In She Who Is - a substantial work connecting both feminist and classical wisdom - Elizabeth Johnson helpfully highlighted how God is the ‘creative, relational power of being who enlivens, suffers with, and enfolds the universe.’ As a transgender woman, I resonate with this. It speaks into, and out of, my own experience of God as Holy Trinity. It grounds that experience, its pain and joy, in deeper mystery. And it calls me on to fresh experience and new ways of embodying that love in communion with others. It hardly denies the mind and classical understanding. But it opens up kaleidoscopic vistas of how and where that Love is to be found and embodied. And this, rightly understood, is what Matthew 28.16-20 is proclaiming: not an end but an ever-renewing beginning.
challenges of Matthew's Gospel ending
I have to admit to having sometimes tried to avoid this Gospel’s finale. At first sight, it can seem a little tidy, over-declaratory and less textured than the rest of Matthew’s narrative. The risen Jesus appears as a magisterial figure, concerned with proclamations, even imposing these with directive authority. Gone is the figure of more humble holiness, inviting participation through parables and walking with the poor and outcast. The so-called ‘Great Commission’ to ‘make disciples of all nations’ similarly emphasises evangelism, rather than encounter. It has also been much over-emphasised, with destructive colonialist impacts on many cultures. Meanwhile, the wording of the passage, not least the threefold designation of God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ seems to reflect later, developed, formulations of the Church, rather than the life of Jesus himself and the immediate post-Resurrection experience of the disciples,
All of this can appear to jar with the ‘creative, relational’ understanding of God, derived from personal, intimate experience of mutuality, pregnant possibility, and transforming new life. This is also far from the messy, but deeply mysterious, encounters of the women as first witnesses to the resurrection earlier. Do we therefore see, in Matthew 28.16-20, the beginnings of a more institutional, even patriarchal, form of Church? – after all, only ’the eleven disciples’, presumed as all male, are mentioned here. Well, yes, quite possibly, there are potential signs. Yet such interpretation would hide the much more striking features of dynamism and provisionality which are vibrantly present. Far from simply closing the Gospel, faith development, and the shape of the emerging Church, Matthew offers us encouragement to continue the transformative journey to which they witness. Three particular features are worth pondering in relation to the Church that we may become…
incompleteness and the Catholic theological idea of development
Firstly, this passage highlights the incompleteness of the Church. That there are only eleven disciples mentioned is surely the significant point. rather than their gender. Ecclesiology does matter, but Matthew is not leaving us with a blueprint. Like other aspects of Christian life, ecclesial development will always be a work in progress. As a church history lecturer, I have often found that students are first shocked, then enlivened, by the patterns of growth over the centuries: realising that there was never, and will never be, any perfect ecclesial structure. Rather, as Catholic theologians have long emphasised, the idea of development is core to ecclesiology, and theology. In this, as the ending of Matthew’s Gospel indicates, we are always to return to the person and work of Christ.
doctrine and mission arising from faith experience
So, secondly, this passage highlights faith experience. For if the shape of community in the Church is always a work in progress, so too is mission. Both must be continually focused on Christ in the diverse experiences of our world. Significant here is the mountain setting. Matthew’s Christ is surely not asking followers to share dogmatic propositions or fixed rituals. Rather this Gospel’s climax encourages us to remember earlier mountains in the narrative: namely the teaching of the law of love by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount; and the vision of, and encouragement to, spiritual journeying, on the mount of Transfiguration. Similarly, the call to baptise in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, arises from the life of faith in which such formulations arose to give expression to a much deeper and wider series of experiences and transfigurations. Like our ecclesiology, our mission and our worship therefore need continually refreshing by renewing our understanding of faith and how it manifests anew.
openness to growth - witness and hospitality
Thirdly, this passage thus highlights openness to the future. Both church and mission are to be dynamic. If we are to go into the world, as Matthew’s Christ commands, it is also to learn and grow. Contextual mission, and inculturation, have always enriched us. Similarly, our teaching must involve learning from our experience and engagement with others, and others’ experience and engagement with God in their own lives. The Commission consequently involves two poles – that of witness and that of hospitality. We are indeed to share our own experience of God creating, relating, and enlivening in us, and the wider body of which we are a part. However, as we move among other nations - that is, other types of people - we are also to learn. As this passage shows, from the outset, faith experience and response to circumstances shaped the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, baptism, worship, and the Church more broadly. We are commanded to continue this reflection, handing on and renewal. The book is not an end. Rather Matthew’s Christ calls us to write the next chapter, with appropriate new words, shapes and images. Women’s experiences and insights, in their kaleidoscopic variety, must be significant features of this.
a transgender female analogy
What the doctrine of the Holy Trinity points to is profound ever-refreshing mystery, grounded in life and experience. Like my wife, I can witness to this in my own embodiment. Indeed, I strongly identify with the reality of the Holy Trinity as a transgender female. Like the feminist theology of Elizabeth Johnson, my embodied wisdom does not dispense with classical wisdom, but rather enriches it. Augustine of Hippo thus offered us an enduring psychological analogy of Trinity as memory, understanding and will. I would deepen that into a more physical analogy. I have experienced God in Holy Trinity as firstly deep self - much more profound than human labelling of parts and persons, as a mystery found in prayer and revelation; secondly, as embodied self - as a living icon, born of out of the pains and joys of coming into being and expression; and thirdly, as purposeful self – having calling and capability, and a power exhibited in gifts and fruits. Like the Virgin Mary, my wife, and all who have given birth to their holy indwelling potentiality, the Trinity is thus proclaimed in me as a powerful word – namely: Let it Be, Be-ing, and Be-coming – a message of Matthew’s Christ for today. Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, for the Australian Women Preach podcast
for Trinity Sunday, 30 May 2021