At its deepest origins, “disciple” means to form a relationship. Discipling is not something we do to somebody, but something we do in relationship with others. It is something God does in relationship with us.
Matthew 28: 18-20
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.
Today is Trinity Sunday.
Why does that matter? What difference does that make to those of us who have spent this past week on the edge of tears?
To those who are angry and sad about the killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor? To those on the edge of tears of anger all week whenever violence breaks out in the middle of peaceful protest? To those who protest, and those who have been called to protect and serve, what difference does it make that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
To our friends who face the last few weeks or months of life, to the daughter who sits with her dying mother, to the son who was quarantined and could not go to his father’s bedside as he lay dying? It’s Trinity Sunday.
To those who fight off the virus and those who succumb, to those who have lost their jobs or businesses and those who are profiting from it, it’s Trinity Sunday. So what?
Trinity Sunday sits there on the church calendar as the quiet forgotten child; not like Christmas with all its pageantry, celebration, spawning scads of music from the sublime to the ridiculous; not like Easter with trumpets and shouts of “Christ Is Risen!”
Not even like Pentecost with its fantastic story of the Spirit entering a room full of disciples with a loud noise and a rush of wind and tongues of fire and the ability of all to understand foreign languages as if they were their native tongue.
On Trinity Sunday, we get a few verses written nearly three hundred years before the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated, with Jesus’s great commission: “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.”
Whenever preachers use the pulpit to dust off a classic old doctrine for the edification of the congregation, they run the risk of producing not more edified disciples, but sleepier saints. A friend of mine did that once on Trinity Sunday and I wouldn’t want to do that again. I mean, ever.
The words of Jesus here, however, have plenty to say to all of us living in a world of pandemic and pandemonium, a world of racism and anger, a world of division and injustice.
“Go,” Jesus says to disciples. It’s the same word Jesus used earlier in this Gospel when he told the rich man to “Go, sell what you have, give to the poor, then come and follow me.” This command to “go” is full of meaning, telling disciples not just “get out of here,” but to go somewhere with a purpose, with a plan, with a vision of the Kingdom of heaven breaking into the world.
The phrase “make disciples” in our English translation does not quite carry the layered meaning of Matthew’s one Greek word, the verb form of “disciple.” To disciple is to form spiritually, to shape intellectually, to lead, to influence, to teach.
But at its deepest origins, “disciple” means to form a relationship. Discipling is not something we do to somebody, but something we do in relationship with others. It is something God does in relationship with us.
After a bicycle accident in 2011, I found myself in a hospital room with a collapsed lung. It was a teaching hospital, so when the doctor came in, he was surrounded by several interns. After asking my permission to use my condition as a teaching moment, the doctor unwrapped a device that looked like a little vacuum cleaner and he hooked up the hose to a dart in my chest that the paramedic had put there to allow air to get out of my chest cavity and allow my lung to re-inflate. He said, “This is a new device, just recently approved for use in our hospital.” He explained how the little vacuum motor was designed to take more air out of my chest cavity to accelerate that lung re-inflation.
Before turning on the vacuum, the doctor turned to his interns and asked, “Have any of you ever used one of these things before?”
And when he turned to them, he accidentally popped the dart right out of my chest. I will never forget the look on the face of the intern closest to me. Her eyebrows shot up and her mouth opened.
And the doctor, looking at the dart dangling at the end of the hose, finished his sentence, “Because I never have.”
He looked at his interns and said, “O.K., now what do we do?”
The intern with the raised eyebrows listened to my lungs and looked at my chart and asked me to blow into a spirometer and said, “Nothing. We do nothing. Mr. Morgan’s going to be fine without further intervention.”
The doctor said, “Good plan.” He turned to me and said, “Sorry about that,” and herded his interns out of the room.
What impressed me about that was how clear it was to me that this doctor took the position with his interns not just as teacher, but as a fellow student. They were all in this together, learning how to heal their patients.
That’s the picture Matthew gives us of discipling all nations. Not something we do to others, but something we do in relationship with others as fellow disciples, fellow students and interns.
Then, Jesus uses that phrase translated “all nations.” In Matthew’s original context, that word translated “nations” did not refer to political entities defined by borders and governments. The ancient world was simply not organized like that. The word meant all peoples, all races of peoples, all tribes or a clans. Those “peoples” could be identified by the region from which they came, or the language they spoke, the nomadic life or the agrarian life, the religion they followed, the profession they practiced, or the ancestor who defined them, from Levites to Benjaminites.
“All peoples,” Jesus said. That is what leaps out from the page today in a nation deeply divided between those who experience the world the way I do as a white man and the way my daughter experiences the world as an African-American woman.
I can talk about following Jesus until I am blue in the face, but it’s all just sermonizing until I close my mouth and listen. To my daughter, to her friends, to my black friends, to my friends from other nations, friends with different first languages than my own, people who grew up with far less privilege than I had.
“Discipling” in its contemporary American context has emphasized its individual aspect, that personal relationship with Jesus. In the Gospel, however, discipling is not simply about changing individual human hearts. It is about changing the world.
It is about being disciples of Jesus Christ, fellow students and interns. It is by intentionally putting ourselves in the position of meeting people and forming relationships with people of other races, other peoples, other cultures, other nations. That is how God is transforming the world through the body of Christ, the church.
I love the memory of one of the first baptisms I ever did. Nick was three years old and had already developed quite a vocabulary. He stood by the font with his parents, dressed up in a new suit and looking quite dapper. He looked at me intently as I spoke the words of the liturgy as if he understood every word. Then, when I took a handful of water and dumped it on his head with the words, “Nick, child of the covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” he looked down to where the water had dripped onto his brand new suit, then he looked up at his parents, and he said, “Uh-oh.”
The congregation chuckled and so did his parents and I.
But in retrospect, I think that was an extraordinary theological statement from the mouth of a child.
“Uh-oh.” Everything is different now. There’s no going back. Nick no longer belonged just to his biological family, but he had entered in to the life of one God in three persons, called into a different way of living, God’s way, a way that is sometimes met with rejection and scorn. No wonder he said, “Uh-oh.” Life would never be the same.
For almost 18 years, I served as pastor of a church in a town that continued to struggle with racial tension tied up in an unhealed wound from 1930, when a black man was lynched and the homes and businesses of black citizens were burned down by a mob of white supremacists.
When I was invited as the first white minister to participate with my African-American clergy colleagues in a week of pulpit exchanges, I did so with a heart full of hope that I could be some small part of the healing of that community’s tension and division. On the night of Palm Sunday, a new friend preached in the church I served; he preached with the lilting accent of his native Nigeria with a grace and heart that brought the congregation to laughter with him at his self-deprecation; and to tears of repentance with his tears of repentance that led us, discipled us, into a closer relationship with Jesus. He reminded us that when we weep, we weep with Jesus.
The preacher that night was Baptist. The church was Presbyterian. The congregation that night was a mix of Presbyterians, National Baptists, Missionary Baptists, African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and Church of God in Christ.
But, for that night, we knew in our bones that we were all disciples, fellow learners, interns of Jesus.
It was my turn to preach on Tuesday night of Holy Week, in a predominantly African-American church pastored by a Baptist friend. In a surprise move, because in that week the Holy Spirit was always leading us to surprises, the pastor turned to Charles, one of his colleagues, and asked him to introduce me as the preacher that night.
The only problem was that Charles hardly knew me. We had not yet spent any time together or forged our friendship, a bond that would tighten in the years to come.
But, Charles didn’t miss a beat. He hopped up into the pulpit and said, “I can’t wait to hear what God is going to say tonight through this preacher. Let me tell you everything I know about Reverend Neill Morgan, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church. He is baptized. So he is my brother.” And Charles sat down.
Fortunately, there was a hymn to be sung before I preached, so I had time to compose myself before standing in that sacred spot, to once again feel the buoyancy of the privilege of my calling and the weight and of the privilege of my place in that town’s culture.
Jesus speaks in this passage to those who are hurting, to those who are angry; to those who are dying, to those who are ill; to those who are grieving, to those who are struggling; those who have inherited the burden of oppression or the power of oppressor, the message of the Gospel is that God is at work transforming this world.
As we disciple and are discipled, learning to obey everything that Jesus has taught us, that is how the world will change, as it always has. It does not change gradually and smoothly, but in fits and starts, through turmoil and pain, through the tears we share with Jesus because we have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.