When I was very young, I held a black-and-white view of truth. Right and Wrong formed two sides of the coin I called Truth. As I grew older, I discovered that many questions do not have simple answers. Shades of gray appear between the rigid extremes of black and white. So I decided that Right and Wrong might be neighboring sides on a many-faceted sphere – a Disco Ball of Truth (hey, it was the 1980s).
But that view didn’t hold up, either. Eventually, I began to realize that God’s truth often holds in tension two or more realities that seem to oppose one another. We call this “paradox.” The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant. Christ died to conquer death. God is One, and God is Three Persons, each distinct, yet all three are One. It’s a paradox, a mystery. And we celebrate that mystery today, on Trinity Sunday.
Trinity Sunday is an unusual day in the church year, in that it is named after a doctrine instead of an event. It was a doctrine that took some hard work to hammer out, because the early church fathers had difficulty finding words to express this mystery of the faith. While we may find it difficult to understand the mystery of the Trinity, we certainly have no trouble at all experiencing it. It’s a relationship, and as much as the word “relationship” has been overused to talk about romance, there really is no better word to describe God in Three Persons. We worship and serve a relational God, a God who desires to be in loving relationship with each of us, just as Father and Son and Holy Spirit are in loving relationship with one another.
It would be easy to get stuck on Trinity Sunday trying to explain this unexplainable aspect of God’s identity, if we focused only on the one verse in the Gospel that hints at a doctrine of the Trinity. But, to be honest, at the time Matthew wrote his story, that doctrine had not yet really taken shape. And the mention of three persons in today’s passage is really only a small part of a much bigger idea. Hear Matthew’s version of the final words of Jesus to his disciples, as we find them in chapter 28, verses 16-20. Hear the Word of the Lord.
Now 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)
Eleven disciples went to Galilee. Judas had not yet been replaced, and his absence was a reminder to all of them of their own betrayal, their own failure to stand by Jesus during his trial and crucifixion. They went to Galilee. This is where the ministry had begun. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, he calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles” and this is significant, as Jesus gives his final instructions to share the good news of God’s saving grace with all people. But it’s the second verse of this passage that catches my attention: They worshiped him, but some doubted.
The Greek grammar here is not very clear. We could translate this phrase in several ways, and they would all be as valid as the NRSV. It could mean, “all worshiped, but some of them also doubted,” or “some worshiped while others doubted” or “they all worshiped, and they all doubted, too.”
Doesn’t that sound like us sometimes? Don’t we come to church so we can reinforce our faith by worshiping, because doubt seems to creep into our minds so often? Maybe doubt seems too strong a word. In fact, the term here is used only one other place in the New Testament, in the story of Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14:31) – he was fine as long as his eyes were fixed on Jesus, but when he looked down, he started to sink – because he doubted.
The word used here is not an expression of disbelieving, so much as being undecided, or uncertain. The disciples were sure that Jesus was God, worthy of worship, but they weren’t sure what this was supposed to mean, or what to do with this new awareness. Isn’t that what our doubt looks like, too? We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, sure, but we get stuck wondering what to do or which way to go as we try to live out our faith. We come to church to worship the God who created us, who saves us, who stays with us, and at the same time, we flounder in uncertainty. Like the disciples, we worship and we doubt.
But notice what Jesus does. He comes to the disciples, where they are, in their worship and their uncertainty. And he offers them something completely unexpected. He doesn’t say, “Oh ye of little faith.” He doesn’t reprimand them or tell them to go get their doubts figured out and come back later. He sends them, with four absolute statements, and a charge so powerful we now call it the Great Commission.
Let’s look at those four absolute – or “all” – statements, as Richard Beaton calls them, for a moment. The first establishes Jesus as the one who holds “all authority in heaven and earth,” restoring the unity of heaven and earth that was present at Creation. The second is a reminder of the promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through his offspring: “Go make disciples of all nations,” Jesus says. Then Jesus adds, “teach them to obey all the things I taught you,” and finally he promises to remain with his followers through all time. Christ answers our uncertainty with these certainties: All authority, among all people, with all Christ’s teaching, for all time. Christ answers our indecision with a command and a direction.
The primary task Jesus sets before his disciples – and that includes us – is disciple making. Remember in the Creation story how God said, “be fruitful and multiply?” This is the same command, only now Jesus is not talking about physical reproduction, but spiritual multiplication. All the other commands he gives in the Great Commission feed into this one thing we are to do: make disciples of Jesus Christ. Make disciples of all people, he says, by going everywhere, baptizing everyone, and teaching everything I taught you.
