June 7, 2020
On this Trinity Sunday the lectionary gives us the last few verses of Matthew’s gospel. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.
READ Matthew 28:16-20
Ok. I know why the minds behind the lectionary chose this passage for Trinity Sunday. Right there in verse 19 is the Trinitarian formula… Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is where my focus ought to be as I launch out into a sermon that is not only appropriate but expected for Trinity Sunday. I can start with a joke about how Trinity Sunday strikes a yearly fear in the heart of every minister who must try once again to explain the nuance of this theology… while making it easily understandable… all the while holding onto the mystery of the theology. That’s the real three in one juggling act… nuance, understandability, mystery. Or I could do what I do every year and consult Dr. Migliore… my theology professor from Princeton… reread the appropriate sections on the Trinity in “Faith Seeking Understanding”… the theology textbook he wrote… trying to discern just the right angle to approach Trinity Sunday this year.
But… whenever I read these final verses of Matthew’s gospel I can’t help but have my focus go elsewhere. And no, it’s not to the promise of Jesus to be with us always… to the end of the age. You would think that. That’s a very popular verse. I’m sure many a minister will be making that verse the center of their sermon today. But not me. My focus gets snagged at the beginning of this reading. The eleven disciples listen to the message that was given to the women by the angel at Jesus’ tomb here in Matthew’s gospel on Easter morning. The eleven disciples travel the many miles from Jerusalem to Galilee and then they trudge up the designated mountain in Galilee where they have been told that they will meet the resurrected Christ. In Matthew’s gospel only the women have seen the resurrected Christ at this point. For the eleven, if they want to see him they will have to meet him here on top of this mountain in Galilee. They will have to put in the work… the time and the effort to get there to see finally Jesus. And when they get there… to that mountain in Galilee… they are not disappointed. Jesus is there… and they worship him.
Then come the three words that grab my full attention. “But some doubted.”
But some doubted. Sure… Jesus goes on then to commission them… telling them to go into all nations… baptizing and teaching what he, Jesus, has commanded them. And all that is great and wonderful… it’s obviously powerfully motivating. We today are inspired to go and do likewise. But… some doubted.
Some doubted. I’m pretty sure that doubt didn’t just come upon them for the first time there on that mountain top with Jesus in front of them. I would bet the doubt was there from the beginning… after following up on what the women had told them about finding the tomb empty. Some doubted even after going to see with their own eyes the emptiness… after hearing with their own ears the repeating of the false story put out by the priests and the elders how Jesus’ followers had come in the night and stolen his body. Using lies and misinformation is not a new tactic to creating doubt. Muddy up the waters because people will believe what they want to believe. Ok so… having doubt at the tomb. Yeah, I can understand that. Resurrection… even though Jesus had been talking to the them about it… even though he told them many times what was going to happen… at least that’s how the story is told… the eleven still aren’t looking for resurrection… they’re not thinking resurrection… their minds are still focused on death. So doubt at the tomb I can understand.
But it starts to become incredulous when you imagine how some in the eleven doubted all the way along the road from Jerusalem to Galilee… not a short walk mind you… doubting with every step they made moving them forward toward that place where the resurrected Jesus said he would meet them. Traveling all the while doubting the purpose of their journey. Then they see Jesus… these eleven… these who were closest to him. This is not a large crowd of followers up on that mountain in Galilee. It’s not that those who always seemed to get stuck in the back of the crowd doubted… still not sure what they were seeing or hearing… if that was really him. How would they know… they never were able to get that close. No. As Matthew tells the story, these are the chosen eleven. Jesus’ closest companions. And he’s there. Standing there with them on that mountain in Galilee. They are in his presence.
But some doubted.
Does it really matter what words come after those three?
Because really. What more do you want? Whoever you are in the eleven who are still doubting… with everything that had to happen in order to get you there to that mountaintop… with Jesus standing right in front of you… what more do you want? What is it going to take for you to finally be convinced?
There’s a parable that Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel. It’s not a comfortable parable. In the parable Jesus describes a poor man named Lazarus… not the Lazarus who is Jesus’ friend in John’s gospel. Don’t let yourself get confused. Lazarus spends his days covered with sores outside the gate of a rich man longing for just a few crumbs that might fall from the rich man’s table. The plight of Lazarus is invisible to the rich man. It’s not his problem as he sits down to his daily sumptuous feast. He doesn’t think about Lazarus out there on the other side of his gate. There is no spark of empathy. Lazarus dies… and as the parable goes... is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also dies and is buried. It’s interesting how in the parable Jesus says the name of Lazarus… but the rich man has no name. Anyway… the rich man is described as being tormented in Hades and he looks up and he sees Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He calls out to Abraham for mercy… tells Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water in order to cool the rich man’s tongue for he is in agony. Even in agony the rich man thinks nothing of ordering Lazarus to serve him. Even in agony the rich man thinks nothing about how he never once lightened the suffering of Lazarus outside of his gate. There is no awareness in the rich man. And Abraham in the parable reminds the rich man of that very thing. He received his good things and now that time has come to an end. Then Abraham tells the rich man exactly what was in the rich man’s heart when he had all his good things… “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
It’s a great parable and it speaks so much to where we are today… what our nation has been experiencing this week… and if this were all there was to this parable by Jesus then that would be enough… but then Jesus takes it to another level. And I just want to read the end of the parable to you…
“The rich man said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ Abraham said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
What more do you want? You have Moses and you have the prophets all telling you the truth of God’s ways. You have the resurrected Christ standing in front of you on a mountain in Galilee. Still some doubted. And so what does the commission of Christ matter? What does the sending of us out into the world matter? If you have all this and there is still doubt… if you can’t figure out what this good gift of faith you have been given… what it’s for… then you are not going to bring Christ’s teachings into the world whether you use the proper Trinitarian formula or not. You are going to be the rich man who has received his good things… even if you believe that good thing is a coming spiritual reward escaping the torments of Hades… you are still the rich man who doesn’t think twice about having daily sumptuous feasts while another lays sick and dying at his gate. Your primary concern is about the trash left outside your gate or some other form of damage being done to your gate… not the human being. The trash can be cleaned up. The damage repaired. The human being will still be there and God’s directives given through Moses, the prophets and the Christ will still be there.
Look… Trinitarian theology is not simple. If you want to explore its richness it takes nuance… it takes effort of mind and spirit. You have to put in the work. It’s more than the old water analogy… you know the one. The Trinity is like water… it can be in the form of steam, liquid or ice. But no matter its form it’s still water. Nice attempt at trying to find some way to explain the three in oneness of the Trinity… but after hearing it do you really know anything more about the Trinity than you did before? Are you somehow more connected to the ways of God… to the meaning of your baptism… to what Jesus commanded those who follow him? You can know all the right answers but still be ineffective. It’s not enough to explain and know the concept… it’s living as though you have no doubt about this eternal community and what it means then for all creation.
Saints, some disciples can go their whole lives making that journey from Jerusalem to Galilee with doubt in their heart every step of the way. The doubt always find expression in the things they say or the things they do. It’s betrayed in thoughts of their heart. Some disciples can come into an experience of the resurrected Christ and still ca not hear the words of Christ’s commissioning speaking to them… or even see how now is the time for them to truly and decisively put on their faith. Some disciples can go through their whole lives knowing the right answers but still not be convinced.
You have Moses. You have the prophets. You have someone risen from the dead.
You have the Father. You have the Son. And you have the Holy Spirit. There is nothing else that will be given to show you the way. You must now become the disciple you are called to be and put away your doubt. You must now become the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.