Today is, according to the church calendar, Trinity Sunday. On the matter of the Trinity, Disciples of Christ are not of one mind. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were Trinitarians, and Barton Stone was not. One of our important second generation Disciple leaders was Isaac Errett, who served as pastor of the Jefferson Avenue and Beaubien Street Church in Detroit during the 1860s. He wrote a pamphlet titled Our Position. In that pamphlet he wrote that while Disciples accept the biblical statements about the “trinity of persons in the Godhead, we repudiate alike the philosophical and theological speculations of Trinitarians and Unitarians, and all unauthorized forms of speech on a question which transcends human reason, and on which it becomes us to speak ‘in words which the Holy Spirit teaches’” [Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union, pp. 297-298]. In other words, we’re going to stick with Bible terms! Of course there are some among us, including me, who like to delve into “theological speculations,” including speculations about the nature of God, whom a majority of Christians confess to be “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
It’s in the context of Trinity Sunday that we hear this word from the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew closes his Gospel with Jesus’ “Great Commission.” In this commission, Jesus tells the disciples to go into the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is here, in these closing words of Matthew’s Gospel, that Jesus not only gives us our missional commission, but we hear the most explicit Trinitarian formula in all of Scripture.
While the Gospel closes with this missional commission, after providing a genealogy of Jesus, Matthew opens the Gospel with the announcement that Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” In these opening lines, we learn that an angel told Joseph to name this child Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins.” Not only that, but this child will fulfill the promise of Isaiah, that a child will be born and that his name will be Emmanuel, “God with Us” (Mt. 1:18-24).
In commissioning the disciples, Jesus promises that he, Emmanuel, will be with his followers “always, to the end of the age.” The ministry of Jesus is framed by these two promises: that God is with us in Jesus, and that Jesus will be with us always to the end of the age. These two promises provide the basis of the Christian faith. It’s on this basis that we go into the world to participate in the mission of God. This mission of God starts here in this very room, as we worship together as the disciples did that day as they gathered on the mountain with Jesus, even if “some doubted!”
Although some of the disciples still had their doubts about Jesus, they worshiped him. It’s in this act of worship that the seeds of the doctrine of the Trinity get planted. It is in worship that we discover that there’s something different about Jesus that is worthy of our attention, and our devotion. Of course, it will take time, and a lot of conversation, before a fully developed doctrine of the Trinity will emerge, but the concept has its roots here in Matthew’s declaration that the disciples worshiped Jesus, along with Jesus’ commission to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As Tom Long puts it: “Probably all Matthew knows at this point is Christians must speak devoutly of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that such talk will not violate the Jewish insistence upon belief in the one True God” [Feasting on the Word, p. 47].
With this confession in mind, we hear Jesus declare that God gave him “all authority in heaven and on earth.” It’s on this authority that Jesus commissions the disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
As I thought about this commission, and what it means for us as a congregation and as individuals, I did so with the Iftar Dinner we hosted this past Wednesday evening in partnership with the Turkish American Society of Michigan in mind. I thought about my own commitment to interfaith dialog and the relationships I’ve made over the years with people from a wide variety of religious traditions. I’ve come to respect and honor them and their traditions. So, how do we make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, without engaging in a bit of triumphalism? How do we stay clear of an ideology like “manifest destiny?” I love that old missionary hymn, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations,” but what does it mean to “turn their hearts to the right?”
I do believe we have a story to tell to the nations that is rooted in God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, that through their descendants, especially Jesus, all peoples will be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3). But, how do we pursue this calling? How does discipling and baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, fit into this promise? This isn’t an easy question to answer. I know that in trying to be more open and inclusive in our faith, we often hide our lamp under a bushel.
I want to leave these questions about the Trinity and mission hanging in our minds this morning, so we can focus on that other promise found here. I believe that this promise expresses quite well a Trinitarian vision of God. That promise is this: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (vs. 20). When we gather at the Table, we not only remember that Jesus had a final meal with his disciples. We remember this promise that “I am with you always.” We do this when we break bread and share the cup each week. In these weekly sacramental actions, we remember that Jesus is with us now and always, until the end of the age.
Each of the Gospels tells the story of Jesus in a different way. Each picks up on something different. Luke offers us a picture of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, both in the Gospel and then in the Book of Acts. But, did you notice that Matthew doesn’t have an ascension story? Did you notice that instead of disappearing into the clouds, the story simply ends with a promise delivered to the disciples, by the one whom Matthew reveals to be Emmanuel? That promise is this: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Like I said at the beginning of the sermon, Disciples are not of one mind when it comes to the Trinity. As a general rule, we leave “theological speculation” to the realm of the nonessential. There’s room for differences of opinion on this matter, but I do appreciate this word from Alexander Campbell, which he wrote in 1833 in the Millennial Harbinger:
Language fails and thought cannot reach the relation in which the Father and the Son have existed, now exist, and shall forever exist. But that there is, and was, and evermore will be, society in God himself, a plurality as well as unity in the Divine nature, are inferences which do obtrude themselves on my mind in reflecting upon the divine communications to our race. [Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, p. 85].
These inferences “obtrude themselves on my mind” as well. Although the Trinity is a difficult theological affirmation to define, what I appreciate about this concept is that it reminds us that God’s very being is relational. In making that confession, we’re reminded that we’re not a gathering of isolated individuals. We are a community of persons, one body with many members, who have been commissioned to go out into the world and be a blessing. This blessing often takes the form of baptism into Christ, whom we affirm to be Emmanuel, God with us, and whom we confess to be “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
Picture Attribution: JESUS MAFA. The mission to the world, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48314 [retrieved June 10, 2017].
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 11, 2017