I love words. I love the way they can convey meaning, and connect people. I love the impact they have when coupled with a tone and a facial expression. As a writer, I love the quest for just the right word, and the joy when it is found. Words, for me, are never “just” words. When my wife says, “I love you” these are not “just” words. They convey an intimacy that touches the deepest part of me. And when someone speaks words of threat or inhumanity to someone I value, the strongest reactions get stirred up in me. Words are deeply powerful, dynamic, living things.
But, words are also dangerous. Words are symbols, containers, metaphors that always point beyond themselves to a reality that they can only describe and suggest. As such, to take words as an end in themselves is always a mistake – and it’s an all too common one. And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the words we use for God. Wars have been fought, lives have been lost and nations have crumbled under the weight of the language we use for Divine reality. But, this can only happen when we forget that the words are not the point, and when we lose the necessary humility that should always accompany any talk of God.
This Sunday in the Church Calendar is one where we should be more cautious than normal about the words we use in our worship. It is the only time in the Christian Year where we focus on a doctrine, and, if we are careless with our our words, it is a very difficult one indeed. This is Trinity Sunday, where we seek to plumb the depths of the Divine nature, using human words, and very limited human intellect. It’s easy to make this day dry and boring and academic – which is why, I sense, many preachers will choose rather to focus on Fathers’ Day this year. But, if we allow the mystery behind the words to capture us, if we are willing to kneel in awe and give up our delusion that God can be contained in our words, this Sunday can be an exciting and transforming moment of worship.
The reading which is set for this week is what we know as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). It is a significant passage in Matthew’s Gospel. This Jewish writer, seeking to show his mostly Jewish readers who Jesus is and how he has fulfilled the Messianic prophecies, has told his story in a carefully thought out way. He has presented the itinerant Carpenter as the new Moses bringing the new (or rather fulfilled) law to God’s people. He has also made the shocking proclamation that this human person is somehow also God in the flesh – and he has demonstrated how this was viewed as blasphemy by the Jewish leaders. Now he closes his story with Jesus and the disciples, once again, on the mountain – like Moses receiving the law, or Moses leaving the people of Israel just before they entered the Promised Land (see Deuteronomy 34). The symbols and words that are used here carry a weight of meaning way beyond their capacity, and require us, like the disciples, to begin from a place of worship and even hesitation (Vs.17 – “Some doubted…”. The Greek – distazo – can mean doubt or hesitation, both of which can apply here).
To begin with, Jesus claims that all authority (exousia) has been given to him. It is common to view this in terms of “power over”, dominance and conquest, but to do so is to make the post-resurrection Jesus a contradiction to the Jesus of the rest of the Gospels. Somehow this authority must be understood in the light of the whole ministry of Christ – the ministry of service, self-giving, grace and unconditional love. Rather than Jesus claiming conquest over all of creation, it would seem that he embraces it all, includes it all. His is the authority of the God who loved the world enough to become Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23). His is the authority of the Lover, of the spouse, over the partner – the gladly-given authority to impact and influence the life, the values and the very being of the one that he loves. It is not dominance so much as it is mutuality – the authority of true knowing.
Then out of this authority Jesus calls his disciples to make other disciples. This is not a mission statement for a Christian conquest of the earth, for the establishment of some kind of Christian nation-state. Rather, it is the call to expand the inclusive love of Christ, to offer the invitation to life to all people in Christ’s name. To paraphrase this command in today’s English might sound something like this: “invite all people to learn how to live from me”.
And then comes the statement that, for today’s worship, is the central one of this passage: “baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The tragic irony is that this radically inclusive call has been made the primary line by which to divide the “insiders” from the “outsiders”. Baptism was, for Jesus, always an inclusive practice, and it remained so for the early Church. It was a rite which brought people into the community of faith, into the knowledge that they were included in God’s family and had a place of eternal belonging. It was the sign of dying and rising with Christ, of receiving God’s life and becoming part of God’s beloved people. Coupled here with the trinitarian formula the message is powerful and clear – but it takes humility and openness to hear it. God’s nature is loving mutuality – the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By baptising those who have received Christ in the threefold name of God, Matthew’s Gospel is making the radical claim that in some way those who become Christ’s disciples become part of the mutuality in God, part of the divine community, in some mysterious way an extension of the very Trinity into whose name they are baptised! You can see how the words lose their ability to contain the wonder and mystery of what they are trying to communicate here.
Finally, and driving the point home, Jesus gives the promise that he will always be with those who receive him. The loving, compassionate, gracious, challenging presence he has been throughout his ministry will not end now that he leaves his “earthly” existence. Rather, it is expanded, widened, able to encompass the entire universe and bring all things, ultimately, into the embrace of his divine love.
The words we use for God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Trinity – are not intended as ends in themselves. They are signs, sacraments, symbols and metaphors that seek to lead us beyond themselves into the inexpressible mystery of God, and of our amazing God-given capacity to know, to experience, intimate relationship with God. Heaven forbid we should ever use these words to exclude, or to arrogantly claim that we have God “nailed down”. Unless we let go of what we think we know, and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the beautiful mystery these words point to, God will never be anything more than words to us.