s033g02 Trinity Sunday Lockleys 26/5/02
"teaching them to obey" Matthew 28.20
It was on Trinity Sunday 1973 that two university students travelled from St Mark's Residential College up the hill to St Barnabas Theological College at Belair, as it then was, for their one and I think only "Vocations Day". The two travelled in a Gogomobile Dart, which for those who do not know, looked like a mini E-type Jag, but was built of fibreglass with a 300 cc two stroke motor. I distinctly remember the passenger waving to the passers-by as we went through the city, much as Her Majesty the Queen waves as she travels through the crowds in her limousine. I shall not reveal who the passenger was - as he is now also a priest. I was the driver, and we actually made it up the hill, much to our mutual surprise :-) It was perhaps a minor miracle.
So Trinity Sunday has always had a special place in my heart, for it was then I said, to no one in particular, well I suppose if I had $4000 (to be able to escape at the weekends) and a more reliable car (again to be able to escape at the weekends), I might come to College. Sadly, God did not write out a cheque for $4000 there and then, but I was able to replace the Dart with a Mini Cooper, I was accepted as a candidate and I suppose I earned the $4000 during summer vacations to enable me to have a limited social life.
I went to College thinking that I had to work out what I believed and it is only now, a quarter of a century later, I am beginning to be able to articulate my faith. I suppose this means I'm a particularly slow learner!
However Trinity is not the favourite Sunday for most lay people. It is the one time when clergy have an excuse to talk theology from the pulpit. The usual objective of the sermon is either to explain the Holy Trinity, to excuse the Holy Trinity, or to show that the Holy Trinity is at least a reasonable way of explaining God. It seems people think that we have to understand the Holy Trinity so as to accept the doctrine lest we will go to hell.
Closely linked to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are the Creeds and again we think we have to understand the Creeds, and accept them or else we will be consigned to eternal damnation. In the words of the Creed of St Athanasius, curiously still included in "A Prayer Book for Australia" (p 836) "Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly" and later it ends: "This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved." Most of the rest of the words of the Creed of St Athanasius are completely incomprehensible, but the message of these two parts of it cannot be mistaken. If you don't understand, accept fully without question, you are no Christian and you will go to hell.
Now I have a number of difficulties with this line of thinking and to see what I mean, I need to take you back to why the Creeds, where the doctrine of the Trinity is expressed, were written in the first place. Over the centuries various people have come up with some wonderful explanations of how the one unique and holy God became incarnate in common flesh like you and I possess in the ordinary person of Jesus. I won't bother you with the details of the various theories because these details are actually remarkably unimportant for the story. The common thread of these people was that their theories explained God - they understood God. The Church's response was to write the Creeds and the Creeds were written to say that you can't understand God. If you can understand and explain God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit - how these are distinct and how they are one, you are heretical. The only orthodox approach to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit is that we essentially cannot understand or explain them. They are a paradox, not meant to be solved or explained.
So my first message for today is that we can all give up trying to understand God and the Creeds. I don't understand them any more than you understand them. If I did, I'd be wrong. And hopefully you will consider this "good news". So I'm not going to waste my breath today trying to teach you all about God.
This is reinforced by my text which is not about "believing" but about "obeying". So instead of imparting all my brilliant theological understanding of the intricacies of the divine, we may perhaps conclude that the real task of the preacher is to teach morals, obeying the detailed minutia of the law. I think St Paul might be writhing in his grave if he heard me say this!
J. L. Houlden in his remarkable and very helpful little book "Ethics and the New Testament" makes the statement that "The church had to build up the rule book which Jesus had failed to provide" (p114). Putting this next to my text, how do we teach people to obey, when our teacher has not given precise instructions? Of course this begs the question, are we simply meant to slavishly obey? Are we not meant to think and reason and come to our own conclusions?
However I think I would differ from Houlden, but it does not revolve around making ethical decisions about moral problems like IVF or euthanasia, about which Jesus was not unremarkably silent. But, as Houlden explains, Jesus was silent about lots of things, and I heartily agree with this.
