06/15/14 Sermon (June 15, 2014) Trinity Sunday

posted Jun 18, 2014, 11:43 AM by David Hawkins

"To the End of the Age"

Scripture Reading: Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Sermon: "To the End of the Age"                     Rev. David Hawkins

When I was in seminary, I remember that some friends of mine were in a New Testament class, and were required to write a paper about which one of the four Gospels would they choose, if they were only allowed one.

I wasn’t in that class, but it made me think about the question. Which one would I take? Would it be that social justice oriented action thriller that is Mark? Would it be the Spiritual mysticism of John? The beautiful stories of healing and teaching in Luke? The Ethics of Matthew? It feels like it would be incomplete to just choose one.

The reality is, we need all four of the Gospels. Each of them has a point of view, and none of them can, or even try, to articulate the whole love of God given to us in Jesus Christ. As the author of John says, if everything that Jesus had done had been written down, well, the whole world could not contain all the books.

But the church has settled on four Gospels. Four different accounts of the life and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each of them present an understanding of who Jesus was and is, and we need all of them for the formation of our own faith.

Last week we looked at one version of what we might call the great commission in one of the Gospels, the Gospel of John. We remembered that when Jesus came to his disciples as they huddled in fear in a locked room, he forgave their faithlessness, the way they abandoned him in his hour of need. Instead of judgment, he spoke peace. And then he breathed his spirit on them, and commissioned them to go into the world as Jesus himself was sent.

Today, we look at the more well-known version of that commission, from a different Gospel, from the Gospel of Matthew.

There are a lot of similarities between these stories. Enough that it might be easy for us to gloss over them, thinking that they are saying the same thing. Enough to assume that we don’t really need to pay much attention to what Matthew is telling us, because we’ve already heard from John.

But these stories are not identical. And it might be fruitful for us to take a look at how they are different from each other.

We begin today on a mountaintop. Not in a locked room, fearful, isolated, but out in the open. We begin, not with guilt and regret, but with worship. The disciples are on the mountain with Jesus, and I wonder if it doesn’t feel somewhat familiar.

You might remember that it was on a mountain where Jesus began his ministry in Matthew, with the sermon on the Mount. It was where the disciples heard the first words of Jesus’ ministry. And now, on this mountain, Jesus is telling his disciples to take those words into the world.

It was on a mountain when Jesus appeared alongside Moses and Elijah, and his disciples saw him transfigured, changed before their very eyes, fulfilling the law and the prophets. And they fell down in worship. But then, Jesus bid them rise, and they walked down into the valley, back into the world filled with noise, and dust and pain together.

And now, here the disciples are once more, on the mountain with Jesus. And once again, he is transfigured. He is risen from the dead. And they worship him. And once again, Jesus bids them to walk down into the valley and into the world, but this time, accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

And like Thomas in the Gospel of John, while the disciples worshipped, there were still some who doubted. Even as Jesus appears to them, risen from the dead, there is doubt. And I find some comfort in that. That even as Jesus stands before them, these disciples, these great pillars of the Christian faith, even then, there was some doubt.

This story in Matthew reminds us that faith does not mean the absence of doubt. In fact, this story recognizes that faith and doubt are somehow bound up with each other. That wherever there’s faith, there’s also doubt. That our faith is not something that we ourselves summon up, something that we ourselves control. Because we can’t control doubt. We can’t stop it. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence in our scripture today,  some of the disciples still doubted. And sometimes, so do we.

The presence of doubt, even in this situation reminds us that our faith is utterly reliant on Jesus Christ. It’s not something that can be proven, even by the evidence of our own eyes. In fact, the only other time this word ‘doubt’ occurs in the Gospel of Matthew is earlier, when Peter is learning how to walk on water.

We remember that the disciples had just seen Jesus walking on the water. And so they knew it was possible. And then, Peter gets out of the boat, and walks on the waves as well. For a little while. Until he begins to doubt. And in that moment, we see doubt and faith, right alongside each other. It’s part of who we are. And sometimes doubt overwhelms our faith, and we flounder.

But doubt is not the absence of faith. Even as Peter doubts, Jesus was still with him. And when he could no longer keep his head above water, Jesus reached out for him, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and brought him back to safety.

The point is not to eliminate doubt. That’s not possible. The point is to step out in faith, even when we doubt, and trust that Jesus will haul us back in the boat if we get in over our heads.   

Let’s get back to the similarities and differences between the commissions in these two Gospels. In both of these stories, Jesus talks about authority. In John, he gives the disciples the authority to forgive and to retain sins, the way that Jesus did during his life.

And that’s a bigger deal than it sounds. You may remember that the Pharisees were aghast at the fact that Jesus walked around just forgiving sins left and right as though he had the authority to do so. How dare he? they said. What gave him the authority to do that?

But to have the authority to forgive sins is a huge responsibility as well, and it demands from us the kind of grace that we can only pray for. Because to forgive sins the way Jesus did is difficult. In fact, it’s just about impossible. Jesus forgave all the way to the cross, and we have a hard time forgiving someone who cuts us off in traffic, or who votes differently than we do.

And so we have the authority to forgive sins, but we don’t always have the strength or willingness to do so.

And in today’s version of the great commission, Jesus also talks about authority. But this time, he talks about the authority that is given to him by God, to send the disciples out on their journey. We are sent out  to teach and to baptize, to make disciples, not on our own authority, but on that of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew, the commission to dedicate our lives to the ministry is done by the authority of God. In the name of God the Father, the creator of all things, the transcendent God of the Universe. But this ministry is also done in the name of the Son, the one who came to live as one of us, vulnerable to our brokenness, mortal, human, a friend, a brother, a fellow traveller.

This means that the ministry we do is not abstract. It’s modelled on a real human being, someone who participated deeply in every part of our everyday life, eating, drinking, laughing, crying. Our ministry is not one step removed from our lives. It’s not transcendent, far, far way, up in heaven somewhere. It is here, in the dirt, in the mud and the blood of our human existence, the same way that Jesus was in the mud and blood of our lives.

And in order to fulfill this ministry in all it’s dirty, messy, difficult glory, Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit. But again, the way this is done is different in each version. In John, Jesus breathes his Spirit onto the disciples, but in Matthew the commission is in the name of the Holy Spirit.

And here we start getting into the sort of scripture that can’t help but make us think about what means to worship the Trinity. And that makes perfect sense, because today is Trinity Sunday, and we’ve got symbols of the Trinity all around us. We’ve got the red of the Holy Spirit, we’ve got the white of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we’ve got the green of the always creative and creating God.  

The idea of the Trinity is a hard one to get our heads around. One God, three persons, how does that work? Whole libraries are written about this, and yet for most of us, we are hardly any further down the line to understanding what it’s all about.

Because, really, we can’t make it work, this whole idea about one God, three persons, at least, we can’t make it work logically. Something always has to give. And I think that maybe that’s the point.

The Bible doesn’t solve the mystery of the Trinity for us. It doesn’t sort out the problems with the idea of One God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather, the Bible presents us with the mystery, and calls us to live with it.

The Bible presents us with God, the omnipotent, the transcendent, the maker of things. This we can understand. This is a concept that we can get behind and worship. Majesty, awe, fear, amazement, these are all feelings that flood our minds when we try to comprehend the bigness of God. And so, this much is clear. God is God, and we worship him.

And yet, the Bible also presents us with Jesus Christ, in whom the Bible say all this amazing universe, everything that is and was and is to come was created. Jesus is the living Word of God, and was with God at the beginning.

But Jesus is also us. Jesus is humanity, he embodied our frailty, our weakness, and became our sin. And when God raised him from the dead, he took his place as the right hand of God. This much is also clear. Jesus is God, and we worship him.

The Holy Spirit is a little harder to nail down, but that’s because the Spirit is the mysterious presence of God that blows among us without our permission or our understanding. The Spirit was with God at creation, hovering over the deep. The Spirit was with the prophets and judges of old, inspiring them and giving them the strength they needed to lead the people of God.

The Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, and was given in turn to the disciples. The Spirit is from both God and from Jesus, and despite fact that we don’t understand how it works, this much is clear, the Spirit is God, and we worship it.

Now, I think that most of us are pretty much OK with everything I’ve said so far, but here’s the kicker. According to the Bible, these three persons, these three unique expressions of Divinity are also one.

Because the scriptures also say, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one God. The Lord God is our God alone.” It’s part of the great Commandment in Deuteronomy, the one that Jesus quoted about loving God and loving your neighbor. It been the defining characteristic of the Hebrew faith, the faith out of which we came, this worship of one, and only one God.

And so, here we are on Trinity Sunday. The Bible doesn’t fix the difficulty of understanding what the Trinity means or what the Trinity is. But that’s OK. The Bible is not a book of answers. It’s a book of confessions. It’s a book of what we, as the people of God have believed about God for thousands of years.

And so this is what we believe: That our God is one God, and that God is the Father, God is the Son, and God is the Holy Spirit.

We believe that God created the universe, and made us in his image. We believe that there is something broken inside us, that our sin is both something we do and something we are, and it separates us from God. We believe that God so desires us to be reconciled with him despite this sin, that God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, and made himself like us in order that we might know him.

We believe that in our own blindness and cruelty, we couldn’t handle the presence of God in our midst, and so we killed him. What we didn’t realize is that it was our own sin that we crucified on that cross. And Jesus took the penalty for it.

But even death couldn’t stop God from finding a way to bring us back to him. He resurrected Jesus Christ to demonstrate his power over death, and invites us to lay aside our own fear of it. God knows that this fear is real and overwhelming, and so he sends us his Holy Spirit in order that we might be equipped to overcome its grip on our lives.

This is the God we worship: Holy Creator, Holy Redeemer, Holy sustainer. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Three persons, but one God, and Lord of all. And you know, if you think about it, maybe this three person way of thinking about God is similar to the way we think about the four Gospels. We need each of these persons of God in order to complete our understanding of who God is, in the same we we need all four Gospels in order to understand who Jesus is.

We do not need to completely figure out every last theological nuance of the Trinity in order to live into it’s promise for us. And maybe we will never figure it out, at least not on this side of eternity. But one thing we can understand is this: Whether it’s Jesus, or Spirit, or wind or savior, or creator, it’s all God. It’s all about God. And the Good News is that God loves us, and regardless of our sin, regardless of our fear, regardless of our doubt, he will stop at nothing to be with us, until the end of the age.

Thanks be to God. Amen.