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One in the Spirit: Trinity Sunday

Matthew 16:13-28; Romans 6:5-11

This commentary is going directly through Matthew without regard for the traditional Christian liturgical year, so will not skip to the end of the gospel to Jesus’ “great commission” to “make followers of all peoples . . . ][and] baptize them in the name of the Father and the son and the holy spirit.”  The trinitarian debate began three hundred years later.  Along the way, not a few heretics went up in flames rather than subscribe to a “trinitarian” view of God.  Among them was Michael Servetus, who ran afoul of John Calvin in 1553.  Indeed, it is still to this day anathema to some Protestants to be thought of as “unitarian.” (That some Unitarian Universalists return the favor by declining to acknowledge – let alone claim – their Christian heritage is a blog for another day.)

The rest of Christendom will get back to Matthew 16 at the end of the summer.  But the story of the revelation that Jesus was the Anointed One may be more relevant to post-Pentecost themes for Christian worship than Trinity Sunday.  The Elves focus on God’s creative work in Genesis and Psalm 8, which has nothing to do with a “triune” god.  The reading from Matthew’s Gospel – the only place in the synoptic gospels where anything approaching “trinitarian” metaphor appears – is confined to four verses, and the Apostle Paul is only allowed to say, “Lastly, brothers and sisters, rejoice, put things right, encourage each other, come to a common understanding, live peacefully, and the God of love and peace will be with you . . .”

In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has come to the region of Caesarea Philippi, and he is quizzing his disciples: “What are people saying about the ‘son of Adam?’” They give him the stock answer, which likely reflects the thinking of most people of the time.  The “son of Adam’ was the one to be sent by God to usher in the Fifth Kingdom, to be ruled by God, and not by the empires of the earth.  They report that some say the “son of Adam” is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets.  The disciples aren’t picking up on the obvious, so Jesus asks them directly: “What about you, who do you say I am?”  And of course Peter gives the correct answer to the catechism (“you are the Anointed, the son of the living God!”) and is rewarded with the keys to heaven, and the newly-created and enviable position as the “Rock” upon which the church will be built.  In addition, Peter is granted the full range of shamanic power:  “Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will be considered released in heaven.”

As the British like to say, the cat was put among the pigeons, and the fall-out has ranged from iconic jokes about “St. Peter at the pearly gates” to rules about apostolic succession that assured women and other diversities would be barred from taking on the awesome task of official, ordained, pastoral care.

Whether Jesus himself subscribed to the popular, first century apocalyptic hope of the prophecy  found in Daniel is subject to debate among biblical scholars. Whether he did or not, what is seldom realized is that – so far as careful scholarship can determine – Jesus never identified himself as the Anointed One.  Mark, Matthew, Thomas, and John do that for him.  They all create similar scenes that reflect the apocalyptic conviction of the emerging Christian movement, and the importance to those communities to make that claim.

Matthew’s Jesus says “if you want to come after me [you] should pick up your cross and follow me!”  We can’t know with certainty what that meant to the earliest, post-Easter Christian communities.  Perhaps Matthew’s community was experiencing persecution, even martyrdom for their belief.  If so, repeating Jesus’ words about saving your life but losing it, and how losing your life for my sake will mean you have actually found it, takes on some serious implications.  If you want to follow me, Matthew’s Jesus may be saying, you have to be willing to forfeit your life.  One can only be willing to forfeit one’s life if the result will be an improvement for those left behind, or if one is sure of a reward in some kind of afterlife.  If you were a first century Jew who believed in resurrection, and also subscribed to the idea that Jesus was the prophesied “son of Adam” who would soon rule the world, then giving up your present life in favor of the life to come might have made sense.  Matthew’s Jesus assures the people that “Some of those standing here won’t ever taste death” before that rule begins.  Looking ahead in Matthew’s Gospel, however, sacrificing one’s life appears to have been a hard sell.

If the ongoing scholarship on the development of early Christianity is accurate, late first century communities were first interested in how to survive economically, and perhaps second how to liberate themselves from Roman imperial injustice. Twenty-first century, post-modern, agnostics and exiles from traditional Christianity are also most concerned with how to survive economically. The much easier Christian message was to reduce sacrificing one’s life to feeling sorry for petty sin, and carrying the “cross” of suffering:  illness, loss, disastrous marriages, and losing the playoffs.  Liberating ourselves from the imperial systems that trap us is far down the bucket list.  The first-century religious politics that established Peter as the Rock upon which the Jerusalem Jewish-Christian faction was built has little if any relevance to twenty-first century exiles from Christian tradition.

When Matthew has Jesus repeat the formula from 10:38, “After all, what good is it if you acquire the whole world but forfeit your life?” what Jesus is talking about is the radical abandonment of self-interest.  Instead of the snippet from the end of 2 Corinthians 13, consider the words of the Apostle Paul in his final letter to the community in Rome (Romans 6: 5-11,scholars translation):

If we have truly identified with him in a death like his, then we will certainly be united with him in rising to a new kind of life like his.  This we know: the old version of the human condition has been crucified with him, so that the life that was corruptible might be brought to an end and that we might no longer be in bondage to the seductive power of corruption.  Now the one who has died [with the Anointed] has been freed from the seductive power of corruption.  And if we really died with the Anointed, we are confident that we will also live with him, since we know that, because the Anointed has been raised from the dead, he is not going to die again; death no longer has any power over him.  When he died he died to the lure of corrupting power once and for all, but the life he lived he lives to God.  In the same way you must think of yourselves as if you were dead to the appeal of corrupting power, but as alive to God in solidarity with the Anointed Jesus.

All humans are susceptible to that “seductive power of corruption.” The point is not to take up a martyr’s cross out of solidarity with some kind of substitutionary atonement for personal, petty sin, but to realize that the cross represents solidarity with all those who have died in the service of justice-compassion.  For example, what would the domestic policies of the United States look like if members of Congress – whether liberal or conservative – died to the seduction of power?  How much would the cost of health care be reduced if the shareholders and managers of corporations died to the corruption that comes with power? Just asking the questions illustrates that radical abandonment of self-interest is still a hard sell.

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