Several years ago when there were forest fires burning out of control in California, a magazine photographer chartered a plane so he could take pictures from overhead. He rushed to the airport and found a private plane warming up at the gate. He jumped in and told the pilot, "Let's go!" The pilot swung the plane into the wind, and within minutes they reached the site of the fires.
"Get as low as you can," the photographer said, "and make two or three slow passes."
"Why?" asked the pilot.
"Because I want to take pictures," the camera man said. "I'm a photographer, and photographers take pictures!"
The pilot was silent for a moment. Then he asked, "You mean you're not the flight instructor?"
St. Matthew concludes his gospel with a portrait of Jesus not as a photographer of life, but a flight instructor. In this final scene when Jesus speaks to his disciples, it is clear that from now on he will not be an observer but a continuing participant with them in life. His ascension into heaven does not remove him from history. Instead, it provides an eternal context for his involvement in the temporal. It establishes a transcendent point of view from which to discern the meaning of life here and now. It makes history the shock wave of eschatology.
In the final three verses of today's gospel Jesus uses the word all four times in the original text. Of course, the new English translation thinks to improve things by eliminating what it considers redundancy. But that weakens what Jesus says. In the Greek text the word all is declared four times by Jesus. It would seem that our Lord is willing to forego linguistic style in order to get his message across.
Jesus begins with the powerful claim, ALL authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. This authority was not given to him by the Devil when he was being tempted in the wilderness before he began his ministry. It was given to him by God. It is not authority bestowed on him as a reward for suffering and death. Rather, it is authority inherent in him from eternity, authority that carries him through suffering and death and raises him from the dead. There were times in his life on earth that his authority as the Son of God was hidden beneath the events and episodes of everyday life. But now that authority is fully revealed. The authority was his all along, but now it is disclosed for all who have the eyes of faith to see. His authority is total and ultimate. No other authority in heaven or on earth comes even close to the authority of Jesus Christ.
The second time Jesus uses the word all is when he tells his disciples, 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... It is logical to assume that if Jesus does in fact have all authority in heaven and on earth, then that news must be conveyed to all the world. The claim that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world is not merely one religious claim alongside many other equally valid religious claims. Rather, it is the claim that ultimate authority resides in one and one alone: Jesus Christ. As citizens of the world we are tolerant of other religions, but as Christians we believe and proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. We baptize in the name of the Triune God. We teach the baptized and coach them into discipleship. And it is not to certain selected nations, races, or ethnicities that we go, but to ALL nations.
The third time Jesus uses the word all is when he adds, teaching them to obey ALL [translated everything] that I have commanded you. To what does all refer? It refers to all that Jesus has taught and embodied throughout Matthew's gospel. It refers to the blessedness of the poor, the grieving, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. It refers to the blessedness of the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted. It refers to loving one's enemies and praying for them. It refers to rejecting the old traditions about impetuous divorces, justifiable cynicism, and the right to bear grudges forever. It refers to giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison.
Obeying All that Jesus has commanded is not limited to doing religious things in public where people can see you and praise you for what you have done. It includes the secular and private arenas of life as well. If all authority is Jesus Christ's, then all of life is reclaimed by him as well, in heaven and on earth. His disciples know that and put it into practice.
The fourth and final time Jesus uses the word all is in his last sentence when he says, And remember, I am with you ALL the days [translated always] to the end of the age. In this final statement of Jesus the strange declaration of Matthew at Jesus' birth that he is Emmanuel, that is, God-with-us, becomes clear and is fulfilled. The phrase God-with-us is both the framework and the content of Matthew's gospel. Jesus is born to be God-with-us. He lives, suffers, dies, and is raised again as God-with-us. And now in his continuing presence with us through the Holy Spirit, he is God-with-us as long as we live on earth.
Today is the Festival of the Holy Trinity. It is the only day in our liturgical calendar set aside for a doctrine rather than an event or a saint. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is often explained with heavy emphasis on the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is unfortunate, because the original emphasis was not on the threefoldness but on the unity of the godhead. We do not believe in three gods, but in one God in three persons. The early church's belief was grounded in God being fully present as the Father-creator of all things, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine was formulated to affirm that these three represent one God, not three gods, while at the same time affirming that God is manifested fully in all three.
The standard formula goes in this order: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in our encounter with God the formula is just the opposite. First, we are grasped by the Holy Spirit who leads us to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ then restores us to God the Father. In our mind's eye we do not see three persons of the godhead sitting around talking with each other in heaven, nor do we see the three persons on a triangular chart with the Latin words est and non est connecting them. Rather, we see one God personally reaching to us through Jesus Christ, who in turn reaches to us through the Holy Spirit. The term person means mask or representation. It does not mean an individual. Therefore when we individuate the three persons of the Trinity, we attack the unity of God and position ourselves for polytheism.
The history of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is fascinating, albeit complicated. There were many attempts to formulate and interpret it which turned out to be less than adequate and in no few cases heretical. The Athanasian Creed which we will recite in a few minutes reflects the church's attempt to draw clear boundaries around the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the two natures of Jesus Christ, so that people might know what the true faith is and what it isn't.
Some controversies continue to this day. One is over the word filioque. Filioque means and the Son. Western Christendom retains the phrase in the Nicene Creed, affirming that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Eastern Orthodoxy rejects the phrase, affirming instead that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Theologians on both sides admit that while the controversy may once have been important, it no longer carries much meaning for us. Even in the heat of the original dispute, it had more to do with a power struggle between Rome and Constantinople than with the true meaning of the Trinity.
Today is the Festival of the Holy Trinity, the festival of a very important church doctrine. But I believe it is more than that. I believe it is a day on which the church celebrates God's full disclosure to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The church year began last Advent with the world God the Father created yearning for light and peace and joy. Then came the birth of God the Son, followed by his ministry, his passion and death, his resurrection and ascension. Finally came the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Today the church puts it all together in its affirmation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as One God, after all. The Festival of the Holy Trinity summarizes our encounter with God and positions us for witness and service in all the world.
The Trinity is acknowledged in today's gospel when Jesus instructs the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But what Jesus gives us here is not some abstract teaching about the theoretical composition of the godhead. What he gives us is the Trinity in action. God who created all things has given Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth, and now Jesus promises to be with his people always, through the Holy Spirit. And we, his people, are to go therefore and make disciples of all nations... teaching them to observe all that [he] has commanded.