Trinity Sunday – June 15, 2014
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Genesis 1:1-2:4a||Psalm 8||2 Corinthians 13:11-13||Matthew 28:16-20|
By Ron Allen
Because Trinity Sunday explores the doctrine of the Trinity, I begin with a disclaimer. With a small stream in the Stone-Campbell Movement, I do not believe in the Trinity. I regard God as singularly One, with Jesus and the Spirit as God’s close agents. But, in the ecumenical spirit of my tradition, the comments that follow offer preaching possibilities friendly to Trinitarianism.
While Christian preaching typically takes place in conversation with a biblical text, the preacher could develop a doctrinal sermon in which a theological formulation of the doctrine (rather than a biblical text) is the starting point. What do we mean by “the Trinity?” What caused the church to develop this doctrine? How has it evolved? What does the church gain with this doctrine? What questions does it raise? To help Christians sort out what they truly believe: Ron Allen, A Faith of Your Own; Naming What You Really Believe (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). On preaching doctrine: idem. Preaching is Believing: The Sermon as Theological Reflection (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
Preachers sometimes take the plural “us’ in the expression “Let us make . . . ” as referring to the Trinity (Gen 1:26a). However, few scholars today think the writers of Genesis had the Trinity in mind. The word “us” likely refers to the divine council (e.g. Isa 6:8; Job 38:7).
In Genesis 1, God does not create out of nothing but works with elements of chaos until they become a community of mutual support. Indeed, this is God’s purpose for the world: for all elements to live in true communities of mutual support. Human beings are co-creators with God in the sense of working with God to help all contexts become situations of mutual support. Each element has its own integrity while being inherently related with other elements and their functions.
Some Christians argue that the idea of the Trinity being comprised of three persons indicates that social relationship is essential to all existence. From this perspective the relationships of the persons of the Trinity are a model for all social relationships and for what it means to be in the image of God. However, this social notion of the Trinity is not necessary to account for the relationality of existence. God created the world as inherently relational.
The text implies that God is more powerful than any other god. The Priestly theologians gave this grand poem its present form in the shadow of the exile. Some people thought the occurrence of the exile proved that God was a lesser deity. By contrast Genesis 1 assures the community that they can live with confidence and hope because all things—even the exile—are in the hands of a sovereign God
However, a church does not have to believe that God controls all things to believe that God continues to have more power than any other entity, although that power is expressed through persuasion. From my perspective, God continuously offers the world the possibility of being more like the network of mutual support in Genesis 1. In addition, Genesis 1 invites the preacher to help the congregation compare and contrast this God to the lesser, Babylonian-like gods we so easily serve.
Genesis stresses that the created world is a gift in which human beings have particular responsibilities indicated by being made in the image of God to exercise dominion. The latter is to help elements of creation live together in the mutuality and solidarity of Genesis 1. We are to do in our little spheres of influence what God does in the cosmic sphere. Psalm 8 makes as similar point, especially vv. 5-8.
God here exercises divine power through peaceful means. God creates by the word. To be sure, this text emphasizes God’s singular power, even omnipotence in creation. Yet the means is peaceful compared with many people in antiquity who believed the world came into existence through violent combat among the gods. The latter meant that violence was built into the order of creation. Creation by the word suggests that the means of bringing something into existence should be consistent with the end. According to Genesis, violence is not inherent in creation but results from the misuse of creation.
The creation stories in Genesis do not report scientific data but offer theological interpretation. Nevertheless, many people today ponder the relationship of evolution and Genesis 1, and more generally the relationship of science and religion. This text presents an opportunity for a topical sermon on these topics. On topical preaching; Ron Allen, Preaching the Topical Sermon. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992).
Matthew 28:19 refers to God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Many scholars point out neither Paul nor Matthew have in mind fully developed notions of the Trinity that emerged in the succeeding centuries. Many theologians would nuance this perspective by saying that while the complete doctrine is not presumed here or in 2 Corinthians 13:13, the seeds of the later doctrine are here.
Matthew wanted his congregation to believe that Jesus was God’s agent in a coming apocalypse that would end the present world and establish the Realm of God as an eternal community of humankind and nature in the kind of mutuality described above in connection with Genesis 1. Matthew believed the transition to the Realm was partially underway in the present and would be complete after the apocalypse.
For this sermon I might focus on one of the several dynamics in Matthew’s community. As part of the great eschatological reunion of the human family, Matthew’s congregation was receiving gentiles into membership. While the community did not call gentiles to complete conversion to Judaism, Matthew did want gentiles to become more Jewish, especially by following the spirit of Torah (e.g. Matt 5:17-20).
Matthew responds, in part, by invoking the names of God, Jesus, and the Spirit (Matt 28:19). God is the author of the movement towards the Realm. Jesus is the eschatological rabbi pointing the way. The Spirit is a sign of the time and source of eschatological power. Matthew intends for gentiles to hear the three-fold invocation as impressing upon them the trustworthiness of the first gospel (and its picture of Jesus). To oversimplify, gentiles must become more Jewish because that is the way of faithfulness.
Matthew’s viewpoint (proposition) just above could be the beginning point of a sermon that struggles with what is necessary (or not) for Christian identity today. In view of the church’s anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, today’s largely gentile church should be more connected to Jewish belief and practice than the typical Christian congregation today.
The text raises the broader issue of authority in the church. Matthew wants the congregation to accept the first gospel as an authority. What sources could a congregation regard as truly authoritative? Why
For the best preaching resource on Matthew: O. Wesley Allen, Jr. Matthew. Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Fortress Press, 2012).
Ron Allen is Professor of Preaching and of Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.