Trinity Sunday Psalm 8 and Matthew 28:16-20
“Don’t settle for less than God, whose reality transcends our ability to imagine and define.“
Graduate students hoping for future careers as university professors or public servants (either elected or appointed) are often encouraged to be careful about the ways they present themselves online, at sites like Facebook, Twitter, and others. Things posted don’t go away, they seem to live eternally in cyber-space. Hiring committees at universities often contain members who have their “preferred” candidates. These will search out negative information…. posts, pictures, profiles… anything, that could be used to disqualify all who threaten their “favored ones.” If we’re thinking about political candidates, nowadays people dig deep to find evidence that a person once did or said something that would stop voters from choosing her. If the office is gained through appointment and confirmation by a committee, then anything that might embarrass the nominee and the one who nominated her is fair for use in the process.
This has always been so, but it’s worse in the age of the internet, because we leave so much information about ourselves as we move through life, and it is so easy to access. Just ask the Russian hackers who have been so much in the news this year.
The point of starting here is that we need to be careful what we assert to be true, especially if we want to use the Bible to back us up. Today is Trinity Sunday
I : “Baptize in the Name of…” and Reading Back
Trinity is an attempt to come to terms with stuff found in the New Testament. For example, when, in a Bible story, we read about Thomas confessing faith in the risen Jesus, he called him, “Lord and God.” In John’s Gospel we meet Jesus in one place saying that he and the Father are one, and in another place breathing on his disciples and imparting the Holy Spirit to them. If we just take the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we find all kinds of stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit together well, even with the ways that St. Paul and others tried to work them out elsewhere in the New Testament.
If we go historically, trying to put the writings in the order of their original production during the era that the early church was creating its beliefs and scriptures, we find things that the Church, which didn’t even EXIST before Jesus’ ascended, had come to believe and do written back into the stories of Jesus, sometimes put into the mouth of Jesus as quotations.
The bits and pieces about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are clearly there in the New Testament, and they form the basis of how Christians have come to understand and relate to God ever since they were written down. But that doesn’t mean that people were clear about the RELATIONSHIPS between the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as Sustainer. The New Testament writers and those who followed them in the early centuries of church history struggled. It wasn’t until sometime in the 4th century that an Asian, Theophilus of Antioch, who wrote in Greek, came up with the explanation “three in one and one in three.” It was even later that an African theologian, Tertulllian, put it into Latin and we got the term “Trinity”. The explanation and the word satisfactorily explain much of what we read in the Bible, but the actual word “Trinity” is not found anywhere between its covers.
So, what are we to do with what we read from Matthew 28 this afternoon, where Jesus is quoted as telling his disciples to baptize people “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?”
In the Bibles we use here at Tainan International Community Church, there are quote marks around the words that Jesus said. The author of Matthew didn’t put them there. Greek written back then didn’t have things like upper and lower case letters. It didn’t have punctuation, and not even have spaces between words! Written Greek of that time looked like someone shouting in an E-mail does today.
We can do several things with what we read, but all of them require that we trust the translators, and keep the original writer in high regard.
Starting with a “highest respect for the author” position means that Jesus actually said exactly these words about preaching and baptizing, and when the author of Matthew got around to writing it down, he accurately reported what Jesus said. The identities of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are clearly set apart from each other. However, this isn’t the Trinity doctrine that we mark today, because the “RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN” Father, Son and Holy Spirit isn’t explained. That didn’t come for a few hundred years.
A “less high regard” for the author has the story being that Jesus told his disciples something about going into the world, preaching the gospel, and baptizing believers. When writing this down decades later, the author inserted the words “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” from the way baptisms were being done in the local church that he was part of at the time he wrote things. This still keeps us in the “early years of the church”, but it reads a current practice back into the “original story”.
A third option, which I must admit I don’t really like, is to imagine that a long time after the author wrote the story as a command to go, preach and baptize, someone else inserted “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” into the text, putting these words into Jesus’ mouth to settle an argument he was having with some other group in his church at the time. Those words have stuck to Jesus’ lips like glue ever since. This way of explaining things trusts the translators, but doesn’t respect the author.
