The threefold cord

Isaiah 40:12-17
Matthew 28:16-20
2 Corinthians 13:11-14

If you’ve looked closely at a rope, you’ll have noticed that it’d made of three cords, which are wound together, and it’s the three cords wound together that has been found to the strongest way of making a rope, much stronger than the cords on their own, or just alongside each other, but the threefold together is as strong as it’s possible to be.

This threefold cord idea has been used in church history. A notable author used it to talk about the different strands of English Presbyterianism coming together. It’s also been used to describe the United Reformed Church, with Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Churches of Christ coming together, and the sum of the parts being stronger they were apart.

Much more interestingly, this threefold cord idea also applies to God, and how we think about that mystery which human concepts struggle to define. The first stop in thinking about this our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. When Paul put the finishing touches to that letter to the Church in Corinth I doubt if he realised how often and in how many diverse circumstances his words would be repeated throughout history: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit…… These are words spoken in unison at the end of so many gatherings of Christians.

What they highlight is the threefold cord that binds Christians together in fellowship with one another and with God. Each of our readings today focuses on one strand of that cord. Each reading is centred on one of its three-fold parts, and each reading also has something to get our teeth into, continuing the cord analogy, if you like, a knot to be untied.

We find that threefold cord in our reading from Isaiah, which concerns the loving creator God. Here, the context of the passage reveals that this God is in particular the God of the nation of Israel. The passage reminds us of God’s sovereignty over the world, but the particular point of this passage is that God’s sovereignty is directed not to frail human beings in general but to God’s chosen people Israel, languishing in exile in Babylon. They have been despatched there by God in punishment for their unfaithfulness and persistent devotion to other gods, and the passage is therefore a subtle diatribe against the gods of Babylon and Israel’s penchant for other deities. I’m sure you recognise the resonances with our world today, where so many in our world seem to follow the gods of wealth and material possessions. And here in Isaiah, God reminds his people that so-called other gods who are no rivals for God’s matchless sovereignty. This is the strand of the cord that shows God as the loving Creator, the love of God.

The next stop on our journey is our reading from Matthew’s gospel. Here the focus has shifted from the love of God to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. This passage, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, brings to a climax his account of God’s coming to be with us in Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel has presented us with the life and ministry of Jesus and now, after his death and resurrection, he sends them out to make disciples of all nations. However, it’s worth noting that in verse 17 the disciples knelt in worship, though some were doubtful…, and in those words we can see all the ambivalence and failure of Jesus’ disciples in fulfilling this great commission. The point of this is not to criticise the disciples, but to point to the graciousness of Jesus, who accepts them as they are, and does the same with us and for us, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That brings us to the last passage from 2 Corinthians and to the third of the strands: the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. This passage is written to one of the churches founded by Paul and here we tread on the terrain of the Holy Spirit – the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Spirit that births and nurtures and grows the church and binds it into one body. But if we read between the lines of this passage we can see here were some problems in the fellowship of the Spirit in Corinth. Paul tells the church to mend your ways, to agree with one another, to live in peace. Behind these phrases it’s obvious that this was a church that had fallen into conflict and disunity. In this church the fellowship of the Holy Spirit had been damagingly breached and was in need of repair and hence this and other letters from Paul to the church at Corinth, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Our passages move us through the three strands of Paul’s closing blessing in 2 Corinthians: the love of God the Creator, revealed in the bestowing of dignity and stature on human beings and on Israel in particular, overcoming human creaturely opposition to God’s love and resistance to our calling; the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom God is with us and who loves us as we are, warts and all, overcoming our faltering in sharing the grace of Jesus Christ with the world; and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, who draws us together into the church, overcoming our failure to live in solidarity with one another and so to offer to the world God’s new community.

Our reading from the gospel of Matthew ends, I will be with you always to the end of the world. Isaiah exalts God’s sovereignty, but Matthew reassures us of God’s faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ. So, Jesus echoing at the end of the Gospel its beginning, promising to stick by us through all our sins and our doubts and our failures.

Trinity Sunday is a day to recognise that although we fail, God reaches out to us in salvation, binding us into one body, accompanying us faithfully, sticking with us right to the end. We can remember this every time we say together, The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

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