Sermon 06-04-2023: “The Triune God and Our Abiding Purpose”

Scripture: Matthew 28:16-20

I want to try to answer three questions in today’s sermon: First, what is the Trinity and why does it matter? Second, what does it mean for us that Jesus’ closest disciples doubted him? And third, why is the Great Commission for all of us Christians?

Today is a special Sunday in the Christian year, celebrated by Christians of all denominations all around the world, known as Trinity Sunday. Preachers like me are supposed to emphasize and celebrate the strange and mysterious fact that God is a Trinity… and the calendar of scripture readings that our church often follows, the Lectionary, has chosen this particular passage from Matthew’s gospel, which we know as the Great Commission, to emphasize the Trinity. The Trinity means that God is both one and three. The Trinity means that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Together they are one God. Yet the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Father is not the Spirit.

If that sounds confusing or difficult to understand—good news—it’s supposed to be. As one preacher said, if you lived in a two-dimensional world—and you can only see in two dimensions—then that means that every sphere would look like a circle… every cube would look like a square… every pyramid would look like a triangle. Try describing a three-dimensional object like a sphere to someone who can only see circles! That’s what describing the Trinity is like to us human beings. It’s as if God were in three dimensions, and we, by comparison, can only see in two.

Anyway, to help us understand the Trinity, I have included an ancient church creed known as the Athanasian Creed, which explains the Trinity as clearly and concisely as I’ve read. I invite you to read it in your free time. It’s named after the fourth century theologian named Athanasius, who was the primary defender of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity—when that doctrine was under attack by a group headed up by a church leader named Arius. 

Arius and his followers were teaching that while Jesus was very special, he wasn’t fully God. He was more like a very powerful angel. Arius believed that God created his Son Jesus first, then through Christ, he created everything else. But Christ, according to Arius, was a creature—every bit as much as the angels are creatures, every bit as much as you and I are creatures.

But we can see even in today’s scripture that Jesus is God.

For instance, look at verse 17: “when they saw him”—that is, when the eleven disciples saw the resurrected Jesus—“they worshiped him.” They worshiped him. One of those eleven disciples who worshiped Jesus, by the way, is the apostle John, who wrote the Book of Revelation. In that book, an angel appears to John, and obviously the angel’s appearance is dazzling and fearsome to him, as angels often are when they appear to humans. And in Revelation 19:10 John writes, “Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.’” And then in Revelation 22:8 and 9, the exact same thing happens! In both cases, John tries to worship the angel the way he and his other ten disciples worship Jesus in today’s scripture, and the angel says, “You must not do that! Worship God.” Because the angel knows that for a creature to worship something or someonellll other than God is a violation of the First Commandment, to have no other gods but the one true God.

But Jesus doesn’t prohibit his disciples from worshiping him—because Jesus, of course, is God. It is perfectly fitting for Jesus’ disciples to worship him.

Jesus is God, along with his Father—Jesus prays throughout the gospels, after all. And he isn’t praying to himself, after all! And while Matthew’s gospel says far less about the Holy Spirit than Luke and John, even here we have Jesus’ most unambiguous Trinitarian statement—when, in verse 19, he commands us to baptize disciples in the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And that, too, is very unusual… If God were not triune—if God were not three and one—then we should expect Jesus to tell us to baptize in the namesplural—of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Instead, please notice it’s “name,” singular. It’s as if Jesus were saying, “The name of God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”—all three together are equally God—and since the name is singular, we’re only talking about one God, not three gods.

Okay, you might be thinking, that’s interesting and all, but what difference, practically speaking, does it make that God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

Well, consider one of the most famous verses in the New Testament about the nature of God: 1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God,” John says. Why? “[B]ecause God is love.” 

God is love. The most important fact about God’s nature is that it is characterized by love. Love is at the very heart of God. 

Is that the same as saying, “God is lov-ing”? 

Not really… because to say someone is “lov-ing” says nothing about who that person is, only about what they do

Suppose for the sake of argument that God were not Triune. That would mean that before God created the world, he literally had nothing and no one to love. Love didn’t even exist! God would have had to create something or someone else, in order for him to to be lov-ing.

But since God is Triune, that changes everything. That means that—for all eternity—the inner life of God was nothing less than a loving community of three Persons, each giving and receiving love to and from one another. God didn’t need to create a world in order to love. For all eternity, God had within himself all the love that he needed, and he has always has had all the love that he needs. To say “God is love” is the most profoundly true thing you can say about God—and that’s true because God is a Trinity. God is Triune. He is both three and one.

And just think: Because God is Triune, then everything he created, he created out of love and for the sake of love. As many preachers have said, love is the very fabric of the universe. 

This explains why no one on their deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Or “I wish I had built that vacation home I always dreamed about.” Or “I wish I had bought that more expensive luxury car.” Or “I wish I had gone back to college and gotten that advanced degree.” Literally no one says that. No… people who work with the dying in hospice care, for instance, know that what people often do regret on their deathbeds is their failure to love—to spend more time with their family, their children, their loved ones. They regret their choices to value money and possessions more than people.

And of course people on their deathbeds often regret that they failed to love God… and his Son Jesus… and like the thief on the cross, we can hope and pray that even with their dying breath they turn to him and repent and believe.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a first cousin who, years ago, got embroiled in a lawsuit with the rest of his cousins over the estate of one of my aunts. He made over a million dollars from her estate, but guess what? He ruined his relationship with most of his cousins. And this sort of thing happens all the time in families, unfortunately, as many of you have seen. Last week, my Aunt Carolyn died—my dad’s last surviving sibling—and at the funeral most of us enjoyed a sweet reunion of my dad’s family… Except… guess who wasn’t there? That cousin who was in the lawsuit against us.

I can’t speak for my other cousins, but I, for one, want to say to this cousin, “Come on back. All is forgiven! We love you! It’s okay. It’s wrong to let money come between us.”

But the fact is—as my cousin himself has surely learned by now—that million bucks that he made 12 years ago isn’t worth this… And the fact that God is a Trinity shows us why: Our God created us from a place of perfect love; we are made for love; and we are made to love. Our lives are out of whack, our lives are going against the grain of the universe, when we fail to love! Because God is love… Because God is Triune.

And that’s Point Number One…

For Point Number Two, what it mean for us that Jesus’ closest disciples doubted him? 

To answer this, I want to look at a remarkable statement in verse 17: “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” There might have been a larger group of disciples that met Jesus on that mountain other than the eleven remaining disciples that are mentioned in verse 16. But the antecedent—remember that word from Jayne Snell’s English class—the antecedent to the pronoun “they”—“when they saw him”—is the eleven disciples in the previous verse. No other disciples are mentioned.

And some commentators have a hard time accepting this fact: The writer of the study notes in my ESV Study Bible even says that the “some” who doubted are “probably” disciples other than the main eleven. And I get it: How could any of these eleven disciples still have doubts that this is the resurrected Lord—after having already encountered him, for example, on Easter Sunday evening—and then Thomas and the rest one week later. Because this meeting with Jesus in Galilee takes place some time after that first week after Easter. I wonder if so-called “doubting Thomas” was one of the disciples who was once again doubting. Except notice that there are “some” doubting this time… more than one… so it wasn’t just Thomas.

It’s a very unflattering portrait of these disciples, isn’t it? And since Matthew himself, the author of this gospel, doesn’t specify who it is that’s doubting, he’s potentially even making himself look bad!

But we ask ourselves, “How could such seemingly faithful disciples doubt?” And if disciples like these doubt, what hope do I have?

Let me say two things about this. First, the very fact that one of the gospel writers—who was among these eleven disciples—is willing to admit that he and his colleagues “doubted,” even though it portrays them in an unflattering light, it goes to show how committed Matthew was to telling the truth. He isn’t white-washing anything. He isn’t covering anything up. Therefore, it makes us even more confident that he’s telling the truth about everything else that he reports. This gospel is very believable. So that’s the first thing I want to say.

