Trinity Sunday: Year B

Isaiah 6:1-13

King Uzziah of Judah was one of the best and ablest of the kings of Judah, placing the administration of the kingdom on a sound footing and enjoying military success against various enemy nations. Under his reign, Judah experienced something of a cultural, political, and military renaissance, returning to an approximation of the former glory of the kingdom of David and Solomon.

Sadly, when Uzziah was at the height of his power, he committed an act of sacrilege when he tried to enter the Temple and make an incense offering to YHWH which was the preserve of the priestly caste of Aaron. According to Second Chronicles, for this violation, a great earthquake shook Jerusalem, and Uzziah himself was struck with a skin disease that forced him to live apart from his family and share power with his son Jotham for the last years of his life. When Uzziah died, he was buried in a lonely grave apart from the tombs of his ancestors – a sad end for an immensely able king who, in his early days, benefited from the advice of the prophet Zechariah.

The point of this account from Second Chronicles is clear: it serves as a warning against hubris, and against the intrusiveness which hubris induces. When power and a belief in one’s own entitlement assumes idolatrous proportions, it leads to the kind of catastrophic infringements whose eventual resolution can only spell disaster for those involved.

A similar kind of hubris was expressed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. American political scientist Francis Fukiyama famously declared that the collapse of communism signalled “the end of history”, inasmuch as human socio-cultural evolution had reached its endpoint, and that free-market capitalism and liberal democracy were the ultimate victors in the struggle between ideologies. From this point forward, it was claimed, there was no need for human beings to look beyond the parameters which free-market capitalism established for human flourishing.

But what has been the product of this monopoly of capitalism? To be sure, many good things have flowed from the globalisation of the world economy, and the spread of democratic institutions across the world. At the same time, however, there has been a somewhat colonialist cast to this spread: it is those particular forms of capitalism that are deemed to be appropriate that have taken hold around the world, and very particular forms or cultural constructions of democracy that have been championed – sometimes, even at gunpoint.

The net result has been an increase in global tension as many countries and societies resent what they regard as the imposition of western forms of cultural construction upon their own communities. Moreover, the uniform dominance of free market capitalism has not lead to greater consumer choice or increasing economic security; rather, while corporate profits escalate and the remuneration of the “super manager” class reaches levels hundreds of times that of average wage earners, ordinary people are increasingly constrained by the narrow bounds imposed by monopolism, duopolism, and oligopolism, while wages stagnate or even go backwards in real terms.

Moreover, the hubris of the corporate sector has reached such levels that it is now seeking to use trade agreements to prevent nations and communities from enacting legislation or regulations which, while they might afford protections for consumers, workers, and the environment, impede a corporation’s capacity to generate profit. Just as Uzziah sought to intrude into spaces and contexts in which he was not entitled, so now corporations are seeking to intrude upon the democratic process itself. Fukiyama and others may have spoken of democracy and free trade capitalism in the same breath, but capitalism in its present form is in danger of becoming a monster that consumes democracy itself.

Today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah begins with the death of King Uzziah, in a society which the prophet characterises as being one filled with people “of unclean lips”. Uzziah’s son, Jotham, also proved to be a capable ruler and war-leader; but during his reign, the military power of the Assyrians loomed ever more threateningly on the horizon; and Judah began to be tainted by the corruption of the northern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah was called by God to speak truth to hubristic power; likewise, Christians are also summoned to call out the abuses of hubris – both within society, and in the Church itself.

John 3:1-17

In his book Capital In The 21st Century, the French economist Thomas Piketty records his astonishment when, on his first trip to the United States, he discovered that academic economists lived in a bubble of highly abstract mathematical formulae that bore no relationship to the “real world” in which people lived. What was more, many of these economists enjoyed a kind of “celebrity status”, and were viewed with the same reverence and uncritical esteem one might associate with a guru at the centre of a cult of personality.

This contrasted sharply with Piketty’s experience of being a French economist. In France, economists were not highly regarded, and often had to justify the results of their work by reference to other social sciences. In other words, Piketty’s formation as an economist was as a participant in a multi-disciplinary task of research, analysis, and interpretation; whereas his experience of the United States was one of experts whose authority rested on their detailed knowledge of increasingly arcane fields of theoretical speculation.

Most “laypeople” experience this overwhelming sense of economists’ “special knowledge” every time they watch the evening news. Practically every bulletin includes a section on economics: stock market movements, balance of trade figures, currency fluctuations – a whole plethora of bewildering numbers, acronyms, and statements which are entirely impenetrable to the “average” person.

