I love stories. I love to tell a good story. I have one about when I was in Munich and meeting some Russians that kills. I love to watch TV with great stories like Better Call Saul. They draw me into the life of characters, understanding people I would never know in real life and don’t even much like. Great novels do the same thing. I am reading a great book now about an 18 year old Italian in World War II who spied on the Nazis. Stories help us make sense of the world. By exploring the lives of others, we end up understanding our own lives better. Stories are good gifts, but if clutched too tight, they can also limit our willingness to accept new facts and new experiences that run counter to the story we have been telling for years. Because each story we tell after all is just a shading of a truth. All of our stories are just what we can see and understand from our vantage point at that place in that time.
Think about the stories we tell just to figure out our parents. Growing up, I was convinced my father loved my brother more than me because Keith was athletic and I was not. Keith was good at basketball and my dad not only put a slab of concrete in our backyard so he could practice, but even coached his teams. I lacked basketball skills. My dad’s nickname for me on the court was Tank, because my best move was just to knock people over and hope I didn’t get called for a foul.
In eighth grade, I went out for football and I failed miserably. Because I was so bad, I became the source of ridicule by the coach and the players. I came home crying after a month wanting to quit. After hearing about the latest humiliation on the field, the locker room and the bus, my mom thought quitting made sense, too. I told her I can’t quit because Dad will be so disappointed that I can’t play football or basketball. My mom laughed and said Dad doesn’t care. Sports aren’t important to him. He never played any sport in high school and never watched any sport on TV.
This was new information that didn’t work into the story I was telling about Dad. It made clear that my dad didn’t like my brother better because of sports. Fortunately, it made me reconsider whether my dad liked Keith better than me at all. I realized he praised us equally, disciplined us the same and was quiet around both of us. The simple story I had told no longer made sense. It took years for me to create a new story to speak to the truth of a complicated, primary relationship.
It is hard to look at a story that we have always told with fresh eyes. It seems almost dangerous to consider a new way to think about something that we have already made our mind up about. We are unmoored a little when we blow up how we understand those in our most primary important relationships. God is our most primary of relationships. Kay Morrissey, our Traditional Worship Leader likes to warn me that when people have their image of God messed with they tend to get upset. For the early disciples of Jesus, the revelation that came from the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus really messed with their story of God.
The disciples of Jesus were all Jewish, as was Jesus who was a Jewish Rabbi or teacher. The core belief of Judaism is that there is only one God. Their experience of Jesus challenged this core belief. Jesus was not just a prophet, a great teacher, a miracle worker or even the Messiah sent by that one God. Jesus was God. Jesus was God, but spoke to his father in heaven and promised to leave behind the power of his love in the Holy Spirit. One God but three different parts of God, too.
For Jews who became Christian in the early church, this was a real crisis. How do we tell a different story about God after Jesus? In the II Corinthians text we read today, we hear the apostle Paul in 55 AD or so, just twenty years after Jesus was crucified, playing with new language about God. His ending to the letter, which is actually the beginning we use at every one of our worship services, is not quite Trinitarian, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it is something close. Paul is fussing with language like every good story teller does, to express his experience of Jesus.
The Matthew text we read has the last words of Jesus in Matthew clearly identifying God as Trinity. The disciples left behind are to baptize Jesus in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Since there are no actual recordings of Jesus’ words, maybe more interesting than Jesus saying this is thinking about how the great storyteller Matthew came to remember Jesus saying this. Matthew probably wrote this account in 70 AD, nearly four decades, a generation after Jesus had died and been resurrected.
One generation away from Jesus, their experience of him was already clearly redefining their core belief in the one God. Yes, there is only one God, but God has revealed God’s self to us in Jesus as three distinct parts or personalities. By the time of Matthew, just 40 years after Jesus, the language they would use to tell this new story of Jesus would be Trinitarian. Jesus revealed the richness of God and they needed new language to express that revelation.
Once, Christians started telling this new story about God revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they started reading all of scripture with that story in mind. Now in the Genesis story of creation they heard the work of the Trinity. The Father creates and imagines. The Son puts words, flesh, body to the Father’s ideas. The Spirit brings life with her breath to everything that swims, flies and walks about. The original author had no thought of the Trinity in mind when he wrote down this poem. Now, for us telling a new story about God, revealed in Jesus, it seems so obvious.
Kay is right. Jews in the early church that messed with the image of God so fundamentally, got shown the exit. Yet, God is still causing controversy in our churches because God is still about revealing more and more of God’s self to us. Our God longs to rbe made known. God reveals God’s self through the Holy Spirit in our neighbors, in the creation, in the Church that gathers in God’s name. This means that we are constantly asked as followers of God to not only tell the old stories of God but be willing like the early church to tell new stories of God. These new stories will likely challenge the image of God that many will fight to hold onto.
If we clutch too hard to who we think God is, we miss the God that is making herself known in a new way. A good story only gets us so far, which is why we should never stop telling new ones. There might be a day when what God reveals to us through the Holy Spirit means that even that Trinitarian story doesn’t seem to fit as well as it used to. If that happens, hang on tight for the good thing God will do next. Amen