Second, if even Jesus’ closest disciples had doubts—after witnessing all of Jesus’ miracles, including the greatest miracle, the resurrection itself—then doubt is going to be a part of a faithful disciple’s life. It just is! And notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke the disciples for it. He doesn’t make them feel guilty. He doesn’t express disappointment in them. He doesn’t say a word about it. He doesn’t say, “Well, I was going to send you on a worldwide mission of evangelism, but y’all obviously aren’t ready for that because your faith is still so weak. Y’all need to shape up. Y’all need to get your act together!”

No, Jesus obviously doesn’t need perfect disciples with strong faith to accomplish his mighty purposes. He only needs badly flawed Christians. He only needs imperfect Christians who still sin. He only needs Christians whose faith is often very weak… Raise your hand if you fall into any of those categories

In other words—are you ready for this—Jesus only needs Christians like you… and me… Isn’t that good news? This means that if you’re a Christian, you—even you—have what it takes to accomplish mighty things for God! It means that you, even you, have what it takes to “go therefore and make disciples…” 

And this brings us to Point Number Three: the Great Commission… 

First, let me ask, who’s the Great Commission for? 

It’s for everyone.

The first hint that this is the case is found in verse 16, when Matthew refers to the eleven remaining disciples merely as disciples. He doesn’t refer to them as “apostles,” which they undoubtedly were: they were that group of first-generation disciples, including the apostle Paul, who were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord, who were sent into the world to be leaders of the early Church. But no… He just calls them disciples. And a disciple simply means a “student”: they are students of Jesus. And he tells these students of Jesus to go and do what? To go and make other people into students of Jesus as well…

In other words, to make other people… into the exact same kind of people that they themselves are: Not a special category of Christian known as “apostles,” but merely disciples. Disciples making disciples. Students of Jesus making others into students of Jesus. That’s what the Great Commission is about.

But maybe you’re still not convinced. Some people think, after all, that Jesus was only giving this Great Commission to the original Eleven—or to the Twelve, once they replace Judas with Matthias in Acts chapter 1. But that can’t be the case. Why? Because of verse 20, where Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” To the end of the age.

But don’t you see? These eleven or twelve apostles—and all the other apostles in that first generation of Christians—all died before the “end of the age” happened. As Jesus knew they would. So this promise to be with his disciples “to the end of the age” couldn’t be referring only to the original apostles; this commission and this promise must be for every single one of us until Christ comes again!

And in case you’re still not convinced that the Great Commission applies to you… here’s perhaps the most convicting evidence: All of us Christians take comfort in remembering and holding fast to Jesus’ promise in verse 20: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

But I need for us to notice something: Let’s look at the Great Commission of verses 19 and 20 as if it were a sandwich: The top piece of bread is “Go therefore and make disciples…” The meat in the middle of the sandwich is the “baptizing and teaching” part. That’s the part that describes how the church makes disciples. And the bottom piece of bread is Jesus’ promise, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This sandwich fits together as one object. The two pieces of bread belong together. The “you” or the “y’all” whom Jesus is addressing in the top piece of bread is the same “you” whom he promises to be with forever in the bottom piece of bread.

Which means that Jesus’ promise to be with us to the end of the age isn’t for everyone; it is only for disciples who are making disciples. It’s only for disciples who are fulfilling the Great Commission.

Because from Jesus’ perspective, there is no other kind of disciple! From his perspective there’s only one kind of disciple: the kind of disciple whose priority in life is to make disciples. 

And there is only one kind of church: the kind of church that places a priority on making disciples.

And this frightens us… because maybe we think of street preachers. And they are often pushy and mean-spirited and overly aggressive. And I get it. Not always, though… John Wesley himself was often a street preacher! Famously so!

Back in 2016, my family and I were in New York City. We were on the subway. And for all I know, this is a regular occurrence on the subway… But there was a woman on the train—a well-dressed black woman, friendly, soft-spoken, likely from Jamaica or the West Indies based on her lovely British-inflected accent—who was quite literally sharing the gospel with people on the train. At each stop she would pause, to let people get on and off the train, and then when the train started moving she would resume speaking.Her message wasn’t a “turn or burn” kind of message. It was simply the gospel truth… about God’s love, what he’s done for us through his Son Jesus, and how we can repent and be saved.

I admired this woman’s courage. But she was also a challenge to me: I thought, “I couldn’t do that! I don’t think I’d have the courage to do that!”

But you know what? God hasn’t called me to do that… He’s called me to preach. And, gosh, for many people, public speaking is second only to “dying” as the thing people are afraid of, and I’m not afraid to speak in public. My point is, we all have different gifts… and different callings.

Besides, Jesus makes clear that the Great Commission isn’t mostly about converting people—although conversion is important and necessary; everyone has to get started by becoming a disciple in the first place… But no, fulfilling the Great Commission is also “teaching [disciples] to observe all that [Christ] commanded.” Sunday school teachers do that. Vacation Bible school volunteers do that. Parents do that, most importantly, with their own children.

And we all should do that, for instance, by inviting people we know to church. Or by welcoming people when they come to church. Or by praying for people to be saved. Or by praying that other people could see how we “treasure Christ” above all other earthly treasures, see the difference that Christ makes in our lives, and want what we have in Christ.

Regardless of what God calls us to do, however, fulfilling the Great Commission should always be something we’re praying about, thinking about… It should always be a priority.

See, the example of that woman on the subway in New York challenged me, to be sure… I don’t think God is calling me to do that. And maybe he’s not calling you to do that. That’s fine. And you may disagree with this woman’s methods—you think that style of evangelism doesn’t work, or it turns people off, or whatever… That’s fine. But if you’re a disciple of Jesus Christ, you should share the exact same desperate desire to bring men and women, and boys and girls, into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ! You should have the exact same sense of urgency about fulfilling the Great Commission as this woman. Because her motives were exactly right… even if you disagree with her methods!

In Point Number One, I said that because God is Triune, the “fabric of the universe” is love, and everything we do we should do out of love. Surely the most loving thing we can do is give everything to fulfill the Great Commission, to offer the Good News of Jesus Christ and his gift of eternal life to everyone. Indeed, to do whatever we can to save them from an eternity separated from God in hell.

If Jesus is telling the truth about heaven and hell, how could fulfilling the Great Commission not be our priority in life…

I shared this illustration last July, but some of y’all were probably on vacation back then, so you  didn’t hear it. But even if you did, you’ll benefit by hearing it again, I’m sure… It certainly continues to convict me.

The magician and comedian named Penn Jillette is one half of the comedy magic duo Penn and Teller. They’re on TV a lot. Jillette is an outspoken atheist. He doesn’t believe in God, much less the truth of Jesus Christ and his gospel. 

Years ago, on his blog, he posted a video of himself talking to the camera. He said he was signing autographs after his most recent performance. He said that one of his fans identified himself as a Christian businessman. This man told him that he was a fan, that he enjoyed the show, and that he wanted to give him something. Then he gave Jillette the gift of a Bible. And Jillette held this Bible up for his viewers to see. The man said to Jillette, “Listen, I know you’re not a Christian, but I want to give you this Bible and encourage you to read it. Because Jesus means everything to me, and I want you to know him, too. This book will tell you how you can know him and have eternal life. Please read it.” 

And you can see in the video that Jillette—this hardened skeptic—was deeply moved by this gift; tears were welling up in his eyes as he described this gift. Given Jillette’s abrasive personality, given the fact that he’s an outspoken atheist who utterly rejects Christ and the gospel, Jillette’s response to this man may surprise us. But Jillette liked the fact that this man gave him the Bible; he approved of this man’s actions. In fact, in this video, Jillette said this:

How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And [eternal life] is more important than that!

While I might quibble here and there with Jillette’s verbiage about “hating people”… It’s not because we hate people that we fail to fulfill the Great Commission. But it is often because our fear overwhelms our faith. And it is a question of love to some extent: Do we love people enough to take the risk and do the most loving thing imaginable: to help others treasure Christ above all? So it is a question of love, as Jillette rightly believes.

We at Toccoa First United Methodist will “help others treasure Christ above all”; we will fulfill the Great Commission… or we will die trying

But we can be sure that we will die as a church if we don’t try…

My invitation is this: Will you join me and Pastor April and the rest of us in the “coalition of the willing” in trying, and trusting, and praying, and working, and sacrificing, to fulfill the Great Commission here in Toccoa, Georgia?

Almighty God, please make it happen…

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