Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; II Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20.
The Fullness of God unfolds as Creator, exalted Humanity, and Spirit sanctifying space and time.
Christian tradition calls the first Sunday after Pentecost Trinity Sunday. After the coming of the Spirit launched the age of the church the revelation was complete: the full being of God as creator Parent, servant but exalted Son, and dynamic communing Spirit is now experienced as three aspects of a single ultimate reality.
The readings from the Hebrew scriptures emphasize the elevation of humankind to partnership – image-sharing – with the creating God.
The Torah reading is the beginning of the Bible, Jewish and Christian.
Jewish tradition reads this story of creation at Sabbath services beginning shortly after the High Holy Days in early autumn. The Christian Revised Common Lectionary reads the creation story now because it is the beginning of the Bible. The Lectionary now enters “common time,” the time in the year not included in the long sacred seasons of Advent-to-Epiphany and Lent-to-Pentecost.
During this “common” time, readings are selected in sequence through various Biblical books. It is a time for general exposure to the Scriptures for Christian hearers on Sundays. For such Christians, this is the beginning of many weeks of hearing selections from the book of Genesis.
Genesis 1 presents the universe as a sacred structure, created within sacred time. The dominant mood is creation by deliberate act, and the outcome is a rational, orderly edifice in which the human is central and reflects the divine character in “image” and in the exercise of dominion. No conflict goes on in this presentation. Creation is not the outcome of a violent struggle between chaos and creator god. It is the outcome of calm pronouncements which immediately become reality.
The overarching message is that the entire universe was created in a way to sanction observance of the Sabbath rest. Those who are in harmony with the Creator observe that rest. The commandment in Exodus to observe the Sabbath will appeal to this creation story (Exodus 20:11), and the actions in Genesis 1 show that everything that is needed in the creation of the world is accomplished in six days of God’s own time, leaving the seventh as the special day of rest.
To show that the creation is complete in six days the narrator has to double up some of the days’ actions. For there are eight actions of creation which have to be placed within six days. This is accomplished by putting two actions each into the third and the sixth days. Also, there is a symmetry between the actions of the first three days and the actions of the second three days of creation. The whole arrangement, then, is as follows.
First Day Fourth Day
(1) Light [heavenly action only] (5) Lights (sun, moon, stars)
Second Day Fifth Day
(2) Dome [vertical separation] (6) Creatures of water and air
Third Day Sixth Day
(3) Dry Land [horizontal separation] (7) Creatures of the dry land
(4) Vegetation (8) Humans
Seventh Day – the Divine Rest
In its treatment of the creation of humans, the narrative makes clear that God the Creator has a special interest – even intimacy (considering the possible implications of “image”) – in the human being. Other than the emphasis on the Sabbath, the pronouncement about the human is the climax of the eight acts of creation.
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply,
and fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:27-28, NRSV.)
In this sophisticated narrative (compared to the earthier creation story in Genesis 2), humankind is created from the beginning as one species with two sexes and receives a divine command to multiply and to subdue the earth. In this activity, stated as a kind of pristine ideal, the human is an integral part of God’s entire purpose as a creating being.
The ideal Human exercising this role is anticipated in the Psalm reading.
This psalm is framed, beginning and end, by an exclamation that God’s “Name” is majestic throughout the earth.
The speaker then declares that God’s glory is set “above the heavens” – beyond the visible dome of the sky, in the heights of God’s own dwelling with the heavenly beings. By contrast, at an opposite extreme in the vertical dimension, there is a “bulwark [of praise]” that comes from the babbling mouths of nursing babies and helpless infants – a bulwark that protects the innocent and defenseless from the “enemy and the avenger” (verse 2, NRSV). God is praised within the mystery of the supreme height in heaven but also at the mysterious depths of the helpless child who cannot yet utter human speech.
Between those extremes, other signs of God’s majesty are provided by the visible heavenly bodies. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers / the moon and the stars that you have established…” (verse 3). These created wonders of the visible heavens force mere humans to gaze upward in complete awe. And, having gazed up for some time, one then looks down to the other extreme: “…what are human beings that you are mindful of them, / mortals that you care for them?” (verse 4. The NRSV uses plurals in place of the Hebrew enosh, poetic humankind, and ben adam, son of human / son of Adam. The singular means the archetypal Human, the original and ultimate Human, and this will be important in early Christian citations of this verse.)
Within this extreme between great heavens and mere mortals, a divine elevation is proclaimed.
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
you have crowned him with glory and beauty,
made him lord of the works of your hands,
put all things under his feet,…
(Verses 5-6, New Jerusalem Bible translation, avoiding the plurals.)
Within the glory of the visible world, the Human has been exalted to near divine status, and that is the supreme expression of the majesty of God’s Name throughout the earth.
In the rhetoric of the Israelite psalmist this is a magnification of the generic human species on the earth, though expressed as the elevation of a single ideal Human. In the language of the early Jesus followers, this is God’s exaltation of the suffering servant to his destined supreme place for all creation. (Psalm 8 is specifically quoted in this way in I Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22; and Hebrews 2:5-9.)
In that perspective, the Human is the Lord who came to save the lost and has been elevated to rule over all powers and realms of heaven and earth. That elevation of the Christ as the archetypal Human was anticipated in the praise of the psalmist.
The human, vulnerable, and mortal creature is also included in God’s own being. Thus the early believers learned to know the threeness of God, whose praise they included in their doxologies.
II Corinthians 13:11-13.
The Epistle reading contains such a doxology.
The last few words of the letter from the apostle show how early Christians expressed their best wishes to each other. Here, these seem hurried, almost jumbled – a few bullets in a memo.
Put things in order.
Listen to my appeal.
Agree with one another.
Live in peace – and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the saints greet you. (Verses 11-12, NRSV.)
And then the benediction, blessing with words that express the threeness of God as these believers have come to experience it.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
And in the Gospel reading – the closing words of the Gospel According to Matthew – we have one of the greatest expressions of the threeness of God that comes from the early believers.
Matthew here presents an appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples in Galilee, rather than in Jerusalem, as in Luke, Acts, and John (except in chapter 21). It is in Galilee, on “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them” that the final commission to the disciples is given (Matthew 28:16, NRSV). Besides this passage in Matthew, Mark also shows that originally Jesus would appear only in Galilee to the disciples (Mark 14:28 and 16:7). For Mark and Matthew, Jerusalem is the place to go and die; Galilee is the place to go and live again.
In any case, in Matthew the Jesus story ends with Jesus sending the disciples to “make disciples of all nations.” (“Nations,” ta ethne, we may recall, is mistakenly rendered in English as “Gentiles,” its Latin translation.) “The nations” certainly includes all the Jews gathered from other countries at Pentecost (Acts 2:9-11) as well as the non-Jewish people among them! The apostles are to go, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey every thing that I have commanded you” (verses 19-20).
This teaching (the Gospel According to Matthew) begins with John the Baptist, only now it is a baptism in the name of the three-fold character of God. After this baptism, the peoples of the nations will continue by learning the Sermon on the Mount and then the other blocks of teaching material in Matthew’s Gospel.
This sequence of teachings, in the name of the three-persona God, is what the Lectionary Gospel readings will lead us through in the next few months.