Based on St. Matthew 28: 16-20
By James Semmelroth Darnell
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
A blessed Trinity Sunday! Today we celebrate and honor the Holy Trinity, and hopefully learn a bit about .This morning I want to address Trinitarian disciples.
First, if it’s Trinity Sunday, why are we hearing a text, the Great Commission as it is known, typically reserved for when we talk about mission or evangelism? Our text this morning is actually a resurrection story. While we most often focus on Jesus commissioning the 11 remaining disciples to make disciples and baptize themselves, this is Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples in St. Matthew’s gospel. He has already appeared to the women, and now he appears to the men. And here on that resurrection day, he appears to them and tells them to make discipleshile the word Trinity is never found in the Bible, its concept and formula are. Jesus commands the apostles to make disciples of all nations and baptize them—in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the Trinity. Jesus never explicitly referred to himself as part of a triune god. However, here places himself right into what we have come to describe as the Triune God or the Trinity. St. Matthew and the other New Testament writers likely didn’t have a word for it. It really was not until almost 300 years later that the bishops of the historic church, declared against heresies about the nature of God, that God indeed was composed of three separate but inexplicably linked persons or identities, and we began to call this the Holy Trinity. Yet, this triune nature of God has always been present, and we find Christ revealing it in the midst of his resurrection appearance. This is why we find ourselves with this text today—because our mission as disciples, according to Jesus, is a Trinitarian one.
This leads to my second question, what does the Trinity have to do with discipleship? Don’t we usually just refer to being disciples of Jesus Christ? We do indeed, and sometimes this is to the neglect of the full expression of God, the Trinity. The United Methodist Church, has as its mission statement “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This is concise, clear, and to the point. It’s a good mission statement. But it neglects the other two members of the Trinity. When Jesus tells his disciples to o and make disciples , he doesn’t say “Make disciples of me.” Rather, he says make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is equal with the Creator and Holy Spirit, that each are equally important. However it is true, that the disciples were disciples of Jesus Christ. They chose to follow him rather than John the Baptist, or another religious leader. But in following Jesus the disciples also followed the Creator, the Father from which Jesus came and whose ways he sought to teach. Further the disciples were led by the Holy Spirit to leave everything they had previously known to follow Jesus. So it must be for us who believe in the Trinity. When we say we are disciples of Jesus Christ, we know that in order to follow him we must follow God the Creator and Spirit as well. We attach ourselves to Jesus specifically because he was incarnate among us and taught us how to live as the entire Trinity would have us live.
We must not lose sight of the whole of the Trinity lest we lose sight of who God is. With just the Father-Mother we see a creating God, with just the Christ we see a teaching, saving, and redeeming God, with just the Spirit we see a guiding, advocating, moving GodIt is as if Jesus is on a movie screen. Him we can see fairly well. His teachings, parts of his life story, the stories of his followers tell us much about him and what he wants for us. But Jesus Christ is not all of God. Perhaps God the Creator and Holy Spirit are like the red and blue colors of the 3-D glasses. We put the 3-D glasses on and see that God is more than just Jesus, but this mysterious Trinity, which creates, redeems, and saves us as One. We cannot of course fully understand God, because we are not God—but the Trinity, which has existed and exists eternally, has been revealed to us throughout history and offers us a glimpse into God. Our God is three-dimensional, and our discipleship must be also. In both of our faith traditions, in baptism we ask those to be baptized or their guardians separately if they believe in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the first step in our discipleship, before following in their ways. A Roman Catholic author states that, “When believers are baptized in the name of the Trinity, they become intimate with all that God is: God above them (Father), God beside them (Son), and God within them (Holy Spirit). With God so close to the faithful, they become God’s instruments.” So, just as we baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we live into the life God has created us for as who our Creator created and called us to be, following where Jesus will lead us, guided and sustained by the Spirit.
So having just briefly explored what the Trinity has to do with discipleship, how might the Trinity itself (himself and herself) serve as a model for our life as disciples in the community of faith? I believe we must first start with the relationship of the Trinity. The three persons of the Trinity are in relationship with one another, each complementing the other, forming an expansive community of God. They, while each is separate with its own characteristics, have their own “mystic sweet communion” together. Both Thomas Scirghi, an American Jesuit and Jürgen Moltmann, a German Evangelical, argue that the Trinity is a community unto itself. Scirghi, a professor at Fordham University, writes that:
The Trinity is a community…Community emerges through communion and mutual self-surrender…The Trinity depicts a relationship of mutual self-giving: the Father gives himself completely to the Son and the Son gives himself completely to the Father. The Spirit, proceeding from both, is the bond of the love between them: “God is the lover, the beloved, and the love between them.” Thus God is not a person, that is, one entity of the relationship, but the fullness of relatedness.
For Scirghi, the community of the Trinity is marked by mutual self-giving and love. It is a tri-unity based on self-giving, responsive love. So too for Moltmann. He once preached that, “It is only from the perspective of the trinitarian God that we can claim that “God is Love,” because love is never alone.” It is a loving community of the three equal and distinct members of the Trinity. The Trinity beckons and invites us to be in intimate conversation with it. The Triune God offers to us relationship in a communion of love.
The community of the Trinity offers to us the model for our discipleship to the Trinity. Just as God must be in a community of tri-unity in order to love, so must we. In order to grow in a faith in which God attempts to teach us how to love, we must be in community ourselves. We can not be disciples without the community of faith. This is why, our first step on the journey to discipleship, in baptism we are baptized in the midst of a faith community, both ourselves making vows and the community taking vows to support us. It is in the community of faith that we wrestle with our own faith, in which we hammer out what we believe, in which we discern what that belief calls us to do. It is also a place in which we can celebrate life’s joys and mourn life’s pains, and acknowledge and honor everything in between. The community of faith is a sacred place—and if we follow the model of the Trinity, it should be bound together by self-giving love. Just as the members of the Trinity lovingly give of themselves to the other members, so it should be in our Christian community. We are called together as disciples in a community so that we may grow as disciples together. We are not in the same places in our discipleship journey, but we are to give of ourselves to each other, help each other grow in the place in which we find ourselves. Those who are mature in their own discipleship can assist and inspire those who are just beginning, and those who are just beginning ask new questions that freshen the mature in faith in their discipleship. As a community of discipleship, we give of ourselves to each other in loving, mutual support. But this self-giving does not solely focus inward. Like the Trinity, it also looks outward and is expansive. We are to open ourselves and invite others into our Trinitarian community of discipleship.
The Holy Trinity calls us beyond ourselves, beyond who we are on our own. When we exist just for ourselves, we alienate ourselves from the world, and we serve no one but ourselves. Our individuality is a precious gift from God and indeed each of the members of the Trinity has its own characteristic. But individualism, the focus solely on ourselves is dangerous, and it can lead to turning our very selves into an idol to be worshiped. The Holy Trinity calls us to be in community as it is in community, to become fuller persons in relationship with others. Jesus calls us to discipleship in the name of the Trinity, so that we follow the model of the Trinity—acknowledging that we have been created, redeemed, and sustained, and grow into our relationship with the Trinity together. We cease to be lone rangers, struggling to find the answers on our own. We become something larger than ourselves and begin to experience the Triune God in a communal way. It is in this community where we are called to live, with disciples of all nations.
Our God will not let us be alone. Even when we think we are alone, there God is, Three-in-One, calling us into relationship, calling us to be part of our own Trinitarian circle to sit at the table with angels, to grow in our faith with others, bound in love, celebrating, mourning, living together. And God will be with us until the end of the age.
+To God be the Glory