“An Inside Joke” Prov. 8:22, John 8:48-59
Do you ever wonder where we get our Scripture readings for Sundays? Did you think I just pick them on a whim, maybe? Well, I don’t. Small “c” catholic churches (Rome, Lutherans, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, a smattering of the Reformed) follow the pattern of worship, confession, and Scripture reading that was passed down by the apostles to the orthodox church all through the ages…
Our Sunday lectionary is based on the Roman Catholic “Common Lectionary” which was the work of mid-20th century “progressive” Roman Catholic scholars. They revised the one year medieval lectionary to have a broader range of Scripture. The liberal National Council of Churches in America tweaked that in the 70’s and our Synod tweaked the tweaks for LSB.
I suspect the compilers of the Common Lectionary were both showing off their erudition and overestimating the typical parish pastor’s theological competence when they made Proverbs 8:22 the centerpiece of the OT reading for year C Trinity Sunday. It’s really an inside joke (of the sort I am overly fond of) that I doubt 1 out of a hundred parish pastors will get. But I get it. And I both want you to get it (and maybe to be just slightly impressed that I got it without any help 🙂 because it makes for a fine Trinity Sunday sermon if we all get the inside joke.
But to get there, we have to take a little trip. Put your imagination hats on, and travel with me, if you will, back to Alexandria Egypt, ca. 324 AD. Alexandria is one of the 3 major cities of the Roman Empire which Constantine has recently united under his imperial rule (in 311, after long military campaigns against his junior and rival emperors). Constantine sees Christianity as a sort of glue to hold his empire together. Now, it isn’t working as he’d hoped. A big battle between factions in the Christian Church is raging in Alexandria in 324, threatening to engulf the whole empire in chaos.
The fight started five (or six?) years before—a squabble between a priest named Arius (in Alexandria) on one side, and his Bishop Alexander of Alexandria (and his assistant Athanasius) on the other side. Arius taught that Jesus is not God the way the Father is God, that Jesus is a sort of lesser god, a demigod who was a creature, made by God at the beginning so God wouldn’t have to get His hands all yucky by actually touching material things. (Yes, there is a strong whiff of Gnosticism in Arian theology).
Alexander and Athanasius contended against this popular theology (Origen seems to have started down the road of lowering the status of God the Son in the mid 3rd century and was a sort of sacred 4th century cow). And the proof passage, the main weapon in the Arian arsenal was… Proverbs 8:22!: “The Lord possessed (actually the Greek version they used said “created”) me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old.” For Arius and his clown army, this proved that the Son of God was a creature, not really God Himself.
They used this verse because Origen had long ago insisted that Wisdom (Sophia) in Proverbs is none other than the Son of God. That Sophia is a chick and the Son is male was a hint of wrongness in this thinking that Origen didn’t get. I’m glad they finally kicked him out of the catholic church (though it was 3 centuries after his death). I hate that guy. But Origen was the big daddy of Alexandrian theology and Alexandria was the 800 pound gorilla of ancient theology. Constantinople was just being built and was all political theology, social justice warriors. And Rome was more like an ancient version of LA (without the ocean) all swimming pools and movie stars, megachurches, televangelist airheads. At least that’s how it looks to me, looking back.
And the sad thing was that no one followed the older reading that this chapter is just personifying an attribute of God, Wisdom, for poetic rather than theological purposes. Even Athanasius felt like he couldn’t take on Origen, so he accepted that Wisdom=the Son of God. Now, the Arians lost the battle at the Council of Nicea, but won the hearts of the populace, of Constantine, and later his imperial ruler sons. By 360 the whole world was basically Arian.
So the compilers of our lectionary expect your pastor will know this and will preach on this passage and make the following points: 1) when we use the bible as pretext and proof for our theological whims, we make problems for the church that can last a long time. 2) when we show too much respect for our theological fathers, we can end up making idols instead of altars for rite worship. 3) if, instead, we read the Bible straight-up; like a loosely organized, non-fiction novel and not as pretext for building theological systems or aggrandizing our theological fathers, we won’t be led astray. This 8th chapter of one of the less interesting OT books is just a poetic reflection on one of God’s attributes and how it is a gift given to us in creation. It’s not talking about who Jesus is or what He does!
Jesus is telling us who He is and what He does in our Gospel, to which we turn for the answers to our deepest questions. Jesus has just told the Jews who believe in Him that if they abide in His Word they are His disciples indeed and will know the Truth and the Truth will set them free. But they argue with Jesus that He can’t be greater than Abraham and they seek to kill Him. But, Jesus tells them they are children of the devil because they won’t hear God’s Word and let Him alone rule their hearts and minds.
That’s when they say Jesus is a demon-possessed Samaritan. And Jesus says no: that He honors the Father who honors Him, the Son—just as Abraham honored Him, worshiped Him, rejoiced to see Him; because before Abraham was, Jesus says: I AM!
Which is the point of Trinity Sunday. Jesus is God exactly as the Father and the Holy Spirit are God. And yet, as the Athanasian Creed says beautifully, while the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, yet, there are not three Gods, just One God! In Jesus, that One God has taken on flesh to take on you, as His own…
It’s a Mystery! Human beings (ordinary ones!) have just one personality. God has Three. Hey—don’t expect to understand it! Kneel and adore; and know this: you can search the heavens, and earth: philosophy, literature, theology, for wisdom. But Wisdom only grabs hold of you by Jesus’ strong, human/divine Hand. If you try to make Jesus less fully God than the Father (or the Spirit) you’ve lost the plot. If Jesus is not fully God, then His work cannot fully save. This is the problem Jesus confronts in our Gospel reading.
When we read the Bible as the Book that points to Jesus, the One God, our Savior, we let Him do it all. When we make Jesus less than God ,we’re stuck scrambling and working to save ourselves (or others) which won’t work. The Creeds are guardrails on our biblical reading to keep us with the One Triune God in Jesus who save us by grace through faith alone with no works of our own.
Last thing: salvation comes not from getting all the inside jokes in the bible; comes not from constructing a great theological system; comes not from memorizing the 3 ancient creeds. No. That’s icing on the cake. Salvation comes from not rejecting Jesus’ free salvation, His lovely, mysterious Gift. Just let the Word of the Triune God have His Way with you; then art flows over you, and Peace surpassing understanding guards heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.