Lo I Am With You Always

Matthew 28:16-20

I thought we’d start out with a little visual exercise. I’m going to hold up a picture and you tell me the first word that comes to your mind. (Held up three familiar logos)

What I showed you were all logos. Pictures that represent a company and their business. You see hundreds of them everyday and some of them are more effective than others. There are certain characteristics of successful logos. First of all, successful logos are immediately recognizable. You recognized each of these right away.

Successful logos have to stand out from the crowd. They also must work at any size and anywhere. I’m told that a successful logo is simple enough that you can write it in the sand and people will recognize it.

Here’s something else about a logo. Logos communicate for people who can’t read. What logo would you use to communicate Jesus? 

Here’s what the early church used. (Picture of shepherd with sheep across shoulders)  What does this communicate? Jesus?

Today we use a cross. It signifies that Jesus died, but is no longer on the cross. He rose.

What about the times before Jesus? In Old Testament times, what do you suppose the Jews used as a symbol for God? It would be the seven-branched menorah. [Picture] A large menorah stood in the first Temple in Jerusalem

Why a seven-branched menorah to symbolize God? It goes back to the OT reading this morning. The seven branches represent the seven days of creation. And the menorah essentially says, “Our God is the God who created everything that there is.  So our God is the supreme God.”

Now after Jesus rose, the Early Church gained a more complex understanding God. God is three (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), yet God is one.

If a menorah symbolizes the OT God, and a cross symbolizes Jesus, what symbol could possibly depict this triune understanding of God? St. Patrick used the three-leaf clover. We’ve also seen the three intersecting figures like this.  (Picture]

Now you won’t find the word” trinity” in the bible. The word was introduced by a theologian named Tertullian in the fourth century. The Early Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, discerned the concept of God as a trinity of persons from the writings of the New Testament.

We see an example in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus says: “make disciples…baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus was an orthodox Jew, He would not advocate for three gods. And yet he puts himself right in there with the God the Father and adds the Holy Spirit. Three persons. But look at this one little nuance. He doesn’t say, “baptizing them in the names [plural] of ….” But “in the name [singular] of …..”

Look also in this morning’s epistle from 2 Cor. 13 where Apostle Paul closes his letter saying, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” The New Testament is full of language that suggests three personages of divinity, yet one God. And, for that reason, the church – guided by the Holy Spirit – discerned the doctrine of the Trinity.

This is a key difference in the theologies of orthodox Christianity and Jehoveh’s Witnesses and Mormans.  They don’t believe God is a trinity of persons.

Now how can God be three distinct persons, yet one God? If you really grasp the concept of three distinct persons,  each fully God  and each fully distinct,  yet  one God – well, it’s inexplicable. Some have tried to draw analogies.

For instance, look how water can exist in three forms, iquid, solid, and steam, yet the substance of water remains the same. Water at 32 degrees is solid, at 212 degrees is gas and in between those two temperatures is liquid. Water’s appearance differs depending on the surrounding temperature.

But that doesn’t really work to explain the trinity and here’s why. The analogy suggests that the one God appears in three different forms depending upon the surrounding circumstances. When he was revealed as creator, we referred to him as Father. When he was revealed as savior, we saw him as the Son. When he was revealed as sanctifier, we saw him as the Spirit.

The only difference among the three revelations of God was the chronological location. But this doesn’t account for God existing as three distinct persons at the same time.

Here’s another analogy that seems on its surface to work. God is like three human beings standing before you. You see three separate beings, but one humanity. This analogy goes the other way. It doesn’t illustrate how each of the three persons of God is fully God.

So how do you explain the Trinity? How do you describe an infinite God? With our finite minds, we can’t do it. We don’t have the capacity. Just as an illiterate person can’t read words that say Apple or Nike or McDonalds. But they can understand a logo. God has given us a logo to identify himself. It’s the logo, or in Greek, the logos in the opening sentence of the John’s Gospel account: In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God and the logos was God. Jesus is God’s logo, if you will. And even though Jesus used the language of Trinity, he didn’t send us out to explain the trinity. What he said was: “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 [how to conceptualize the Doctrine of the Trinity.] No!He said, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” That’s something we can do.

Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel passage. This is probably the shortest Gospel passage in the lectionary. Don’t let that brevity fool you. Because this short passage is packed with insight about the Trinitarian nuture of the Godhead. But, more importantly, there is insight about us, the church and what we are about.

Look at what it says about the church. Matthew says: Now the eleven went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

The Eleven Disciples – that’s the church in embryonic form. But it’s eleven, not twelve.  It’s lacking one. The church starts out with a limp – missing one apostle. Yet, Jesus uses that imperfect congregation – that group of 11 – to do his perfect work. Now if Jesus couldn’t sustain a perfect and complete congregation, who can?

