The God we encounter in Jesus is the God whose goal is the liberation and restoration of the whole creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
The Holy Trinity, Year B
First Sunday after Pentecost
Holy Trinity Sunday, Gordon Lathrop suggests, “gives us words and images for articulating and celebrating how every Sunday meeting is enfolded in the very life of the Triune God. The day is a kind of archetypal Sunday.” It also echoes Pentecost, he notes: “like Pentecost, sums up the meaning of the whole Easter Feast” (Holy Trinity Sunday, in New Proclamation Year B, 2000. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000, p. 75). On both counts, we are gratified to note that the texts appointed for Holy Trinity in Year B are especially helpful in advancing the concern for creation that is the focus of this series of comments.
Lathrop beautifully summarizes the meaning of John 3:1-7 as a statement about God:
God is the One who loves the world and is saving it, even though the world is marked by refusal, ignorance, and sin (cf. 1:10, 29). More: God blows as the wind, bringing to birth and to life that which cannot be born in our world—believers, not just religious observers. More: God is encountered as the one who is called, in the language of Jewish hope and Jewish apocalyptic, the “Son.” This one nonetheless appears not as a superhuman figure clothed in light, a mythic redeemer, but astonishingly, with a “glory” and an “ascension” which include our worst sufferings and ignominy. This dynamic presentation of the work of God-as-triune, one of the biblical sources of the later Christian doctrine of the Trinity, will give the preacher of the day occasion to present the vocation of the baptized assembly as a calling to show forth the rich life and love of this God in the world, a life and love which deeply contradict the world's expectations of “God” (Lathrop, p. 77).
The God we encounter in Jesus, that is to say, is the source and goal of all things: the God whose spirit “swept over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1-2) and who is the future of all things, the one to whom the Son brings all creatures—however deep and all-encompassing the suffering through which they must pass. It simply cannot be emphasized enough that the love emanating from this God, whom we encounter in the weekly gathering of the Christian assembly, is for the world—the cosmos, where cosmos is understood to encompass all things (See our argument for this interpretation in our comment on the same text for the Second Sunday in Lent, year A). And the vocation of the baptized assembly thus involves love for what God loves and care for that for which God cares.
The means by which human creatures are drawn into this comprehensive narrative of creative and redemptive love with its consequent vocation, it is important to note, are water and the Spirit. Water, commonly used for spiritual purification, here bears new meaning as life restored in the Spirit. As Lathrop points out, the discourse from which the text is taken follows on the first two signs in John's Gospel, the “new wine” that replaces the purification water at Cana (2:1-11) and the cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem as a proclamation of the coming new temple (2:13-22) (Lathrop, p. 76). In these two signs, taken together with the accompanying discourse, we again encounter this grand motif of the Gospel narratives to which our reading of Mark introduced us already in the season of Advent, namely, that Jesus replaces the temple in Jerusalem with all its associated rituals as the locus of the believer's encounter with God. As we have asked before: Is then the community that gathers in Jesus’ name thus “liberated,” not only from the observance of temple ritual but also from the meaning of those rituals, which so often provided a life-giving and enhancing orientation to creation? No, decidedly not, this text assures us: The ritual may be abandoned, but the meaning and its orientation to creation is reaffirmed and even strengthened by means of reference to more archaic, foundational theophanies. Water and the Spirit, present at the beginning, is the source of all life. The water used in Christian baptism is, as Lathrop puts it, “water used no longer for the intentions of religious anxiety, for the observance of purity laws as at Cana, but water poured out with the presence of the Spirit, water flowing in the restored kosmos of God, as a community is healed in the crucified Christ and made witness to God's love for the world” (Lathrop, 77).
Reference to the temple and its replacement by Jesus in and through the Spirit reminds us that the powerful manifestation of God to the prophet Isaiah was in the temple. The choice of this theophany as the accompaniment to the Gospel narrative on this Sunday is striking. The alternative readings offer the theophanies of the burning bush in the wilderness and at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The God we encounter in Jesus, these alternatives emphasize, is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, who with Moses are intensely associated with the history of God's covenant with Israel. While linked to that same history, the theophany of Isaiah 6 clearly transcends it: the glory of God spills out beyond the temple to fill “the whole earth;” the seraphim, heavenly beings of the highest order, praise God as thrice holy (the ostensible reason for selection of the text for this Sunday's celebration of the Holy Trinity). The God we encounter in Jesus, if God of the wilderness and God of the covenant, is also the God's whose judgment upon the kings of Israel results in the exile of their people and the devastation of their land. “How long, O lord,” the prophet asks and the Lord replies “until cities lie waste, without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”(6:8ff). The sacred desire of Isaiah's thrice holy God, that is to say, is for justice that encompasses people and land together in a new creation; visions of that new creation bracket the prophet's book (Isaiah 2; 11; 65-66), Terry Fretheim notes, and oracles concerning creation are more frequent in the middle section of Isaiah (40-55) than in any other prophet, no doubt due to the historical context of the community in Babylon to which they were addressed (God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005, p.184).
That the God we encounter in Jesus is the God of all creation is also the thunderous affirmation of Psalm 29: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.” It is a voice that “breaks the cedars of Lebanon,” “flashes forth in flames of fire,” “shakes the wilderness,” and causes the oaks to whirl.” Enthroned over the flood, “the Lord sits as king forever.” The images here are violent; God is likened to a warrior king. While the Christian expectation of this God may indeed be captured in the closing plea for strength and peace for God's people (so Lathrop, p. 80, “This awe-full God is the God for us and for all the world”), it is important to note that the psalter itself also gradually incorporates into its praise of God more earth-friendly understandings. As Arthur Walker-Jones shows, in relation to psalms like 96 and 97, God's glory will come to be seen “'in life-giving righteousness, not in the destructive thunderclouds. The Creator comes not with a show of power but with righteousness and justice” (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2005, p. 159; the quotation is from Norman Habel and Geraldine Avent, “Rescuing Earth from Storm God,” in The Earth Story in the Psalms and the Prophets. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2001, p. 43).
The trajectory of Israel's faith in the God of creation, this suggests, leads to Jesus, God's only Son. He was given for the salvation of the cosmos. And as the second reading from Paul's letter to the Romans reminds us, following up our second lesson from the Day of Pentecost, “led by the Spirit of God” we join him as “the children of God,” for whose revealing the groaning creation awaits (see our comment on the Day of Pentecost, year B, in this series). Life within the relations of the Holy Trinity is eternal life, the purpose and goal of which is the liberation and restoration in time to come of the whole creation.