INTRODUCTIONS TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - Trinity Sunday
PROVERBS 8:1-4, 22-31. The Book of Proverbs comes from a type of creative writing known as Wisdom literature. It gets this name from the way in which it presents religious teachings as ancient, inherited wisdom to guide the morally and spiritually inexperienced. The Books of Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and some Psalms also belong to this class. In this passage, Widsom is personified as God’s first creation who also shared in all other acts of creation. Wisdom is often equated with the Holy Spirit.
PSALM 8. The psalmist first contemplates the glory of God manifested in the wonders of the heavens. This brings to mind a reflection on the place of humanity in creation. Sadly, by taking the text literally, we have excessively exploited our role as God’s vice-regents with “dominion” over nature.
ROMANS 5:1-5. Two of the most important doctrines of our faith had their roots in this passage: justification and sanctification. Justification means putting our trust in the power and goodness of God whose grace gives us peace instead of the sinful conflict between God’s will and our will. This transforms our moral character. We are not only changed, but we also find hopeful assurance that God’s love reigns in this hostile world. Through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, love becomes the sole motivation for all our behaviour, i.e. we are sanctified, made holy and worthy representatives of God in the world.
JOHN 16:12-15. In Jesus’ final discourse to his disciples, John defines for his own community the purpose of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. This is the closest any New Testament author comes to a statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. The role of the Spirit is to guide the church into all truth. The fundamental criterion of truth for the church is that it must always witness to Christ and seek to reveal God’s purpose. This requires much careful reflection before being expressed in life.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
PROVERBS 8:1-4, 22-31. The Book of Proverbs comes from a type of creative writing called Jewish Wisdom literature. It gets this name from the way in which it presents religious teachings as ancient, inherited wisdom to guide the morally and spiritually inexperienced. The Books of Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and some Psalms also belong to this class. Outside of the standard canon of scripture, however, many other books of Wisdom literature were written to interpret the ancient tradition in different styles. Some are contained in the Old Testament Apocrypha. Two of these, Ecclesiasticus (also called The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach, or just Sirach) and The Book of Wisdom, are also found in the accepted canon of the Roman Catholic Church.
One of the features of Wisdom literature is the personification of Wisdom. The recasting of this human characteristic as a person with a clearly defined role within the divinely mandated order of the universe is at once a theological and a literary tour de force. Wisdom is often equated with the Holy Spirit.
The late Professor R.B.Y. Scott, formerly of McGill and Princeton Universities, wrote a trenchant paragraph in his book, The Way of Wisdom, (New York: Macmillan, 1971, p. 212). This comment brings together references to Proverbs 8:1-21 and the apocryphal book Sirach 4:11-19 and 24:19-22.
"Wisdom came to every people and nation. Yet it was in Israel alone that she took root and became embodied in the Law of Moses. Thus the idea of Wisdom, on one level is a quality of human life to be attained through training and the gift of God, and on a second level is personified almost as a goddess offering herself to mankind ... as an emanation from God himself. She is God's Word, spoken in the divine assembly in the presence of the heavenly host. Here the streams of gnomic wisdom, prophetic word, covenant faith, and personal religious devotion converge and coalesce in wisdom piety."
In the latter segment of this reading, vss. 22-31, Wisdom makes the claim of being God's first creation who subsequently shared in all other acts of creation. This characterization may well owe something to Greek philosophy in which the material and the spiritual were so distinct as to isolate God from God's creation. On the other hand, it may be no more than a later development of the Hebrew concept of holiness which came to the fore in post-exilic Judaism and also resulted in the separation of God from the created world.
During the last several centuries, we have tended to displace divine wisdom with expanded human knowledge based on scientific experiment and rational analysis by inductive reasoning. Advances made in such fields as neurology, psychology, psychiatry and pharmacology have given us the sense that the spiritual realm or soul really do not exist beyond the neural synapses of the human brain.
Recent experiments in brain scanning with highly sensitive technology have revealed that certain areas of the brain are less active and others more active during religiously motivated meditation. The research appears to show that this occurs particularly when a transcendent state is reached. Some refer to such a state as reaching a higher or deeper level of consciousness. In biblical terms, this might well be related to the angelic visitations, dreams and visions that occur in many biblical narratives. Joseph in Egypt, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, Mary, mother of Jesus, and John, the author of Revelation come immediately to mind.
PSALM 8. The psalmist first contemplates the glory of God manifested in the wonders of the heavens. One can imagine a devout courtier like Isaiah standing on the flat rooftop of his Jerusalem home or a herdsman like Amos watching over his resting flock on a Judean hillside. As either of them gazed into the heavens they saw the panoply of stars spread out above them and a full moon rising over Jordan. We who have spent summer nights at Canadian camps and cottages or watched the northern lights illuminate a winter sky know well how such a scene gives one first an overwhelming sense of awe and then a deep humility in realizing how infinitely small and insignificant we are.
The psalmist reflects not only on the minute place of humanity in such a vast universe. Even as he brings his faith to bear on his sense of smallness, he knows that we have a special relationship with the Creator of this universe and hence a special relationship with the created world in which we presently live. (vss.5-8).
