Sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday). Based on Matthew 28:16-20.
Crown of Life Lutheran Church; Hubertus, WI. Preached on June 4 & 7, 2020.
A Three-Part Mission from Our Three-in-One God
One of the many “casualties” of Coronavirus was the Call Day service that would have taken place last month at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Even if you have attended that service as an observer without a connection to a student that is about to be assigned as a new pastor or vicar, the excitement of the day is palpable in the room. Anticipation builds. The service begins. The sermon seems to last longer than any other sermon you’ve heard before. The president of the synod stands up to read the list of assignments. Lives are changed in a moment as students and graduates find out where the Lord has called them to serve.
Today is Trinity Sunday. The Bible readings for this service all reflect the truth that we worship a God who is three distinct persons and yet one God at the same time. That truth is reflected in the creation account (First Reading — Genesis 1:1-2:3), in the blessing of the apostle Paul (Second Reading — 2 Corinthians 13:11-14), and in the words Jesus spoke to his disciples before his Ascension (Gospel — Matthew 28:16-20). But this week’s Gospel also has a strong emphasis on the mission that Jesus has given his church. Jesus’ disciples were about to experience their own version of “Call Day.”
This morning, we’re going to look at the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his Church. We look at it through the standpoint of Trinity Sunday, noting that Jesus confirms the truth found throughout Scripture that our one God is also three distinct persons. But we also note that the mission that the Triune God gives to his church is a three-part mission. This morning’s sermon is based on the Gospel from Matthew 28. We will focus especially on the words of Jesus that describe the Three-Part Mission from our Three-in-One God.
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The words of Jesus’ “Great Commission” are well-known among Christians. There are really four “command” words or phrases in this section: Go, make disciples, baptize, teach. Which one of those words is Jesus’ main command?
In English, it sounds as if Jesus’ main command is to “Go!” But in the original language, Jesus’ main command in this section is to “Make Disciples.” By including the word, “Go!” Jesus points out what should be obvious, but isn’t always so obvious: In order to make disciples, the first thing that we have to do is to go out into the world. Christians should not operate with the assumption that they can build a church, open its doors, hold services, and expect people to just walk right in. People who are by nature enemies of God and children of wrath are not going to seek out their Savior. No, Jesus says that before you can share the gospel, before you can make disciples, you have to go out into the world, connecting to people among us, and then share that desperately-needed gospel!
Jesus also tells us to whom we go: He sent his disciples to “all nations.” This message is literally for everyone, and he wants his church to go to the ends of the earth to proclaim it. Often we hear this verse and our mind jumps immediately to the work of missionaries, and certainly foreign mission work is a big part of Jesus’ command here. But don’t forget who else is included in “all nations.” All nations include your unchurched next-door neighbor. All nations include your family members who have fallen away from the Lord. All nations include your coworker in the cubical next to yours who has a troubled family life. And in this time of civil unrest, we remember that all nations includes every ethnic group and political persuasion that is found in our nation. “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
You can’t buy groceries unless you first go to the grocery story. You can’t obtain the items you need to finish that household project unless you first go to Home Depot. You can’t carry out Jesus’ mission to make disciples unless you first go into your world and interact with the unique segment of “all nations” that God has placed into your life. But as obvious as that sounds, it’s easy to forget. It is easy to assume that it is primarily the minister’s job or the missionaries’ job or the evangelism committee’s job to promote the gospel message. But ministers and missionaries and members of an outreach committee aren’t the only people who encounter those who need to learn about their Savior. We encounter people who need to connect or reconnect with Jesus every day of our lives, yet we may let those opportunities pass us too quickly: talking about Jesus seems a little uncomfortable; we’d rather not deal with the unfair labels and unkind assumptions that might be thrown back at us. How easily our lips can be silent about the one message God has called us to go out and proclaim! The Lord has given us the best message that we could ever share with the world, and yet it is so easy to stifle our own witness.
But the same message we haven’t always freely shared remains the message that offers us forgiveness, even for times we’ve failed to share our Savior with others. The message of Christ crucified and risen is not just a message for the unchurched; it’s also the message for you and for me. It’s a message provides Christ’s consoling forgiveness for our past failures. It’s a message that includes you, because you too are a part of “all nations.” It’s a message that brings joy to our hearts, calm to our troubled consciences, and zeal to proclaim that message of salvation to others who are lost without it. As we start a new week, Christ rejuvenates us by his grace to live out the first part his three-part mission: “Go!”
The first step in Jesus’ mission plan tells us what we need to do before we can make disciples. The next two steps show us how disciples are made. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them.” The “them” to which Jesus refers are the same “all nations” to which he commands us to go. Jesus makes no distinction of background, ethnicity, or even age—he includes everyone. Jesus also gives us the formula that we speak and the divine name into which we are baptized: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These words are the reason this reading is selected for Trinity Sunday, but these words speak to the blessings of Holy Baptism. In baptism, we become children of the Triune God, who created us, redeemed us, and called us to faith. When you write your name on the inside cover of a book, you are saying, “This belongs to me.” When God writes his name on us at our baptism, he is saying, “You belong to me!” We repeat those same words at the start of many of our services as a regular statement that you are God’s child because in baptism he placed his name on you.