Once I was speaking to a mother of a teenage girl and she made the statement that she believed that Jesus wanted her daughter to be a virgin when she married. I would want to say that the essence of Jesus' message was that God would forgive her daughter, and her mother, if she wasn't. I am not sure if we are in fact not trivialising what God wants us to do, if we suggest that God's primary preoccupation is whether individuals do or do not engage in intimacy before marriage. Let me say that there are a number of good reasons why young people should be cautious when it comes to intimacy, without having to drag Jesus or God into the argument. We have all been hurt, at one stage or another, in our lives. On the other hand, the English Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson wisely said: "It is better to have loved and lost than never loved at all." (1809-1892 In Memoriam xxvii).
I have grave fears for how this person's daughter will grow up. I hope that she is able to rebel, to be herself. I hope she realises that she can "honour her father and mother" without doing everything they say, even if it is for her "own good".
Now if it is highly questionable that Jesus came and gave a consistent and coherent set of instructions on his teaching, it is hardly likely that Jesus was killed for such an oversight. One doesn't have an inept teacher crucified publicly.
There is no doubt in my mind that there was something that Jesus taught and did that enraged the authorities, enough to have him killed. If there wasn't, then why would the risen Jesus have said to the disciples the words of my text: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19,20).
I believe that Jesus was killed for a purpose and finding the reason why Jesus was killed is the way we will find out what Jesus would have us do - how we should obey him. And my thesis is that Jesus was killed because he associated with and accepted the contributions of people other than the religious establishment. He sat down and ate with sinners. If Jesus was killed for associating with people other than those of the religious establishment then the way for us to obey, to "follow" Jesus, is to do likewise.
So far from consigning the recalcitrant people around us to eternal damnation for not coming to Church, for not believing as we do and for not living their lives in a manner acceptable to us, Jesus tells us to accept others and the contribution they can make to our lives - and to teach them to do likewise to others. It is a message, not just for them, but for us too - and we drive the message home - not by the force of our argumentation but by how faithfully we ourselves follow Christ and do as he tells us.
Many years ago I read Mario Puzo's book: "The Godfather" and as I have reflected on it over the years, I have sometimes wondered what is the difference between the Mafia and the Church. They and we pay our protection money to try to ensure our safety, the Mafia in this life, we in the next. They and we traditionally see ourselves as distinct from others, the Mafia prepared to kill to assert their superiority, we to condemn to eternal damnation to assert ours. If this is the difference - I don't think humanity will ever be edified.
I was reminded, as I was given the latest issue of "On Dit" (the University student magazine of the University of Adelaide) to read of another "blast from the past" - that May the 10th was the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Dr George Duncan (widely held to be a homophobic murder by persons who have never been charged, let alone brought to justice). It was in 1972, a year before I first went to St Barnabas College. Again in relationship with gay people, I thought how the Church is so often seen to define itself in terms not so very different from the Mafia - separate, superior and belittling of everyone else. Society will not be edified if this continues.
Fundamental to the doctrine of God the Holy Trinity is that it gives us an example of unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Fundamental to our Christian lives is interdependence not independence, incorporation of difference not alienation of the other, and I suggest these are hallmarks of the Holy Trinity as well.
This seems rather a "lame" conclusion - modelling our lives on the divine - something we can take or leave. This is in contrast to my text which talks about "obeying" - something about which we have little personal choice. I believe we have a choice, but the consequences of that choice are clear. If we model ourselves as self sufficient, separate and distinct, nothing will change in this world - people will continue to be alienated and resentments and strife will continue, world without end. Amen.
Quite some years ago a mother brought her new born child to be baptised to an Anglican Church in this diocese. She was turned away because she had been divorced and remarried. Is it any wonder that this person has never and will never darken the doors of the Church again? This is the sort of stories I hear all too frequently, and I have no doubt that this "reputation" of our Church has spread far and wide. I would suspect that most people accept this as irrefutable fact. I find it no wonder that people have gone to Pentecostal Churches, to New Age cults or given up completely. For all you and I in this parish try to be accepting and caring of people, I doubt there is in fact much we can do to reverse the general perception that people who don't come to church, that they have to live up to our expectations before they will be acceptable to us. Even for all my obvious charm and charisma (!?!?!) I doubt that we can ever expect to do this, but our Lord gives us no option but to try - to try by our caring and example - not by berating others because they should be able to dismiss the hurts they have received from the Church in the past.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a paradox, as is the idea that God can work though very ordinary people, people who have failed, people who struggle with doubts and sadness, yet there it is. Actually I think there is no real need to explain how these things are so - rather we can rejoice that both are true, and that God works through us and others.
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