Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
When did people decide there was something… behind the world? Nobody knows when we decided there is something greater than us, but we know that people called this "something" God.
And we know they thought there were probably quite a few of these Gods. You thought, or you hoped, that your God was the best God, or the strongest God. That's an understanding called Henotheism… you can see echoes of it in the Old Testament: God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgement, says Psalm 82
But by the time of Jesus, Jewish people had come to understand there is only one God. That's called monotheism, and it's central to our understanding of God.
Monotheism says there is only one God. The rest are fakes... Isaiah 44 says a carpenter
plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it... 16Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it, and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ 17The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it, and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’
In the Old Testament, God is not merely a distant, high God. God is tender… When Israel was a child I loved him, says Hosea 11. Ezekiel 16 imagined God speaking to Israel:
10I clothed you with embroidered cloth and with sandals of fine leather; I bound you in fine linen and covered you with rich fabric. 11I adorned you with ornaments: I put bracelets on your arms, a chain on your neck, 12a ring on your nose, ear-rings in your ears, and a beautiful crown upon your head. 13You were adorned with gold and silver, while your clothing was of fine linen, rich fabric, and embroidered cloth. You had choice flour and honey and oil for food. You grew exceedingly beautiful, fit to be a queen…
But under the Romans, in Jesus' time, people were poor and oppressed. Poor people often didn't have enough money to buy the right sacrifices to worship in the temple. That's why Jesus gets so angry with the money changers when he cleanses the temple. In that story Jesus said
It is written… “My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.
And the text goes on to say…
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple… (Matthew 21) (People still complain about the children!!)
We see Jesus doing amazing things, and we see that the rulers of the religion were not happy. He was just a man, an upstart from Galilee who needed to be brought under control.
There's a song about that, which shows the difference between the ways the poor and the rich met Jesus:
I don't know how to love him
What to do, how to move him
I've been changed, yes really changed
In these past few days, when I've seen myself
I seem like someone else
I don't know how to take this
I don't see why he moves me
He's a man. He's just a man… (Written by Brian Kelly Mcknight • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group)
He changed people. But he was just a man… and he was also a threat to social stability. He was upsetting the system. So he was killed in some kind of collusion between the religious leaders and the Romans… Not by the Jews… the people loved him. The leaders hated him, and were afraid of him. (46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. Matt 21:46)
After he was dead, some people were convinced they had seen him again. He was risen from the dead. They would call this experience resurrection. And when they tried to describe what he had been like— what it was like when Jesus was among them in the flesh— they said that when he was with them, God was with them.
But it was more than just as if God was with them— we can see this in the reading in Matthew. On the mountain, in the place where you worship God, where you meet God, the disciples… worshipped… Jesus.
They don't quite say he is God, but he is clearly not just a man. The word they used to describe him is no longer a part of our experience. He was not God-like, or like God, they said. He was God's Son… In their culture, when the King's son came, it was like when the King came, but it was not the king. But he had all the authority of the king, and if you had seen the Son, you had effectively seen the king. The word of the Son was the word of his father, and if he told you something, you could say… the king himself told you this.
When William and Kate came to Elizabeth a couple of years ago, it was as if Queen Elizabeth herself came. People were queued up at dawn. In fact, because Will and Kate are young, and in some ways, quite ordinary people like us, I think it was better than if the Queen herself had come. People could relate to them.
Now if Jesus was not enough of a challenge for the folk who wanted to keep God safe in heaven— and be safe from God—
those early Christians also said they were still meeting God in this new way that they had met God when Jesus was present. God was as "close as breathing…" as one of our hymns says.
The Old Testament used to talk about the Spirit of God… in Isaiah the Suffering Servant said, "The spirit of the Lord is now upon me…" But it was an experience that had an air of being… well, reserved for the especially chosen, rather than something for you and me. People longed for a time when perhaps God's "spirit would be poured out on all flesh, young men, old men, maidservants…" There was a song about that in the Prophet Joel…
And these early Christians said that's what had happened to them. Even though Jesus was physically gone from them, they still felt God in a new, startling liberating way. God's spirit had been poured out on them. They were noted for being changed people.
So, 50 and 60 years after the death of Jesus, we can see in the Gospel of Matthew, that people were being baptised in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And some folk were saying, "Hang on, that's three Gods— there's only one God."
And the Christians were saying something like, "Yes, there is only one God, but we've met God in these three ways. We can't deny the reality of how God has met us and healed us and loved us… and still does."
And over another couple of hundred years, people worked out a model to describe this experience, which they called The Trinity, or the Triune God: You've heard this; One God, Three persons.
Only the persons are not persons like you and me… I'm quoting here,
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, [from the] Latin [word] trinus "threefold") holds that God is three consubstantial persons or hypostases—the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit—as "one God in three Divine Persons". The three persons are distinct, yet are one "substance, essence or nature" [The word for that is] homoousios). In this context, a "nature" is what one is, whereas a "person" is who one is…. (Wikipedia)
I have to read that out, because I can't remember it, and I don't really know what it means. It's very technical language.
So we could say, "Hoooh… What's the point? I'll just think about God as Jesus—that makes sense to me. I like what Mary Magdalene sang in the musical...
I've been changed, yes really changed
In these past few days, when I've seen myself
I seem like someone else."
The song was deep; the writer knew something of what Jesus can do to us. And we might relate to more of the words that Mary sang
Yet, if he said he loved me
I'd be lost. I'd be frightened
I couldn't cope, just couldn't cope
I'd turn my head. I'd back away
I wouldn't want to know
He scares me so
I want him so
I love him so
Doesn't that capture our desire to love God, and yet capture our fear of God, and our fear of being too close to God, so well!
But that's just Jesus. And if we were to sing that song today, what sense would it make? The song is singing about a man who's alive and present to Mary Magdalene; we know he's dead and gone.
Except The Doctrine of the Trinity says God isn't gone. God is present now. God still loves us. God still moves us. And the Doctrine of the Trinity says, he's not "just a man." He is, in some way beyond our logic, God— God's son.
In one way, the Doctrine of the Trinity is another song, just like I don't know how to love him. It brings together all our Faith's experience of God, over millennia, and it points us towards the central experience of God loving us.
It also calls us away from ideas that might harm us. When I was a boy, one our family friends was the local Bishop. And one of the folk in the church said something about some God forsaken place she'd had to visit. He said, "Margaret, nowhere is god-forsaken… God made that place. God loves it. God loves all of the world."
Now that sounds like the Bishop being pedantic. But listen! If God can stop loving some place… if there were some really horrible place and if it were God forsaken… well… maybe, then, a person can be god forsaken… even me… Maybe even Jesus does not love me…
But Trinity reminds us. Jesus the Son is the same God who made all the earth, and saw that it was good. Nowhere, and no one, is God-forsaken. God loves the creation, which means… God loves … us.
But, in our terms, in logic, in the language of the science laboratory, this won't make sense. No one can hold the doctrine of the Trinity in their mind, because it describes God who is beyond description. It describes and worships the experience of something beyond us.
So we sing Trinity; we don't do science with it. I don't know how to love him, from Jesus Christ Superstar, was a hit because in its singing it captured something of the essence of being human, and of loving God, and of being loved by God. Trinity does this; it is a hymn.
So we are going to sing a Trinity hymn; strong mother God… old aching God… young growing God… It's not science. It's not logic. But it's true. It's a love song. And when we sing this love song to God— and all the other love songs we sing— when we sing them with love, it opens us to God, and to God's love. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.
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