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The Great Promise

Matthew 28.16-20

“It’s Trinity Sunday, but people who have cancer probably do not care.”  That quote by Dr. Steven P. Eason I read this week jolted me into reality.

He continues… “This is Trinity Sunday, but those young couples who cannot get pregnant probably do not care either…the family dealing with the wayward teenager, the couple headed for divorce, the person who has lost a job, they do not care.  Does it really matter to them that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?”

My first thought when I first read this was: “Well, thanks, Steve.  Way to ruin our Trinity party!  You don’t get a piece of the Trinity cake we made for after the service!”

But is he wrong?

When life is hard, when it is a challenge, when we are hurting and afraid and confused…

…or just busy and planned out the wazoo and we’re just trying to keep our heads above water…

…or when we read the news and see that another terrorist attack has taken place…

…do we really care if God is “God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity?”

What does it matter?

Like Dr. Eason says, we “just want to know that God is God and that God somehow knows who (we) are, where (we) are, what (we) are doing, and what (we) need.”

 

But here we are nonetheless.  On Trinity Sunday, reading these passages assigned to try and explain what the Trinity means and what it has to do with our lives.  In the Two-Way on Wednesday night, the group called foul: “Matthew 28 seems a little weak in terms of a connection to the Trinity, doesn’t it?  I mean, we usually refer to it as the Great Commission,” they said, “and we usually spend more time talking about the verbs and the tasks – Go…Make…Baptize…Teach – that Jesus commanded.  More than this rather obscure part where Jesus tells them to ‘baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’”

So, here we are, reading a text that is pretty weakly connected to the doctrine of the Trinity, trying to summarize and understand and prove the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity, all the while we are told that the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t even matter to many of us anyway!  Happy Trinity Sunday!?!?

But Dr. Eason doesn’t give up that easy.  He continues in his commentary on this passage with what I think is a fascinating thought experiment.  Instead of trying to prove that the Trinity exists, what if we considered the negative.  What if we didn’t talk about God in Trinitarian terms?  What if, in Matthew 28 for example, Jesus did not say to “baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit”?  But just named one of them?

For instance, what if Jesus told us to baptize “in the name of the Father”?  That’s it.  How would it change the tenor of the rest of the passage?  I would suggest that we would have to rename the Great Commission.  I would probably call it the “Great Speed Trap.”  I have heard other people before – none in this congregation, of course – that they drive over the speed limit…until they see a police car.  Then – and only then – they slow down.  They know that it is a good rule all the time, but until the police come, they don’t follow it.  In the same way, if God were only Creator, and never became incarnate with us, and never provided the Holy Spirit alongside of us, how easy would it be to kind of skirt around the Great Commission…and most of God’s commands?  God created us and then sat back and waited on us to mess up.  Matthew 28 would become the Great Speed Trap.

Or what if we only baptized in the name of the Son?  What if we didn’t talk about the Creator or Spirit?  I think it would turn Matthew 28 into what I would call the “Great Guilt-Trip.”  It would be as if God were that older brother who always does everything right.  Anyone have one of those older sisters or brothers?  If you don’t do it right, mom and dad always gave you this disappointed look.  “Would Jeffrey have done it that way?”  And I think that if the model of Jesus was all we had – no Creator beyond us, no Spirit to guide us, then Matthew 28 would be like this Great Guilt Trip.  “Did you make enough disciples today?  Did you baptize them the right way?  Did you teach them correctly?  Jeffrey did.”  We would never live up to the model of Jesus, and always feel like we had fallen short of the perfect older brother’s example.  Always live in the shadow of the Great Guilt Trip.

Or what if we baptized only in the name of the Holy Spirit?  Then I think we would have to rename the Great Commission the Great To-Do List.  Here is a list of everything we are supposed to do.  We have the Spirit, so the power is in us.  But we would be missing the creative power of the Creator or the transformative model of Jesus.  So it’s all up to us to get out there and rev up the Holy Spirit and go do some more stuff.  And the list would never get done!  That person isn’t in church on Sunday…you didn’t make them a disciple!  That person is still hungry…you didn’t do your duty!  That person got sick…you weren’t praying hard enough.  A Holy Spirit-only theology would leave out the forgiveness and redemption of the gracious Creator and the loving Son.  Matthew 28 would look like yet another list of things to do.  And a list that we would inevitably fail at doing.