As a follower of Jesus, wavering between worship and indecision, my first reaction to this command is to play the theme music from “Mission Impossible” in my head while I ask, “How, Lord?!” But the answer is right there in the mission. The formula for making disciples is short and simple: go, baptize, teach. Let’s break it down a little bit.
Go to all people. When I was growing up, we recited the King James Version of the Great Commission every week in the Girls’ Auxiliary of the Women’s Missionary Union of First Southern Baptist Church. The goal was clear – we were all being called to go to Africa or South America as missionaries. Almost all of us failed at that. There may have been one or two of us who made it to Mexico for a week or two of “missions” but most of us never went to a foreign country to share the gospel. While I am certain that Jesus fully intends for some of us to go far away to introduce good news to people who have never heard it, I also am convinced that we have a mission field right here at our own doorstep. There are people in our own back yard who have never heard the good news that Jesus loves them.
According to the Mission Insite demographic study provided to us through the Minnesota Annual Conference (your apportionment dollars at work), 85% of the people living within a five-mile radius of this building do not consider it important to attend religious services. More than half of the people who live here in New Ulm do not consider themselves spiritual persons, and only about 18% think that faith is an important part of their lives. We who value our faith and participation in church are obviously in the minority. We don’t have to travel very far to make new disciples. We only need to step outside the door.
Go baptize people, Jesus says. Now, he isn’t encouraging us to see how many people we can arbitrarily get wet. There is no magic in the words, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and the ritual of baptism itself has no saving power. When Jesus says, “baptize them in the power of this three-fold Name,” he is offering baptism as a symbol of that enfolding love we experience as members of the Body of Christ. Jesus is asking us to include, to embrace, to accept all people and welcome them into the family of God. He isn’t just talking about the people whose skin color is different from ours, he’s talking about the people whose habits and education and lifestyles are drastically different from ours. He’s talking about the poor and powerless, the sick and the hungry. Baptism is a symbol of being included, of being made a part of the whole. Just as in the sacrament of Communion we who are many partake of the one loaf, so in Baptism we who are many become one in Christ – just like the Trinity we invoke as we pour water, we are invited into the mystery of being made one, though we are many.
Go baptize people and teach them all the things I commanded you, Jesus says. This is the true meaning of the word ‘disciple’ – it means student, or intern. Just as those early disciples learned to do the things Jesus did by walking with him day after day, so we are invited into that life-changing, day-by-day walk with Jesus, doing the things Jesus did.
Theologian Dallas Willard writes, “a disciple of Jesus is not necessarily one devoted to doing specifically religious things as that is usually understood. … I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life. Note, please, I am not learning from him how to lead his life. His life on earth was a transcendently wonderful one. But it has now been led. Neither I nor anyone else, even himself, will ever lead it again. … I need to be able to lead my life as he would lead it if he were I. … My discipleship to Jesus is … not a matter of what I do, but of how I do it. And it covers everything, “religious” or not.”
When Jesus sent out the 70 (or72) disciples ahead of him (Luke 10:1-12), their job was to heal the sick, and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand. They did the things they had seen Jesus do, except for one thing. Jesus was the only one who taught the people, as he followed his followers to the places they went. Jesus was the great Teacher, the Rabbi. Now, at the end of Mathew’s gospel, he sends his disciples, his interns, out to teach as well as heal and proclaim the Kingdom of God. There are no half-measures in being a Jesus Intern. Teach them to do all the things I commanded you, he says.
And what are those commands?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be a servant if you would be great. Suffer the little children to come unto me. Take care of the widows and fatherless. Spread my love around to people you don’t think deserve it, just as I have lavished my love on you, who do not deserve it. On this Father’s Day, this Trinity Sunday, let’s look at what it might mean to go, to enfold, and to teach, as we make disciples here in New Ulm.
Dr. Kara Powell has written a book called Sticky Faith, offering an approach to youth ministry that strives to keep kids connected to their faith during their teens and early twenties, when they are most likely to question, to express doubts and uncertainties about faith and the church. This approach works to connect young people with a web of at least five adults who are deeply involved in each young person’s life. That’s hard to do when youth ministry is assigned to a small handful of adults, and youth ministry activities happen away from the rest of the church. This summer, we hope to change the pattern of “out of sight, out of mind” that sometimes gets associated with our young people. This summer, we are moving youth ministry back into this building. Over the next few months, we will re-purpose the two rooms in the basement nearest the ramp door on Broadway, and turn them into a youth ministry center. This week, many of our young people gathered for a planning and brainstorming session, and they have some great ideas for making those two rooms into a welcoming spot for teenagers and young adults, a place where we can begin to enfold them into the life of the whole church.
