16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Translation: And the eleven disciples journeyed into the Galilee, into the mountain where Jesus had directed them. And seeing him, they worshiped, but they doubted. And Jesus came (and) spoke to them, saying, "All power has been given to me in heaven and upon the earth. As you have gone, therefore, teach all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to keep all as I commanded you. And behold! I am with you all the days until the consummation of the eternal."
The Holy Trinity: This is Holy Trinity Sunday, the only day of the church year said to be dedicated specifically to a doctrinal position. In reality, of course, all church holidays are about some aspect of doctrine. Christmas, for example, is not at all the "birthday of Jesus," but a holy day of the church dedicated to the incarnation, a doctrinal teaching which counters the heresies of gnosticism and docetism.
The lection is likely chosen because of its reference to "the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The saying is anachronistic for the time of Jesus, who, bereft of expensive seminary education, would likely have been thoroughly mystified by something called "trinitarian theology."
Indeed, the trinity has been perhaps the most mysterious of Christian teachings. As is well known, the word "trinity" does not appear in the Bible, although you can see hints of trinitarianism beginning to develop, like Matthew's mention of the trinitarian name in today's lection, for example, and certain passages of Paul, such as "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you (2 Cor 13: 14)."
You can easily see the problem. Jews are monotheists. In fact, at the time of Jesus, Jews were the first and only monotheists in the world. "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One," said the shema. Yet, the earliest Christians, all of them Jews, believed that, somehow, they had encountered God in Jesus of Nazareth. How could one express that, and still be a monotheist?
The most challenging theological treatises--over the years, and to this day--have been on the trinity. It took St. Augustine 15 volumes to describe the trinity. Here are his seven summary statements: The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. The Son is not the Father. The Father is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Son. There is only one God. (Impenetrable, yes, but what can one expect? The subject is God, after all.)
While I'm no better at understanding the trinity than anyone else, and much less so than many, I find the teaching attractive for these reasons:
(1) The trinity's central teaching about God is that God--in God's interior life--is essentially relational. This is a far cry from the radical monad of Greek philosophy who exists up high in the stratosphere somewhere, disconnected from any one or any thing.
Moreover, the relationship within God is dynamic. The early theologians used the word perichoresis, which literally means "dancing around." This ever vital, ever moving, ever interweaving of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is essential--that is, an aspect of God's very being.
Here's a helpful exercise: Try re-arranging the "persons" of the trinity. Trinitarian theology says that all "persons" of the trinity are equal. The repeated formula "Father, Son, and Spirit" suggests a heirarchy. The Father is listed first, which implies a pre-eminent position, one "higher" than the Son or Spirit. Try mixing it up. How about "Spirit, Son, Father," or "Son, Father, Spirit"?
(2) The trinity is radically egalitarian, and embraces all of human experience. It is precisely the human man Jesus who is the Second Person of the Trinity. Through Jesus--not the souped-up, supernatural Jesus, but the human Jesus--the entirety of human experience is embraced and taken into the life of God. Just as God is relationship within God's own self, God relentlessly reaches out and into all human life to reconcile and restore human being's broken relationship with God. This is good.
(3) The trinity makes good sense of the cross. When Jesus died on the cross, he then descended into hell--into the realm of nothingness, absence, and annihilation. He descended into the "opposite of God." Where God is presence and relationship, hell is absence and loneliness--"where nothing connects with nothing," as someone has put it.
According to trinitarian theology of the cross, the Holy Spirit breaches the gap between the "Father in Heaven" and the "Son in Hell." The Holy Spirit is the bond of love that unites them even across this great chasm.
The New Community: Matthew describes two communities in the closing chapter of his gospel. In the five verses preceding our lection, he mentions the community of guard, priests, elders, and soldiers--a community headed by the governor.
When Jesus is not in his tomb on Easter Sunday morning, the priests, after conferring with representatives of the ruling families of Jerusalem, bribe the soldiers to say that Jesus' body had been stolen by his supporters. In return, they offer to cover the soldiers' butt when the governor finds out that Jesus' body is missing. The community described in verses 11-15 is a community based in greed and lies.
