This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and as you glance through the lectionary passages offered for the occasion, you find what might—on a shallow reading—appear to be a selection of proof-texts for the doctrine of the Trinity: that God is One-in-Three and Three-in-One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But these passages do more than provide support for the teaching that the God witnessed to in the Hebrew scriptures and the documents of the New Testament is triune. They point us towards what it might mean to confess that God is Trinity. They suggest that the existence of all reality is the result of the ecstatic, over-flowing love of a God who is already-in-relationship, already-loving, before the foundations of the earth. They gesture towards the enormity of what it might mean for our life together to reflect the life of a God who is a community of love. They demand that the church’s task—the “Great Commission” handed down from Jesus to his disciples—is one that is measured, governed, or characterized by the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
First, a brief cautionary word. It is not uncommon for preachers to note the weight of their task on a day like Trinity Sunday. “How does one preach ‘on the Trinity’?” many wonder. On the one hand, such trepidation is appropriate. The Trinity is perhaps the greatest and most elusive of mysteries in the Christian faith. It is the mystery that funds all other mysteries—creation, the election of Israel, the Incarnation of Christ, his Passion and Resurrection, the inspiration of scripture, the efficacy of the sacraments—each of these and more rely upon the gracious activity of the triune God. Were God otherwise than Christ has revealed God to be, Christian faith and its many teachings would be largely empty or, at least, vastly more shallow. On the other hand, too much attention to the pressure of witnessing to the triune God this Sunday will do little more than raise the question of just which God we think we’re preaching about every other week. To speak of God Christianly is to speak of the Trinity. The terrible responsibility of that fact faces us each time we preach, Trinity Sunday or no. With that said, perhaps the best way to respond to these pressures/dangers is to attend closely to the text.
We are given only the briefest of Gospel passages for our reading on Trinity Sunday. These five verses are the very last of Matthew’s account, and they provide us with one final resurrection appearance, and one final word of instruction from Jesus to his disciples. Matthew (or, the Matthean author, but for simplicity’s sake I will follow the traditional convention) sets this final episode on a mountain in Galilee (in contrast to Luke, who places all of Jesus’s resurrection appearances in and around Jerusalem). A useful rhetorical strategy for framing your exploration of this passage might be to note the parallels to other passages where Jesus is seen on top of a mountain (such as the temptation narrative, the Sermon on the Mount, the transfiguration, the Mount of Olives). Matthew’s placing the story in Galilee probably has more to do with the particularities of the Gospel’s original audience, but can be read as the beginning of God’s sending-out of the disciples from Jerusalem that is often connected to Pentecost. It is not an accident that they meet Jesus here. The text says he had directed them to this place.
v.17 connects two responses to the risen Christ: worship and doubt. This may be read as a parallel to John’s account of the so-called “doubting Thomas” story (John 20:24-29) where doubt and worship are, again, found together. But any details are absent from Matthew’s account. There is simply the assertion that, upon seeing the Risen Lord, the disciples worshipped him, and some doubted. Matthew’s Jesus does not seem terribly concerned with correcting or overcoming this doubt, in particular. His only response appears to be coming to them, and speaking to them. There is much to be said for such an approach when it comes to the responsibility of the worshipping to those who doubt, particularly when those two groups can not be so easily distinguished.
The content of Jesus’s address to his disciples is that he has been granted “all authority” everywhere, “in heaven and on earth.” Sermons which seek to work on the dynamic of worship and doubt should also note the dynamic of doubt and power. Christ’s total authority—the authority of God—does not chastise the doubting, nor does it require its cessation before commanding those it haunts. Rather, it sends them out.
Worshipping and doubting, the disciples are told to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The “therefore” should lead the careful reader to connect the commission of v19 to the total authority granted Jesus as claimed in v18. The discipling of all nations goes forth on the authority of the crucified Jew from a Galilean backwater. It is Jesus who has received all authority in heaven and on earth, and that authority is not claimed if it does not match the one from whom it comes: one who speaks this famous commission while he bears the scars of the cross (cf. John 20:24-29, again) and whose vindication from on high is made known in the simple act of breaking bread (Luke 24:35).
This is the import of the doctrine of the Trinity for the reading of Matthew’s Great Commission, this is why we may read this passage this Sunday as more than a mere prooftext. It is on the authority of this Jesus, crucified and yet risen, that the disciples’—and our—evangelizing efforts proceed. It is centered on “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Not the names, the name, singular. And Jesus Christ—the Son—is the one who reveals to us who this God, in whose name his disciples are to be baptized, is. Jesus Christ, a poor Jew, crucified by the might of empire, vilified by those who controlled religious discourse, misunderstood by those closest to him, somehow this man is “the Word” was “with God” and the word who “was God” (John 1:1). The God who is always already community—always already loving—is shown in this man.
So, if we find that our evangelism looks more like a pyramid scheme or the gasping, grasping accumulative desperation of late capitalism, perhaps our reading of this text on Trinity Sunday ought to suggest that we have not, in fact, been witnessing to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. If we find that our life together looks more like a social club or the local chapter of a political party, perhaps our reading of this text (and the epistle lection) on Trinity Sunday would suggest that we are not, in fact, the church commissioned by the crucified (read: lynched) Jew from Nazareth. If our concern for non-human creation never rises above the level of resource-management, perhaps our reading of this text (and the Old Testament lection) on Trinity Sunday would suggest that we do not, in fact, believe that God created all reality by the effervescent overflow of the love of the Father for the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son for the Holy Spirit and the Father, and the Holy Spirit for the Father and the Son.
And lest we face the question of just who we think it is we’re preaching about every other week of the year, perhaps our readings of these texts (and all others) ought to seek after the deep mysteries of the Triune God, each and every time we dare to speak of God, in word or in deed. We need not fear, nor do we need to thrash about for a place to start. For, as Jesus promised in v20, and as we celebrated last week on Pentecost: “Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”