(Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15)
Today is Trinity Sunday, the day in the Christian year set aside to celebrate our Triune God: Father and Creator, Son and Redeemer, Holy Spirit and Sanctifier. In the centuries after Jesus ascended, his followers tried to make sense of their experience of God as they came to know God through Jesus. There was God the Father and Creator, God the Son and Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit and Sanctifier. So, “Were there actually three Gods?” That couldn’t be, because they firmly believed there is only one God. “What if God the Father is the most important God, and the Son and the Holy Spirit are lesser gods?” No, there’s only one God. “Well, what if the one God takes on different personalities at different times, kind of like someone with multiple personalities: the same God, but in different roles?” But that would mean that while Jesus, God the Son, was on earth, God the Father wasn’t in heaven because he had morphed into God the Son and was on earth! That wouldn’t work! Jesus prayed to the Father while he was on earth, and the Spirit came to Jesus while he was on earth, so, clearly, they all exist at the same time.
Every way early Christians tried to understand the phenomenon of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit violated one of their beliefs. The only answer was that the one God consisted of three persons simultaneously. God, the Creator, the one Jesus and we call Father; God the Redeemer, the one the Father calls Son and we call Jesus; and God the Sanctifier, the one Jesus called the Spirit of Truth and we call the Holy Spirit. Each is unique, but each is also inextricably bound to the others in love. They are unity in diversity, bound by love.
We have a word to describe this kind of relationship. That word is “communion.” The three persons of the Trinity exist together in communion, which means that they share completely with one another even while they remain uniquely themselves. This is what we mean when we say that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). One theologian put it this way: “Divine Love is a fearless vulnerability to the other, a readiness to receive all things as well as to give all things (1 Cor. 13). . . . [It is] a complete sharing, a mutual indwelling.” This describes the relationship of the three Persons of the Trinity.
The love that is within God is expressed in creation. God created the world and its inhabitants out of love. We’re created in the image of God, which means that we’re created to be in communion with God, with each other, and with all of creation. We’re each uniquely ourselves, but at the same time we’re inextricably bound to God, to each other, and to all of creation. Therefore, Jesus could say, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). When you gave food to someone who was hungry, you gave me food. When you gave water to someone who was thirsty, you gave me water. When you welcomed the stranger, you welcomed me. And so on. This is the reality of our nature. When we deny that reality, we sin. When we don’t honor our interconnectedness, we sin. We become separated from God, one another, and the rest of creation and that is sin. As Paul the apostle said, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). When we don’t honor our interconnectedness, we either kill someone or something else, or we die ourselves. Even if we don’t die physically, we die spiritually. But when we honor our interconnectedness, God’s creation – both human and non-human – thrives.
We have Jesus’ words stating that when we do something for or to someone else, we are doing it to Jesus, so we can easily understand the interconnectedness of God, ourselves, and other humans, but we have a harder time understanding the interconnectedness of God, ourselves, and non-human creation. Psalm 8 explores this relationship.
Psalm 8 states, “You have given them [humans] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas (6-8). In order to understand the relationship between humans and non-human creation put forth in Psalm 8, it is important to look at the word “dominion,” especially its meaning in the original Hebrew in which it was spoken and written. Jeff A. Brenner of the Ancient Hebrew Research Center, whose goal is to teach “proper Biblical interpretation through the study of the Ancient Hebrew alphabet, language, culture and philosophy,” provides a definition of the word “dominion” in Genesis 1:28, where it is first found in the Bible: “And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” We can hear that Psalm 8 echoes Genesis 1:28. Here is what Brenner says about the words “subdue” and “have dominion”:
“The word subdue in Genesis 1:28 is the Hebrew verb kavash meaning to subdue but, it is important to have the ‘full’ picture of a Hebrew word as ‘subdue’ is very limited in its ability to describe the Hebrew. The noun form of this word is kevesh and means ‘a footstool,’ a place where one places the foot. The verb kavash literally means to place your foot on the neck of your conquered enemy signifying a submission of the enemy to his defeater. Figuratively this verb means to bring a people or nation into submission (Num 32:29). This word can also mean to bring into control (Mic 7:19). Incidentally, this is the same word we use today such as in ‘put the kavash on it’ meaning to make an end of something or to ‘subdue’ it.
