I have, on previous occasions, spoken to you about the art-form known as a triptych: a painting that consists of three panels, each of which depict different scenes, but which, when they come together, form a unified narrative whole. And an example which I have given you in the past is the so-called Sforza Triptych, which was painted around the year 1460 for the Sforza family, who were the rulers of Milan at that time.
The Sforza Triptych depicts events from the life and ministry of Jesus, beginning with his birth, crossing over to John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah, and, in the middle, Jesus’ crucifixion.
In the foreground of the triptych are painted members of the Sforza family; but if we leave aside this element of political propaganda, what we have in the triptych is a unified narrative about Jesus’ life and ministry.
A triptych, then, is a medium that brings together different episodes to create a single, coherent story. And in today’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew, which takes place toward the end of that Gospel, we have a similar phenomenon: different themes or images are brought together to construct an overarching narrative. Which may be a source of surprise to some, because this is a very short reading that, on first appearance, tends to be deceptively simple. What’s more, when we examine this reading, we tend to gravitate toward the end, to the passage in which Jesus tells the disciples to go out and baptise people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But in doing so, we overlook the fact that this single passage is part of a wider, coherent whole; a whole that forms Matthew’s explanation of Jesus’ life and ministry. So we need to unpack the whole of today’s reading and see where it takes us.
At the beginning of today’s reading, we are informed that the disciples travel to a mountain in Galilee, where Jesus comes to them and stands among them. The passage tells us that the disciples worshipped Jesus, but some were still beset by doubts. And this is where we find the first image: but it is not an image of those who believe and those who doubt. The opening to today’s reading references what happens immediately
beforehand, when the women go to the tomb and encounter the Risen Christ and adore him. Not in order to provide a judgemental contrast between believers and doubters, but in order to focus on the women themselves and who they represent.
And the “who” the women represent is quite simply the marginalised and the excluded. In the society and time in which Jesus lived, women were marginal people. They were often quite literally the property of their husbands and fathers, or were otherwise economically dependent on male relatives since very few women were able to own property or operate businesses on their own account. Thus, in this society, to be a widow or a childless woman – especially a woman without male children – was to be confined to poverty and social exclusion. So the fact that Matthew contrasts so strongly the women who adore the Risen Christ, and the male disciples who are still beset by doubts, is a contrast, not between believers and non-believers, but insiders and outsiders. It is a statement about the ministry of Jesus, which gathers up all the outsiders and brings them into the Kingdom of God.
So these women, who don’t appear in today’s reading, are, ironically and through the depiction of the hesitating disciples, its first image. And it is an image of inclusion, one that overturns our assumptions about who is in and who is out through the radical hospitality of Christ. The very fact that the women don’t even appear in today’s reading and are yet at the heart of its opening image, is testament to the subversive and inversive nature of Jesus’ ministry.
The second image in today’s reading centres around Jesus’ declaration that he has been given all authority over heaven and earth by the Father. And this declaration is important because it does two things: it goes backward in time and it goes forward in time. It goes backward in time because it harks back to two traditions that come to us through the Hebrew Scriptures. One is about the Wisdom – or sophia – of God: the Spirit – the pneuma – the “breath” of God who is present at creation, and through whom creation occurs. The One who is there with God at the very beginning. This sophia tradition, this Wisdom tradition, this tradition of the Spirit who is present with God occurs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. In some parts of Scripture, this presence is represented almost like God’s spouse or partner; in others, as God’s child, specifically, a daughter; in yet others, like a kind of angel or heavenly messenger. However expressed, this Wisdom/Spirit tradition is clearly a feminine tradition within the Hebrew Scriptures.
But running alongside this feminine tradition is also a masculine tradition – the tradition of the Word or logos of God. This “Word” came increasingly to be identified with the Messiah, the “anointed one” who was expected to restore the Kingdom of David. Moreover, as time passed, these two traditions seem to have drawn together and merged to some degree: the Wisdom/Spirit of God was associated with the Word of God personified in the figure of the Messiah. We perhaps see resonances of this in the accounts of Jesus Baptism, in which the Spirit of God descends on Jesus in the form of a dove (the dove being traditionally a feminine image) and the voice from heaven which declares, “This is my Son, my Beloved” (a declaration historically associated with the enthronement of the Jewish Kings). For many early Christians, these two traditions were brought together in the person of Jesus.