Immediately following we are told of the new community of Jesus. As he had told them to do, they are going to Galilee. They are, however, "eleven," and not twelve. One of the twelve, Judas, has committed suicide. Even the new community has suffered loss and betrayal. Yet, in spite of their "brokenness," the new community is obedient to Jesus' instruction to go to Galilee.
In Galilee, they meet Jesus on "the mountain where Jesus had directed them." It is not at all surprising that Matthew would have Jesus meet the disciples on a mountain. Mountains as a place of special revelation are quite common in Matthew.
We don't know which mountain. Matthew says nothing further about it, and no prior reference says anything about this mountain, or its specific locale. In any case, that is not the point. The point is that the disciples followed Jesus direction. He "directed." They went.
Verse 17: "And seeing him, they worshipped but they doubted." All four gospels deal with the subject of doubt, though they each do it in a different way. This is Matthew's way. Note the progression: They have followed his direction without yet seeing him. As a result of following his direction, they have come to a place of special revelation where they do "see" him. They respond with worship, even in the face of their own doubt. Doubt is frankly acknowledged. Says Matthew: Let the church be instructed. Jesus is followed and worshipped in spite of doubt.
Jesus then "came" to them. He does not remain distant from his community, but approaches and comes to them. This is reminiscent of the Transfiguration--another mountaintop experience--when Jesus "touched" Peter, James and John (17: 7). As John Meier puts it, "Before the majestic, glorified Jesus, people can only bow low. Jesus must bridge the distance by drawing near..."
Unlike the other three gospels, Matthew makes no mention of Jesus' physicality, or his wounds, or any special post-resurrection abilities. Matthew is the gospel that places emphasis on the teaching of Jesus, and so, here, Jesus only speaks.
He announces his universal and cosmic authority--"all power in heaven and upon the earth." "Therefore"--precisely because of his universal authority--he can compell a universal mission, a mission to "all nations." Indeed, the word "all" appears four times in these five verses--"all authority," "all nations," "all I have commanded," "all the days"--a striking expression of universality.
The text nowhere says anything about a "great commission." It nowhere says anything about getting people to believe certain doctrinal positions--not even the trinity! Instead, the disciples are to "go"--poreuomai, which is passive, and carries the sense of "being led forward on a journey," a journey to make disciples of "all the nations"--ethne, "peoples." It is not about "converting people to our way of thinking," but rather expanding the new community to everyone.
The new community is to baptize "them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Matthew did not invent this formula. He likely took it from the liturgy of the early church. Some baptisms in the early church were "in the name of Jesus"--Acts 2:38, 10:48. Matthew asserts baptism into the relational love which is both the nature of God's own life, and the nature of the new community on earth.
The saying continues with one final instruction: "teaching them to observe as much as I have commanded you." More than any other gospel, Matthew emphasizes Jesus' role as teacher. Jesus inaugural speech, in Matthew, is nothing less than the Sermon on the Mount, and that was only the beginning! Everything Jesus has taught to the disciples is to be taught throughout the new community.
Kai idou--And behold! "I am with you"--ego meta humon eimi. Note how "with you" is sandwiched between ego and eimi. (Ego eimi is the "divine name," the Greek version of YHWH, the name of God.) At Jesus' birth, Matthew had proclaimed that Jesus is "emanuel"--God with us. Now, in Jesus' final proclamation to his disciples in Matthew, he asserts the divine name, but "with you" placed within the divine name itself. We are within the very life of God.
"I am with you all the days until the sunteleias tou aionos. Suntelaias combines the words sun with telos. Sun means "together," telos means "the goal." The sense of the word is a "gathering up into the goal," rather reminiscent of St. Iraneus who spoke of the anakephalaiososthai ta panta--the "summing up of all things into the head."
Matthew tells of two communities. One is based in the Temple, influenced by the ruling families of Jerusalem, headed by the governor. This community is about power, greed, payoffs, deception, and lies.
The new community is headed by Jesus, not the governor. It follows his teaching as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, not the corrupt practices of the Temple, or the oppressive practices of the Roman occupation. This new community is for "all peoples," not merely the political and economic elite.
Image: "The Holy Trinity," El Greco