The environmental issues for us are vastly different than they were when this psalm was composed. Sadly, by taking the text literally, we have excessively exploited our role as God's vice-regents with "dominion" over nature. That calls for repentance and radical change in our attitudes and our actions, individually, communally, globally. We must think of ourselves as stewards rather than dominators of creation. We can only continue to praise our Sovereign Lord's majestic name if we accept total responsibility for restoring our right relationship with God's creation.
That does not mean that we must espouse all the extreme aspects of the environmental cause. Growing a small garden or planting a few trees may contribute more than joining a protest which turns to mob violence in a vain attempt to persuade the politically and economically powerful to cease destroying the planet. Changing our driving habits, using electricity more cautiously or heating our homes more temperately may achieve the same end. Equally foolish, however, are the declarations of politicians and political parties supported by powerful lobbyists and spokespersons for special interests that concern for the environment is only a personal moral issue, not a matter for public debate and democratic decisions.
ROMANS 5:1-5. While two of the most important doctrines of our faith, justification and sanctification, receive full exposure from 3:21-8:39, this passage serves as link between the two. Justification means putting our trust in the power and goodness of God whose grace gives us peace instead of the sinful conflict between God's will and our will. In 3:21-4:23 Paul had dealt extensively with the means by which we have been given a new status in our relationship with God. In this subsequent section of the letter he tells us why God has done this: it has made our salvation possible. Paul also elaborates the implications for everyone who believes: it transforms our life in the world, i.e. we are sanctified, made holy.
One of the best analyses on the passage is in C.H. Dodd's commentary in the Moffat's New Testament Commentary Series. He regarded this passage as a transition from justification to sanctification. The key to the whole segment is vs.9: "Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God." Those words - justification, sanctification and salvation - have tended to become code words for Christian theology and preaching. Our task is to communicate what they mean to people who no longer know the code as did our spiritual ancestors.
In his analysis of the passage, Dodd so clearly points out that “salvation” is not just a new status, like being elected the vice-president of a labor union or graduated with an advanced degree from a particular university. It is a new life. It is a new in being delivered from death, with the assurance of life beyond death; and it is a new in being forgiven and able to overcome what had previously been wrong in our lives; it is new in given the freedom to do what is right. Salvation not only happens after death when we come into the eternal presence of God. It is ethical and behavioral, effecting what we do and say, and how we live here and now .
Faith as Paul understands it is nothing less than trust in the power and goodness of God to bring this transformation about for each one of us. This trust results in a profound change in our relationship with the spiritual and the material world, a relationship we access not by our own efforts, but through Christ. It also transforms our moral character and our relationships with everyone and everything we meet in everyday life. We not only change our behavior, we also find hopeful assurance that God's love reigns in what constantly appears to us as a world that is hostile to love and right living. Through God's gift of the Holy Spirit, i.e. we are made holy - sanctified.
No, we don’t immediately become saintly in the sense of performing a superabundance of good works and causing miracles to happen. “Supererogation,” in the Roman Catholic doctrine of saintly living means doing more than duty required by specially devoted individuals. This no longer applies when God grants the gift of the Spirit with unconditional love for each and for all. We simply find our lives motivated in every way by love. More and more, we become people like Jesus, the one person in whom the Spirit of God dwelt fully.
JOHN 16:12-15. On this particular Sunday we usually concentrate on what traditional creeds have called “the Holy Trinity” - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The authors of the New Testament, rooted primarily in the Hebrew thought and written in Greek, did not give us a clear definition of what the later doctrines and creeds stated in orderly propositions. Those were the product of long reflection by Greek and Latin scholars on what the New Testament had said about the earliest Christian experience.
Not surprisingly, it was the Western Latin Church centred in Rome which espoused most fervently the Trinitarian doctrine thrashed out amid much controversy at the church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the Protestant churches adopted this as the orthodox doctrine. Every time we repeat one of the traditional creeds we give expression to this doctrine. However, the terms and definitions of the Trinity may no longer have much meaning to modern church members no matter how many times we may learn them by rote and to endlessly recite them.
In Jesus' final discourse to his disciples, John defined for his own community the purpose of the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the closest any New Testament author came to a statement of the doctrine of the Trinity, except perhaps for the Trinitarian baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19. Here John gave a much more functional definition of how the Trinity actually touched the life of the apostolic community.
The role of the Spirit was to guide the community into all truth. Obviously, John did not believe that "truth" consists of what he has written or that it could be found only in the scriptures. He was speaking of spiritual truth rather than the philosophical, historical or scientific truth which has so enthralled the modern world since the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment three centuries ago. His understanding of truth was much more dynamic. One might go so far as to say that it was inspirational in that it was - and is - always available.
John also gave us a means of determining what is spiritually true and what is not. The fundamental criterion of truth for the church is that it must always witness to Christ and reveal God's purpose that love shall reign in all relationships throughout the whole of creation.
This does not provide us with an easy formula for discerning what is required of us as we seek to perform the discipleship of love in the contemporary world. It requires much careful reflection before being expressed in the ordinary affairs of daily life. Those who dream of travel to distant galaxies in search of other inhabitants of the universe will quickly realize that dramatic presentations such as we revel in through television and movies still do not remove us from the moral discipline of love.
