"From Goodness to Going Forth" Bible Study on Genesis 1:1-2:4a & Matthew 28:16-20
June 4, 2020, 1:00 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

In this week's Bible Study, we will consider two Bible passages.

I invite you to read the following passage from Genesis 1:1-2:4a (International Children's Bible).

1 In the beginning God created the sky and the earth. 2 The earth was empty and had no form. Darkness covered the ocean, and God’s Spirit was moving over the water.

3 Then God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good. So he divided the light from the darkness. 5 God named the light “day” and the darkness “night.” Evening passed, and morning came. This was the first day.

6 Then God said, “Let there be something to divide the water in two!” 7 So God made the air to divide the water in two. Some of the water was above the air, and some of the water was below it. 8 God named the air “sky.” Evening passed, and morning came. This was the second day.

9 Then God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered together so the dry land will appear.” And it happened. 10 God named the dry land “earth.” He named the water that was gathered together “seas.” God saw that this was good.

11 Then God said, “Let the earth produce plants. Some plants will make grain for seeds. Others will make fruit with seeds in it. Every seed will produce more of its own kind of plant.” And it happened. 12 The earth produced plants. Some plants had grain for seeds. The trees made fruit with seeds in it. Each seed grew its own kind of plant. God saw that all this was good. 13 Evening passed, and morning came. This was the third day.

14 Then God said, “Let there be lights in the sky to separate day from night. These lights will be used for signs, seasons, days and years. 15 They will be in the sky to give light to the earth.” And it happened.

16 So God made the two large lights. He made the brighter light to rule the day. He made the smaller light to rule the night. He also made the stars. 17 God put all these in the sky to shine on the earth. 18 They are to rule over the day and over the night. He put them there to separate the light from the darkness. God saw that all these things were good. 19 Evening passed, and morning came. This was the fourth day.

20 Then God said, “Let the water be filled with living things. And let birds fly in the air above the earth.”

21 So God created the large sea animals. He created every living thing that moves in the sea. The sea is filled with these living things. Each one produces more of its own kind. God also made every bird that flies. And each bird produces more of its own kind. God saw that this was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Have many young ones and grow in number. Fill the water of the seas, and let the birds grow in number on the earth.” 23 Evening passed, and morning came. This was the fifth day.

24 Then God said, “Let the earth be filled with animals. And let each produce more of its own kind. Let there be tame animals and small crawling animals and wild animals. And let each produce more of its kind.” And it happened.

25 So God made the wild animals, the tame animals and all the small crawling animals to produce more of their own kind. God saw that this was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image and likeness. And let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky. Let them rule over the tame animals, over all the earth and over all the small crawling animals on the earth.”

27 So God created human beings in his image. In the image of God he created them. He created them male and female. 28 God blessed them and said, “Have many children and grow in number. Fill the earth and be its master. Rule over the fish in the sea and over the birds in the sky. Rule over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

29 God said, “Look, I have given you all the plants that have grain for seeds. And I have given you all the trees whose fruits have seeds in them. They will be food for you. 30 I have given all the green plants to all the animals to eat. They will be food for every wild animal, every bird of the air and every small crawling animal.” And it happened. 31 God looked at everything he had made, and it was very good. Evening passed, and morning came. This was the sixth day.

So the sky, the earth and all that filled them were finished. 2 By the seventh day God finished the work he had been doing. So on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 God blessed the seventh day and made it a holy day. He made it holy because on that day he rested. He rested from all the work he had done in creating the world.

4 This is the story of the creation of the sky and the earth.

As I read this ancient legend of creation, I cannot help but think that it's only human to want to tell and hear the stories of who we are and where we came from, of what came before us that shapes who we are today and who we are becoming.  Creation stories, handed down from generation to generation from every culture, are voices in themselves, voices of protest and consolation, voices of clariity and courage.  They are influenced, at least in part, by the situations in which the storytellers find themselves.

This first creation narrative in Genesis is a counter-cultural protest of the people of Israel against the creation story of their Babylonian captors.  While their oppressors saw the origins of the universe as violent and bloody, the Israelites told their children a different story, a story rooted in the goodness and blessing of a loving Creator.  The purpose of the Babylonian gods (who have an origin, a beginning) is to keep the world from sinking back into chaos and disorder.  The Babylonian story also stresses that human were created to serve the gods, whose capricious whims could destroy humans in a blink of an eye.

In contrast, the Hebrew creation story begins with a God who simply is; God has no origin.  Light was brought by God from the deepest night, said the Israelites, and order from chaos.  The sun and the moon and the stars were set in the over-arching sky as signs of beauty and the changing of the seasons, providing light and direction and the keeping of time.  God filled the earth with vegetation that was fruitful and nourishing, moved the waters back from the land and provided a home for the creatures that crawled across it, walked upon it, and flew over it.

In the midst of this loveliness, the garden of this earth, God tenderly placed human beings, blessing us and calling us to be caretakers and stewards of God's work.  And then God looked upon all of this, and found it good -- pronounced it good.

Is there any more beautiful story, more inspiring, more powerful poetry than this ancient story about who we are, what we are to be doing (our mission, our job), what creation is, and most importantly, who God is?

From the beginning, human beings were created to till and keep the garden of earth.  Our spiritual ancestors actually help God with the creative process, and their purpose on earth is to enjoy one another -- to be fruitful and multiply -- in kinship groups.  So from the very first, God commissioned humans to be caregivers in God's good world.  Yet we have too easily, it seems, fallen into thinking of ourselves as being in charge of creation, as if it had been given to us to use up rather than to care for it.  We come to that conclusion because we believe that God has given us "dominion" over creation, and yet someone has perceptively observed that "dominion"  means "to have responsibility for the care of" something.  That understanding puts a comepletely different spin on things.  

So, our creation as God's caretakers invites us to ask the question: Is it really all about us?  We reflect on this question in the midst of a world that pounds us with the cultural values of consumption, materialism, and consumerism (although I must admit that COVID-19 has curtailed some of our consumerism because of loss of jobs)..  We rarely seem to consider the difference between caretaking and consuming, a nelect that is sadly part of the very life of the church as well.

For example, is everthing, including worship itself, supposed to be "for me" -- more than the community, more than the world, more than my neighbor?  Is it what I need and want that counts most, or is there a larger question I should be asking?  I wonder about that, often, and especially now, during this time of separation: Is communal worship something I want and need, and at what cost to the community?

We have often acted out of that sense of entitlement rather than one of responsibility, especially to God and to those who will come after us -- our great, great, great grandchildren.  But we have also neglected those who are poor and marginalized, who often suffer the effects right here and now of our pollution and over-comsumption.  Freedom requires responsiblity.

Who feels the effects of our failure to share?  The United Church of Christ has been an early and persistent voice on behalf of those who suffer the effects of environmental racism, where toxic materials, for example, are stored in areas where the poor, often people of color, live and raise their children.  Remember the contaminated water in Flint, MI some years ago?  What is our responsibility in such situations?  Do we consider the forces at work too big and overwhelming for us to address, or do we find in the Church a way to speak out, and a community in which to act in new ways in order to make a difference?

Our Genesis story calls us to partner with God in taking care of the earth -- a commision given at the beginning of the Bible.  Our Gospel text commissions us to take care of our neighbors by inviting them to follow the Way of Jesus Christ -- a commission given to us by Jesus at the end of his earthly ministry.  This is a command to imitate the very life and mission of Jesus.

I invite you to read the following passage from Matthew 28:16-20 (New Revised Standard Version).

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday when we think of God being with us in three ways: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.  Our Gospel passage is known as the Great Commission and is one of the places where God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is mentioned as the Trinitarian God in action.

Whereas in Genesis God commands humans to be fruitful and multiply and take care of the earth, in Matthew the Risen Christ commissions us to go forth and make disciples.  We are to be a continuation of Christ's ministry here on earth by taking care of the spiritual well-being of all of our neighbors -- "all the nations."  

Here we have an explicit, definite statement by Jesus about his own authority as resurrected Messiah.  Christ's use of the word "therefore" in "Go, therefore and make disciples" (verse 19) bases his evangelistic mandate on the previous verse: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (verse 18).  Jesus' sending forth is based upon the authority that he has been given.

Who God is and what God does is manifested in Christ.  We knew Jesus had peculiar power and authority throughout his ministry.  Jesus showed in his casting out of demons "by the Spirit of God" that he was empowered by the Spirit to display signs of God's reign (Matthew 12:28).  God's Spirit is visibly present in the world when Jesus shows active compassion toward those in need (Matthew 9:36; 14:14).  But it was only in Christ's resurrection that we saw visibly, bodily, presently, that "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [him}" (Matthew 28:18).

We have seen Jesus' authority as he is identified (often self-identified) as the "Son of Man."  The authority that is spoken of in Matthew 28:18 could be connected to "the human one" in Daniel 7:13-14: "I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.  And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him."

As Son of Man, Jesus has shown godly authority even to forgive sins.  Jesus heals not only from compassion but also "that you may know the the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins" (Matthew 9:6).  Only God can forgive sins; thus, the scribes charge Jesus with blasphemy.

Jesus stands as judge of all (Matthew 13:41-42; 19:28; 25:32-34, 41,45-46; 26:64).  After urging his followers to "deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me," Jesus says that, For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, then he will repay everyone for what has been done" (Matthew 16:24-27).  As John the Baptist publicly stated at Jesus' baptism, Jesus is one "more powerful than [John]" who "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:11-12).

Thus, for Jesus to command baptism to now be "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19), the Son is placed alongside the Father and Spirit and given equal authority.  Morevover, just as Jesus has divine authority, in this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples authority to teach others "to obey everything that I've commanded you" (Matthew 28:20).  Jesus commands and authorizes his disciples to teach obedience.  Divine commands come, not only from God the Father, but also from Jesus, God the Son.  Jesus is not only commanding in the name of God but commands as God.

Judge, forgiver, commander, all God is, Jesus is.  Who are we as Jesus' followers?  We are those who are commanded and commissioned to go forth into the world to tell the truth about who God is and what God is up to.

And what is God up to?  Jesus told us when he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  Jesus came to express the goodness of God in the flesh.  This was Jesus' mission and continues to be ours as well.

In a world overwhelmed by a global pandemic and racial injustice, perhaps it would be good to close today's Bible study with the questions of the righteous to the Son of Man, the King, and his answer to them:

"Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’   And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’" (Matthew 25:37-40).


Pastor Greg Rupright



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