It’s like the castaway stranded all alone on an island.  He begins sending smoke signals, hoping that somebody will find him.  Ten years pass, and a boat is sailing by.  The captain notices the smoke signals, and decides to pull into the island.  When he docks, he sees three huts.

The castaway runs out and embraces the captain, and says, “Thank you for rescuing me!”  The captain says, “No problem, where are the others?”  The man says, “There is only me, I am all alone on this island.” The captain, confused, asks, “If you are all alone, then why are there three huts?” 

The man says, “Well, the first hut is where I live, that’s my home.  The second hut is my church, where I worship.”  The captain asks, “And what is the third hut?”  The man says, “Oh, that was the church I used to go to.”

If you are looking for the perfect church, you’ve come to the wrong place. But if you ever find the perfect church, let me know. Because I want to join it. And when I do, it won’t be perfect anymore.

The church that Jesus starts with is elevenish – imperfect. But it is a community. And we might almost take that for granted. Jesus spent three years preparing his disciples. And during that time, he could have met each one of his disciples privately for a little one-on-one session. “Peter!  You’ve got great potential.  You can get a little ahead of yourself at times, but you’ve got passion and I can use that.” Then he could have taken Matthew aside and counseled him: “Matthew, you had a good career as a tax collector.  The church needs people good with numbers.”

He doesn’t do that. He meets his disciples in a group, in community. His instructions are always given in the plural. It’s not “you” but “you guys.” (Unless, of course, he’s in the southern part of Israel. Then it’s “Ya’ll.”)

Jesus grows that embryonic church in community.That’s because we are created in image of a God who is a community of persons – three in one. We are created by a communal God for community. We function best when we are part of a vibrant community of love – like the Trinity. And don’t we see that today after sheltering in place for two months.

The Census Bureau recently surveyed 42,000 adults. They found that “24% of those people showed signs of severe depression. 30% showed signs of anxiety.  To put these numbers in better context, half of all American adults said that they had felt depressed during the sheltering in place.

But the numbers today could even be worse. Because this latest survey was done between May 7th and May 12th. Since then, we’ve had three more weeks of social isolation.

This sheltering in place has highlighted a problem of our modern life. Societies like ours are loneliness-producing machines.  Part of the problem stems from our deeply-rooted sense of individualism.

Ken Bailey was a theologian and expert on middle-eastern village life today. These village cultures function very much like village cultures of Jesus day. They have a communal mindset.

Bailey illustrates it with this example. If you were to meet a young man in our culture and asked him, “Who are you?” He would reply with his first name. He might also tell you his last name. He might go on to tell you his occupation.

But if you were to meet a young man in a middle eastern village and ask him, “Who are you?”, he wouldn’t reply with his name. He would reply: “I am the son of Achmed.  I live in the village of such-and-such.” It would take a little more conversation before you heard his name. His answer reflects a communal mindset. We are individually focused, not communal. And that contributes to our loneliness machine.

Another factor is our industrial developed economy. To move up the economic ladder often requires moving to where the job is. And that means severing ties to families. Severing ties to those communities that gave us a sense of belonging, purpose, and security 

God did not intend for his church to be a group of individuals pursuing their separate agendas. He intended it to reflect Him, to be in His image. He sees his church as a community of individuals, yet one. He intended for us to work, not for our individual agendas, but for his. Church works when we each ask:  “What’s your agenda, Lord?”

The crux of the passage this morning’s passage is not about the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead. It really is about our commission. It’s a commission for the mission.

Jesus is about to leave, but before he does he leaves final instructions. He uses a schoolish word: “disciple” To disciple means to make students of, to bring to school, to educate. It’s not a picture of people gathered around an altar kneeling. It’s a picture of students sitting around a teacher.

If you look at the Greek, Jesus says to them: As you go, make disciples of all nations.” It doesn’t mean that everybody has to go out and be little Billy Grahams. It means that means wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing, you are positioned to be making disciples.

I like to use the example of Peggy Guyett. Peggy was out in her front yard one day and met her neighbor who was walking by. The neighbor shared some troubling news with Peggy. Now, typically, you would express some sympathy in situations like that. But Peggy is a disciple. Disciples can offer more than sympathy, they can offer prayer. So Peggy took a chance and offered to say a prayer right there in her front yard with the neighbor. It was a short prayer. It wasn’t filled with a lot of thee’s and thou’s. And Peggy didn’t need a seminary education to do it. The neighbor was visibly moved by the prayer. “As you go, wherever you are, make disciples.”

On this Trinity Sunday, I readily admit that I do not fully understand a God who is three persons, yet one God. I don’t have to. Because God gave me a logo to identify him – Jesus himself.

But today’s Gospel tells me I don’t have to understand an infinite God. I just need to hear his command and trust His promise. The command:  “As you’re going through life, make disciples. The promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”