Spiritual reflection and meditation, waiting for the Spirit to lead us into truth, are not habitual forms of religious discipline for most of us in the Reformed tradition. As we are pushed more and more to the margins of current events and realize that we are a dwindling minority in an almost entirely secular society, there are signs that the contemplative life may indeed be a special gift of the Spirit for our time. Significant movements toward renewed interest in basing our daily lives on meditation are to be found in most religious traditions. In our own tradition, Roman Catholics seem to have done more of this in an organized way than Protestants. Some of these, such as the World Community for Christian Meditation (http://www.wccm.org) have been influenced not only by the Benedictine monastic tradition, but by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition led by the Dalai Lama. The Irish Jesuits have also contributed to this movement through their daily practice of prayer and journaling based on lectionary readings from scripture (http://www.jesuit.ie/prayer). A similar contribution has been made in the Carmelite tradition found on a website sponsored Dr. Phil St. Romain from Great Bend, Kansas. ()
We should not neglect, however, the long tradition of daily Bible readings, and prayer practiced for many years by countless devoted Christians in several different Protestant traditions. More important than the source of our contemplative practices, however, are the commitment and the daily dedication to pursue whatever method we adopt. Only so can we sense the gradual change in our spiritual life and growth in grace as the Spirit leads us into a greater of the truth that is in Christ Jesus.
SOME ADDITIONAL PREACHING POINTS.
PROVERBS 8:1-4, 22-31. The other side of the debate about divine wisdom argues that heightened and even hyper-religious experiences can occur in people whose brains have been damaged in specific areas. People who are regarded as mentally ill due to a chemical malfunction of the neural system may also exhibit distinctive, if also somewhat bizarre religious feelings and attitudes. We simply do not yet know why certain brain changes are associated with religious feelings. Nor do we know whether or not the human brain simply invents the religious insights which have filled the scriptures of many different religious traditions. Long before humans learned to write, they communicated such experiences for countless generations in the languages we now read from a page.
God is not contained in any book or in any brain. God is God, transcendent yet immanent in creation. God can only use the consciousness of the divinely created human brain incorporated in a complex system of body and mind to communicate with us. This is Wisdom as the Jewish tradition experienced it. In several NT authors of the Christian canon, of which John’s Gospel and the Letter to the Colossians are noteworthy, Jewish Wisdom and the Logos of Greek philosophy, combined with the OT tradition of the redemptive Messiah to create a new synthesis that subsequently gave rise to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
JOHN 16:12-15. Nowhere in our Christian scriptures is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity stated as a proposition of belief or statement of faith. Everywhere in our scriptures is the Holy Trinity perceived as present and active as the effective spiritual, creative power in all of life. Through faith in Jesus Christ and participation in his life and faith, as well as inspired, directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have access to the triune God, the ultimate transcendent Being and Life.
Scripture is not something absolute in and of itself. It points to Something beyond itself. Seen in this light, scripture thus becomes the means of grace by which the Holy Spirit helps us to transcend what is a mundane existence in a brutal, violent and unfriendly world.
Is it also possible that this can said of the writings of other religious traditions that do not come to the same conclusion about Jesus Christ that we do? This is the conclusion toward which Wilfrid Cantwell Smith’s led us in his final work, What Is Scripture? (Fortress Press, 1993)
The other side of the debate, however, argues that heightened and even hyper-religious experiences can occur in people whose brains have been damaged in specific areas. Nor do we fully understand how some people we regard as mentally ill due to chemical malfunctions of the neural system can have religious experiences of a somewhat bizarre nature. We simply do not know why certain brain changes are associated with religious feelings. Nor do we know whether or not the human brain simply invents the religious insights which have filled the scriptures of many different religious traditions. Long before humans learned to write, they communicated such experiences for countless generations in the languages we now read from a printed page.
Our faith tells us that God is not contained in any book or in any brain. God is God, transcendent yet immanent. God can only use the consciousness of the divinely created human brain incorporated in a complex systems of body and mind to communicate with us. This is Wisdom as the Jewish tradition experienced it. In several NT authors of the Christian canon, of which John’s Gospel and the Letter to the Colossians are noteworthy, Jewish Wisdom and the Logos of Greek philosophy, combined with the OT tradition of the redemptive Messiah to create a new synthesis that subsequently gave rise to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It took the church four centuries or more of often divisive debate and confrontation with what many called heresy to come to a meaningful and cohesive statement of the synthesis expressed in our traditional Trinitarian creeds.
The words of Professor Alan Richardson, (1905-1975) sometime Professor of Christian Theology in Nottingham University, are appropriate in this instance: “The one true God of the old Jewish faith, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had now acted in a new way: what was involved was not (so to speak) an enlargement of God, but an enlargement of man’s revealed knowledge of God - not the taking of two other ‘persons’ into the divine society, but the revelation of God’s different ways of being God, now understood (but only within the mystery of faith) for the first time.” (An Introduction to t he Theology of the New Testament. SCM Press, 1958.)