The God Who Meets Our Needs
A sermon on Matthew 28:16-20
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Sharon Santema on Unsplash]
This week the SALT lectionary commentary asked a question that I have often asked myself:
“How can the doctrine of the Trinity help today?”
The commentary asks this question sincerely and follows it up with a very thoughtful and relevant discussion.
But when I have asked the question of myself… especially in the process of sermon preparation for Trinity Sunday… I have more often than not used a more exasperated, if not sarcastic, tone.
Because the “doctrine of the Trinity” is a theological minefield.
If I learned anything about the Trinity in seminary, it is that every way of describing or conceptualizing the Trinity that makes any intuitive sense to me has already been considered and judged to be heresy by some iteration of Christ’s church over the centuries.
Which makes the task of preaching about “the doctrine of the Trinity” both intensely anxiety-provoking and simultaneously paralyzing for me.
So, while I appreciate the SALT Commentary’s question, I’m not sure that the doctrine of the trinity does help us… either today or at any time in the last 17 or 18 centuries since the church first started trying to come up with a way of strictly defining how God the Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all God and also distinct.
History and experience teach that getting caught up in definitions is a good way to get caught up in arguments.
And I just don’t think that it is definitions, or doctrines, or human ideas in general that help us.
It’s God the Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit that help us. It is who God is and how God acts in our lives that matters, not the things we have to say about it. It is the Trinity themself that matters, not the ways we put them into boxes.
Our gospel today reinforces this reminder for me, even though – or perhaps because – it was written well before anyone first started talking about God as Trinity.
Jesus uses what we now see as the Trinitarian formula in the command to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but Matthew didn’t think of that as “the Trinity.”
What is more, Matthew’s most powerful Trinitarian teaching in this gospel is not the baptismal formula… it is the descriptions of Christian life that remind us of why need each of the three persons of the Trinity.
You see, this short, 5-verse reading includes three different ways that we experience God… ways that we need God.
And these experiences are the best evidence I can find of why we need, not the doctrine of the Trinity, but the God who comes to us in a Triune way.
The first experience, is the mountain top experience.
The phrase “mountain top experience” is shorthand in our culture for moments of transcendence and awe, but there is a reason for this place-specific idiom. The association between mountain tops and encounters with the life-changing presence of God is a repeated pattern going back thousands of years and appearing over and over in our scriptures.
The mountaintop is where Noah was given the sign of hope from the dove.
The mountaintop is where God provided Abraham with a ram for the sacrifice.
The mountaintop is where God’s spirit passed before Moses so that his face shone, and where he received the tablets of the law.
The mountaintop is where God called Elijah after his time of despair and conflict with the false prophets.
The mountaintop is where Jesus was transfigured before his three closest disciples.
And in today’s gospel, the mountaintop is where Jesus eleven remaining disciples see him again, after his death and resurrection, and they worship him.
Their experience is not just a mountaintop experience because they meet Jesus on a mountain. It is a mountaintop experience because it is an experience of transcendence, of awe, of encounter with the Divine that moved their souls to worship.
And that’s one of the things we need from God.
This past week our Bishop hosted a zoom meeting for pastors in the Synod and she closed our time together with a prayer, in which she included the petition that God “open us up to wonder.”
That simple petition caught me with this moment of clarity about how easy it is to lose WONDER in our lives that are so full of busy-ness, and routine, and responsibilities, and doing our best… it reminded me of how deadening the lack of wonder can be to our souls.
And it reminded me that Jesus’s disciples would have brought all kinds of emotions and questions with them up to that mountain, jockeying for space, demanding their attention, potentially blocking out their wonder at their first view of the Risen Christ…and yet, when they got there, they worshipped.
Before anything else. Before asking Jesus any questions. Before listening for what he had called them there to say to them.
They were drawn into the transcendent awe of worship.
Because encountering God, as the Divine presence that draws us into worship, is something we need.
It is something that draws us out of the inward-focused flurry of stressful lives.
We need a God who calls us into awe and reminds us that we are NOT the center of the universe.
Paradoxically, we also need a God who is approachable.
There is a semi-colon in the sentence about the disciples’ worship. And the Greek scholars tell us that even though our Bible translation says “but some doubted” it could just as legitimately be translated as “and some doubted.”
Because the two go together.
Doubt mingles immediately with the reverence on the mountaintop.
And that’s just so real, isn’t it?
Even when the God of the universe is present to us up on the mountaintop… we are there too.
We are there with all our doubts, and our old habits, and the messiness of our lives… and we need a God who GETS that, who gets us.
That’s sort of the point of Emmanuel - God with us.
The incarnation of God in a human life happened so that God could draw near to us, so that God could understand from the inside what it’s like to walk around in vulnerable skin, and be subjected to tipsy-turvy brain chemicals, and be only able to exist in one moment at a time, with all of the confusion and limitations that brings with us.
And I love how Mattew follows up the confession about the doubt up on the mountaintop: “Jesus came and said to them.”
Matthew didn’t just report the words Jesus said… the reminder of his authority that was a subtle way of soothing our doubts with the reminder that we can trust him, even when we don’t trust our own senses.
Matthew first remarked on how Jesus approached the disciples before speaking. He talked about how God drew near.
Because we need that God as well.
The God who understands us and loves us as we are.
The God who is willing to jump into the messiness of humanity and meet us where we are.
The God who does not hold our doubts and our deficiencies against us.
Because that is what allows us to experience God in the third way, the way that empowers us.
That’s the part of this passage that makes the marquee in the form of section headings in many Bible translations: “Jesus gives the Great Commission.”
The Disciples are set a task… to go and make disciples of all people… to baptize them in the three names of God…and to teach them all that Jesus has commanded.
It is an instruction that we read as being about what WE are to do, and it is, but it also includes a promise…
Because the gospel writers make it clear that there is still more to learn that Jesus didn’t have time to teach. That’s why Jesus has previously promised the disciples to send them the Teacher, the Holy Spirit, who will guide them into all truth.
So, when Jesus commands his followers to teach others to obey his commandments, he’s also reminding them that THEY will have a teacher. That they are empowered to join in his mission, but they don’t have to do it alone.
Which is good news because Matthew has reported Jesus’s summary of “all that I have commanded you” back in the 22nd chapter, and that summary is to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is a clear directive, but it is also one that no human in history has managed to achieve consistently.
So, we need the God who companions us through our life and mission, teaching us, empowering us, and loving us in a way that pours that love not only into us but through us into the world.
Matthew had never heard of the Doctrine of the Trinity, but I see the Trinity in this gospel in the way it shows God meeting our needs.
I see God the Source, the Creator, the Transcendence of the Divine in the mountaintop experience of reverence.
I see God the Son, the Human One, God-with-us in the space for doubt and the assurance that we don’t have to have all the answers because Jesus holds the authority.
I see God the Spirit, the Guide, the Power for transformed living in the promise that we will actually be able to teach and obey the commands that all boil down to love.
I see the Trinitarian God meeting our needs in this gospel.
But, ultimately, I don’t know that it’s really very important how we divy-up these roles between the three persons of the Trinity.
What is important is that God IS present to us in all of these ways. That all of the ways we need God to show up in our lives, God is there.
Thanks be to God.