Notice that Jesus included Baptism as a way to make disciples. Not only does the Holy Spirit bring people to faith through the Word, but also in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Likewise, the Holy Spirit sustains us and strengthens us in our faith not only through the Word, but also in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We cannot begin to comprehend how applying water with the Word of God can create faith, but we fully trust our loving Lord that Baptism, too, is a miraculous way that he makes us his own people. We will never be able to rationally understand how Jesus’ body and blood are present in Holy Communion, but we rejoice in the promise from God that we receive Jesus’ body and blood for our forgiveness when we come forward to the altar. What tremendous blessings are ours in the Sacraments! What powerful tools God gives us in his Sacraments!
The final aspect of Jesus’ three-part mission is to teach. “Go 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 I have commanded you.” Not only does Jesus give us baptism to make disciples, but he also gives us his Word to teach others about the salvation that has been won for them in Christ. Once again, Jesus directs us to teach all nations, not leaving out a single soul as unworthy to hear the message.
The next phrase in this third aspect of Jesus’ mission deserves our attention: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The original term used for “obey” means to hold on to something and cling to it because it is so precious and valuable. Jesus wants us to teach all people to cling to his Word as the precious, life-giving treasure that it is. This is more than head knowledge; Jesus is looking for his disciples to teach others to treasure the Word of God like a jewel or precious stone that you couldn’t even put a price tag on because it is so valuable. And Jesus wants us to treat everything contained in Scriptures with that same, precious care when he commands his disciples to teach “them to obey everything I have commanded you.” God does not want us to treat his Word like a smorgasbord, picking out and focusing on the things we like but avoiding whatever makes us feel uncomfortable. Rather, children of God will see the entire Bible as something valuable and precious, something to be read, studied, pondered, and cherished!
Next week, I will be enrolled in a summer class for pastors through our Seminary; the class will be studying the history of American Lutheranism from 1940 to the present. One of the main lessons that we can learn from that time frame is how even a slight compromise in God’s Word leads to a loss of God’s Word over time. Bible teachings that seemed like no big deal began to be compromised—teachings like election, that God chose us to be his own from eternity, or close communion, that a complete unity of faith is an important aspect of the Lord’s Supper. A willingness to compromise small parts of God’s Word eventually led to a willingness to compromise other teachings of the Bible, until finally some churches concluded that the Bible isn’t God’s inspired Word and that the Triune God isn’t the only right way to know God and that faith in Jesus isn’t necessary for salvation.
That’s not a temptation from which we are immune. It an attempt to appear likable to the world, we can be tempted to ever so slightly adjust some of Jesus’ teachings to make them palatable to the world. “Will it be a big deal if we compromise the Bible’s message about human sexuality? Doesn’t the church need to get with the times?” “Will it matter if we don’t teach creation so strongly? Doesn’t the church seem like it’s stuck in the Dark Ages if we don’t make the Bible mesh with evolution?” It starts out subtly. But under it all is an assumption that less than 100% of the Bible is God’s Word. And as soon as we are willing to tell God that he didn’t mean what he inspired and recorded through his apostles and prophets, we are willing to put our Word above his. That has never turned out well in history. That is only flirting with destruction—destruction of God’s Word, and destruction of our own souls! God, forgive us if we do not teach everything you have instructed us!
The beauty of God’s Word is that it does just that: It proclaims God’s forgiveness to us. The Bible not only warns us and exposes our sinful thinking, but it also absolves us and points us to Jesus who taught God’s Word faithfully and fulfilled it for us perfectly. God’s Word gives us the confidence that we spoke at the start of this Trinity Sunday service: “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” God’s Word clearly teaches that Jesus Christ traded places with you in this world so that we could take our place alongside him in heaven. And God’s Word also gives us this confidence that we recited earlier in the service: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” God’s Word clearly teaches that Jesus Christ has set us free from sin’s shackles and hell’s torments. With such good news in God’s Word, why would we want to tear out even a page or a sentence or a word from it? With such good news in God’s Word, how can we not share every page and chapter and book with those who need it?
Trinity Sunday is a day that celebrates a Bible teaching about God: He is three persons in one God. On this Trinity Sunday, we have heard about the Three-part mission from our Three-in-One God. In a world full of unrest and turmoil, bickering and biting, God’s three-part mission is just what the doctor ordered. Turn to God in repentance and faith, turn to his Word for grace and guidance, and then turn to all nations—whatever that looks like in your life—with the message that connects everyone who believes with the Triune God who made them, who redeemed them, and who wants to make them his very own people. Amen.