"REMEMBER: I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS, EVEN TO THE END OF THE AGE"
Have you ever lived remotely: in a place apart?
Many people live in places that are remote-sometimes by choice, sometimes not. Those who live apart from others by choice may have moved there in search of peace and quiet, escape from hustle and bustle. Some may be looking for healing in their respite, expecting in time to return from whence they came. Others are retiring, cherishing at long last a way of life for which they have yearned for years.
And there are those who live in remote places not by choice, but for reasons of obligation or limited means or unrealized dreams. For these, quiet, open space may not be experienced as a gift, but as a frustration. Thus, it is difficult for these people to embrace their place as holy, as still filled with possibility.
Whatever draws people to live apart, they soon discover that they can never really live apart from "the world," even if they want to. The desert fathers of the fourth century (who left the cities to flee into the wilderness of Egypt) spoke of this: that though they had sought to leave the world behind them, they found in their solitude the very heart of the world they had sought to escape.
It is a mystery of life that we are created in relationship and for relationship-and there is no escaping that. What makes us whole is to embrace what we are given in our relationships with one another, even when those relationships seem a bit uneven.
This day, Trinity Sunday, is a celebration of all this: that "God is friendship, and those who live in friendship, live in God." It's not hard to imagine why God should have it this way. For it means that even our ONE GOD is never lonely! Our one God is always in relationship (even if no one else shows up): the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or, as St. Augustine of Hippo put it: "the lover," "the loved," and the act of loving, itself. So also you and I, whoever we may be, wherever life may lead or plant us -- ultimately none of us is ever alone. We are always in relationship with others, first of all with God our creator, our redeemer, our companion, our pain bearer, our life-giver, our beginning and our end.
It has been this way from the beginning of creation. God is first revealed in an act of self-giving love: God emptying herself or himself into creation: the act of bringing out of nothing all that is. Out of swirling, blooming, buzzing confusion, God separates light from darkness, day from night, sky from earth, waters from dry land, vegetation from the ground which gives it birth, seed from the fruit which bears it, fish from birds, wild life from domesticated life-and amazingly, all of it is good! Never forget how much each depends on the other, and how, in its balance, creation itself is holy. Into this good creation, God adds even more good creation: humankind. And notice how in this act, for the first time, God says, "Let US make-humankind." When humankind is created, it is absolutely a creation in relationship. We are created in the image of God who is friendship, ever in relationship: the lover, the loved, and the loving. Even the first human created is created in relationship: "male and female He created them". Being in relationship is something we can never escape.
And now, as this "good thing" is added to creation, God pronounces not just that creation is "good" but, with all that has been created now in place, in relationship, including humankind: it is VERY good. Now God can rest, for now God has a partner (you and me) to work with in holding this precious creation in balance-if only we would remember that is why we are here. But the story continues. God, who is friendship, reveling in the joy of sharing life with others, watches as those created in love and for love, in complete freedom, now choose to step back from love of one another-and God's beautiful creation begins to wobble.
As the rest of the story of the Bible unfolds, we begin to wonder whether God was too quick to rest. We were created to be partners with God in creation-but the track record of humankind leaves so much to be desired. We were created by God, who is friendship, primarily to be in right relationship with God's creation. But when we forget this, things go wrong.
From the beginning, things go wrong. Given all that is needed to live a full and glorious life, we are not content with what has been given. We demand more-and more and more. And when we do so, reaching for forbidden fruit with Adam and Eve, we find ourselves for the first time distanced from the garden -- for the first time out of balance and right relationship with ourselves and one another and God's creation. Have we ruined things forever? Scripture, as it unfolds from this point, is all about God seeking to mend creation: reaching out to us relentlessly in love, even though we consistently refuse to return to right relationship with God and God's creation. And then, in the fullness of time, God, the lover, sends the beloved, Jesus, the Son, to live among us as one of us. Maybe in this way, we will be reminded of how God, by nature, lives not to himself, but finds fullness of life in his relationship with us, his creatures.
And how do we greet the beloved? The answer to that question, tragically, is the Cross. God-among-us dies on the Cross-by our own hand. It is that easy for us to live by violence instead of the love in which we were created and to which God is calling us to return. But, thanks be to God, that is not the end of the story! Jesus rises, reminding us that only love is truly powerful in a creation formed in an act of self-giving love. And Jesus, risen, walks with those who had denied and betrayed and abandoned him-and at last meets them at the top of a mountain where he had told them he was headed. This is where our Gospel story for today begins.
Now the top of a mountain can be a remote place, a place apart. We can wonder whether it felt that way to these disciples, even as they met Jesus there. It seems unbelievable, that some of these disciples could still not quite believe that this was the same Jesus whom they had betrayed and abandoned-who had returned to them, risen from the dead, and given them directions to meet him atop this mountain in Galilee. But we are told that still "some of them doubted!" What in the world would it take for God's children to return to right relationship with him?
Here is Jesus' answer. Yes, Jesus has a plan to restore these disciples (all of us) to right relationship with God and one another. And the plan is this: that to these hapless disciples, Jesus gives authority- "All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me." I now give it to YOU!
Do you think that maybe Jesus could have had a better plan, one that did not rest entirely upon these unreliable disciples? In fact, this is Jesus' only plan. For in this most unlikely act of friendship, Jesus gives to his followers, to you and me, responsibility to participate fully with him in the mending of this still broken creation.
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations." What does this mean? To make others like themselves, these unremarkable disciples? Is this all that God has in store for us?
No -- for Jesus commands them in this moment to, "baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." Maybe these disciples, who have struggled so to obey all that Jesus has commanded them, would discover in their new relationship with the new disciples they would go out and find, a new opportunity to accomplish all that Jesus had promised. Maybe, by baptizing others, they would discover new friendship, new life-giving relationship with those they had previously dismissed as alien to them, and, thereby, find new and fuller life for themselves.
In fact, those who baptize, especially those who baptize adults, know what a moment of miracle it is. We are not speaking here of some kind of wholesale, swift baptismal gesture, but of souls being swept up together in the ongoing miracle of conversion.
From the earliest of times, the Christian community has found it compelling and profound when a person who has never met Jesus comes to a community of faith seeking that relationship. Given all we know about ourselves and how our congregations REALLY function, we know that this happens only by the action of the Holy Spirit. So, in the work of preparing for such a baptism, a congregation stops in its tracks and draws near to this person in whose life the miracle of conversion is taking place. Perhaps by drawing near, we will all be converted more fully ourselves into the life of Christ.
Yes, perhaps the life of the Holy Spirit will continue to take root and grow within and among each of us, too. All who have experienced this miracle know it to be true: when we as a community baptize another, we are changed ourselves, made new, challenged, moved closer to the heart of God at the heart of the world.
These are Jesus' last words to us as he ascends into heaven: "REMEMBER: I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS, EVEN TO THE END OF THE AGE." What St. Paul later writes is true: "there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord." This God, this triune God, who is friendship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will never forsake us. What is accomplished when we pursue this Great Commission is not a conquering of those different from us, but rather precisely that which is expressed in the second chapter of Ephesians: "Now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us ... that He might create in Himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace ... So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the same household of God."
As we embrace the fact that we are created in God's image, our lives are woven into that Life as if for the first time. As we allow our broken relationships with God and one another to be restored by encounter with the Risen Lord, our lives are again woven into that Life. And as we accept the invitation of this Great Commission, to go out into the most remote corners of the world to seek out those whose lives are being made new by the work of the Holy Spirit and draw near to them to be converted with them as we gather to baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit-again, our lives are woven anew into that Life.
Yes, God is friendship. And those who live profoundly and joyfully in friendship, live in God.