PostScript: I am with you
A reflection for Trinity Sunday.
Years ago I remember listening to the great American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, preach at the theological college where I was on the staff. It was, as you might expect, brilliant, although in all honesty I cannot remember most of what he said that evening. But what I do recall was Professor Brueggemann saying, with a ‘wicked’ smile on his face, ‘The Bible is subversive’. He was right: one of the glories – and challenges – of our Scripture is the way that from time to time the biblical writers throw a spanner in the works, confounding our perceptions of what is right and proper.
For many of us the Gospel of Matthew is often seen as the ‘proper’ Gospel, concerned with such niceties as proper respect being paid to the apostles, and for the ordered life of the Church. So, I find it a joy when we discover that there are times when Matthew can be as ‘subversive’ as the other Gospel writers in the challenges that he offers us. It is as though Matthew pricks some of the balloons that he himself has inflated! One good example of this is when Matthew ‘subverts’ the ordered and structured nature of the genealogy with which his Gospel opens by mentioning five rather scandalous women within it to break the pattern. Then, immediately after the genealogy, Matthew introduces Mary’s ‘scandalous’ pregnancy with Jesus – who will be ‘Emmanuel’. And Matthew’s stresses the importance of this by then explaining that the title ‘Emmanuel’ means ‘God with us’. ‘God with us’ is the frame within which the whole Gospel of Matthew is structured. There is of course a clear ‘echo’ of the phrase in Jesus’ final words to his disciples which form part of our Gospel reading this coming Trinity Sunday. ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28.20). Enclosed within this beginning and end in the life and ministry of Jesus, Matthew is sharing with us just what it means to speak of ‘God with us’. That theme can perhaps speak to many of us in new ways in the current ‘difficult days’ in which loneliness and ‘self-isolation’ are the experience of quite a number of people.
But it is also fascinating to discover some of the ‘trails’ that Matthew takes us on in his exploration. It involves quite a lot of mountain climbing: it doesn’t take much to realise that Matthew is rather fond of mountains – indeed, here in Matthew 28, the climactic end to the Gospel takes place on a mountaintop. As someone who has spent some time living in the Haute-Savoie region of France, I resonate with Matthew’s love of mountains. There’s the mount of temptation, Sermon on the Mount, mountain of healing and feeding (Matthew 15.29), transfiguration, Mount of Olives, and finally here at the conclusion of the Gospel the mountain where Jesus commissions his disciples for mission. The mountains seem to ‘yodel’ their messages across the valleys between them. Just one example: there are some key words and ideas, ‘all’, ‘authority’, ‘worship’ which link this mountain (Matthew 28) with the mountain of temptation (Matthew 4). Briefly, it seems to suggest that even the resurrected Christ is not seeking to reign ‘from above’ – for that was the temptation which he dismissed all those chapters before. Rather he, and his disciples that he sends out on mission, are to be ‘among’ and ‘with’ those to whom they are sent. And the final ‘twist’ in Matthew’s subversive tale – where is it that we will see Jesus ‘with’ humanity? Matthew 25.31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, offers the unexpected and ‘scandalous’ (?) answer. ‘Lord when was it that we saw you hungry…or thirsty…or a stranger…or naked…or in prison…?’ ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me’.
Celebrating the Trinity
Clare also recommends this extract from Tom Wright’s, For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (1997, SPCK).
What does it mean to celebrate God as Trinity? The following reflection by Tom Wright offers a fascinating – and subversive? – insight into what it means to speak of God as Trinity, which perhaps speaks particularly acutely into the present time.
‘In the church’s year, Trinity Sunday is the day when we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and when we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word ‘god’ might actually mean. These events function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, ‘You did not choose me; I chose you.’
You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying ‘we don’t know’ as of saying ‘we do know.’ To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories. If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted…. the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: ‘Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.’ [...] The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.’
God with us
Loving Father in heaven
Emmanuel, God with us,
of your goodness
you have given us yourself,
the richest gift of all.
You invite us to seek for you
in the face of your Son,
where you have imprinted your likeness,
made glorious with the wounds
of suffering and passion.
Grant us a spirit of generosity,
so that we may be enabled also to discern your features
in the changing kaleidoscope of this world’s need. Amen.
The Holy Trinity
Faithful father, minder of our yesterdays,
we thank you for your blessing and cherishing,
for your care which has brought us and all creation to this day.
Forgive the failings of our past,
the false steps and paths that we have taken
in our lives and in our histories,
as individuals, as nations, as members of your own people.
Grant us the courage not to forget,
not to stifle the sounds of suffering in which we have been complicit;
encourage us also to trust in your power to redeem,
your willingness to work with flawed humanity and re-create an earth
that all can celebrate with you as truly good.
Holy Spirit, hope for our tomorrows,
grant us vision of the future of this world as you would have it be.
Inspire us with your power and grace us with your gifts and fruits –
love, joy and peace, generosity and gentleness,
faithfulness and kindness, patience and self-control.
May they become seeds in us, taking root deep within our lives,
starting-points for change and growth.
Speak into the divisions and hatreds of these days,
in the turmoil, open our ears to catch your quiet breath,
and give us voice to echo your aching and longing for the promised time,
when in communion with you true life and freedom will be shared by all.
Christ, comforter yet challenger of our todays,
you are the beginning and end of creation,
drawing together past and future,
threading them into the texture of the present.
Through your life and ministry you showed us the importance of ‘today’,
of carrying out God’s mission in the world of here and now.
You did not allow yourself to be bound by time past,
nor await impassive for an unseen future.
Still, today, you do not let us stand aside and delay,
but urgently you offer us both salvation and judgement.
You demand that we choose, and invite us to work with you
to accomplish God’s purpose, yesterday, for ever and today. Amen.
Question for reflection or to start a discussion
- Reflect on the comment, ‘The Bible is subversive’. Do you agree? In what senses might this be true for you?
- When I was a tutor at a theological college, I used to ask would-be students, ‘What moves you?’. I still remember the answer of one young person. ‘Beautiful music, high mountains, the faces of old men and women waiting to die and people homeless on the streets of London’. I often recall the remark when I have the privilege of looking at the mountains of the Haute-Savoie. What moves you?
Until fairly recently, Dr Clare Amos worked at the World Council of Churches based in Geneva. Now retired she is the Honorary Director of Lay Discipleship for the Diocese in Europe (Church of England). She administers ‘Exploring faith in Europe’, a weekly blog on behalf of the Diocese.
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