Week of Sunday June 15 - Trinity Sunday
Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20
28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” 14If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ 15So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
16 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.’
It bothers me when the gospel reading for the day is only four verses. It looks like proof texting— as though the lectionary is inviting me to preach on the Doctrine of the Trinity rather than the text of the Gospel. (The Epistle is only three verses!) I am in full agreement with Bill Loader: "This is such an important text in the context of Matthew's gospel that there is a danger that its use on Trinity Sunday will lead to too much focus on its tenuous links with the Trinity." Matthew wrote his gospel long before the Doctrine of the Trinity was formulated.
The set reading is the concluding words of the Gospel, the last summing up. It is also what follows the resurrection of Jesus; that is these words are the consequence of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The words are also given to us immediately after Matthew's story of the attempted cover up of the resurrection event by the Jewish authorities.
Robert Smith tells us Matthew contains a brief description of two communities after the resurrection. "Each has its authority, its commissioning, its set of values, its encouragements." He warns us not to ignore the story of the guards.
In form and content, [the story of the guards] is the dark mirror image of [Jesus and the eleven]. Guards report to priests and elders who hold the governor to be the highest authority in the land, instruct the guards to spread a lie, and give the guards money to encourage their obedience in the deceit.
These two clusters of people at the end of the gospel represent possibilities set before the reader: Of which of these two communities do you wish to be a member? Which of these two appeals to you or describes you? Do you take your stand with the guards gathered with the priests and elders in Jerusalem or with the eleven gathered with Jesus in Galilee?
I do not take this to endorse the kind of Christianity which damns the rest of the world. The community who gather on the mountain, the place of God and the place of the giving of the life that is God's law, is no perfect community.
Jesus chose twelve disciples as a symbol of a renewed Israel; a new twelve tribes. And already that community is broken and imperfect. Only eleven disciples gather.
Matthew does not show us a perfect church above the rest of the world. Instead, he reminds us of the ongoing invitation to disciple ourselves under the Lordship of Jesus instead of under the lordship of the powers which happen currently to claim all authority on heaven and earth in our small part of the world. And he issues the perpetual question: Who is your Lord?
It annoys some of my congregation that I keep making "political" statements, but political allegiance is at the heart of our faith.
At the best of times Australians impart a limited lordship to the nation and its laws. Jesus always claims a greater Lordship; "all authority in heaven and on earth" has been given to him.
In these current times, the government and other political parties have departed far from the spirit of the law of the land, and from the great Australian aspiration of a fair go for all, to further empower the interests of a certain portion of the population. The weak, the poor, and the powerless are all being exploited in this process. Pensions are cut, the unemployed and the poor are demonised, refugees are denied mercy.
The major political parties (at least) seek not to represent the people— despite all their claims— but seek to gain enough favour to hold some of the power. They are like the priests who held a privileged position under the Roman overlords. And like the priests, lying, intrigue, bribes, cover-ups and self interest are too often the currency of their politicking.
Who is the Lord who has been given "all authority in heaven and on earth?" It is wrong to be party political in church. But not to speak of politics is to abdicate our trust and faith in the Lordship of Jesus and declare our trust and faith in the final authority of something else.
Smith asked, "Which of these two [communities at the end of Matthew] appeals to you or describes you?" This is the great challenge of the ending of Matthew. It describes us. In each moment of their lives all people, including us, witness to who is Lord.
... it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them... Romans 2:14
The same spirit is in Matthew. The last great parable (25:31-46) shows no doctrine on which to sign off, but only asks if we disciple ourselves upon Jesus by loving the hungry and thirsty and the stranger.
And at the end of Matthew Jesus does not tell us to convert people. We are not told to get people to sign off on a doctrine or a set of beliefs. We are told to make disciples; that is, to teach and enable people to become like Jesus, loving like Jesus, giving like Jesus, and forgiving like Jesus. We can only teach and enable them to make Jesus their Lord if this is how we ourselves live.
To emphasise this critical point one more time: I was reminded by one of the sources I read this morning of the other text in Matthew which mentions all authority on earth.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:8-11)
There is only one Lord. All the pretenders are of diablos; that is, devilish.
When we are political in church we remember this:
... Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:25-28
Dylan Breuer says
... the Lord of all is someone whose only agenda is to serve the servants. The one to whom all power belongs is using all of that power to empower the powerless. And this one Lord is the one to whom all of our allegiance belongs.
Who, then, is my Lord? He asks us all. And our answer will determine the kind of disciples we make.
Those who meet Jesus on the mountain doubt him.
Mark Allan Powell writes about this verse in his book, Loving Jesus.
