Yale Divinity School
May 23, 2005
Commencement Morning Communion
2 Corinthians 13. 5-14
Matthew 28. 16-20
It's Not About Us
In many churches yesterday was designated as “Trinity Sunday,” and, presumably in honor of that occasion, our two readings were appointed by the Common Lectionary. All across the continent last week theologically earnest clergy pounded their brains trying to imagine some way to explain the dogma of the Trinity to their congregations. Meanwhile, more prudent clergy discovered that yesterday was just the right Sunday to honor the youth group by turning the service over to them, homily, Kum-by-yah, and all.
But I think it was all unnecessary. These two texts are not about the dogma of the Triunity of God. Biblical scholars argue that the author of Matthew appropriated the triadic phrase “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” from a baptismal formula used in his church. This is no summary of the metaphysics of the divine being. It's what it says it is, a name. It replaces the evasive divine name given to Moses, “I am who I am,” with the equally uninformative triad, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The formula functions something like a personal proper name, all denotation and no connotation. Only it's a complex name, like the name of a law firm. Think of that legendary firm, “Dewey, Cheetam, and Howe.”
Paul's triad is something altogether different: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and participation in the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” If that's a summary of the triunity of God, then we're in deep dogmatic trouble because our canonical theologian would appear to think that God is just one of the three persons of the Trinity, which must mean that each of the other two is not God. But this is not a description of the divine being; it is a blessing. It prays God's presence with the Corinthians in three ways. Neither of these texts expresses the doctrine of the Trinity. They are about something else.
It was a byword among ancient Greek philosophers: Happiness may be the purpose of life, but we can't find happiness by pursuing it. We only find happiness along the way as we seek other more basic goods. Paradoxically, our very own lives aren't about us; we only find our lives along the way, as we seek something more important.
The Apostle Paul was about to arrive at the church in Corinth in hopes of commencing a new phase in its life. The congregation was a mess. Divided over a moral scandal, quarreling over who was the most powerful of the visiting preachers, next to whom Paul looked pretty ineffective, challenging Paul's authority even though he was the one who had brought them to faith in the first place. Paul can see that if some changes aren't made it is going to be a very painful confrontation when he arrives. So he vigorously defends himself: Yes, next to those clerical hotshots I look ineffective. But remember that that's just where my strength lies because it reflects the apparent ineffectiveness of Jesus hanging there on a cross. Paul lays it on them in his finest pastoral manner: My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, disloyal, corrupt, ingrates all of you, take a good look at your selves; straighten things out; reconcile with each other; give each other the kiss of peace.
Then Paul turns the kaleidoscope 180 degrees, and there's a whole new pattern. After asserting his own authority and commanding them to shape up, he says, “Anyway it's not about me and it's not about you. It's about God. It's about God and who God is and how God has been with you and for you. It's about the grace of Jesus Christ's presence among you reconciling you to God, it's about God's love for you that Christ embodies, it's about the Spirit's presence among you drawing you to participate in that love. It's about how God is with us and for us, but it's not about us; it's about God.
Paul was about to arrive at Corinth , but many of us here are about to leave this place to commence a new phase in our own lives. Perhaps for most of us two or three, or forty, years here have not so much been years in an ivory tower as years in very intense reality, very intensely real failures and achievements, pain and joy, friendships and alienations, and, in varying degrees, plenty of occasions to be scandalized: 409 Corinth Hill! We are tempted today to focus on the mixture of nostalgia and relief, the bitterness and grief and gratitude we feel on the brink of departure. But finally it's not about us. This Divinity School says that it exists to foster “the knowledge and love of God.” How easy it has been instead to focus on finding ourselves, on finding our callings in life, to focus even on finding faith. But to try to focus on those things directly is like trying to pursue happiness directly.
Such things won't come clear when we focus on ourselves; they come clear only along the way of a life-long focus on God.
In the last chapter of Matthew, the disciples meet with the risen Jesus for the last time. Jesus is about to leave. Eleven disciples too are about leave, sent by Jesus on a mission to bring to all nations the good news of Christ's reconciling presence, God's love, and our participation in that love by the power of the Spirit. The eleven do their best to make it all about Him: “When they saw him, they worshiped him.” But some doubted. Now it's all about them again, about taking their spiritual temperature, about whether they have enough certainty or believe intensely enough. Then Jesus pulls them up short: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
This is not about you. This is about God.
They had just been sent on a daunting mission. Were they doubting that they were up to it? After all, over the past few years in Jesus' school of practical theology they had repeatedly proved that they were terminally dense and hopelessly ineffectual. They seem sure to fail, and then how could they live with themselves? But Jesus pulls them up short: I have been given authority to do this.
Our lives finally are not about us. Our lives are about God.
They had just been sent in service to other people. It made them responsible for other people's well-being. It could totally change other people's lives. Were the disciples doubting that they had the authority to intervene in people's lives that way? It's fine for Jesus' to have authority; after all he is God's Messiah. But us eleven? And Jesus brings them up short again: You aren't to live your life in your own name; you are to do this in the name of the “Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” in the name of the one into whom you are engrafted, in baptism; by whose love you are given life and given it anew, in baptism; by whose Spirit you are drawn into the communion of the love that is God's own life.
We don't really live our own lives if we try to live them in our own names; we truly live them when we live them in God's name.
“Whoever seeks to save their lives will lose them” he said; “but whoever loses their lives for my sake will find them.”
It's not about us. It's about God.
As we leave here, sent by God into the world, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and participation in the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.