While the word kavash means to subdue, there is another word with a similar meaning. The words ‘have dominion’ are the Hebrew verb radah. Our normal understanding of ‘having dominion’ over another is to rule over them but this idea is found in the Hebrew verb malak. The Hebrew verb radah is related to other words which have the meanings of descend, go down, wander and spread. This verb literally means to rule by going down and walking among the subjects as an equal. [emphasis added]
The use of the two Hebrew verbs [kavash] and radah imply that that man is to rule over the animals as his subjects, not as a dictator, but a benevolent leader. Man is also to walk among and have a relationship with his subjects so that they can provide for man and that man can ‘learn’ from them. [emphasis added]
Hearing or reading the Hebrew words kavash and radah in their English translations has led to misunderstandings about how humans are to relate to non-human creation. The English words have led humans to relate to non-human creation as dictators, whereas the Hebrew words enable humans to understand that we are to relate to non-human creation as benevolent leaders. We are to live with non-human creation as equals and even learn from non-human creation.
As science advances, we learn more and more about the natural world. In 1997, Suzanne Simard’s PhD thesis made an impact with its report of her research on “the wood wide web,” as she calls it. (Simard is now a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia.) “She had discovered that forest trees share and trade food via fungal networks that connect their roots.” In addition, her research shows that “the wood wide web is like a brain and can communicate information throughout the entire forest, that trees recognize their offspring and nurture them, and that lessons learned from past experiences can be transmitted from old trees to young ones.” It turns out that we humans really do have something to learn from non-human creation; in this case, trees. Trees form communities and watch out for each other so that all have the food and care they need. And, because trees are not vulnerable to sin, they probably do this better than we humans do!
The understanding that we are to live with non-human creation as equals and even learn from nature and its creatures is in line with having been created in the image of God, which is communion. Remember that one theologian described the communion between the three persons of the Trinity as a “fearless vulnerability to the other, a readiness to receive all things as well as to give all things (1 Cor. 13). . . . a complete sharing, a mutual indwelling.” We mutually indwell not only with God and with other humans, but also with non-human creation. In fact, if non-human creation would cease to exist, so would we. Without the sun, the water, the trees, the bees, and so on, we wouldn’t survive. God created us dependent upon non-human creation. It is in our best interest to relate to non-human creation in the way that kavash and radah ask us to, as benevolent leaders who live as equals and even learn from Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Sister, Mother Earth, as St. Francis of Assisi called the elements of non-human creation in his Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
In today’s world in the United States of America, the way humans relate to non-human creation has been politicized, with disagreement between the two political parties. But the truth is it is a theological issue. It has to do with our Triune God and what it means for us to be made in our Triune God’s image, which is communion. While we, of course, need to use natural resources to survive – the earth is literally our mother who sustains us – we can do so with reverence and an acknowledgment that all of creation was made by God. As John 1 states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (1-2). Through him all things were made, both human and non-human. We can treat the natural world with the reverence it deserves, thanking God for the life it enables us to live. We are to be not only benevolent leaders, but we are also good stewards. The earth is God’s creation just as we are, and we are to treat it with the reverence it deserves.
Last Sunday, during Bible Study, we had an intense discussion of our use of our Sister, Mother Earth’s (as St. Francis calls our planet) resources and creatures. It’s not surprising that the discussion was intense, because there are Bible verses that lead us to think we are to subdue the earth and have dominion over its creatures in the English sense of these words. The Bible Study discussion led me to do some reading on Sunday and Monday about all of this. Imagine my surprise when on Tuesday I reviewed the lectionary scripture passages for today and read Psalm 8, which echoes Genesis 1:28! Just last Sunday, I had talked about how coincidences are not really coincidences and are, instead, signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I felt the Holy Spirit was guiding me to explore the meaning of Psalm 8 (and its counterpart, Gen 1:28) in today’s sermon, especially since those verses in their English translations have led to misunderstanding and misuse of the earth and her resources. And so, here I am, doing so.
Isaiah’s had a vision of the peaceable kingdom that would come eventually from the shoot that came from the stump of Jesse, which we Christians understand to be Jesus:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb;
the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the lion will feed together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Is 11:6-9)
While we have not yet arrived at the peaceable kingdom Isaiah envisioned – we still kill mosquitoes when they come to bite us, mice when they come into our homes, and moths when they invade our pantries, among other things – we can be the image of God we were created to be and relate to the natural world with reverence, knowing that all things were created through the Word out of God’s love. May it be so. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, June 12, 2022, Trinity Sunday.
 Dorothy and Gabriel Fackre. Christian Basics: A Primer for Pilgrims. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991, 143.