a Homily for Trinity Sunday
Text: Matthew 28:16-20
We return this week to the Gospel According to Matthew, for this writer’s resurrection story. We normally don’t think of this passage that way; as a story of resurrection. We’re focused on the writers we call Luke and John. Their accounts are different. More story-like.
These final verses, after all, are known as The Great Commission: when Jesus sends His disciples out to make more disciples. We are taught that this is about evangelism. But this is how the writer we call Matthew describes Jesus’s appearance to the disciples after the resurrection. These five slim verses. That’s it.
And there’s more that makes this difficult to read out of that context. So the disciples arrive, having been told by Mary Magdalene that Jesus would meet them back home in Galilee, after having been separated from Jesus that fateful night. And from Judas.
Only days have passed since one of their closest friends betrayed Jesus, their cause, their group. Days since Judas repented, sought forgiveness, and ultimately hanged himself. Days since Jesus died, hanging, too that day. There can be no doubt that they are carrying that grief home with them. Loss, separation, failure.
There were 12 disciples as there were 12 tribes–the sons of Jacob, the Children of Israel. Twelve is a perfect number, a foundational number. It matches GOD’s ordering.
Now there are eleven. The writer is specific in telling us this (“the eleven disciples went to Galilee”) when the blanket (“the disciples”) would do. It is intentional; conspicuous. They return less, fewer, missing one of their number. The group is not whole and no longer perfect.
Such loss is not alien to us. We express that sense of incompleteness when a husband or mother or son has died. We often say that she “has been taken from” us. And we respond to that loss by trying to engage with the absence.
- We replace the person with a new activity or
- we keep her ashes near us, to keep her close or
- we visit his final resting place to share with him, to be with him and tell him what he’s missed.
And we do the same in our congregation when a cherished friend is gone. Some we grieve publicly because they impacted every single one of us with humor or music or kindness or generosity. Some are grieved privately–as their absence from us is a source of anger or anxiety. And some choose to go, unrepentantly seeking to receive something we cannot provide them.
Each loss brings questions and grief. Each a new opportunity to second-guess or evaluate, an opportunity to “what if” or dwell on what was. Each one bears with it an opportunity to worship–and some will doubt.
I am certain the writer we call Matthew intends for us to see this group of disciples as incomplete / not whole. Judas is missing, along with Jesus. They were instructed to go home in that incomplete state, where the echoes of Jesus and Judas reside. In returning, a familiarity of a time before Jesus would rush over them like the wind.
Please hold this scene in contrast with the gospels according to Luke and John, in which the disciples are instructed to go back to Jerusalem – that Jerusalem is the new beginning. Here, Galilee is the place of their beginning. Here Jesus gives them their great blessing, a commissioning to go and make disciples, baptize them, and teach them. Teaching them, not obedience (full stop) but obedience to Jesus’s commandments: to love GOD and love neighbors.
For the 11, The Incomplete, the Christ comes to them in the midst of anxiety and confusion. A final reminder from Jesus, not simply of eternal presence or blessing of their desires, but assurance. Assurance that they, as they are, are enough. They are enough. Imperfect. Lost with loss. Failed. They.
They are enough. They are whole enough. They are wise enough. They are faithful enough.
I often hear that we are “just a little church” or some of us recite the catalogue of those we’ve lost: to death, moving, anger, shunning. And each time I wonder when we’ll actually believe Jesus. When we’ll actually listen. He gives us the same commission to make new disciples, baptize them, and then teach them. That we obey Jesus’s command to love GOD and neighbor. That we remember how Jesus will be with us, regardless of our future, regardless of our mistakes.
In this, I am led to believe that our losses do not make us defective or weak or symbolic of bad teaching or some kind of divine punishment. Loss is natural; the only way we can comprehend Jesus’s love for us and devotion to us and faith in us. Through loss, we know GOD’s sense of loss when we fail at our work of including and sharing and loving our neighbors. Jesus’s commitment is to not only the whole 12, but even the 2 or 3 who gather. Those who show up.
That early church doesn’t survive the first year if they worry about their size: their losses, their deaths. The Great Commission isn’t institution building, but sharing the good news; inviting into community the lonely; giving hope to the fearful, love to the despised, harbor to the refugee, food to the hungry, safety to the destitute, courage to the weak, comfort to the afflicted, and so much more.
All odds were against them and yet we are here. Still. We are a testament to their success. In the same, we are enough. We are whole. And we gather, faithfully for worship. To make disciples. To love. To find that in joining in all of these things, Jesus is with us. Ever together. Ever whole. Ever complete.
Serious H/T to David R. Henson and Mark Sandlin of The Moonshine Jesus Show, whose conversation on last week’s Lectionary-cast directly inspired me to wrestle with loss, Judas, and the bitterness of the disciples. They are first-class pastors and their show is well worth your time.