 

But that isn’t what Matthew 28 says.  It isn’t the Great Speed Trap.  Or the Great Guilt Trip.  Or the Great To-Do List.  David Lose doesn’t even like calling it the Great Commission, lest it end up sounding like one of those other things.  He calls it the Great Promise.

Listen to how the passage ends.  How the whole Gospel of Matthew ends, by the way: “Behold! I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

“I am with you.”  Says the Gospel that begins with the angel telling Joseph, “name your son Emmanuel, God with us.”  Says the Gospel that repeats over and again the words, “do not be afraid, I am with you.”

The Great Promise.  I love this quote from Lose, which makes me feel a lot better about my own confusion: “I will confess that I don’t really understand the Trinity as a concept or doctrine – and I don’t completely believe those who say they do!  But I do know that the heart of the Trinity is a belief that God is inherently and irreducibly both communal and loving.  One God in three persons whose shared, mutual, and sacrificial love spills out into the world and all its inhabitants.”

And all of a sudden, I start to realize why the Trinity is so important in this passage.  Because I, like Lose, can’t prove to you that the Trinity exists.  I cannot make you understand it.  I can come up with some great children’s sermon object lessons – like how God is like water, ice, and steam…or like the leaves, trunk, and roots of the tree…or my favorite new one: God is like a fidget spinner with three corners!  But as cute as they are, they don’t matter to someone hurting, yearning, aching for God to give them peace.

But, when we talk about God in Trinitarian terms, we are proclaiming that at the heart of the nature of who God is, Creator and Christ and Spirit are in relationship.  Interactive.  Alongside one another…and us.  The ancients called it perichoresis, or what Richard Rohr calls “The Divine Dance.”  In my sermon a couple of weeks ago, the Carl character talked about this dance regarding the Father and Son, but the conception is really about the three persons of the Trinity.  God in three persons, fundamentally in-relationship, now claiming at the end of the Jesus experience, “I am with you always.”  We have been with each other eternally…I will be with you eternally.  And all of a sudden, the Great Commission has become the Great Promise.  It becomes less about stuff we need to do, and more about whom we will do it with.

God, who has foundationally and eternally been in relationship reaches out to you with the same promise.  And that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want us to do stuff.  But the stuff isn’t the final word.  The final word is “I am with you always.”

Even as you struggle with your cancer.  Or pray every day to become pregnant.  Or deal with that wayward teenager or that pending divorce.  When we are hurting and could care less about perichoresis and homoousious and Trinitarian doctrine, God whispers “I am with you.”

 

My brother is getting married in two weeks.  And my father and I are co-officiating at the ceremony.  It is a little surreal to marry your little brother.  You kind of want to sneak in some extra lines to the vows: “Do you promise that you will not be as annoying to your wife as you were to me when we were growing up?”

But, of course, it is a fundamental honor to be able to share this day and share this celebration with both of them.  More than any other wedding I have done, I want them to be happy and healthy and strong and loving.  Part of me wishes that I could tell him all this stuff that might come up, and give him a heads up and a checklist of how to communicate and be open with your feelings and talk about your expectations and everything I have learned in my own marriage and in 15 years of doing counseling with couples.

But that isn’t what we do in a wedding, is it?

It becomes less about stuff we need to do, and more about whom we will do it with.

In a wedding, we perform this union, hoping and praying that together, they will figure it out.  The what is less important than the with.  They will get to the what, in due time, but if they don’t agree on the with first, then none of it gets done.

Which is why it is important to Matthew in his Gospel that these are Jesus’s last words: “I am with you always.”  Sounds a little like a wedding, doesn’t it?  I am with the Creator, who is with the Spirit, who are all with you.  And we’ll figure out the what together.  Just never forget the with of my Promise.”

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