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."
Background and situation: These are the closing words of Matthew's gospel. As is characteristic for Matthew's gospel, Jesus is again presented as Moses-like, yet greater-than Moses. Like Moses, he speaks on a mountain and gives commandments. As greater-than Moses, he now commands "all authority."
The Holy Trinity: This is the gospel reading for 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."
The trinity has been perhaps the most controversial and 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 difficulty for first century Jews such as Matthew. 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, and convoluted, 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.
The trinity understands that relationships within God are dynamic. They move. The early theologians used the word perichoresis, which literally means "dancing around." (We get our word "choreography" from choresis.) This ever-vital, ever-moving, ever-interweaving of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is essential--that is, an aspect of God's very being.
No member of the trinity is superior to any other, which means that the interior life of God is not heirarchical. Here's a helpful exercise: Try re-arranging the "persons" of the trinity. Since all "persons" of the trinity are equal, it doesn't make any difference which one is mentioned first. In fact, in order to at least allude to the anti-heirarchical nature of perichoresis, we should mix them up. How about opening worship in the name of the Spirit, Son, and Father?
Our actual practice is always to say "Father, Son, and Spirit" in that order. The Father is always mentioned first, in the pre-eminent position, one "higher" than the Son or Spirit. Our actual practice supports a heirarchical view of God when the actual trinitarian theology of perichoresis subverts heirarchy!
(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 greatest of all chasms.
That's on the one hand. Here are some reasons not to like the trinity:
(1) It was a doctrine imposed. It was declared the only acceptable Christian doctrine of God by the Emperor Theodosius in AD 380, rubber-stamped by the Council of Constantinople in AD 381, and all opposing views were banned and suppressed. This hardly seems very Christian.
What's worse, it had to keep being imposed. Christianity's biggest problem, ever since Constantine, is that it was implemented from the top down. The nobility converted in order to get God on their side, and they then converted the peasants. (One encouraging sign today is the "emergent church," which is bottom-up.)
(2) The Emperor's trinitarianism had the effect of kicking Jesus upstairs into an object to be worshipped rather than followed. The historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, had a disturbing tendency to side with people the Emperor liked to push around, and the Emperor certainly didn't want people following that example.
Kicking Jesus upstairs has the unfortunate effect of subverting the doctrine of the incarnation. It removes Jesus from the realities of human life and tries to re-locate him in the airy and ethereal.
In effect, most modern day Christian worship assumes a view of Jesus with exalted divinity and a severely truncated humanity. That is docetism, pure and simple, the idea that Jesus only seemed to be a human being, but wasn't really. Thus, the "orthodox" position on the trinity subverts the "orthodox" position on the two natures of Jesus.
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 another community, the new community of Jesus. As he had told them to do, they are going to Galilee. They are, however, only eleven in number, 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" them. They went.
Doubt: 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: The disciples have followed Jesus' 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).
Final teaching: 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.
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.
The final "emanuel": 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--"I am!"--but, this time, "with you" is placed within the divine name itself!
In the way Matthew has grammatically constructed the sentence, the new community of those who follow Jesus are within the very life of God. God with us indeed! (It's a plural "you" incidentally, i.e. the whole catholic flock is held within God, and not just your own splendid self.)
"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