Steadfast faith. That’s what the Gregorian, think 6th century, Collect has been prayed for over 1,400 years. But through the centuries it evolved into “one of the least admirable of all the Collects in the church’s use” (Reed, 519). And although this has been pointed out since 1947 no one fixes it. We continue to pray, somewhat confusedly, to be kept in steadfast faith by the confession of a true faith and in Divine power. So, do you think this Gospel reading is any help? Matthew was used a lot in the oldest of pericope systems, but not for Trinity Sunday. Perhaps they thought the Collect interjected enough puzzlement on its own.
We pray for ‘steadfast faith’ but read about doubtful worship? That’s what we have in our text: “When the 11 disciples “saw Jesus, they worshipped Him, but some doubted.” That insert translation is how some commentators take this. There are grammatical reasons for thinking ‘they worshipped’ refers to all 11 but the doubting only to some. EHV goes out of the way to explain this doubting. Their text says: “When they saw Him, they worshipped Him, but some hesitated because they were uncertain.” But their footnote says: “Or some doubted”. The MSG goes further than the EHV, “The moment they saw Him they worshiped Him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally.” Only the New American Bible Revised Edition, a Catholic translation, translates like I do: “they worshiped, but they doubted.”
I think that’s the translation because that’s how it is with me and for the dozens who’ve talked about this. We just never became “Little Engines that could.” We remained at best “I think I can”. But the inclusion of the 11 doubting comforts me not just because I recognize myself here, but the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is so certain, so beyond doubt, denial, or disbelieving that you can include the doubting of Jesus’ closest disciples. Doubts are like lusts that Luther spoke of as birds. You can’t keep birds from flying over your head, even as lusts and doubts flit through your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair. One way to stop that is to realize: The doubting of our puny minds is nothing. But if Jesus should ever doubt His love, redemption, forgiveness of you, that’s game over.
In the NT only Matthew uses this Greek verb for ‘doubt’, distaz?. In comes from the Greek word for ‘twice’ dis, and is related to what James says, “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). Double-minded is dis-psych?, two-souled. In Matt 14 when Peter alone dares to trust that the Word of the Lord that he can walk on water as He sees Jesus doing, we find this word. Seeing the wind, Peter was afraid and began to sink and cried out for Jesus to save Him. Mt 14:31 says, “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," He said, "why did you doubt?" That’s funny to me. Jesus asks ‘why’ in that situation, but not here? And get this: Here Jesus calls no one out, and keeps on coming to them. After some or as I think all are doubting along with worshipping, the text says, “Then Jesus came to them.” Ever tried to teach a kid to ride a bike or swim? It depends on their trusting you got them. How long did it take you to become so frustrated with their inability to trust you, with their doubting that you turned away? Suffice it to say that had swimming or biking been left to me, my kids would never been able to do either.
Far from steadfastly believing, we turn away from Jesus as if Lord Acton was right. Lord Acton was a Catholic historian of the 19th century: He said that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." If that’s true, it would be aimed directly at Jesus for He was the only man who has ever been given absolute power not just on earth but in heaven. Solzhenitsyn, while not mentioning Lord Acton, nevertheless corrects him: "Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty" (Gulag, II, 546). This is Lord of the Flies; this is H.G. Wells The Invisible Man. When no one can stop him because he is invisible, he can’t stop himself either. I once divided a youth group into blue and brown eye groups giving the one mastery of the other. Quickly, these teens showed the corrupting power of absolute authority in the hands of sinners.
Unlimited authority even in Deity is unnerving. Pascal said, "The greatest single distinguishing feature of the omnipotence of God is that our imagination gets lost when thinking about it" (Pensees, I, XV). A Reformed theologian points out the disconcerting nature of this: “We may feel awe in the presence of the Absolute, as we feel awe in the presence of the storm or of the earthquake…But we cannot love it; we cannot trust it’” (B. Warfield in Horton, Christian Faith, 253). Bingo. But Jesus resurrected from the grave and with the wounds that prove it’s the same Jesus who suffered and died in their place responds to their doubts with: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me.” Absolute power seen in this light is the soft glow of a nightlight or a generator running when the power is out. It draws you, comforts you. The strong hum of a transformer or worse an electrical substation does not, we, or at least I, back away from these. God the Father is the transformer or substation; God the Son is the generator or nightlight.
