Today is Trinity Sunday – a day to wonder at the amazing way God works in the world. Although amazing, the doctrine of the Trinity is a complicated one, difficult to understand and even more difficult to believe. It is a doctrine that leads other religions to suggest Christianity is not a monotheistic faith, but rather worships multiple gods.
This is the only special church day in which we ponder not the words of Jesus, not a story from our biblical text, not an example of our Christian faith, but a doctrine of the Church: a method by people of faith to describe how we understand the mystery of God. The doctrine of the Trinity is an example of how we – as mere human beings – try to understand the way God works in the world. But, in trying to understand this amazing mystery, we also acknowledge it is truly a mystery and we may NEVER understand the depths, the widths, the heights of God’s working in the world. As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a human being, and then I will show you a human being that can comprehend the Triune God!”
But, we shall try – today – to at least discuss the doctrine and it’s application in our lives.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three divine persons (Greek: ὑποστάσεις)— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — distinctly coexisting in unity as co-equal, co-eternal, and consubstantial. (1) This term is not used in the biblical texts, but the first recorded use of this Greek word in Christian theology was by Theophilus of Antioch around 170 CE. Then about a century later, in 325, the First Council of Nicaea established the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy. And although theologians, philosophers and great thinkers of our faith developed this doctrine, it emerged from the people – from the way we as worshippers understood God’s workings.
Frederick Houk Borsch,Professor of Religion at Princeton University, explained:
There are probably a number of people who imagine that the idea of the Trinity was thought up by ivory-tower theologians who, typically, were making things more complicated than they needed to be and were obscuring the simple faith of regular believers. In fact, it seems that the process worked pretty much the other way around. Practicing believers and worshipers were driven by their experiences of God’s activity to the awareness that God related in several different ways to the creation…. Thus what these believers came to insist upon was that God had to be recognized as being in different forms of relationship with the creation, in ways at least like different persons, and that all these ways were divine, that is, were of God. Yet there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. This complex and profound faith was then handed over for the theologians to try and make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since. (2)
How can one be three? How can three be one? Think about each of one of us: we each work in the world in different ways: we are friends and parents and children and grandparents and teachers and workers and siblings. We are one, but many. And our “multiple personalities” work together to make us who we are.
Our scripture lesson today is one of the scriptural allusions to the Trinity – but it also instructs us – as Jesus’ disciples –about what our job is as those who follow the lessons and example of Christ. Let’s look at it, from the gospel of Matthew 28, verses 16-20:
Matthew 28: 16-20
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Firstly, Matthew points back to the fact that the disciples were imperfect: there only were eleven… Judas betrayed Jesus and the movement and ended up killing himself in shame. And now there were only eleven.
And in verse 17, Matthew notes that “when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” As I read this text I wonder, “Who doubted?” There were only eleven, how many doubted? Was it Thomas – the doubter mentioned in John 20: 24-29? Which ones worshipped and which ones didn’t believe what they saw?
But, here is an interesting translation note: the word “some” does not actually occur in the text. The little Greek word de is often translated “but,” but it can also mean “and”. With this small change in our understanding of the text, the verse can be translated: “And seeing him they worshiped and they doubted.”
They worshipped him and they doubted. What does this mean? Does this give us a different perspective of the disciples? Does this show us a different way to believe?
Please turn in your hymnal to page 880 and let’s look the creeds…
In the Methodist Church, there is no one creed we all must adhere to. There is openness for discussion and thought, for pondering through doctrines and beliefs. But as John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) famously characterized the “marks of a Methodist” not as a set of beliefs or opinions of any sort, but as the fruits of our faith. There is no one creed that we MUST pledge allegiance to. We “Think and let think.” (3)
Therefore, if any one doubts, fears, questions, struggles with a doctrine of the church… that’s okay. We are all welcomed into the family – worshipper or doubter. Furthermore, we can worship and doubt simultaneously, as the disciples did at the appearance of Jesus on the mountain. Those who worship are also those who doubt — like being simultaneously saint and sinner, or the divine and human natures in Jesus, or the body/bread, blood/wine of communion. We frequently talk about two things existing at the same time.
So we are the ones (imperfect followers, simultaneously sinners and saints, believers and doubters together): it is US who receive the challenge to “Go and make disciples”… But this does not mean we just add members to our church… although that is nice too! The noun “disciple” carries the sense of “being a pupil or learner” and Jesus tells us that it is our job to baptize them (in the Trinitarian formula – in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and then we are to teach them….
You see, we are not done. We are not finished when we are Baptized; we are not done when we are confirmed; we are not finished when we are done with schooling or Sunday school, we are not even finished when we are made disciples and see the image of Jesus before us! We all are on a journey of faith, always learning, always growing, always doubting and believing, trusting and wondering.
And for all our inadequacies, all our faults and failings, all our imperfections, WE have been commissioned by the risen Jesus: We, Christians, who are saints and sinners; worshipers and doubters; we don’t have all the answers, but we have been challenged by Christ to go and make disciples – other people who are also saints and sinners, worshipers and doubters, and who won’t have all the answers either. We all live by faith, not by answers.
As we continue our faith journey together, let us embrace the God who is working in our lives in amazing ways. As a loving parent; as an example of faith; as a teacher who guides us; as an ever-present Spirit, always working with us to make us who we were created to be! Let us praise the Triune God and let us take up the challenge to work with God in disciple-making! And, in all we do, may we honor God, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
1. Wikipedia entry, found on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity
2. Brian P. Stoffregen, found at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt28x16.htm
3. “The Character of a Methodist” (1739); in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley in Ten Volumes (1826), Volume IV, p. 407.