June 11, 2017 “Initiation” – Matthew 28:16-20
June 11, 2017 – Trinity Sunday
On Saturday our friend Isaiah is going to be pinned. That’s the traditional ceremony welcoming new graduates of nursing school into the profession. I wish I could be there, because it brings back memories of my mother conducting that ceremony for the nursing program she ran in California. I’ve seen a photo of her standing proudly with her first class all beaming in their new starched caps and wearing their pins. Isaiah will have a moment like that, being initiated into the great profession of nursing.
Since the very beginning, baptism has been the initiation into Christian faith, whether it happens as a believer or as an infant. The sign of baptism shows that a person is entering into something new, into a different state of being and into the company and fellowship of all those who follow and walk with Jesus.
This morning on Trinity Sunday I’ve read the last few verses of Matthew’s Gospel because it is one of the places in the Bible, like the benediction we read from II Corinthians 13, where we hear the Holy Trinity named clearly and explicitly: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But that naming of the three persons of God is not just a formula for a religious ritual. It points us toward what actually happens when a person receives baptism and commits his or her life to living the way Jesus taught us to live.
Verse 16 tells us that eleven disciples went to Galilee and met Jesus on a mountain top. There had been twelve of them, but Judas betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide. So there were just eleven men gathered around Jesus to receive some of His final instructions for them. What Jesus had to say there made a huge difference, because within ten or twenty years thousands of Christians spread all over the middle east and even into Europe.
For someone who wants a reason for thinking Christianity is true, that’s not a bad one. It is a movement that went from less than a dozen scared, uneducated fellows in a tiny place to tens of thousands of committed believers carrying the message around the world in just a short time.
You can see how unsure and hesitant those eleven were in verse 17. I think it is amazing that Matthew wrote this verse for us. It says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Here He is, Jesus risen from the dead standing right there, but some of them still doubt, still lack confidence, are still not ready to jump in with both feet. We got a taste of how that doubt went for one of them, Thomas, a few weeks ago near the end of John’s Gospel.
Dealing with doubt is just one reason why initiation into the Christian faith is initiation into a community. A pin is the sign that you are joining a nursing profession that goes all the way back to Florence Nightingale. Baptism is the sign that you are joining a community of people going clear back to those eleven apostles. Entering into a community means there will be people around you to help you and guide you when doubts arise.
The word for “doubt” in verse 17 also means “hesitation.” Some of those first disciples worshiped Jesus immediately and without reservation. But some of them were more hesitant about it, not quite sure if they had it right, maybe not quite clear in their minds that Jesus really was God and should be worshiped.
That’s why God made us to be in community. We can reinforce and encourage one another. A new nurse or a new teacher or a new barista at the coffee shop looks to those around him or her for direction, for support. “Am I reading this chart correctly?” “How do I handle this student?” “What’s the right way to make this mocha?” As we hesitate, as we are unsure, a community around us lends us the help we need to go forward.
So Jesus did not just call individuals to come and have a personal relationship only with Him. He called us and commanded us to be baptized into a community of mutual support and care. We’ve all got doubts, and so every Christian needs that community of brothers and sisters in the faith.
The ultimate answer to our doubts is of course Jesus Himself. That’s what He says first in verse 18 to those worshiping-but-still-not-quite-sure disciples. He confirms that He is in fact God, that worshiping Him is totally appropriate, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That’s God authority, authority everywhere and over everything in this universe. It is right to worship Jesus because He has the same authority that God has. He is God, He’s telling them.
That’s why the Christian church slowly but surely over the next couple centuries became absolutely clear about what they started to call the Trinity, those three persons who are named in verse 19, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They first learned that Jesus the Son, somebody different from God the Father, was nonetheless God, and they worshiped Him as God. They saw that God is at least two persons. But then when the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, as we celebrated last week, they began to understand that there is another person who is also God and deserves our worship.
So those first couple generations of Christians remembered what Jesus had said in verse 19, naming Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in baptism. They thought about how they worshiped and prayed to and experienced God as their heavenly Father, and also as Jesus who died for them, and finally as the Spirit who lived in and among them. And they drew the obvious conclusion that all three of them are different and yet somehow the same God. And what we call the doctrine of the Trinity was born.
This morning I’d like us to look a little closer at the implications of the fact that we continue to do what Jesus commanded in verse 19. Christians go all over the world now, to all nations, making disciples of Jesus and baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
First let’s talk about what it means to make disciples. It’s the word we get “discipline” from, so part of being a disciple is simply learning to obey. That’s what Jesus says in the next verse, “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” But the disciples of a rabbi—and that’s what Jesus was here on earth, a Jewish rabbi—disciples follow their master. They learn to do what he does.
Talk to Isaiah and you will hear that the last part of his nurse training was “practicum.” That meant following, “shadowing” as they say, someone who is already a nurse, watching what they do, and then hands on learning to do it himself. Take those vital signs, read those doctor orders, change those dressings. The nurse in training observes his trainer and then practices what he observes.
It happens in many professions. Teachers are first student teachers. Plumbers start as apprentices. Pastors do an internship. Fast food and grocery stores have trainees at the counter watching and then practicing what they’ve learned. That’s what Christians believe about what we are doing. We observe what Jesus did and learn to put it into practice ourselves. As our proposed new mission statement says, we want to be apprentices of Jesus.
The beginning of all that, of discipleship, of apprenticeship, of whatever you want to call it—learning to be like Jesus—the beginning is baptism. We learn to follow Jesus best in a community, and so we begin by being baptized into that community, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And there is the wonderful thing. Because we are baptized in that three-fold name, we are not just baptized into a human community, we are baptized into a divine community, into God’s own community.