Some scholars are of the opinion that miracles aren’t against nature but a speeding up of it. I’m not. Hezekiah asks the Lord to make the sun go backward because that’s impossible. Peter asks the Lord to command him to walk on water because that’s impossible. And I’ll tell you what else is: Jesus forgiving His betrayers, killers, and faithless, doubting disciples. His Water rebirthing into everlasting life. His Word of forgiveness sending away any sin. His giving you to eat and drink His Body and Blood given and shed for you in 30 A.D. in 2023 at this altar. Jesus your God, Savior, Friend is not bound by what you think He can do or nature allows.
So having the omnipotent power of God Almighty in the Man Jesus is to comfort us, assure us, emboldened us. But there’s more. You have an uncle in the furniture business. You’re getting the brother-in-law price for that car. I’ve never been able to communicate to Junior Confirmands what a special thing having an inside man is in buying furniture or a car. You get it. You have an Inside Man in the depths of the Holy Trinity where if you try to go without Him, you’ll go crazy. Maybe what Jesus promises here is even better: Here’s a promise worthy of steadfast faith: “Behold”, “Surely” Jesus says, “I am with you.” That’s ego eimi. This is Yahweh. This is God revealed as promise, testament, gracious, forgiving, loving. Yahweh who walked with Adam in Eden. Yahweh who spoke to Abraham as a Friend. Yahweh who showed Moses that even from the back His mercy endured forever. That’s who’s with you.
And our God in flesh and blood promises what we easily believe in love songs, rom-coms, and even in our relationships: Sinful people can and will be there forever. They will love till the 12th of never. But Jesus promising us that He will be with us always until the completion of the age, I don’t know about that. Jesus knows. His promise here is like the promise of daily bread and daily forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer. There is never a day when He is not with you. Regardless of what kind of day it is, Jesus is with you. When your kid goes away from home for the first time, the one thing you want to do is go with them. You can’t. Jesus can, did, does, and will.
And where Jesus is there the Father and the Spirit are too. In A Mighty Fortress we sing about Jesus, “And there is no other God.” That’s right; apart from this Man born of the Virgin Mary, apart from this Man of flesh and blood who lived the holy life we can’t and died the damned death we fear, there is no God for you, with you. Luther says, Wherever “and whenever Baptism is administered according to Christ's command, heaven stands open and the entire Holy Trinity is present and does the baptizing," (LW, 58, 49). This goes for all 3 Means of Grace: “’Where the signs of grace that have been established by the Son are to be found, the entire Trinity is present there as well, for our salvation'" (Peters, Creed, 225). And Luther doubles down on Jesus being the only God we can or should try to know. He taught, “Outside of Whom no other god is to be worshipped or sought” (LW 12, 352). Mull that over in your mind; it will open your eyes.
You know all this. You know you’ve an uncle in the furniture business. You know what it means to have the brother-in-law deal for a car. You know what it means to have an Inside Man in the Man upstairs. Then why don’t you draw comfort from this? Why don’t you use this day in and day out? Why don’t we worship these glorious facts? O we do, but we doubt too. I’ll tell you what’s going on, rather I’ll show you by this story about Augustine. Here’s why our doubts seem bigger than our faith and worship.
Augustine puzzling over the doctrine of the Trinity as he walked by the sea, came upon a boy with a bucket running back and forth pouring water into a hole. He asked the boy what he was doing; the boy told him he was trying to put the ocean into this hole. Augustine realized he had been trying to put the infinite God into his finite mind (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 389). This is Luther pointing out the folly of mortals who do not understand the essence of their own nature presuming to sit in judgement on God’s (Pieper, I, 402). We seem oblivious to the fact that Jesus would “be man and not God if He could be comprehended in the categories of His creation." (Luther on Worship, 85). Us trying to use our reason to understand the Triune God is like a blind man trying to understand colors. Athanasius, humanly speaking the ‘savior’ of the doctrine of the Trinity, responded to those denying the Trinity by saying that either the word Trinity or unity must be a mere abstraction as a Triune God was '"incompatible with certain of our axioms of thought." Athanasius countered, '"those high truths have… been revealed to us for devotion; and, for devotion, the mystery presents no difficulty'" (Christianity and Classical Culture, 362). Moreover the Triune God is known, seen, handled by us in Baptismal Water, Body-Bread, and Blood-Wine. Touch these and know you’ve touched the Face of God. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Holy Trinity (20230604); Matthew 28:16-20