Go Therefore

When God Came Down Like Fire

Trinity Sunday, Year A

Trinity Sunday is about God and not about us. And yet, because we can know God only in relationship, it has to be about us too.

It is always our inclination to explain God on Trinity Sunday. Resist that inclination. All the metaphors ultimately fall short and serve only to reduce God into accessible bites that we can snack on like popcorn. We set aside these two weeks with the hope that Pentecost and Trinity Sunday will serve to inspire awe in the worshiper. Your task, preacher, is to open folks up to the amazing wonder that is God. We describe God as Trinity because that is how God is experienced, not really understood. Certainly, we can and need to theologize, to wrestle with understandings and interpretations, and your Bible study or small group would be a perfect place to do that. Here you can walk with your people through the gallery of the glory of God. Not just to gawk, however, but to be inspired – filled with the Spirit. And that Spirit is a sending Spirit, our texts tell us.

But maybe we should start at the beginning. We’ve got a bit more than the whole first chapter of Genesis. Why did the lectionary preparers choose that as the Hebrew scripture text for Trinity Sunday? Do we see the three-in-one God at work here? Do we experience something of that completeness, of that wholeness, as we work our way through this familiar account? Let’s look.

Genesis 1 says that when time began, God was. When Creation came to be, God was the cause. The water here is the incubator, the womb of God out of which Creation is birthed. “The wind of God swept over the face of the waters,” says the NRSV; “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” says the NIV. Eugene Peterson’s The Message says, “God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.” I like that. Brooded. Like a hen tending the eggs before they hatch, like a mother waiting for the time to give birth. God tends the creation; God calls it forth.

But wait, is it the Spirit that is the creative force of God or the Word? The Spirit brooded, the Word was spoken, and there was. The Prologue to the Gospel of John tells us the Word was that force: John 1:3 “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” It was the Word that brought forth light, and then it was the Word that pronounced it good.

We sometimes forget that part of the story. We wrestle over creation; we argue about theories, but we sometimes forget the goodness that is a part of all that God has created. Or maybe we forget what “good” means.

God saw that it was good. But the light was not yet complete. The sun hadn’t been made yet, in the story. The moon and the “lesser lights” of the stars were still on the drawing board. But it was good. Goodness must mean something other than finished. It must mean something other than perfect as we define that term. Perhaps it means born of God. Perhaps it means in process, growing, moving on toward perfection. On the way to order out of chaos.

Order out of chaos. Light in the midst of darkness. And the light was good. And there was morning. When you didn’t think there could be another one, there is morning. Thanks be to God.

And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." - Genesis 1:6 NRSV

The waters represent chaos, the unknown and unknowing. In the ancient world, sending sailors to sea was a traumatic experience. The ritual for sending was like a funeral, the return like a resurrection. Who knows what is going to happen out there; who knows whether those who are sent will ever be seen again. Now we have tamed the sea. At least we think we have. Until the storm surge reminds us what power is, until the threat of rising waters troubles our easy confidence. What will our coastlines look like in fifty years? In a hundred?

By separating the waters, God was staking a claim as Lord of chaos and order. Saying “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” Our God is in control.

Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so. - Genesis 1:9-13 NRSV

Let the earth put forth. God enlists the aid of creation in the act of creating. God invites partnership. Work with me here, God is saying, get on board. Though perfectly capable of creating solo, out of nothing, God instead chooses to invite participation. Let the earth bring forth... it was good. And there was morning. It goes on.

The Genesis story stands in opposition to other creation stories. Many have pointed to the similarities and believe that this diminishes the story somehow. But Genesis makes its claim regardless. God is the only deity; notice that the sun and moon are not named in this story. In other tales, these are gods themselves, but not in Genesis. God is the only power; the lights “rule” only because God put them there. And it was good.

The story goes on, of course. For sixty-six books and for thousands of years. It goes on until today, where we find ourselves in the midst of chaos attempting to throw off order. It goes on until the day when we find ourselves forgetting that there is a purpose to our existence. It goes on, the story, the mornings go on.

That’s the blessing here. It was evening and it was morning, a new day. Another day. When you were sure that your failures meant the sun would never shine again, it crawls over the horizon even so. God set it all in motion and invited us to be a part. Whatever dominion meant, it now must mean caring for; it must mean stewarding. We participate in God’s act of creation by making sure that it lasts as long as it can. Whatever subduing meant, it now must mean partnering with the earth to bring forth enough to feed the teeming billions.

And why? Why are we called to participate in this act? Why are we privileged or burdened with an extra responsibility or promise? Because we are made in the image of God. And we are given the story, so we know. We know that everything there is did not come about because of us. We know that our main mode of existence is one of gratitude. We know that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who said, “let there be light.”

That’s where things get interesting, which is code for messy. Or complicated. Because we are invited to participate in God’s ever-continuing act of creation. We are called to join in. We are called to go.

It’s time to go. You’ve heard that a few times in your life, I know. You’ve said it many times too. Go. Let’s go. Can we go? Ready to go? Questions, statements, promises, pleading – “Go” has lots of moods, lots of attitudes. It’s hard to deny the excitement inherent in “Go”. It just drips with possibility and with newness. Go into a new world, a new reality, a new way of being. Who could say no to “Go"? The horizons are calling, and the world is yours. Just go. Go and see, go and live, go and be. A new chapter is a new beginning, but also a continuation of the story so far. Go! Of course, we want to go.

But. There is the other side of “Go.” To go you have to leave. To move toward a new tomorrow is sometimes to leave a comfortable – or even not so comfortable, but maybe familiar – yesterday. To embrace the call to go is to turn your back on “stay.” It is to leave behind those who have become family, even as you stride into an uncertain hope, a possible joy.

Now we stand on a mountain with the remaining disciples, as they wait for whatever might be coming next. Mountains in the Bible are more than simply geologic formations. They are theological signposts. Something significant is going to happen. You can tell. There’s a mountain. It’s a dead giveaway. Or rather a living one. Mountains are alive (thank you Rogers and Hammerstein by way of Julie Andrews), but not just with the sound of music. No, mountains are alive with the Presence and Power of God. Standing on this mountain, the disciples’ lives were about to change forever. In fact, the whole world was about to change forever. Not that they knew that at that moment. All they knew is that they heard that word: “Go.”

There’s some very important information in these verses from the end of Matthew’s Gospel. We want to get right to the crux of it, to the “Go,” the Great Commission. And that’s certainly understandable. That’s where the work is; that’s where the call is. We are a part of a denomination that takes as its mission the understanding that we are to be Making Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World. And we say it like that, with capitals and emphases. You can hear it in how we say it. We say it with fervor, with passion; we say it, let’s admit it, with a bit of desperation. We’re losing our grip on what we have been, and we are uncertain about what we will become. So, we cling tightly to the Great Commission for the salvation of the church, of the denomination. And we hold it so tightly that we squeeze the life out of it. It has become our weapon, our bludgeon to force a resurrection of the churches we were once upon a time, in our memory, if not in fact.

It comes down, I believe, to how we hear the word “Go.” “All authority has been given to me,” says Jesus, to drive his point home. To sear it into their souls, so that they would bow to the king and scuttle out of the mountainous throne room ready to do his bidding by hook or by crook. Go. Make disciples! Whether they want to be made or not. Baptize them, even if you have to hold them under the water until they stop squirming; get them in; get them done. Then teach them to obey. Obey. Put them in their place. Under the thumb, under the heel. Make them good; make them pure; make them right when all they seem to want is wrong. Get ‘er done!

You’re squirming as you read those words, aren’t you? I hope so. I was squirming as I wrote them. But the truth is, that is the attitude of many in the faith historically and today. The Great Commission is a license to hate, to wield the sword, to put down, look down, and come down on those who don’t measure up. Go, run over the world until you’ve made it into the image that is palatable to Us! And if some get hurt in the process, well, better than to miss the urgency of the call to “Go”. “It’s in there,” they say. That steel, that iron; don’t mess with God. All authority has been given to me. There is no other way. So, you’d better shape up. Get in line. And if you don’t have the right credentials, we don’t want you; we won’t let you in. Go.