... I want to note that the word some is not actually found in the Greek Bible. Why is it in the English version? Well, Matthew uses a particular construction here that allows translators to think that the word some could be implied. He also uses that construction in seventeen other instances, though no one ever seems to think the word [some] is implied in those cases. It could be implied here, but why would it be? I asked a Bible translator that question one time and got the following response: "The verse wouldn't make sense otherwise. No one can worship and doubt at the same time." I invited this fellow to visit a Lutheran church. We do it all the time. [p. 121] Quoted by Brian Stoffregen.
We are not condemned for our struggling and doubting with his Lordship. He calls us and sends us anyway. And as he sends us he says "remember I am with you to the end of the age." We are correct to take comfort from this, but I have not always remembered the enormity of his promise. Smith says
"I am with you” (28:20) assures readers ancient and modern that the apocalyptic worldview has been broken at a crucial point. The exalted Christ does not say, “I will come again later at the end of history after an immense absence.” Matthew’s Christ is a powerful presence in the midst of ongoing history, yoked to disciples (11:29), dwelling in their midst (1:23...), feeding them the richest food (26:26-28).
I am with you always.
I think I was born to doubt. As a scientist in training I was taught to doubt as a fundamental of researching issues. In philosophy and theology I was taught the hermeneutic of suspicion. Always I have doubted God, and the stories we tell. It is only in beginning to trust, beginning to act on that trust— that is the essence of trust, after all, that my doubts begin to fade and the experience of God becomes real... and trustable. If that seems circular, it is!
I was privileged to watch The Iman and the Pastor yesterday. It is a short documentary on the astonishing partnership of reconciliation between Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye in Northern Nigeria. It struck me how both of them spoke of the need to trust the fundamental tenants of their religions. They did not trust each other at first. With some humour they related how they fight a bit like a married couple! But they trusted the commandment to love and forgive. That made all the difference in the disaster and pain and mistrust of their situation, and let them further experience, and bring to thousands of others, the love of God.
Which brings us to the Doctrine of the Trinity. Whoever does not doubt such a fantastical doctrine surely has some problems with credulity! But it can be experienced. When we trust Jesus, things happen. We experience God in ways which challenge not only our doubts, but causes us to doubt our presuppositions about God.
The passion with which the Church has defended the trinity was inevitable. After centuries of defending monotheism as a minority view in the Middle East, the Jewish Christians were committed in blood and brain to the unity of the one God. Add to that the contrast that they had to preserve against their most recent conquerors in the decades before Christ, namely the Greeks and then the Romans with their populous pantheons of gods, and we can understand why, in the Jewish mind, God had to be ONE.
In my interviews at Selection Panel (where they decided whether I could candidate for ordination) someone pointed out how strongly monotheistic I was. "Where does Jesus fit into this," they asked? I had an answer, but was profoundly challenged by the question. I had yet to experience what Woods goes on to describe.
There were just two problems. These Jewish thinking Christians had experienced the divinity of the man they met as Jesus of Nazareth but whom they had come to understand as The Christ of God. As if that wasn’t conflicting enough, after Jesus had been translated back to the non-physical dimension of God being, they then experienced a presence and power so ecstatically and dynamically divine they could only reference that power as Holy Spirit. Game on.
Petty asks how we can express all that and still be a monotheist. This summation describes where we are at.
It took St. Augustine 15 volumes to describe the trinity. Here are his seven summary statements: The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. The Son is not the Father. The Father is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Son. There is only one God.
He remarks that this is impenetrable, and what would we expect, for after all, it is God we are talking about!
The Trinity is not a doctrine to which we subscribe because it describes God as God is. God is more. The Trinity is not a set of balls, seven or more, which we have to juggle and somehow keep in the air.
The Trinity is not something we must understand. Stoffregen quotes both Luther and Wesley: "to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity," (Martin Luther) and "Bring me a worm that can comprehend a human being, and then I will show you a human being that can comprehend the Triune God!" (John Wesley)
The Trinity is, instead, a description of the experience of the Church. The Trinity is God who
is high and beyond understanding
human, suffering, and fallible like us
within us and closer than breathing
almost unbelievably forgiving
constantly making little surprises and springing them on us when we least expect
brooding over the bent world
loving until the end
until all is complete.
And I write it as poetry because the Doctrine of the Trinity is, before all else, worship. It is the trust of our hearts and lives singing and weeping in return as we struggle and doubt in discipleship and find God is with us. This cannot be learned. This can only be experienced, or it is fantastical theory which any sane person should not doubt, but should disbelieve.
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!
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