Behold, I am with you always- until the end of the age

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, June 15, 2014 - 9:30am

Matthew 28

 

Behold, I am with you always- until the end of the age

 

If you have ever seen an episode of the Simpsons, then you will be familiar with the figure of Ned Flanders, the prudish goody-goody Christian who lives over the road from Homer Simpson, providing a well-meaning counterpoint to Homer’s amoral slobbishness and an uncomplaining source of purloined hedge-trimmers.

 

In one episode, Bart Simpson is invited over to the Flanders household, and is astounded to find Ned’s sons playing a video game. On closer inspection, however, this is no ordinary shoot-em-up, but ‘Billy Graham’s Bible Blaster’, in which players are invited to fire bibles at heretics and unbelievers transforming them into smartly-dressed, respectable keepers of the true faith. The best gag is when Bart is invited to have a go, and after a few moments at the controls shouts ‘Yeah! I got him!’ to which Ned’s son responds

‘No, you just winged him, and made him a Unitarian.’

 

Now, this is the kind of joke that could only come from the more theologically literate United States. It requires us to understand that a Unitarian is someone who rejects the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and who is therefore ‘not quite the thing’. But why does it matter? Is this not so much factional name-calling, of the kind we thought we had left behind with the Dark Ages? Should we not applaud any kind of religious belief in these times where scepticism and cynicism seem to run so deep? Well, yes, but…

There is a reason why the Holy Trinity holds the honoured place it does in our faith. There is a reason why countless martyrs have died to uphold the truth that God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons and yet one God, without confusion or division. And the reason comes from taking seriously, and asking questions about passages like the one that have heard in our gospel for today:

 

‘Behold, I am with you always- until the end of the age.’

 

What does it mean when Jesus says this: ‘I am with you always’? How is he with us always? What does it mean for us that he is with us always? It recalls the name with which we celebrated his birth at Christmas – Emmanuel – ‘God with us.’ How is God with us in Jesus?

 

In trying to answer questions like these, Christians over time have come up with a number of theories. They have recognised that in the story that we tell beginning at Christmas with the Incarnation, and ending last week at Whitsun with the sending of the Spirit, we have seen God the Father at work amongst his people, but in thinking through the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit, various theories have been tried on for size, and argued about, and not all of them have fit. The Holy Trinity is what is left.

 

Some, for example have argued for Unitarianism, quite rightly upholding the ancient Jewish belief that there is only one God, unsearchable and unknowable. As a consequence, they have had to agree with Jesus contemporaries that Jesus was something less than God – a messenger or agent of God. Now this is all very well, we might say, but if this is the case, then God is not really ‘with us’, is he? He remains safely installed in heaven and sends his messenger to do the dirty work.

 

Closely related to this idea is Monarchianism, which says that God the Father is the ‘proper’ God, as it were, whose spirit dwelt within the human Jesus, just as he does in all of us, but in fuller and more complete way. By this understanding Jesus was God only in the sense that God dwelt within him. This is a tempting idea until we consider that Jesus cannot be ‘with us’ in any real sense after his Ascension if he was simply God’s fleshly vessel. Still less could he die for us and rise again unless, as he said himself, ‘the Father and I are one.’

 

Another variation on this theme is Modalism, a mistake people slip into every time they say that the Trinity is, for example,  like water – available to us in liquid, ice and vapour. This teaches that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are different ways in which the one God expresses himself- different roles adopted for the fulfilment of the divine plan. Yet at each stage in Jesus’ life we find the three in simultaneous co-operation with one another. At his baptism, for example, the Spirit descends and a voice says ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.’

 

Of course the alternative to these is Tritheism. The idea that there are three Gods, or that He is in some way divided into three, like a shamrock, and yet Jesus himself never testified to any other than the one God of Israel it was with the I AM who declared himself to Moses that he identified himself when he said, for example ‘I AM the Way, and the truth and the Life.’ God is not with us if we must choose between three separate options.

 

What are we left with? We are left with a God who is Trinity. Three Persons so unified that where one is present, so are the others; so distinct that they can operate independently of one another. We are left with a God whose love for the world is such that he takes on humanity and comes among us Himself to redeem us, We are left with a God who in His very being demonstrates the way in which perfect love reconciles difference  into unity. The unknowable God makes himself known in Jesus. The unsuffering God suffers for us in his Son. The unreachable God reaches for us in his Spirit and invites us to belong within his eternal and perfect relationship, by baptism into Jesus Christ.

 

‘Go,’ says Christ, ‘and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’