Listen to the sermon from Sunday, June 11, 2017 titled “Get Outta Here!” by the Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
With Pentecost Sunday celebrating God with the church as Spirit we have celebrated each of the three Divine persons in the worship calendar. So today is Trinity Sunday and across Christendom you will hear a true hodgepodge of complex, confusing, and often heretical sermons on the Trinity from thoughtful pastors trying to explain the mystery. And, of course, others won’t even try, focusing instead on how Jesus makes you healthy, wealthy, and better than everybody else. Just like every Sunday, I guess.
You won’t find the word “Trinity” in the Bible, nor even the doctrine, at least not clearly defined. There are a few texts which mention all three persons of the Trinity in one place, or passages like Isaiah today emphasizing God is a mystery beyond our comprehension, and we read those texts on Trinity Sunday. Like Paul’s lovely benediction from 2 Corinthians 13: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” These days it’s easy to say doctrine is dull, doctrine doesn’t matter, it’s all just a matter of opinion. But what could be more important to spiritual people than our understanding of God?
The doctrine of the Trinity was hammered out over several centuries of confusion, controversy, and even bloodshed. As usual, the orthodox confessional formulation came in response to competing claims, eventually labeled heresies. “Modalism” suggested God is one person with three modes of interacting, like water which can take the form of a liquid, a solid, or a gas. But the early church insisted all the qualities of God are fully present in all three persons. “Arianism” suggested the Son and the Spirit were created by the Father and thus of of lesser status. And what’s come to be called “Partialism” suggested God is three distinct persons who are God only when they appear together, but of course, that’s just a modified polytheism. Modern attempts to reword the Trinity in nonsexist ways like “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” almost all fall back into modalism.
I see you are nodding off much earlier than usual in a sermon, so instead of getting into the weeds here or trying to explain in twenty minutes what centuries of weighty volumes have attempted, let me just say, it’s a mystery. The one God is revealed to us in three distinct persons, classically defined as “The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” And just maybe I have time to suggest one reason that understanding of God matters.
The conclusion of Matthew’s gospel is Christ’s “Great Commission” to the church. Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee, the northern part of the Holy Land which had been nicknamed “Galilee of the Gentiles” because of the number of internationals who had settled there. Think of it as an insult coined by the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce. But it’s the perfect place for the Jewish Messiah to embrace the non-Jewish world.
The risen Christ begins by saying “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” “Authority” means “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” It includes not only command and control, but also responsibility. And here, Christ is authorizing the disciples to continue the work Matthew has earlier described as Christ’s own.
“Therefore” – “meaning based on my authority” – “Go!” “Get outta here!” Jesus tells them. The mission of the church is not cowering in fear in an upper room for self-protection or gathering up north for a mountain top experience or having a good time with one another as friends. Those are all good, but they are only preparation for the mission. The mission of the church is to go out into the world. And what are we supposed to do as we go into the world?
“Disciple all nations.” He tells the disciples to disciple. A disciple is a learner, a student. We are to reproduce ourselves as seekers of God and learners in Christ. Ask a student, what’s your major? “Botany.” Ask them: “What interests you about botany?” That’s when you see the light flash behind their eyes. “To see cells grow under a microscope.” “To preserve earth’s ecosystem!” “To find new ways to feed hungry people.” They aren’t experts yet, but learners who love their subject. Discipling in Christ is like being a graduate student helping newer students along. We are not making them our disciples, but disciples of Christ.
The word translated “nations” here is ἔθνος (ethnos.) We get our word “ethnic” from it. It does not mean the modern notion of the bordered nation-state, but any distinct people group. It is the word the Jews of Jesus’ day commonly used to mean “Gentile,” “foreigner,” somebody other than our kind. My friend Quinn Pugh used to describe our diverse churches in the New York Metropolitan Baptist Association as “all of us ethnics.” Make disciples of all the various people groups, Jesus told them, and there is no more inclusive word than “all!” It’s not just about race or politics, is it?
“Go, disciple all the ethnics.” And how do you disciple? “Teaching them to keep all I have commanded you.” Well, how do you teach someone who has no agreed formal contract to be your student? By influence, of course, by modeling. As Francis of Assisi was reputed to say, “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.”
“Teaching them to keep all that I commanded you” suggests we ourselves are keeping all that he commanded us. Our moral influence comes from our own lives, from the way we embody and exemplify Christ in our interactions with others. Not just children – we all learn most by seeing and emulating best practices.
The rise of trained “life coaches” is a good resource, but understand what Jesus means. Discipling is not a hierarchical power-over relationship telling people what to do. It is coming alongside them as a partner and enabling them to thrive. Discipling means being a player-coach. I think of how my high school football coach would do exercises with us at practice, and sometimes even get down in the dirt with us to show us how to make a block or go for a tackle.
Jesus tells us to go, disciple, teach by example, and “baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I’m sure he is referring to the ritual of entry into the church, baptism in the name of the Triune God as a rich symbol of renewal andrebirth, of cleansing, of dying and rising with Christ. But what if he also means total immersion in the way of the Triune God?
The Trinity is hard to define, but here is where it matters most to me. The very essence of God’s being is not about individualistic perfection, but about wholeness through relationship. That’s the core meaning of the Trinity to me.The essence of God in all three persons is interconnectedness. The Trinity is God as the model of perfect connection, perfect community, perfect relationship. And our mission as disciples of Christ is to immerse people by word and deed in that experience of Triune Divine love.
So get outta here! He promises to be with us “always.” Embody the love of God to the people you meet in the streets, in your home, in your workplace, in your play space, in your day to day dealings. Take it to all the ethnics you meet, every people group whether defined by of race or gender or orientation or economic status or alma mater or political party or eye color or shoe size. Model that love by letting God love them through you. That is the mission of the church. Everything else is just preparation. So get outta here, and be the church, for God’s sake. Can I get an “Amen?” May we pray?
Eternal Mystery, Everlasting Mercy, Abiding Presence:
Nourish our spirits as we come to this table today and remember how much you love us. Ignite your love within us and send us to the people in our orbits who need a word of good news and your loving care in their lives this week. As you make us your church when we gather in this place, send us as your church into the highways and byways to invite all the ethnics to join us ethnics in you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.