There have been a couple different perspectives on the Trinity in Christian history. It’s more or less divided between the Church in the west, that’s us, and the Church in the east, that’s the Eastern Orthodox. What we all agree about one hundred percent is what the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds says, what the church council of Chalcedon settled on in 451 A.D. There are three persons in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the west we emphasize the oneness of God. We don’t want anyone to think we have three gods. We are not polytheists who worship multiple deities. So we emphasize God’s unity. He has one will, one heart, one purpose, one mind. We affirm the same thing Jewish and Muslim believers affirm, that there is just one God. And that is totally correct.
The east, on the other hand, has been fascinated with the amazing fact that while we have one God, that God is also three persons, three distinct individuals who all work together to save us and bless us. The Father created us and sent His Son to save us. The Son came and died for us and rose again to give us eternal life. The Holy Spirit is here with us right now, living in us, helping us, guiding us, uniting us. And the east has understood that those three persons are not only the way God relates to us. They are the way God relates to God. God doesn’t just want us to be a community. God is a community, from eternity.
I John 4:8 says, “God is love.” It doesn’t mean God is some abstract feeling of affection we call love. No, it means that within God, in the very being of God, is a relationship of love that has been happening forever and ever. Father, Son and Holy Spirit have loved and been in community with each other since the beginning.
That’s why we read in Genesis 1:26 this morning that God said, “Let us make humankind in our image.” That’s the community of the Trinity speaking, saying they are going to make human beings like that, to live together in community. As verse 27 of Genesis 1 implies there, it’s one reason we were made male and female. We were given the opportunity to discover how to be a community across the differences that are built into us.
Haul that all back to baptism now. When you trust Jesus Christ to save you, to forgive your sins and give you a new start on life; when you commit yourself to following Jesus, to being His apprentice, your baptism is in the name of God’s own community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is your entrance into God’s wider community of human beings gathered together in His Church. Baptism is the initiation, the entrance, the pinning ceremony which brings you into a community which is yours forever.
As I said to the children, not all of us can buy the family packs at the grocery store. One or two people alone may feel left out or disadvantaged when they see people together in families or clubs or groups. Like me, you may know what it’s like to feel odd and different from other students at school or people at work.
I just read about an American painting by Edward Hopper called “Nighthawks.” It’s in the Chicago Art Institute and shows people in a nearly empty city diner late at night. There is the clerk behind the counter, a couple sitting together, and one man sitting completely alone far from the other three. Many people have felt that image portrays how isolated we can each feel, especially in the modern world.
I went to the dentist last week and felt something of that isolation. The person at the desk seemed to be having a bad day. She barely said anything and handed me a form to fill out. Then the hygienist came and got me and asked if I had any problems with my teeth. When I said no, she just worked away, cleaning my teeth for half an hour, saying nothing except “Please turn your head a little more,” for all that time. With her tools in my mouth, I certainly couldn’t say anything.
Now I’m a solid introvert, I like to be alone, but even I felt lonely in that quiet, unfriendly dentist’s office. But God did not mean us to live like “nighthawks” or lonely patients waiting in silent offices. God is a community. He made us for community, to be in relationship with Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to be in relationship with each other. That’s why we are baptized in His name, to welcome us into God’s community. God’s family starts with the Trinity and then reaches out to include His Church.
People often say that when you get married you don’t just marry the other person, you marry that person’s family too, for better or for worse. When you get baptized, when you become a Christian you don’t just enter into a relationship with Jesus. You enter into a relationship with His people. It’s an initiation into a community.
Becoming a Christian is so easy you can do it in seconds. It’s so challenging that it will take the rest of your life to learn and discover what it is all about. If you’ve not yet taken the first step or not yet been baptized, then I’d like to invite you to do that. I’d love the opportunity to talk about it more with you and to help welcome you into this community.
It starts with recognizing you need Jesus. It means admitting you have failed to get life right on your own, and you need forgiveness. It means believing Jesus died on the Cross and rose again so that you can be forgiven, so you can have a brand new beginning, a brand new life with Him. It also means you are ready to make a long-term commitment to live that new life, to walk with Jesus and learn how to be His disciple, to observe all the things He has commanded. If you never have and would like to do that, then simply bow your head and ask forgiveness and ask Jesus to be your Savior and Lord now and always.
If you were baptized as an infant, and are just now making that commitment to Jesus, then you are completing what God started in your baptism. We would love to celebrate that with you. Please let us know. If you have not yet been baptized and you’ve just committed yourself to Jesus, we would love to arrange an opportunity for you receive baptism. We are voting to receive five new members into official membership in this community today. We would be really happy to receive you into this community sometime soon.
I’m saying all this because we do not want you to be alone in this world. God does not want you to be alone. He wants to welcome you into His community, into the family of those who know Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and who enjoy that blessed and happy company all the time.
As I welcome you to be part of God’s community, of this church community, I need to admit and say plainly that we are not perfect. Like any family, we have our bad moments and sometimes you might wish you weren’t part of this community. But I can promise that no matter how alone you may feel in this world, regardless of your background or where you are from, or how many mistakes you’ve made, you are still part of us, still part of a community that God has planned from the very beginning of creation.
That’s why Matthew ends his Gospel with beautiful assuring words from Jesus there at the end of verse 20. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” When you trust in Jesus, even when you have doubts, you are not alone. He is there with you. He is there because God the Father and God the Son have sent you the Holy Spirit. That third person of the Trinity is always beside you. And you are not alone because the Holy Spirit also gathers every Christian into a church community, into fellowship and family and love. We want you, and anyone else who wants to belong to Jesus’ family, to be part of that.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj