Sermon 6/19/11, Matthew 28:16-20
How many of you have read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code? The book is now 8 years old, which is hard to believe. You probably remember all the controversy around the book when it was published – it suggested a lot of religious conspiracies – like thate Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children. The book certainly wasn’t the first to propose such ideas, but it seemed to catch global attention, and after its publication, many similar books followed from other authors. I certainly enjoyed the book – a page turner – but the book was fiction, not fact, and some scenes were just blatantly rewrites of history. I was thinking about it again though because today is Trinity Sunday, another one of those usually skimmed over special Sundays. It is the day when we celebrate our unique Christian belief in this three-in-one God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Sustain, Redeemer. You see, one of the characters in The DaVinci Code claims that Jesus was “voted” to be divine at a council meeting of the early church, where previously everyone just regarded him as a human. My recollection of my church history courses in seminary, though not what it once was, is strong enough to know that things didn’t unfold in quite that way! But, The DaVinci Code was right about something. The early church did sometimes discuss weighty matters in great council gatherings. And one of these discussions, the First Council of Nicea, was centered not on Jesus’ divinity, but on the nature of the Trinity. Our gospel lesson from Matthew appears in the lectionary on this day in particular because it highlights this Trinitarian language. But we will come back to that in a bit.
In actuality, the Trinity is something that only occasionally makes clear and explicit appearances in our scriptures, like in our text from Matthew. The scriptures certainly never describe the Trinity, or even use the label “trinity”, or define what it means in any way. So the early church councils tried to hammer out what this Trinity thing was. They debated many questions about the Trinity, and there were strong “parties” that supported certain views. One party, for example, thought that any concept of Trinity would need to show that Jesus, the Son, was not comparable to God the father. But the eventually “winning” party wanted to insist, with a very specific Greek word configuration, that God the father and God the son were “like according to substance,” even though this is never clearly stated in the scriptures anywhere. Another debate was over whether Christ was “begotten” or “made” – created by God the Father, or existing with God the Father in the beginning in a way different from the creation of human beings. Another debate questioned whether or not the fully human person of Jesus Christ was part of the Trinity, or just the divine Son. And they questioned what to do with that strange Holy Spirit thing, perhaps like we do today. They wanted to know if the Holy Spirit came from God the Father directly, or from the Father and the Son together. All these details they eventually hammered out, though not always in a friendly way, not always without labeling each other as heretics, kicking the losing party out of the Church. And the result of the Council, in part, is the Nicene Creed that we find still in our hymnals, which we’ll look at later. It is that mess, the Trinity, which we celebrate today!
Maybe we think that trying to define the nature of God, the nature of something as strange as the Trinity in a council meeting is crazy. It’s true, we don’t usually discuss such details at Parish Council meetings! But I think we do often engage in the same behavior – we’d really like to get a fix on God if we can. We’re always trying to define God, define our faith, define a set of rules for our life with God. It’s a natural urge – we want to know our Creator better, we want to know who this Being is who gives us life and who we gather to worship. We want to know who this God is that makes us and shapes us and calls us to do all of these things that are so difficult and challenging and frustrating. We want to know better who it is who gives us love and grace and calls us children as we call this Being a parent. It’s good and natural to want to know this God.
But sometimes we cross a line, where we go from wanting to know God better out of a desire for a relationship with God, to wanting to know God so that we can contain and control God, even if we wouldn’t admit it quite that way. After all, if we can control God, perhaps we can limit God’s control on us, and not feel so obligated to follow all of those pesky commands about loving our neighbors and enemies, about giving away all of our stuff, about following wherever we’re led, about being last and servant of all. We try to paint God into corner and put God into boxes. When we do that, we make God pretty small, and then we’re upset when our God is too small to handle our crises, to handle our pains and hurts and sufferings.
On Trinity Sunday, we’re called to embrace all that God is and wants to be for us. Instead of trying to pin God down, we need to reorient our focus. The Trinity, in all its mystery, is clear in this: Our God is a God who is all about relationships. Our God is not satisfied to be just one thing, one essence, one expression. Our God is not only our Creator, but also one who is willing to come and be with us in human form, to take on all that it means to be a human on earth. And God is not only one who does those things, but also one who is willing to dwell within us, to live in our hearts, and so guide our lives right from within the very core of our beings. This is a God who will seek us out for relationships in any way possible, so desirous is God of being a part of who we are, and having us be part of who God is. Our God is persistent, asking again and again, in different expressions, to be let in to our lives. Our God is creative, meeting us where we’re least expecting to find God, and perhaps most likely to listen. And our God is pervasive, permeating every part of our existence. That’s the Trinity, even if it’s not a very defined definition.
Indeed, it seems some of the very best things in the world are the ones we are least able to put into clear words, concise definitions. Just think of that most basic thing – love. For all of the writings we have, movies and poems and books and classes that talk about love, it’s very hard to truly define what love is. But that doesn’t reduce love’s power or potency, or our desire to give and receive love in our lives. Love seems to be something you have to simply experience to know. It’s the same with this God who is Three in One and One in Three. Hard to define, but worth all the conversation. Easier to experience God – the best way we can go about knowing God.
So, instead of worrying so much about what we don’t know, what we can’t figure out, what we can’t categorize and label, we’d be better off if we worried about what is clear to us. In Matthew's gospel, these words that we hear this morning are the end of the book, the last things Matthew chooses to include in his account of Jesus' ministry. This is it. The last words, according to Matthew, that are important enough for him to record. It is here we find what we call the Great Commission. Jesus is with the eleven – the disciples have not yet replaced Judas Iscariot – and Jesus tells them he has all authority on earth and in heaven. And then he gives commands: 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 finally, a comforting promise: And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Jesus gives us a task: Go and make disciples and make them part of the faith community in the name of this dynamic God who is too big, too great, too much to be pinned down or boxed in. From this passage, we find the source of our denominational mission statements – go and make disciples! Jesus doesn’t tell us to go and make scholars, or make theologians, or make teachers or leaders, though all of these roles are valuable. Jesus calls us to make disciples, and ‘disciples’ literally means ‘students’. That means that we’re meant to be learners, students, pupils of Jesus. And to be a student means that we don’t know everything. We’re students of God, ever learning. So our aim isn’t to go and tell everyone we have all the answers – indeed, nothing could make people more suspicious, could it, than someone insisting they had all the answers! We are sent out to make more students! Invite people to come and learn with us, come and learn at the feet of Jesus, come and learn about this three-in-one God, come and learn how beyond our imagining is God and God's love for us. That’s a mission we can all take part in carrying out. Amen.