Sermon for HIGH MASS – Trinity Sunday Sunday 15 June 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
This morning in the Gospel we’ve just heard some genuinely famous last words.
Last words are fascinating. Some are unplanned, like the Union General in the American Civil War who, immediately before he was shot dead by the enemy, said ‘they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance’; or perhaps King George the Fifth who, by way of farewell to the world, voiced his opinion of Bognor in a phrase not fit for the pulpit.
Sometimes, they are the crowning glory of a performed life, and I enjoy those more deliberate epigrams. For example, Oscar Wilde said of the wallpaper in the room where he was dying, ‘one of us must go’. Or Lord Palmerston, one of Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers, who said to his physician at the crucial moment, ‘Die, my dear doctor? That’s the last thing I shall do’. Or Henrik Ibsen, who replied to a nurse who’d just told him he looked better, ‘on the contrary’, before expiring. Lytton Strachey, the devastating Victorian biographer, left us with ‘if this is dying, I don’t think much of it’. And then there’s my personal favourite, the playwright Chekov, who said ‘it’s been so long since I’ve had champagne’, slowly drank a glass of it and then died.
With the benefits of modern medicine at the end of life, very few of us are sufficiently conscious to say anything at all at our deaths. But with Jesus, as often with someone judicially murdered, we have the last words: ‘It is finished’. And in his case, uniquely, there are more last words, after his resurrection appearances, most notably those we heard this morning, the end of St Matthew’s gospel. These verses are known as the Great Commission, in which Jesus tells us to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of God, teaching them to observe what he has taught, and to know that he is always with us. These are much more than the last words of a performed life, though they are very much Matthew’s version: for example, the emphasis on keeping commandments, characteristic of Matthew’s view of Jesus as the second Moses.
What else have we here? There is the primary commission, to make disciples of all. That task continues, though it looks very different after nearly twenty centuries of missionary activity, in which, so often, Christian churches have tried to outdo one another in competitive missionary zeal. That may be because making disciples isn’t the same as preaching the good news, and it doesn’t happen in a single encounter or event. The emphasis here is on inviting people to follow, and helping them to do so, rather than just placing propositions before them and demanding their submission (it’s a marathon rather than a sprint, as people say). We don’t just tell the good news to a group of people and tick the box, job done. The Gospel is to be proclaimed afresh to every generation in every place: that means that we must be open to hearing it afresh from others, sometimes those to whom we thought we were the preachers.
But the other elements of the commission are perhaps most to our purpose today. Making disciples is to be initiated by baptizing people in the name of God, a name which is not just ‘God’, or ‘the Lord’, or even ‘Jesus’. It is God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is God as perfect relationship, inviting us into relationship with him, as children to a loving parent, as sisters and brothers to a loving brother, as given life with the quality of eternity about it, life with depth and meaning, by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
That relationship and that life are guaranteed to us in baptism and confirmation and nourished in the Eucharist. Here we recognise the presence of Jesus, gifted to us by the Spirit and, in our communion, worship our loving Father.
That language of communion is partly mystical and mysterious. But it is also another way of talking about relationship (perhaps that reminds us that all relationships, even with the self, are a little mysterious). If we hold to the core value of the Trinity, which is perfect love in relationship, a relationship of respect and up-building rather than power or point-scoring, then we have a foothold on our climb up the Holy Mountain.
The Trinity matters sufficiently to give over a whole Sunday to it because it reveals the possibility of our relationship with God, and the true manner of it. Here is the way in which we can understand how relationships can be truly good (respect and up-building rather than power or point-scoring). It is on the basis of this relationship, which we come to the altar to renew and refresh week by week (some of us day by day), that Jesus is truly with us always, to the end of time, as he promises at the end of Mathew’s gospel, in those last words.
Those words may be Matthew’s (or even a later editor’s) interpretation of Jesus’ last words, but, even if they are, they provide an elegant coda to God’s grand theme of love which the gospels proclaim.
And you’ll have noticed that the thing about Jesus’ last words, unlike those with which I began, is that they are not about him. They are about what God has done for us (‘it is finished’) and how he is with us (‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’).
Presence is everything. We know that in our own relationships: if we are not truly present to other people it is painfully obvious, and painfully disappointing. The Trinity is a picture, sometimes hard to understand, but worth the effort, of how God is present: how he will not disappoint us if we let ourselves be gathered into communion.