In the Name of the Trinity – Lectionary 06/07/2020

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Sermon Text

Today as we gather to celebrate the blessed Trinity we do so as a Church with a mission. The first time that a trinitarian formula is evoked in scripture is in our reading for today. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” While the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it, and indeed the word Trinity, are not developed until the second or third centuries and not completed until the fifth, the truth of the Trinity nonetheless is present within the New Testament from beginning to end.

This particular instance, when Jesus offers assurance to his disciples that the ministry they are beginning is going to be a global one that lasts from that moment to the completion of all things, sees the Trinity invoked as the defining aspect of the Christian conversion experience. The baptism of a person into the community is an act of God. While the Elder who performs the baptism is the most obvious conduit of the action, God remains the true actor. The water, poured over the head of the baptizand, is a visible sign of the grace of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that washes us clean of our sin and brings us into our new life in Christ.

The mission that is given in our reading seems like a difficult task given in simple terms. “Go forward and make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to attend to the commandments that I have given you.” Three steps to establishing the Kingdom of God, sounds simple enough. Yet, as with so much of scripture there is a wealth to be taken from each of these three imperatives. In particular, they tell us something about what it really means to be evangelistic. The duty of evangelism which is given to all people of faith must be more than rote memorization or the restating of our beliefs to those who may not know them. After all, if that was all there was to our mission into the world then there would not need to be three different commands, none of which it should be noted, allude anything to proclamation.

The first thing we must understand about our mission in the world comes, not in the first command of Christ in the passage, but in the first words of Jesus. “All authority in Heaven and Earth has been given to me.” The establishment of Christ as fully in control of creation fulfills two needs. The first is that Jesus’ universal authority allows for the mission to expand from the Jewish people to all people. The phrase rendered, “Make disciples of all nations,” is alternatively rendered as, “Make disciples of all Gentiles.”[1]  The work of God is not locked to one place, but is now available for all people to participate in. Secondly, Jesus having authority over all of creation allows for Jesus to make the closing claim of the passage, that Jesus will be with the Church, “Even to the end of the Age.”

Built on this foundation of Jesus’ authority, the community of the faithful is capable of going into the world and making disciples. “Discipleship,” is a popular phrase in Christianity and most everyone who uses the term means something very specific in saying the word. Fundamentally, the term “disciple,” means, “student.” To make disciples is to pass knowledge on from one generation of learner to the next. It is not a term limited to the passing on of religious knowledge, and is used elsewhere to describe relationships between philosophers and their students, tradesmen and their apprentices, and leaders and their successors.

Demystifying discipleship can be incredibly helpful to our understanding of what it means to go into the world and make disciples, to really understand what evangelism means. For the Christian, we are not just declaring truths to the world in hopes that we will somehow flip a switch in their mind to have them join the community. Likewise, as Christians we are not passively sitting around and waiting for people to discuss things with us, after all the command is to “Go make disciples,” not, “stay and make disciples.” [2]

The duty of Christians is to engage with the people in their community as teachers of Christ’s life. While the initial interaction may take forms that we understand as traditional evangelism – the preaching of the word, the proclamation of the Gospel through prophetic witness, other definite acts of evangelism – it is the substance of evangelism which really matters. We can bring people into camps and church building and get them to pray a prayer of confession, but that is not a complete evangelistic action. The purpose of the Church is not to get as many people as possible to the altar railing, it is to get them engaged in the Kingdom of God.

The community that is established in the Kingdom is one where individuals constantly learn from one another. We share God’s work with one another, we study the scripture together, and by living in community discover those aspects of the Christian life that can only be learned living and working with one another. In understanding the mission we are given to make disciples of all nations, we should see that our work is not just to check as many attendance boxes as possible, but to build authentic Christian communities that learn from one another in love.

This community of love is epitomized in the example of the Trinity. We baptize in the name of Trinity because we are subsumed into a community like the Trinity. In the same way that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make up a substance that is called God, we who are baptized make up a single substance called, “The Church.” The sacrificial love of God for Godself, the ability to give deference to one another, to always truly understand the needs of one another, that is what is offered in the unity that is given to us through our Trinitarian baptism.

The lessons that we teach one another are demonstrated to us first by God. The command to teach the world all that has been commanded us is not simply lessons given verbally. It is easy to list off what we can and cannot do in life. However, we find that the commandments of Christ are seldom defined by specific circumstances. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is an absolute rule of Christianity, but how we carry it out is contextual. We can teach plainly the ideal, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but the ultimate teaching tool is in application and example. When we, as the Church, live in Christian community and show compassion not only to those in our community but to the stranger, to the foreigner sojourning in our land, to the poor and powerless wherever they appear, then we teach people to keep the commandment we are given.

The defining aspect of the Church’s mission is the community that forms wherever the name of the Trinity is invoked among its members. The Spirit that ties us together, the Son that united us to Life and to Divinity through his life and death, and the Father who has looked over us from before creation began. When we go out and evangelize, we do not do it to meet a requirement, we do not do it to save people from future peril, but we do so to initiate others into the community of God. Does that fulfill our mission? Yes. Does it save the person from future peril? Yes. However, in practice and in outcomes the primary mark of our success in mission, in ministry, is in the development of authentic community initiated and completed through God.

As we share the Love Feast today, we do so knowing that we are a community seeking to teach one another, to learn how to live like Christ through our time together. As we go out into the world and spread our message of Christ’s work on our behalf, we also expand the community which we are called into. Let us celebrate this communion, born in the Name of the Trinity, this day and always – Amen

[1] Aaron Gale. “Matthew” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press 2011)

[2] Benjamin L. Merkle. “Why the Great Commission Should Be Translated “Go!” and Not “As You Go” in STR 9.2 (fall 2018): 21-32

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