This move will mean that the Youth Coordinator’s office space will move downstairs, freeing up a room just off the narthex for a main-level nursery. Having a nursery that is visible from the sanctuary offers a welcome to families with young children who worship with us, creating another way we can enfold new disciples into the family of God. When we look like kids matter to us, as they did to Jesus, we will be one step closer to making disciples, and being disciples.
So, then, what do we do with the house now known as the SRC? God has dropped an opportunity into our laps that I want to share with you today, and I ask you to pray diligently with me about this possibility.
Over the past few months, the pastors in our local Ministerial Association have been talking with County Social Services about needs in our community. One need that often flies under our radar is that of homeless families. We don’t think of homelessness as being a problem here, because it doesn’t look like the homelessness we see when we go prepare meals at the Simpson Shelter in Minneapolis, or take Food for Friends to Mankato. But it’s real, and it affects school age children in our community. There currently is no homeless shelter or transitional housing of any kind in our entire county. This means that, if a family becomes homeless, they must go to 30 to 75 miles away to find shelter. For school age children, this means pulling them out of school – which in some cases, is the one place they find safety and stability – and starting over in a new place in the middle of the school year. It means losing all the social connections they have built with friends and family. This can be devastating to a young child’s development. Last year, there were 16 documented homeless children at the elementary school. We have about that many kids on an average Wednesday night here at First. Think about that.
Homelessness seems like a problem that is too big for a church of our size to tackle. We don’t have the resources to run a homeless shelter, we don’t have the staff to administer such a program. But we have a house that will soon be vacant, and we have a desire to follow Christ wherever he may lead us, as we go, baptize, and teach to make disciples.
A couple of weeks ago, the director of an organization approached the ministerial association with a proposed joint project. If they could provide the counseling and case management piece of a program to help homeless single mothers get on their feet, while their kids get to stay in local schools, could we come up with a place to do that ministry together, as an ecumenical venture?
We have a house that will soon be vacant, but it needs a lot of work. We don’t have the resources to renovate it on our own.
“But there might be grant money available from United Way,” one pastor said, “and I sit on their board.”
“And there might be some resources from Lutheran Social Services,” another pastor said, “and I know who to call.”
“And we might be able to get some advice from other ecumenical groups who have done something similar,” said another pastor. “Let me do some research.”
“There is a property manager in town who might be able to help us get families settled in affordable longer-term housing, once we get them into the program,” another pastor said.
Suddenly, we had a draft of a mission statement, and some goals to help us narrow the purpose of this project. It’s still in the very formative stages, but the Trustees and the Church Council voted this last week to continue the conversation, and explore how we might use our soon-to-be-vacant house to provide ministry in cooperation with other churches here in our own backyard.
Right now, this is what the project would look like, should we decide to participate in it:
The Getting Families on their Feet Project would provide transitional housing and services for single-mother families, leading them to self- sufficiency.
Goals would be to:
-Allow children of displaced single mothers to remain with their families while staying in local schools, avoiding disruption of academic and social connections
-Provide counseling resources to single moms as they strive toward self-sufficiency
-Provide safe short-term (4-6 weeks) placement in temporary shelter/housing to establish participation in the program
-Provide safe longer-term (2-6 months) placement in transitional housing while support, counseling, and job placement continue
-Assist single-mother families in establishing self-sufficiency while allowing children to remain connected to school, friends, and family
We would start very small, maybe only a couple of families at first, to work out the bugs of the process. I emphasize that we would be working with single-mother families of school age children only. Certainly there are others who could benefit from such a project, but we want to keep it manageable, and we want to focus on helping children, who are the most vulnerable members of our community. Please pray about this, and talk to me if you have questions. The conversation will be continuing, and we have much to discern if we are to participate in such a bold venture.
Jesus claims all authority, then gives it to us, his interns, to go to all people, enfold all of them, teach all of them, making all people “Jesus Interns.” It seems like a Mission Impossible, but this mission, should you choose to accept it, carries with it a huge promise. “Look,” Jesus says, “I am with you through all time, even until eternity has reached its completion.” We do not have to do this on our own. In fact, we’d better not try to. The Holy Spirit continues Christ’s work in us and through us, until eternity is complete. Christ is with us. Amen.