Wednesday, July 27, 2011

June 19, 2011

Matthew 28:16-20

16  Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  18  And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."


To many of us, being in church on a Sunday morning is the result of  long held and long cherished habit, and believe me, this is as much a compliment as it is a neutral observation of the facts.  Indeed, for many, myself included, participation in the life of the church stems from years of routine in which coming to worship on Sunday morning is as deeply ingrained in us as eating dinner at 6:00 pm.  Now, the reason I bring this is up is not to dole out merit badges for faithful attendance, nor is it to shame anyone who is struggling to understand why it is more preferable to be in church on Sunday morning than it is to be in bed, at the Egg and I or up in the mountains.  Indeed, no matter if this the first time you have stepped into a church this week, this month or this decade, you are welcome here.    Indeed, the reason that I mention that collective discipline that brings us together in this place is for this reason: it is a terribly easy thing for habit, be it the habit of faithful church attendance or the habit of staying away from the church entirely, to dull our sense what goes on in this place, and this is no one’s fault, it simply is the way that things progress.  Like any relationship in which we begin to take something or someone for granted, we can lose sight of the joy and liveliness that that person or that thing brings to us.  This is true of spouses and children, siblings and dear friends.  And it is also true of what we call the church.  We can, and I am afraid do, lose sight of what actually occurs in this place, whether we consider church a non-negotiable part of our weekly rhythm or if we are here for the first time.  Often, I cannot help but wonder if this is the primary reason for the general decline of the church; not that people do not want to get up early on Sunday morning or because they do not like the music, the preaching, the people, the whatever of any given church they attend.  Late Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel put the issue this way: “religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid,” and believe me, those are not easy words for a religious professional to hear, let alone to repeat, given how much of that responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of my ilk.  
The question, I suppose, becomes again just what we think we are up to in this place every Sunday, and that strangely enough, is the question that allows us to jump right into our text for the day.  Now, before you begin to wonder whether or not I have prepared a sermon for the correct Sunday, please bear with me a moment.  Today, you see is Holy Trinity Sunday; the one Sunday out of the entire year that we devote to a specific doctrine of the church.  And while it might strike you as a bit strange that, of all the doctrines of the church, the Trinity is the one that receives its own church Sunday, it is my sense that this is done precisely because, in the end, intellectual honesty demands that we acknowledge the particularity of the doctrine.  Simply put, it is the proclamation of the Trinity, that God exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that each of these persons is equal in divinity to the other, and that each person of the Trinity shares in the divinity of the other member, yes, these and many other explications of the Trinity stand at the very center of Christian particularity.  These assertions might just help us answer the previous questions as to why we gather here, as to what might be happening right in our midst, yes as to what may keep the faith from becoming irrelevant, dull or oppressive. 
The beginnings of an answer to these questions emerge from the meeting between Jesus and disciples at the mountain in Galilee.  To gain a little context here, we should step back in the story.  In Matthew’s Gospel, this is the first post-resurrection meeting between Jesus and the disciples.  At this point, only Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have met the risen Christ, and they have been instructed to arrange this meeting between Jesus and the disciples.  So this, in many ways, is a scene brimming over with anticipation; which helps to explain the dual and in no way mutually exclusive responses of the disciples.  Some are so overcome by the resurrected Christ in their midst that they worship, literally fall down in prostration at the risen Christ’s feet.  Others, equally overwhelmed to be sure, simply cannot fit the resurrection of the dead into their existing categories for how this old world operates, and thus they respond with doubt, but this is not a faithless doubt, it is something nearer to uncertainty,  not unlike asking if this can really be happening when something wonderful has occurred.  Consequently, both responses signify the depth of this event, and please note that uncertainty regarding God’s activity does not somehow eliminate one from being a disciple. 
However interesting as the human responses are, it is the Word of Christ that again moves the story forward: into this dual reaction of worship and uncertainty, of holy ecstasy and staggering marvel Christ says the following: “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  This question of authority has plagued Jesus and his disciples throughout the entire Gospel of Matthew.  It is the charge that the Pharisees bring against Jesus, that he does not, in fact, have the authority to forgive sin, to heal on the Sabbath, so on and so forth. But in the resurrection Jesus really is, really was, God’s will in the flesh.  The love and mercy that he extended, that he continues to extend, this genuinely is what God is like.   He is indeed an icon of the invisible God, the way that the Father expresses his unfathomable love to the creation that he fashions and names as good; this is why the Trinity is of such incredible importance to our lives Christians.  For it means that the God whom Jesus embodies, the God who forgives the trembling sinner, the God who works mercy from the cross, the God who suffer death on our behalf, this is what God is actually like.  And by the power of the Holy Spirit, who makes that God present in our midst, we are gathered together, swept right up into the very life of this God for the sake of the world.  This is what is done to us here in this place; we are given the faith and the strength that God alone can give, we too, are brought into the expansive love that exists between Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  And the way that we are brought into this love is through Christ’s cross and resurrection, which means that our whole selves, our fears and our doubts, our sins and our failings, as well as our strength and our faith, all of that, yes, all of who we are has been reconciled to God and redeemed in Christ.  For the cross and resurrection of Christ means that God has reconciled himself to a world and to those parts of us that we dare not show God or each other, but fear not dear people, for Christ has take your sin as his own and has offered not punishment and retribution, but forgiveness, mercy and the life abundant.  So, yes bring your whole self to this God: bring your fear and failing, bring your anxiety and your worry, bring your joy and your triumph.  Bring it all.   For God, in Christ, is already there in those dark places that taunt and accuse you.  He is there with the whole authority to forgive and heal you of that which you fear keeps you from God. There is, in short, no question, no fear that will keep him from you, and that is not a religion of oppression or irrelevance, but one of great freedom and comfort. For this is a God who has not left us, but promises his abiding presence until the end of the age.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen. 

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