Part of the “mystique” of experts rests on the fact that they know things the rest of us don’t. It is why, afterall, we turn to lawyers when we need legal advice, doctors when we need medical assistance, or computer technicians when we require IT support. We need people to be qualified experts in particular fields of knowledge, precisely because the range and nature of those fields requires specialist insight and understanding.

But knowledge absent community leads to tyranny. The Pharisees whom Jesus confronted were experts in the Law, esteemed both for their knowledge and for the sanctity of their personal lives – a sanctity that was itself reflective of the fact that their lives were lived according to “every jot and tittle” of the Law. But while the Pharisees were looked up to as teachers and leaders of the people, they in fact neither taught nor led, but exercised a kind of spiritual tyranny which determined who was part of the community and who was outcast. And they did so not because they were “bad” people or tyrants, but because their knowledge of the Law had become isolated from the people, and the relationship with God, it was meant to serve – it had instead morphed into a “monument” to their own expertise. Moreover, their hard-won knowledge did not lead them to greater insight, but into an increasingly rigid view of the Law as an inflexible statute book, one that told people what to do in order to “measure up”, as distinct from speaking God’s truth into each generation and context.

The same rigid and isolated expertise of academic economists that Thomas Piketty discovered, Jesus likewise encountered in the rigid and isolated legalism of the Pharisees.  And yet it is the very idolatrous elevation of their own “understanding” that makes the Good News of Jesus incomprehensible to the Pharisees – even as some of them, including Nicodemus, find him compelling in a troubling kind of way.

In today’s reading from The Gospel According to John, Nicodemus finds Jesus’ replies to his questions as frustrating and incomprehensible as most of us find the economic report on the nightly news broadcast. But whereas we tend to be confounded by the jargonism of economic reportage, Nicodemus’ confusion arises from the fact that his own field of vision is limited by the ideological blinkers with which he has encumbered himself; thinking he is going to be addressing a fellow rabbi, and expecting therefore that the dialogue will flow along a certain predictable course, Nicodemus is thrown when Jesus instead wants to engage him, not on the extent of his knowledge of Scripture, but on the condition of his faith, his relationship with God and with others.

Today’s reading is a reminder that the prognostications and declarations of economic theory, while they sound weighty and authoritative, are in fact not descriptors of an inevitable and unchangeable reality. As Piketty discovered, abstract theory absent solid research and relationship to lived reality might be good for the ego, but it does nothing to enhance human flourishing. Likewise, the “economic modelling” and theories of production, consumption, and trade that are so often bandied about as though they were self-evident truths are anything but – if only we ourselves stopped seeing them as such.

But today’s reading is also a caution against our own hubris, our own assumption that we stand “on the right side of history”. The Pharisees were not villains; they were, in fact, a kind of reform movement within the Judaism of its time, one which sought to excise from Judaism what they saw as the corrupting influence of foreign (especially Greek) philosophy. But whatever the merits of their case, their “reform” went awry precisely because they forgot why and for whom such reforms were necessary, becoming lost instead in their own status as expert guardians of sacred truths.

Likewise, the neoliberal economics which today seems not only unchallengeable but incontrovertible, began as a movement to reform what its adherents saw as the systemic contradictions of the “redistributive” capitalism of the post-World War Two era. But despite the hugely questionable nature and outcomes of these “reforms”, the champions of neoliberalism seem blind, not only to any form of critique, but to the question of why such reforms are necessary, and who they are meant to be serving. Ideology – and unquestioning assent to obscure abstractions – prevail.

Following on from Pentecost Sunday in which we are invited to see things anew that we might enter into a newness of life, so this reading on Trinity Sunday invites us to reconsider what we think of as “established” and “self-evident” – not for the sake of novelty, but in the interests of rediscovering relationship, through which our knowledge might be enriched and enhanced.

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is more than just a hymn of praise to the beauty of the natural world. The repeated injunction “ascribe” at the beginning of the Psalm has the qualities of an imperial command that cannot be ignored: it is a command to acknowledge the power and sovereignty of God, to “render unto God” that which is truly and only God’s – glory. This command is a reminder that ultimate sovereignty – the final word in all things – belongs to God, just as it was God who, in the beginning, spoke the words that brought forth all things. The Word of God sits above all things: it breaks the mighty cedars of Lebanon, it thunders over the formidable waters of the sea, it shakes the wilderness, and strips bare the great forests. The wonders and powers of nature, brought forth by God’s spoken word, and themselves a source of terror and awe to humans, are but a pale reflection of the true, sustaining power of the world: God.

Today’s reading from Psalm 29 is a caution against hubris (Isaiah) and the blindness of ideology (John) that causes humans to assume and presume too much.  It is a reminder that all our powers and capacities are subordinated to the power of God; and that being subordinated, they are required to serve God’s will for humankind: covenant relationship with the divine, and with one another, that upholds the dignity of the human person and which draws all people into the community of grace. The overweening power of God serves, not the interests of oppressive tyranny, but the interests of love.

This Psalm summons Christians into a way of life and being that gives expression to the divine will. In so doing, we ascribe to God that which properly belongs to God – we “speak rightly” of God, and “live rightly” with one another. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But these is not a mere matter of “obeying the rules” or “doing what is right”. Personal piety and submissiveness are not what God has in mind for human life. Rather, ascribing to God the glory that is rightfully God’s also means standing up to challenge systems and ways of life that assume, or presume to, God-like dimensions. Speaking rightly of God, and living rightly with one another demands of Christians that they also live subversively, that they stand ready to stand up to the powers of the world that rob people of the dignity of their personhood, and their participation in the human community.

Whether political, cultural, or economic, the Word of God that stands over the powers of creation, also stands over the powers of the world that seek to usurp God’s sovereignty. When Christians remain silent in the face of indignity and injustice, they conspire with the oppressive powers of the world; when they resist those powers, they are not being “troublemakers” or “upstarts”, but are giving voice to the very Word of God that declares the reign of God throughout the whole of creation.

Romans 8: 12-17

In the Roman Empire, adoption was not a merely technical legal process in which you transferred your identity from one family group to another. On the contrary, it was an ontological transformation in which the adopted individual quite literally became part of the “flesh and blood” of the family into which they were adopted. They became part of the literal history and genealogy of the adopting family, and from the standpoint of the law, there was no break in the lineage of the adoptive family. An adopted child could inherit all the wealth, resources, and responsibilities of that family as though they were the “natural born” child of their adopted parents.

When Paul writes to the Christian community in Rome, he quite deliberately uses the word “adopted”, knowing that it will have a specific meaning and understanding to his Roman audience. Paul, afterall, was himself a Roman citizen and as thoroughly educated in the philosophical and legal constructions of Roman society, as he was with the finest points of the Mosaic Law. When Paul tells the Christians of Rome that they have been bequeathed a “spirit of adoption”, he is saying to them that, quite literally, ontologically, and existentially, that they have become Children of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The nature of what it means to be human – their humanity – has been transformed by the entry into human life and reality by God in Christ.

Thus, the cry “Abba! Father!” can be made authentically by all people, because the Holy Spirit, which on Pentecost Day made its entry into the life of the world, is likewise the Spirit of adoption, of transformative change, which draws humankind into unbreakable relationship with God. But that in turn means that human life is meant to mirror the life of the One who calls people into relationship: the internal life of the Triune God, the three Persons of the one, indivisible Godhead, who exist as a unity of relational love. If adoption through faith is a matter of ontological transformation, then the transformed state to which faith points us is the perfection and unity of love.

This passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans draws our attention to the brokenness of human life, to the fact that we have fallen back into the ways of slavery, instead of taking up the fruits of our adoption. It reminds us that we have been gifted with a liberating spirit of love that summons us into relationship; and yet, time and again, in the way we construct our social relations, we adopt the spirit of slavery, the spirit of the powers of this world. Our construction of work, in its usurpation of the totality of human existence; our misconstruction of economy, in its servitude to vested interests as distinct from the common weal; our idolatry of self-confidence and hubris; our self-proclaimed expertise that bears little relation to human reality; our failure to “speak rightly” of God and “live rightly” with one another. All these (and more) are indicators of our failure to take up our inheritance and enter into the fruits of a fully human existence.

And for all these failures, we suffer – and, as Paul goes on to say in the reading we heard last week, creation “groans” under the burden of our sin and hardship. But even this suffering is a doorway into transformation, into a sharing in the glory of Christ, if we were to but open ourselves to God’s Spirit of adoption, and truly live our lives and enact our social relations as though we were, each and every one of us, Children of God.

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