Today we affirm that God is present to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is Biblical revelation. As to HOW the relationship works, (three in one, one in three, co-equal, without rank, etc. ) we have to trust the 4th century theologians and accept some degree of mystery. We have to be very careful about reading contemporary understandings back into the scriptures and claiming them as original. This has happened, on the topic of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You can find it in I John 5:7&8. Compare different English translations of I John 5:7&8. There are about 40 that you can easily access at www.biblegateway.com, and get them all on one screen without too much scrolling. The translations done in the 20th century, that are based on ancient Greek manuscripts, don’t have some of the words that we find in translations done from about 1400 to 1899. Those “earlier” English translations were done based on “not so old” Greek manuscripts. It appears that between the “ancient” manuscripts and the “not so old” manuscripts, someone added extra words to I John 5:7&8 to give “biblical proof” for his group’s idea about the Trinity.
I like the mystery of the Trinity. It works for me. As for the relationships BETWEEN Father, Son and Holy Spirit WITHIN the Trinity, I can’t explain much, if anything, for you. But in terms of my own life, the relationships between myself and each of the three “persons” in the Trinity vary with my needs in helpful ways.
When I am in need of protection and assurance, God as “Father” is the most comforting place I go. When I’m seeking a friend who listens, God as Jesus the Son is most precious to me. And when I’m in need of guidance and power for life, the Holy Spirit can’t be beat.
Is that satisfying for me? Only partly. Should it satisfy you? That depends on you.
II “Your Wonderful Name” and Reading Forward
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, you know, was NOT a Christian. The religion of his people is found in the collection of stories, poems, law codes, wise sayings and weird stuff that we find in the Old Testament of the Bible. We read one of those poems today, Psalm 8 was part of the hymnbook of Jesus’ people way back then (and even now). It’s the source material for the hymn we sang as we began worship today, “O Lord Our Lord, how Majestic is your name in all the earth!” For Jesus’ ancestors, and for Jesus himself, there was no “Trinity” to explain. God was ONE. When at worship they said “a little bit of what they believed”. they didn’t use as many words as we do here each week. There said a single sentence, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!”
We sang the first and last verses of Psalm 8 today in our opening hymn, ‘O Lord, Our Lord, How Majestic is Your Name in all the Earth”. Though we may have been a little more “rock and roll” about it than Jesus and his friends in their worship, we mean the same thing they did, that God is wonderful EVERYWHERE, in all the earth. This is not just a little God of one remote province of the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian or Roman Empire. This is the God of ALL the world, whose praise reaches outward to the moon and stars and inward to the mouths of children and babies. Any of us who may be vegetarians may argue with the verses about humans being of greater worth than animals. That would be an interesting discussion. There’s a lot for me to learn from people who regard animals as equal to, or higher than humans, and I have little to teach them.
The point of using this Psalm on Trinity Sunday is to emphasize the ONENESS of God that was part of Jesus’ religion, and is very much at the center of Christianity. In some of those confusing bits of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is quoted as having said, “I and the Father are One”, he was firmly grounded in this “God Is One” belief. He didn’t say, “God and Me and the Spirit makes three.”
Hear O Church, The Lord our God… Father, Son and Holy Spirit…the Lord is ONE! In practical terms, that means:…
- When getting a thesis done so I can graduate or getting a job application accepted so that I can stay where I want to be is most on my mind and heart, I don’t mess around with “which person of the Trinity”, I turn to God, who is wonderful in all the earth, and as far as the moon and stars.
- When the wonderfulness of life is just too wonderful for words, I give thanks to God for help.
- When terrible things like terrorist attacks in Orlando, Teherah, Kabul, Mosul, London or Paris occur, it is to God I cry for justice and compassion.
Did that solve anything? Probably not. What we’re left with, on Trinity Sunday, is not a neatly wrapped up package of answers, but a wonder and a mystery. Too much of human life around us is neatly wrapped up, so the wonder and the mystery are gifts of God for us. We don’t need all of the answers, we don’t even need to understand completely. We are accompanied in this life and eternally by God, whom we know as One in three different ways.
Thank God there won’t be a final exam.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN