Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 7, 2020

Matthew 28:16-20 Commentary

Worship and Doubt.  Apparently they have been together from the beginning.

As Rev. Leonard Vander Zee pointed out one time in a sermon, the Bible is eminently realistic about such things.  Matthew did not sugarcoat this for us, did not try to place shining halos behind each disciple’s head as they all stood on this mountain in Galilee.   The risen Jesus was there, in the flesh.  And he did, properly enough, receive some worship.

But he also generated some doubts.  We are not told what exactly was doubted.  What did the doubters doubt?  Their own eyes?  Possibly.  Did they doubt the continuity between the Jesus they once knew and whoever this was before them now some days after the death of their former Master?  Possibly.  We know from the other gospels that there was something sufficiently different about Jesus’ appearance after the resurrection that it was possible to spend quite a lot of time with him (as, for instance, when a couple of folks were en route to Emmaus along a seven mile hike) and still not recognize him as the rabbi from Nazareth.

Or did they doubt even more fundamental things?  Did they believe this was their old friend Jesus all right but then wondered if he had really died after all?  Did they believe this was Jesus but thought they were seeing a ghost, a vision, an apparition of Jesus from the other side but not a newly alive, flesh-and-blood person?

It is difficult to say.  But whatever the precise nature of the doubt, we cannot escape the striking fact that on the very day when the most famous commission of all time was given to the then-budding Church—and on a day when the Triune formula for the divine identity was given as unambiguous an expression as anywhere in the entire New Testament—right then and there on that very day, there was doubt.  There was uncertainty and a hint of skepticism.

Anyone who has ever had a furrowed brow over some of the knottier complexities of the Doctrine of the Trinity should appreciate a soupçon of doubt in the air in one of the key passages on which Trinitarian theology is built!  But all of us latter-day disciples of Christ should likewise appreciate the fact that even the physical presence of Jesus was not always enough to chase away every specter of doubt.

Sometimes we’re all tempted to think, “Ah, if I had only been here on earth when Jesus was here, then faith would be an easier matter.  If I could have seen him feed the 5,000, heard with my own ears the preaching of the Beatitudes, stuck my fingers in the nail holes the way Thomas was invited to do . . . if only I had been there, faith would seem more rock solid to me.”

Perhaps.  But then, perhaps not.  Faith is finally a mystery whether we can bolster it with physical proofs and evidences or not.  And yet even in the presence of worship tinged with doubt, Jesus is there and promises his abiding presence to the end of the ages.  Doubt doesn’t disqualify us from being in the presence of Jesus.  Instead and in the midst of the doubt, Jesus is there, he brings to us the fullness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and asks us to move forward into still more ministry as we witness to his Name and to his gospel to the ends of the earth.

It was not easy then to be a follower of the Triune God.  It’s not easy now.  After all, this passage not only contains the doubts of some, it comes hard on the heels of what Frederick Dale Bruner has called “The Great Counter-Commission” of the religious authorities who bribed the Roman guards to spread the false report of grave robbery as a way to explain Jesus’ now-empty tomb.  Counter-stories, other stories, debunking of various aspects of the whole Gospel story: these have been floating around from the beginning.  Maybe by the time the disciples caught up with Jesus clear up in Galilee (some 70-80 miles north of Jerusalem), a few of the disciples had themselves already been exposed to this or that counter-story.  Maybe that was part of the doubt.

This is mostly speculation, of course.  The text itself is pretty spare.  Yet on this Trinity Sunday 2020, we come back yet again to the rock-solid declaration that a new life is possible through baptism into that Triune Name and what’s more, the Jesus who holds out this promise and prospect of new life promises to be with us.  Always.  Maybe during this time of COVID-19 pandemic and all the uncertainty it has unleashed, we need this.

Lately I have heard some plaintive pleas for prayers from some pastors I know.  They are shocked at how riven their own congregations are about reopening, they are troubled that sisters and brothers in also the church are here and there questioning what is really behind this pandemic, trafficking even in conspiracy theories that seem to cause some people to cast doubt on almost everything.  So perhaps right now on Trinity Sunday 2020 we need something rock solid to unify us, to bring us together, to remind us of what is utterly foundational for us as believers and what is extraneous and unimportant.  Maybe what we need in this disorienting time is precisely Immanuel.

Matthew began on a note of profound mystery: the child who was known as Jesus was Mary’s son but not Joseph’s (Mt. 1:16).  And once Joseph gets wind of the child’s presence in his fiancé’s womb, he is confused and scandalized enough to want to flee the whole situation.  But God tells him to stay with the mystery, with the confusion because somehow out of all this topsy-turvy, heart-upsetting, mind-addling business would come the arrival of the One Joseph was to hail as “Immanuel,” as “God with us.”

It’s the theme of Matthew’s Gospel and so Matthew bookends the narrative by returning to “God with us” from the lips of this same Jesus in Matthew 28 and the very last words of the narrative.  Things are still confusing as the book Matthew wrote comes to an end.  Matthew 1 and Matthew 28 are twin chapters in some ways.  Minds are still addled.  Hearts are still troubled.

They worshiped.  They doubted.

As it was in the beginning, so it remains for us in the church today.  But it’s OK.  Jesus is still with us.  And through him we get engulfed in the full Trinitarian mystery that just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Trinity Sunday, like the Doctrine of the Trinity for which it is named, can seem rather dull, academic, a bit remote.  But it’s not.  The fullness of the cosmic God is with us, is on our side, is nestled right in next to us even in our most profound times of both worship and doubt.  That’s not academic information.  It’s very, very personal.  And it is very, very lovely.  Thanks be to God, to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Textual Note

In ordinary speech, we would not say to someone “This is Jeremy, Jill, and Judy so be sure to remember that name.”  When introducing or referring to a plurality of named persons, we’d ask someone to remember their “names” in the plural, not their “name” in the singular as if we were talking about just one person.  In the Greek text, as in all translations, Jesus refers to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in a distinct way and yet does not say to baptize into the nameS of those three person but singularly into the Name.

There may be no neat parallels but we may do something similar when we refer to a corporate identity that, although involving a plurality of names, points to a singular entity with a singular purpose.  And so in advertising a law firm, it would not be unusual to say something like “Harris, Morrison, and Beckett: A Name You Can Trust.”  (And of course some of us cannot help but hark back to the hilarious days of the radio show “Car Talk” and their sponsoring law firm of Dewey, Cheetum, and Howe”!!)  Now actually we were given three names but since the law firm has a monolithic identity and a unity of purpose, it’s OK to sum up all the people who work there—including the three lead partners—as a unity with, in essence, just one name among them.

Obviously when dealing with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Holy Trinity of God, we are talking about an identity among the three persons that is vastly thicker and tighter than any human analogy (Mr. Harris, Ms. Morrison, and Mr. Beckett are finally three different persons after all with no fundamental connection to each other) —but there is something striking about our common use of baptizing into “the Name” and then going on to mention three persons.  There may be more three-in-one and one-in-three Trinitarian theology tucked into those familiar words than we realize!

Illustration Idea:

In a story I have no doubt used before on the CEP website—and I got this from a sermon by Tom Long—we find that although we might like to keep things “simple” in the church and in preaching, it is not always the best way to go.  Yes, the Trinity is a mystery and it is a hard doctrine to understand.  But in the richness of the mystery there are things we need to know and should want to know about.  Simplicity is not always a virtue.

The fine preacher George Buttrick was once on an airplane scribbling out sermon notes on a legal pad.  The man next to him asked what he was doing and so Buttrick said, “I’m working on next Sunday’s sermon–I’m a preacher.”

“Oh yeah,” the man replied, “religion!  I like to keep my religion simple–I don’t like complicated doctrines.  ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’  The Golden Rule–that’s my religion!”

“I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what is it that you do.”

“Well, I teach in the science department at the university.  I’m an astronomer.”

“Ah yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get very technical about such things.  ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’  That’s my astronomy–why would anyone ever need more than that!?”


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