Matthew, Trinity, and Me: Which song shall I sing?

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.’

 In the Scriptures, which long predate the Doctrine of the Trinity, we see a basic tension. In answer to a question about which is the greatest commandment, Jesus said

The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Mark 12:29)

He is quoting Deuteronomy 6:4. The understanding that God is one was basic and central to his faith, and is basic and central to our faith. The same story is included in Matthew's gospel, yet at the end of this gospel, when Jesus meets the disciples on a mountain, the place where people meet God, the disciples worship Jesus.

It is no wonder that Jewish and Muslim folk wonder if we have abandoned monotheism! No mere man is worthy of worship.

But Matthew is not referring to the Doctrine of the Trinity in his Gospel. The Doctrine of The Trinity was developed over centuries after Matthew is writing. Matthew is witnessing to the lived experience of his community somewhere towards the end of the first century, whereas the Doctrine seeks to make sense of Matthew's and other communities' experience of Jesus, and of the new consciousness to which Jesus opened them.

In Matthew's story there are now only eleven disciples. The message is plain: you can betray Jesus. The church can be broken. But doubt is not betrayal, which is surely a word for us today. In fact, there is debate about the best translation of the Greek in verse 17: While the traditional translation is that "some doubted,"

the New American Bible (translated by the US Council of Bishops) [has] “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.”

Mark D. Davis concludes,

Worship and doubt are coexistent in this verse…

The point is that despite doubt, they worship him. Or is it that they worship him doubtfully? There is a burden which is lightened here; even those of us who are full of doubts are able to worship him. Even though they doubt him, he comes to them, and comes to us.

The other point Matthew is making is that they worship Jesus. This witness is from a Jewish community who knew well the words, "You shall fear the Lord your God, him alone shall you worship." (Deuteronomy 10:20) In their considered experience, Jesus is not a good man, or even a great prophet up on the mountain with Moses and Elijah in the presence of God. (cf Matthew 17:1-11) After his crucifixion and resurrection, he is worshipped.

All this is reinforced by his words, "All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me." We are surely meant to remember Daniel 7:

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. 
14 To him was given dominion
   and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
   should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
   that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
   that shall never be destroyed.

And we are surely meant to remember Matthew 26:

64Jesus said to [the high priest], ‘You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man
   seated at the right hand of Power
   and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ 
65Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. [He is not God.]

Is it too easy for me to say that if I look at Jesus of Nazareth, I will see what God is like? John thought so. Where he said "whomever has seen me has seen the Father", (John 14:9) he also said "the Father and I are one." (John 10:9) In the same way, although I could insist on an ideology of absolute monotheism and say Matthew is showing us a Jesus who is God-like, the fact is that Matthew's language is not God-like; it is the language used of God.

Matthew issues a challenge. Quoting Elizabeth Johnston, Carl Gregg says

 At the same time that early Christians experienced God as beyond them, they also experienced God as with them, “as present historically in the person of Jesus.”

Here is the challenge: When we seek to understand the paradigm or worldview of Matthew's people; that is, the bundle of imaginations and metaphors Matthew's people used to understand and talk about Jesus, is the image of a God "historically present in the person of Jesus" adequately translated as "someone who showed us what God is like," or even as "someone who showed us God?" Do such statements adequately hold or convey Matthew's experience for us? I think the least I can say is that Matthew sees Jesus as rather more than a superior version of a Desmond Tutu, worthy as he is, or even the martyr Oscar Romero.

Matthew's language means who Jesus is, and what his claim on me is, are two questions which are never settled. They immerse me ever deeper.

The disciples meet Jesus in Galilee, not Jerusalem. The risen Jesus, and his commands, are continuous with the stories of his ministry. When the disciples climb the mountain and worship him, he comes to them. God is not hidden away, needing to be found. God comes to us.

His claim on humanity is universal. The saying "all authority on earth is given to me," claims Lordship over Caesar, the lord of the world. Disciples will come from all nations, which must include the Empire, and Judaism. Also universal is submission to his whole teaching: all that I have commanded you.

The whole teaching of Jesus is also implied in the words "make disciples" and "baptising." We are not half immersed in the teachings of a Master; we are disciples, or we are not disciples. We are not converted by a few words or a symbolic act, and then free to go our own way. Conversion implies a thoroughgoing discipleship, and a continuous change and growing. The Tradition beyond Matthew is not friendly to us being only lukewarm. (Revelation 3:16)

Yes,  we doubt. We struggle to understand what we have gotten ourselves into! We quail at the cost. But the God who is above all, the God who was with us in Jesus, the God who is with us still (the one and same God) is with us to the end of the age. Doubt is not lukewarm. Doubt is engaged. Doubt is trust.

•••

In my college days I was presented with a vast array of ideas. Some seemed important to remember; tools for the future. Others enthralled me as they opened my eyes to self-understanding, and helped me find new and better ways to live. They were life giving parts of the Tradition. But some parts of the Tradition left me disinterested. The Doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was only words which I could never quite retain. It did not touch me.

In my childhood situation, not that I had realised at the time, church put me back together each Sunday, after my week at school. One of my residual memories— those neither stray nor arbitrary snippets of life we seem never to forget— was of a religious instruction teacher who asked "are you in or out" questions of us kids in Year 6. I was instantly hostile and resentful towards her, and recognise now, that this was because I felt my one place of freedom and acceptance was threatening me with rejection.

As an adult, my inability to find traction with the Doctrine of TheTrinity— my inability to get beyond empty words to some kind of engagement— was certainly partly because the Doctrine seemed to be most often referenced by those who were part of a way of being church which had been stifling for me. It was a way of being church which I had realised separated me from the experience of God, and which sometimes even explicitly stated I did not measure up, and questioned my belonging.

It puzzles me that if I step around all this, the Doctrine of the Trinity, this central celebration of the nature of God, often still leaves me unmoved and disinterested. Why is that? Is it my personal history creeping back into the discussion in some as yet unrecognised guise? Is this the only reason I read and re-read about hypostases and homoousios this morning, and now, this afternoon, cannot tell you which is which?  What makes the difference between this, and the text at the end of Matthew, which engages me, and deeply challenges me?

I wonder if it is a matter of personality, much as we differ in our responses to a worship service, where the hymns and imagery may enthral and uplift some of us, barely engage others, or trigger a negative response in others again. Indeed, I wonder if when some people are speaking about the Trinity, they are involved in an act of worship; it certainly seemed that way in some of my reading this morning!

The key to understanding this, for me, has been to ask what we are doing when we engage with the Doctrine of the Trinity. (Or any doctrine.)  Are we being descriptive, or are we using Trinity as a functional tool, or are we worshipping?

Descriptively, the Trinity comes from our "Jesus experience of God," and the tension between that experience and our older experience of God as One. So (as above) Carl Gregg quotes Elizabeth Johnson.

 At the same time that early Christians experienced God as beyond them, they also experienced God as with them, “as present historically in the person of Jesus.”

He expands this in his own words better than I can:

First, early Christians experienced God was beyond them, “as utterly transcendent.”  They recognized that the fullness of God is beyond our language, beyond our knowledge, and beyond our experience. At the same time that early Christians experienced God as beyond them, they also experienced God as with them, “as present historically in the person of Jesus.”  This became known as the Incarnation: that Jesus embodied the ways of God in his life.  Overtime, because his followers saw the ways of God so clearly in his life, this itinerant Jewish rabbi known as Jesus of Nazareth, became known by some as Jesus the Christ. And, at the same time that early Christians experienced God as beyond them and with them, they also experienced God as within them, “as present in the Spirit within their community.”  So, although there was a transcendent aspect of God that would always be beyond their experience and even after Jesus was no longer physically with them, early Christians still experienced the immanence – the closeness – of God that is, as [Brian] Wren writes, “closer yet than breathing.”  They called this aspect of God “Spirit.”

Functionally, I find the Doctrine rather like the guide rails along the path up to some lookout in a National Park. There is no law which prevents us leaving the well-worn path used by so many others who have sought a glimpse of the transcendent upon this mountain. Indeed, if one were to duck under the rails here, and climb a little further over there, one might discover a whole new angle, a new view, of the glory God places before us. One might also slip over the edge, and fall.

As I am using it here, doctrine is a porous boundary, and a guide, rather than a fence used to control and exclude. It is an affirmation of our experience, albeit if somewhat codified. Indeed, the Doctrine of the Trinity is even an invitation to seek a similar experience, rather than defence of our paradigm. Some of us are more defensive than others, and the more defensive I have felt, the more doctrine has lost life and functioned as a fence, or even a weapon.

Finally, doctrine is worship and generative. Gregg quotes a marvellous passage from Rowan Williams:

Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.  The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tell us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the Trinity.  We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God. 

At base, this is the language of worship, for it exposes God; that is, it gives God worth and glory. It is profoundly generative and creative. Through the wonders of language and metaphor, it says, essentially, if God is something like this… then… God is also like that! And if God is like that, then we, loved by God, are also in the picture; in this particular case, "our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tell us that God desires us, as if we were God; God loves us as God loves God!"

Such worship of God is profoundly freeing and uplifting. It brings us closer to God. It enables us to see more from the mountain tops— and even from the valleys. Gregg repeats some of Williams' words in his article and, later, suggests we use them as a repetitive spiritual exercise: in doing that we would be "hymning the theology," which we able to do because Williams' words are, at base, a worship of God.

I have quoted Gregg's article (it is well worth the reading) because he explores various metaphors for imagining God and describing our experience of God. These are live images and metaphors. They are descriptive, and they are worshipful and creative. But what happens when we try to understand Trinity more functionally— perhaps it's our turn to preach next week on Trinity Sunday, and we need to get things straight? Perhaps we turn to Wikipedia for a quick start, or to a trusted theologian. Either way, we tend to jump into consubstantial persons which are somehow are one "substance, essence or nature." What are  these words and metaphors?

For me, at least, they are not live. They are more arcane than descriptive. Forged too close to spilled Christian blood, they still tend to be used as weapons of discrimination, or as "in words" (patois)  of power, especially in anxious times. And, too often, they do not become words of worship.

Perhaps I have been coming to the Doctrine of the Trinity from the wrong direction, and seeking to sing the Dictionary instead of the Hymn Book!

Andrew Prior
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!

Some Key References
Carl Gregg Lectionary Commentary: “Bring Many Names: Progressive Christianity on Trinity Sunday”
Kyle Roberts A Progressive Christian View of the Trinity (incl. more from Elizabeth Johnson)
Wikipedia Trinity
Susan Hylen What does the Great Commission have to do with The Trinity?
Mark D Davis Galilean Rendezvous
Barry Robinson's Keeping the Faith in Babylon: Over the Bent World Broods… A beautiful excerpt from The Color Purple, among other things

Previously on One Man's Web
Matthew 28:16-20 - Trinity Sunday - Lord of the Dance
Matthew 28 - The Sermon Draft: Dancing into the Life of God — Trinity Sunday 2011
Matthew 28:16-20 - Trust

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.

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