What a week we’ve had: The Senate Intelligence Committee hearings! The UK election! The NBA Finals! The French Open! The Stanley Cup! What’s a preacher to choose? I know: let’s talk about the Trinity.
As you all probably know by now, Trinity Sunday is the preacher’s graveyard. I cannot begin even to number, much less recall, the horrible sermons I have endured on this day—some of them delivered by me. I used to be a seminary professor and dean, and when I had that job I rarely gave advice. But one thing I regularly used to say to graduating students was that, when they got ordained, they should avoid this Sunday like the plague. Talk about anything on Trinity Sunday—baseball, the weather, even if you have to politics, but please do not try to explain the Trinity in fifteen minutes.
Of course, being students, they regularly disregarded my advice, figuring that they alone had the homiletical key to unlocking the mystery that has preoccupied theologians and philosophers for 1600 years. So they ascended pulpit steps and gave little lectures that, for all the good they did, could have been talking about Fermat’s last theorem or Schroedinger’s cat. Their auditors smiled politely and then avoided eye contact and greeting them at the door. The new preachers left their churches realizing that, like mountaineers, they had assaulted Everest and had had to turn back.
So yes, today is Trinity Sunday. It is the First Sunday after Pentecost, the first Sunday in what we call “ordinary time”, and in setting aside this Sunday to give thanks for the doctrine of the Trinity, the church calendar is naming this doctrine as one of the principal gifts of the Spirit given to us at Pentecost. Now I did not tell my students to avoid trying to explain the Trinity out of any doubt about it myself. I have been a priest for 40 years now, and while my intellectual understanding of God as revealed to us in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit---has grown gradually over the years, my lived experience of the Trinity is exponentially deeper than it was when I was in seminary. So the doctrine of the Trinity is one I both publicly affirm and personally believe. But the doctrine of the Trinity is, like all things we receive from the Spirit, a gift. And when you receive a gift you don’t try to explain it. You give thanks for it. And you try to figure out what to do with it.
Happily, one of the other gifts we have this morning is a gospel passage from the very end of Matthew [Matthew 28: 16-20], chosen I suppose because it’s the one place in the New Testament where Jesus actually mentions the members of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—by name. This passage also goes by the name of “the Great Commission”, because in it Jesus commands his apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Over the centuries of the church’s life, the Great Commission has been read as our warrant for evangelism. When Jesus mentions the Trinity, he does so not an abstract idea but a missional command.
This is a jam-packed little passage, and there is so much to say about it. So let me just tick off four quick aspects that might help us all live into what it means to know, love, and serve God in what our proper preface today calls “trinity of persons and unity of being”.
It’s brief, so let’s hear this gospel passage again:
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28: 16-20]
One thing to notice about today’s gospel is its setting. Jesus’ core followers gather on a mountain, and we hear that “when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. The first point about living into the mystery of the Trinity is that some are always going to doubt it. I worked for many years at All Saints Pasadena, and in the days when they used to say the Nicene Creed there, parishioners would opt in and out of reciting it as their personal faith permitted. We would begin, “I believe in God,” and then half the congregation would drop out, unable I guess to go the next step and affirm the divinity of Jesus. Many would chime back in when we mentioned the Spirit, though “holy catholic church” always gave them trouble. The first point: even the disciples doubted, so it’s OK if you do too. Following Jesus is not brainwashing, and the church is not a Maoist re-education camp. Following Jesus is less about what we think and more about what we do. I’m not saying that belief is not important. I am saying that it’s not as important as we usually think it is. And that’s where the other three points come in.
After they have gathered on the mountain, Jesus’s followers hear him specifically tell them to do three things: make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them. The Holy Trinity in this passage is a trinity less of ideas than it is a trinity of actions. Jesus’s final earthly words to his followers tell us not what to believe but what to do.
Jesus tells us first to “make disciples of all nations”. This is a hard one for Episcopalians, but there is no way around it. Polite and reticent as we are, you and I have been commissioned to tell others about our faith and invite them into the community which nurtures it. This does not mean that we are supposed to be storm troopers of intolerance. We can respect the faith of others while telling them about our own. In witnessing to our own faith these days we are more likely to encounter those who have no religion rather than those who practice Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam. So the issue here is not cultural imperialism; it is simple hospitality. There are a lot of people in our world whose lives would be better if they knew a church like ours not only existed but also welcomed them. Following Jesus on Trinity Sunday means first that we let other people know that he is important to us we welcome them into his community.
Jesus’s second imperative: that we baptize. There are two great sacraments in our church, and because Eucharist has become so central in our lives we tend to neglect Baptism. Over the course of the last 60 or so years, Christians around the world have rediscovered the importance of Baptism in the early church and its radical implications for us. In Baptism we get both an identity (a name) and a commission. We are claimed as God’s own and we are authorized to serve each other and the world in God’s name. Easter and Pentecost are about many things, but at their heart they are festivals of freedom, celebrations of the way you and I and all creation have been set free by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Part of this new Easter life is the opportunity to tell other people about it. Part of this new Easter life is the opportunity to free ourselves, each other, and the world from the imprisoning chains of oppression in all its forms—social, cultural, relational, and yes, political. Baptism empowers us to be agents of God’s love, justice, healing, and liberation in the world. Jesus commands us not only to live as free people ourselves but also to offer that freedom to others.
And then, finally, there is this teaching thing. In his Great Commission, Jesus makes us not only liberators but teachers. One of the gifts of being a Christian in America derives from the First Amendment—there is no established religion in the United States, and we all rightly respect everyone’s religious principles (or lack of them). But respect for everyone’s religion does not mean that all religious ideas are created equal. There are a lot of bad religious ideas abroad in America right now—some of them horribly repressive, others laughably wifty and vague. A priest friend of mine says the problem is not that people don’t believe anything; it’s that people believe everything: a little bit of Jesus, a little bit of Buddha, throw in some rabbinical stories and maybe some yoga, and you’ve got the patchwork quilt of 21st century American religion. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I served as the vicar in Malibu. Am I a fool to believe that it is possible to be both multicultural and sound? That we can share the love and compassion and justice and forgiveness of Jesus without sounding either like schoolmarms or airheads? Following Jesus implies both gifts and obligations. Teaching with both soundness and respect for others means, in the words of Emerson, that we will say less “thou shalt” and more “I ought.”
As they gathered one last time on the Galilean mountain with Jesus, his companions met him with a mixture of faith and doubt. The life of faith will always work this way. Some of us will have total faith, some of us will have no faith, most of us will have some mixture of one and the other. The late Bishop Fred Borsch used to say that the creed, like all doctrines of the church, is the faith of the whole church, and sometimes it takes the whole church to believe it. Jesus’s Great Commission doesn’t obligate us to think or believe anything. All it requires of us is that we act in love, compassion, healing, and forgiveness towards ourselves and others. Believing in the Trinity is the whole church’s job. All you and I are required to do is give thanks for this mysterious gift and then do what we can to live out its gracious implications in our lives, for each other, and the world. Amen.