use the three specific texts the Lectionary gives us today, though we might use others. On the bulletin insert I wrote that I think that the nub of what these texts are trying to tell us, and what, at base the doctrine of the Trinity, shorn of all its fanciful detail, is saying, is this: “That God is always and everywhere creative, present with us, and is as loving and gracious as Jesus is.” That’s really what I want to say today.
The Genesis passage is one of two creation stories that form one of the Bible’s bookends, the other being the new creation in Revelation 20-21. I used to teach a semester-long course on Genesis 1-11, and I never got past chapter 9, because I took at least three weeks to talk about this story. I promise to be more compact. I read this long story to you because I wanted you to get the sense of language, movement, and style that’s there. Although this story now forms, one of the two bookends of the Bible, it was not written first, but came into being about the same time as last week’s Old Testament Lesson, when Israel was surrounded by many gods in a foreign land. This story was designed, coming out of that framework, to tell who made the world and why, rather than when and how it was made. It still is.
Although this story is in prose, it reads more like a poem. It is full of images using the ordinary week of seven days as a framework, to tell us that (not how) God made the world of human experience to be a complex web of relationships. As the text rolls on, more and more of the world we know is incorporated into the web to give a context wherein God is always present and creative. In days 1-3 God forms the spaces and places of the world. In days 4-6, God fills each of these sacred spaces with corresponding creatures, all related together. God is always there and creative. The inanimate sacred spaces are no less creatures of God than those that populate the spaces. All, including humankind, are expressions of the God who is always and everywhere creative and present. Finally, God creates a day of rest and letting-go where the whole web may breathe out and be rejuvenated by the restorative creative energy of God. As humans, this is intended to be done together, in regular cadence, in the sacred space of the world.
This text is not really about how the world was, but how it is, or is intended by God to be. That’s why it’s important to get the translation right: “In the beginning of God’s creating…” That creating goes on, and God is present still. Jesus said, “The Father is working still, and I am working.”
Paul wrote 2 Corinthians sometime in the middle 50’s of the first century CE. This was only about 15-20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And at this early time Paul was speaking of Jesus in the same breath with God (as Larry Hurtado has emphasized), and we must assume that he reflected Christian tradition, which in turn reflected Christian experience here. This is remarkable for a Jew for whom monotheism was the basic article of faith. He speaks of the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Not quite classical Trinitarian language, but close by it. I repeat these words every week at the close of worship. I do it for two reasons. First, note the order, Jesus is first. This simply says that God and Spirit are clearly revealed when looked at through the lens of Jesus. Jesus defines God for us. That would be and is controversial in a multi-faith world. Then, please look at the words that are used to describe Jesus, God, and the Spirit. They are “grace, love, and communion.” These three terms show us ways in which God is always and everywhere creative, with us and as loving and gracious as Jesus.” First, Jesus is with us in “grace.” Paul usually ends his letters with the phrase “the grace of Christ” and begins them with the phrase “the grace of God.” The two are related. Grace means the favour God shows us, though we haven’t earned it. God shows us that favour because it is God’s nature and way. Christians believe that God’s grace is most clearly seen in Jesus’ willing self-sacrifice on behalf of others. Jesus’ presence with us is truly grace-full. This grace accompanies us. It encourages us and enables us to act to become conduits of this same grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to those others in the barren, desert places of life who are in need of grace.
Second, there is “love.” Jesus’ grace opens the very love of God up to us. This love of God is the special kind of love that Paul defines most clearly in 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
This love of which I speak is patient and kind; it is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It doesn’t insist on its own way, and isn’t irritable or resentful. It doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing, but in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Jesus is with us as the embodiment of God’s love. This doesn’t keep us out of the chaos of life. It keeps us in God’s love even in the chaos when we’re tired and unsure of how to proceed.
Third, Jesus is with us in communion with God and one another through spiritual presence. We sometimes just use Paul’s Greek word here: koinonia. Many times this word is translated “fellowship,” but we sometimes think of that as no more than “refreshments after church.” It’s not that such isn’t koinonia, but koinonia is more. It means a deep sharing and transparency with one another. This deep communion or sharing occurs between disciples and God first of all, but it is, again, something we imitate and share with one another. When life is hectic and chaotic, when everything is changing and it’s hard to get our bearings, then is when Jesus’ promises to be with us in communion that goes both vertically to God and horizontally to one another to keep us and enable us to carry on in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
The passage from Matthew 28 is usually called the Great Commission. Matthew was published probably about the year 90 or so. By this time something more like standard Trinitarian language was common for Matthew’s folks. I have preached on all these texts before, and you have, graciously, sat through a grammar lesson on why this is a mistranslated passage by every English Version I know. I’ll just say a word about that in a minute, but, first, I want to note how this starts. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” As a good Hebrew who didn’t like to use the name of God much, Jesus used the passive voice (“has been given”) to mean “God gave me all authority. “In heaven and earth” is a Hebrew figure of speech that means “everywhere.” At roughly the end of the first century when Matthew was written, that’s how some Christians thought of Jesus, as having been given carte blanche by God.
Here comes the grammar. In spite of English translations, the only command here is “make disciples.” And he said, “of everybody.” This is one way that the command to Abram in Genesis 12:3: “Through you all the families of the earth will be blessed,” finds further fulfillment. Jesus, with God’s authority behind him, commands his disciples to cooperate with God in discipling all sorts of others. The ways this discipling takes place are by going, baptizing and teaching. The grammatical tense of the first term (going) shows that the going precedes the making of disciples. Before we can do anything we need to go where people are and identify with them. The second term (baptizing) standing for all the kinds of things we do to bring people together into the nurture of the people of God, and the last term (teaching) stands for everything we do to give people the nurturing content that Jesus embodies. More could be said about all of this, but you get the drift.
God as revealed in Jesus and unleashed in the Holy Spirit is God in mission, God who is not satisfied until all the families of the earth find blessing. Jesus expects his disciples to imitate God and be on a mission to reach out in grace, love, and communion to all the families of the earth. As we begin our journey through Ordinary Time, let us remember that our God is on a mission, and so are we. As we go, we go with “God who is always and everywhere creative, present with us, and is as loving and gracious as Jesus.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.