Matthew says, with what sounds like a certain amount of sad honesty, that it was eleven disciples who gathered on that mountain. Did you notice? Maybe he hoped you wouldn’t. Eleven. They were broken. Incomplete. One of them turned, betrayed them, threw it all back in their faces, and pushed to make something happen that wasn’t going to happen, or pulled down the curtains to reveal the smoke and mirrors of the whole enterprise. At least that must have been what he thought. Oh, I know, John says it was the enemy. That he was infected, diseased. Can’t blame him; he was a cancer that was cut out. Let’s point the finger and let him take the blame. It absolves us. Our betrayal can remain hidden that way. Our weaknesses, our failings, pale before his.

But Matthew doesn’t seem interested in blame, just in truth. Eleven disciples gathered on that mountain, carrying their wounds, their failures, their disappointment, and their fears. Even when Jesus appeared, he says that they worshiped but some doubted. Really? The resurrected Christ, stood before them, about to ascend into heaven and take his place at the right hand of Almighty God. And some doubted? Still? On the mountain?

We aren’t told what they doubted. Him? Themselves? The mission that was about to be handed to them like hot coal from a fire? All the above or something else entirely. Who knows? We don’t. Except that we do. Because we have them too: those doubts. That sense of inadequacy. That feeling that maybe we shouldn’t force someone else to believe what isn’t within them to believe. Maybe we should just keep it to ourselves, this faith thing. Keep it quiet; don’t make waves; don’t disturb the neighbors. “Live and let live.” That’s a better motto. Better than “Go,” anyway.

But then, maybe we’ve got the tone wrong. Maybe it isn’t about triumphalism, but about joy. Not about being right, but about being whole. Maybe Jesus meant that all that happened has just shown that his way, his life, his parabolic teaching were indeed the better way to be; and that if we were thinking right, we couldn’t keep it to ourselves if we tried. It will leak out of us as we live in the world as fully alive human beings. “So,” says Jesus, “live intentionally. Live outwardly.” When Jesus says “make disciples,” he doesn’t imagine an anvil upon which we pound them into shape. Instead, he imagines a relationship. He says, “Go, spend time with people, value them, learn from them, know them, help them, tell them what makes you the fully alive person that you are.” It isn’t a course you take and get a diploma; it’s a way of living that we are always growing into. Like creation itself, the goodness is found in the process. Make disciples as you are being made into a disciple.

“Baptize them”: that sounds formal, ritual, joining up, signing on the line, right? Well, sure. But maybe more. Baptism means cleansing. Washing. Maybe Jesus meant less of a rite of the church and more of a process of being made clean, peeling off the understandings of a self-centered culture, scraping away the stuff-centric life, and immersing ourselves in the Creator God, the Redeemer Christ, and the Sustainer Spirit. “Give them something else,” Jesus was saying, to live by, to be defined by. “Give them Me,” he said with that trademark thousand-watt smile. And teach. Oh yes. Teach them obedience. Not by breaking their will, though, not by beatings and repetitions, but by passion and joy and encouragement.

“Go,” he said to them and to us. Go. And trust that he knows how hard that is. That to “Go” forward is to leave something behind; that to accept the call to “Go” is to live with uncertainty and a sense of what if and why not. It is to embrace the goodness of God in spite of those doubts. Trusting that new place, the new world is a mountain of potential and power and the Presence of God. And maybe the real call is to live into “Go” rather than to jump and run to meet some deadline, some quota. Because we have known failure, “Go” is harder to hear. Harder, but not impossible. Because, with God, all things are possible. Even “Go.”

Verses marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Verses from The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson.

In This Series...

Pentecost Sunday, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Trinity Sunday, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes


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In This Series...

Pentecost Sunday, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Trinity Sunday, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes