Today the Christian Church around the world recognizes the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, a festival honoring a God who only exists in relationship. Three persons, one God. All partners co-equal in the business of being God. How does it work? What is the hierarchy of the relationship of the Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit? And if there isn’t one, why do we so often see the Trinity depicted as Father (high), Son (middle) and Holy Spirit (low), as if that is the order of importance, or order of creation? People have tried to explain the Trinity using different metaphors—the three leaves of a single clover, or the shell, white, and yolk of an egg—and formulated two different Creeds we say in worship and a few others (like the Athanasian) that we don’t, and STILL, as far as I know, there isn’t a theologian, living or dead, who has figured out how God can be one and yet three, or three and yet one. All we really can say is that God is God only in relationship.
I think one of the best metaphors I’ve come across to interpret the Trinity was an actual Trinity Sunday worship service at St. James Lutheran Church, one of the churches I served in Chicago. Like this congregation, St. James had a building that was erected during a time when the congregation needed a lot of space. By 2006, when I got there, it didn’t anymore. Several different communities of faith worshipped in our building at different times. St. James Lutheran Church worshipped there on Sunday mornings. Jesus Glorified Korean Presbyterian Church gathered on Sunday afternoons. The Wesleyan Church of South India met on Sunday evenings. And Rose of Sharon Latino (Pentecostal) Congregation worshipped God together on Saturday evenings. All of these entities simultaneously existed as separate worshipping communities and at the same time as one body of Christ.
One year, we all worshipped together on Trinity Sunday, every group in their own language. The day featured a wide variety of cultural dress and style of prayer, and was followed by one of the most fantastic potlucks I’ve ever attended! We were united but diverse. Different but connected. As we heard this morning from the conclusion of St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, this kind of interconnected relationship is how the church is supposed to conduct itself. Brothers and sisters are to live in peace with one another. Jews and Gentiles reconciling with one another. The church should not be splintered by citizenship, nationality, color, language, or denominational customs. We are to greet one another with a holy kiss. Or whatever the cultural equivalent is.
But as heavenly as that Sunday was, our cluster of congregations were not always a living example of Paul’s exhortations of harmony. There were times when our congregations tread on one another’s toes. When some stereo speakers turned up missing there was the unpleasant hurling of accusations: Who was in the building last? Why was that door left unlocked? And there were always spoken and unspoken questions of authority—who had the right and/or obligation to decorate which bulletin boards? And there was an ever-present underlying tension of racial prejudice. The all-white Lutheran congregation of which I was pastor owned the building, but the Indian Wesleyan congregation was by far the largest and fastest-growing of the worshipping communities. Why did the smaller congregation make the largest decisions? It was messy.
Relationships are always messy. Even church relationships. Maybe particularly church relationships. We do not always do what we ought. Sometimes we neglect our duties, and sometimes we do things we shouldn’t do. Within Christian communities there are always people wounding one another accidentally and on purpose. We are meant to mimic our Triune God by working together in harmony, recognizing that all the pieces of God’s handiwork are of equal value and contribute to the whole. But we don’t. We end up hurting one another, or passively standing by while someone else degrades what God has declared good.
I’m not saying Christians have cornered the market on broken relationships. There is brokenness everywhere, in every aspect of creation. Though we hear in Genesis that humans are called to be responsible for the God’s beautiful world, it’s clear that greed and poor stewardship of the earth is resulting in unclean water, disastrous climate changes, and the endangerment and extinction of many species. Our poor stewardship of peaceful government and business practices is resulting in deadly conflict and economic disaster daily. Christians and Muslims in Palestine struggle to reconcile with their Jewish sisters and brothers in Israel. Muslims and Christians continually fall out of relationship with one another as children of God, leading to violence in many areas of the world, notably Afghanistan and Iraq right now. Pain and bloodshed and poverty and suffering result from human failure to recognize the image of God in one another and in every part of creation.
In the midst of this brokenness, God calls forth new life. God calls the Church. The Church is not called just to get together and sing and pray and share meals, though those are lovely and good things, and we should keep doing them. We are called to be in relationship with God and with each other, to be like our Triune God, always in collaboration. The church is not a social club. Yes, it is a community where we are gathered in, fed, and nourished, but it is also a community where we are strengthened to be sent out.
At the close of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us exactly what it is the church is supposed to be about. “Go!” he says (and in the Greek it is the imperative, command form of the verb). “Go!” The command is not “Stay and pray,” or “Study this concept until you understand what I mean,” or “Form a committee to talk about this.” No, the command is “Go.” And what is it we are supposed to do when we go? “Make disciples!” Not members. Not little Lutherans. Disciples. Where are we supposed to go to? “To all nations.” And do what? “Baptize them into the name of the Triune God”—which is to say, announce to them that they have been adopted by God, claimed as God’s own children forever through a relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And then after they are baptized? “Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” We don’t get to pick and choose what parts we want to do. Go. Baptize. Teach. Be in relationship with God’s world. THAT’s what God’s Church is for!
Not surprisingly, some of the disciples had a hard time with this announcement. Matthew says, “they worshipped him, but some of them doubted.” Both responses make perfect sense to me. Yes, it is only right and proper that when they saw their Resurrected Lord, they worshipped him. He was the Lord of Life in a very real way. He modeled forgiveness by even speaking to them. But I also understand why some of them doubted.
I don’t know if the author meant they doubted Jesus, or they doubted one another, or they doubted themselves. No matter what, I find it consoling that Jesus does not rebuke the disciples for doubting. He understands their doubt—but he speaks to their faith! He trusts that the disciples will grow into the role that he’s giving them. He trusts that they will be able and willing to break all the religious rules they’d grown up with about how God was the God of their people and nobody else. Jesus tells them flat out to do exactly the opposite of what they’d grown up believing—to go to all the nations, including the Gentiles, the Samaritans, and those people who had previously been considered unclean and religiously deviant. Jesus trusts this rag-tag little church to GO, to talk to everyone they encounter about Jesus and what taught them. Jesus trusts them to baptize people, to announce to them that they are beloved children of God. He trusts these disciples to teach what he taught them—the intrinsic value of every single person, the power of life over death, of forgiveness over bitterness, of praying for one’s enemies as well as one’s friends. Jesus embodied love and compassion and forgiveness and the absolute refusal to participate in violence. Jesus commands these doubting, worried disciples to teach others about all of that. He reminds them that they are made in God’s image, made for relationship. He calls them to be the Church.
I appreciate the fact that, even in this most authoritative of sermons, Jesus addresses his followers’ struggles. I think it’s important to notice that the text begins by saying that this gathering takes place because Jesus arranged it. The disciples didn’t call this meeting with Jesus. Jesus is the one who arranged this encounter. Jesus beckoned to the disciples, called them to himself, and Jesus understood their simultaneous responses of worship and doubt. Jesus acknowledges that what he’s asking them to do will be hard and sometimes scary. He knows firsthand that our society does not readily welcome everyone, that those who try to change things get crucified, that raising up the lowly and bringing down the mighty upsets the apple cart. It is key to notice that Jesus doesn’t talk to one disciple at a time, but collects all of them together when he gives these instructions. He wants them to see they have each other in the work they are called to do. And he assures them that God will always be with them. Always. To the end of the age.
God’s command and promise are intricately bound up together in relationship. And these promises and expectations are for us too. As a group, as individuals, our relational God is with us. We are called to enter into relationships and situations that may not come easily or naturally to us, that may not be safe or secure. We are being called to leave the security of church as we’ve always experienced it, as well as the familiar but flawed social structures of our world. We are called to be sisters and brothers in partnership with each other, for the sake of others. Ultimately we are called to be in relationship the world that God has never ceased to love.
As in the beginning, right now, the Spirit is again hovering over the chaos, calling forth new life, and calling it good. Right now, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit enable us to live into the goodness we were created for, a goodness that is most divinely expressed when we are in right relationship with one another and with God. Right now, God is with us, begging us to “Go and make disciples,” and giving us all the courage and companionship we need for the journey. Thanks be to God!
~ Pastor Susan Schneider