The Knowing is in the Doing
The lessons designated for this Lord’s Day present to us the threefold name by which Christians know God and call on God. We refer here to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The gospel contains here what we call the Great Commission, in which the threefold name by which God is known appears before our eyes. Jesus here “commissions” or sends his disciples into all the world to disciple, baptize, and teach all nations.
Today is Trinity Sunday. This day is distinguished from most of the Lord’s Days in the Christian calendar. For on this day we don’t focus on what God has done, but rather on who God is. In the Bible, God is revealed to us as Triune. That is, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in Three persons.
This is impossible to grasp fully. Throughout the centuries, theologians have observed that the essence of God is beyond human comprehension. There is a story about the great theologian St. Augustine. He was walking along the beach one day, taking a break from the great treatise he was writing on the Trinity. This intellectual giant was lost in thought about this greatest of all mysteries when he noticed a little boy on the beach. The boy was digging a hole in the sand, and then running to the ocean, filling up his cupped hands with seawater, and then pouring it into the hole. Augustine watched with fascination. Finally, he asked: “what are you doing?” The boy said: “Trying to fill that hole with the ocean.” And then Augustine replied: “You will never be able to fit the ocean into that hole.” To which the boy replied: “And you will never be able to fit the Trinity into your mind.”
And yet that does not mean the experience of God for the Christian is unintelligible. Throughout those same centuries, Christians worldwide witness to a threefold experience of God when praying to God. We pray to God in the name of Jesus as we are moved by the Holy Spirit. This is consistent with what we learn in the Letter to the Ephesians: through Christ, we have free and open access to God in one Spirit (2:18).
Notice that to pray is to perform an action. When we pray, we are doing something. Implied in this very simple observation is the key that opens the door to the doctrine of the Trinity. The knowing is in the doing. Who God is for us and for all nations becomes more and more clear to us as we actively participate in the great commission. Just as Jesus sent the disciples into the world then, so does he send the church into the world now. The content of the charge remains the same. We are still in the business of making disciples, we are still in the business of baptizing, and we are still in the business of teaching. And as we do these things, we discover more and more who this great God is who sends us. Let us then devote these next few moments to explore this theme: that the knowing, in this case, God, is in the doing, in this case participating in the great commission.
Let me begin with an illustration. Several years ago, I stood in my friend’s back yard in front of a large box. It contained the parts of a swing set assembly. My task was to fasten the parts together so that the end result would like the swing set pictured on the box. Now those who know me will attest the fact that I am not handy at all. I am, however, a careful reader. I can read and follow directions. So that’s what I did. I figured that if I absorbed those directions, I would easily know how to fasten those parts together in the order prescribed. But that didn’t really work out so well. Only when I began experimenting, only when I began to fit this part to that part, did I make progress. I went back of course to look at the directions. But it was only to compare what I was already making to the diagram as shown there.
When we as the church actively participate in the great commission, when we go out to disciple, baptize, and teach all nations, we begin to see God’s very heart. We see God’s love in action. Specifically, we see that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). The Son is the supreme expression of the Father’s love for the world.
Parenthetically, note that the gospel lesson says all nations. It does not say all nations or all ethnicities, except those that comprise black or brown people, for example. The love of God is addressed to them to them too, insofar as it’s addressed to all nations. After visiting the home of Simon the Tanner, a Gentile convert who lived in Joppa, (which is modern day Tel Aviv) Peter came to a realization: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism but welcomes those from every nation… (Acts 10:34). God loves them. God has a plan for them. God desires good things for them. A deep and as wide as the love of God is for us, so also is it for them.
The author Ginger Kolbaba raises a good question here. When we as the church are actively participating in the great commission, should it not make a difference in our interactions with people? We don’t have to agree with them, we don’t have to identify with them politically, we don’t even have to like anything they like, but remembering that God loves them so much that he gave his only Son for them, allows us the freedom to treat them with dignity and respect. We can hold them in high regard. We can treat them with kindness, because they are loved and treasured by God.
What the Son accomplished in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, on which we have been meditating this past Lenten and Easter season, has to be proclaimed and heard by all nations in all times and in all places. Here we need to recall Pentecost. We need to recall what Jesus said: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in Jerusalem until you have been clothed with power from on high.” This power is the Holy Spirit, as we saw last week. The Son sends from the Father the Holy Spirit to empower the witnesses of these events to proclaim them in the world (Acts 1:8; 2:11; Rom 10:14-15). The disciples need this power to bring to the nations the gospel message about Jesus Christ. This is what Pentecost is all about. The nations also need this power to receive this message. The Holy Spirit is always at work to open the minds and hearts of those who hear the proclamation, so they too can receive and accept the message of God’s love in Jesus by faith.
We see here that the great commission or the great “sending” really answers to the twofold sending of the Triune God. God has sent Jesus Christ to accomplish our reconciliation with God and sends the Holy Spirit who brings together in new unity people of many languages, nations, cultures, and races. We as the church are caught up in this activity of God. We participate in it. In seeing God’s love in action, we discover that this love flows from a God who is Triune.
You will remember my saying earlier that in the process of building the swing set, I went back to look at the directions. To extend this analogy here, we as the church have occasion to look at the scriptures. Just as life is a rhythm of activity and rest, so the life of the church is a rhythm of mission and worship. At worship we return to our scriptures to read and hear them proclaimed. We come to know God better. We receive new strength from God. And then God sends us back out into the world.
It’s not true that the Trinity is knowable only to intellectually gifted people like St. Augustine, who after a wild, misspent youth, devoted his life to study and quiet contemplation. The Trinity is knowable to all God’s people, especially as they participate in the great commission, as we have repeatedly said. The knowing is in the doing.
We have been speaking in big terms here. We may be asking now: what does it all this mean practically for me?
So let’s break down what it means practically to go out and disciple all nations. We begin where we are now, where God has placed us. We invite 2 or 3 or even more people to the coffee shop or to our home or in Covid times to a Zoom session. We open the Bible, or a good book about the Bible or the Christian life. We read and discuss it together. As people begin to feel more comfortable with one another, they begin to open up and share things. We speak as well as listen. We give to each other and receive from each other, using our gifts to build one another up. Afterward, there is time for prayer requests. People take turns praying for one another. Friendships are forged, community forms, and disciples are made.
This is one of the ways that we take part, always imperfectly and therefore never without mutual forgiveness, in the “overflowing, self-giving, community-forming love of God that is [reflected in] the mystery of the Trinity,” to borrow the language of the Presbyterian Church’s 2006 study paper: “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing,” That paper affirms unequivocally that the triune God is the “object of our faith, the basis of our love, and the goal of our hope.”
We affirm our faith in the Triune God in our liturgy each Sunday when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, which contains three articles, corresponding to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But today it’s going to be slightly different. In a few moments, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, we are going to acknowledge Trinity Sunday by reciting the Nicene Creed.
This Creed first appeared in 325, at the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council. The council was called to settle the controversies surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity. There was a popular preacher named Arius, who taught that the Son is not God in the same way as the Father is God. In effect, he denied the Trinity. At the council, the church rejected the teaching of Arius, and reaffirmed its faith in the Triune God. Later the church had to clarify its teaching on the Holy Spirit. In 381, at the Council of Constantinople, the second ecumenical council, the church reaffirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and produced the final version of the Nicene Creed. Let us then affirm our faith, which we share with Christians in all times and in all places, in the words of the Nicene Creed.