The point being that this merging is emblematic of God’s authority being vested in Jesus – the very declaration about himself which he makes in today’s reading. And in looking back to these two traditions, today’s reading also looks forward, because it anticipates that which in many traditions is known as the “apostolic succession” – the passing of authority from God to Jesus to the twelve disciples to the rest of the church. And this is an authority under which the Church continues to live to this day, through Christ as the Head of the Church. And it is Christ’s authority that forms the framework of our life together as a community of faith.
And we see this clearly in the Ikon of Jesus as the Wisdom of God; we see that it is an ikon of Christ, who in his hand holds a scroll, the Word of God and the authority
from God which that Word symbolises. But this Christ figure also has wings; and we cannot help but notice that, in particular with the face and hair, this is a distinctly feminine depiction of Jesus. In other words, this ikon combines the Word and Wisdom/Spirit traditions: Christ is the unifying principle who exercises lordship and the authority of command. And it is under this lordship and authority that the Church lives and has its being, not to rule but to serve.
(And as an aside, if Christian iconography and tradition can together contain these masculine and feminine images of Jesus, then perhaps that is a call to us to be rethinking some of our views about gender identity and sexuality).
And it is only now that we come, at last, to that final passage in which Jesus not only authorises but commissions the disciples to go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel, and Baptise people in the name of the Triune God. And in this authorising and commissioning, we have an image of the Church’s teaching ministry; an image of the commission which the Church holds from God through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to be community and to serve the world in a way that anticipates the Kingdom to come. This is the Kingdom of God’s radical hospitality that includes the outcast, enables justice, and which practices peace by overthrowing the divisions and categories of human life.
But if we look at images of this commissioning event from today’s reading, we notice immediately that there are no women present. We have gone from an image in which
women were central; to an image in which masculine and feminine were combined; to an image in which only men are visible. But this transition is not about male headship, about exclusive masculine claims to authority and leadership. Rather, it is about the limitation and provisionality of our humanness. We are given authority; but that authority is not about our supposed moral superiority or righteousness. As Christians, we assert the truth of the Gospel, not any claim that we ourselves are possessors of the truth.
In other words, this final image is representative of limitation and brokenness not because it contains only men, but because of whom those men represent. Just as the first image of the women represented the excluded and the marginalised, so this image of the disciples represents the privileged and the powerful. The disciples are the quintessential insiders who time and again don’t understand, who repeatedly don’t get it right – unlike, for example, the women and the sinners and the outcasts to whom Jesus ministers. But here’s the thing: for all their limitations and brokenness, the disciples are nonetheless the ones Jesus chooses: not because of their gender, but because of their humanity. Jesus is fully aware of their foibles and failures; but it is because of this and not in spite of this that Jesus commissions them to proclaim the Gospel. Because the Gospel is, afterall, God’s Word of unconditional love for all humankind.
Thus, despite every human tendency to categorise and exclude, we as the Christian community of faith are called, not to suppose our own place in the scheme of salvation, but to image and embody the Kingdom in which categorisation and exclusion are overcome. And if we are to ask what is the framework which binds our life of faith, we need only place our three images together to discover the answer. And that answer lies in Jesus’ reassurance that he is with us always, even to the end of time itself. This is the Holy Spirit at work; this is the ongoing presence of God in the world. For all our imperfections and inadequacies, it is this presence that enables us to be the People of God.
And thus we see that from today’s reading we can build a triptych that is one of inclusion and hospitality; of the authority of God, indwelling in Christ, that reaches into past and future; and which commissions us to be the Kingdom of God in the world. Who would have thought there was so much to be gleaned from so short and simple a reading! And all of this richness and detail is held together by the ongoing presence of God at work in the world.
Today’s reading is a salutatory reminder that whenever we read Scripture we cannot do so superficially. In just the same way that when we look at a work of art, we need to take the time to notice the details, to notice the small but significant images in the background, to notice the whole story that is being told, so in today’s reading we need to attend to all the images and details that construct the narrative in its entirety. On this Trinity Sunday, let us take away from this reading, the images that call us to inclusiveness, to humility under the authority of God, and boldness in proclaiming the Gospel of God’s unconditional love for all the world.
 Loader, William “First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Trinity”, located at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtTrinity.htm accessed 8.6.11