Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16–20)
Nineteen years ago I stumbled into the world of Christian ministry as a fresh-faced thirty-one year old. I’d completed my three years of training at a theological college in Bristol and was ready for the world. A church in Cheltenham had called me to be their minister (which was good of them) and inevitably one of the very first things I had to do was go to a meeting.
This meeting was for the Baptist Missionary Society, and churches had gathered from around the town into a small chapel on a housing estate. Since I was a Baptist minister, I was not wearing a shirt with a dog collar and looked as normal as I can muster. After being served with the obligatory cup of tea (fairly pale in colour, green china from the post war period, standard issue digestive) I sat down and began chatting to some of the members of that church.
The buzz was about the new minister of Salem Baptist Church, and people were on the hunt to information. What was he like? We’ve heard he has plenty of sons? He’s pretty young, you know. Eventually someone asked me what I’d heard about him.
“I’ve heard he’s unrelentingly brilliant”. Oh. How do you know that? Have you met him? “Yes. So have you. He’s me”! Cue a flurry of questions…
Now, had I marched up to the front of the church and stood up, called the meeting to order and then opened in prayer I have no doubt that some would have guessed who I was. If I had gone to the pulpit and preached the standard issue Baptist thirty minute sermon with three points, more would have guessed. In other words, you could tell who I was by what I did even if my clothing gave no clue.
I had a similar experience a few years later when queuing up to get my room key in a halls of residence near Oxford. A hundred or so students had gathered for a weekend at the beginning of their degree course, and there was an excited buzz. The two students in front of me were discussing how easy it would all be. “I’ll just grab the answers from the internet and write the essay the night before it’s due in”. He then turned to me: “what do you think?”. I told him I thought he’d fail. “Why do you say that?” he asked. “Because I’m your lecturer” I answered.
If had marched to the front of the queue for my key, he might have guessed. If I had started organising the line, he would have understood. If he had walked into the lecture room, and I was putting my notes on the lecture he would have known. But just standing around as I was, he didn’t guess.
The point of these stories is that you can tell who someone is by what they do. Hence the old saying: actions speak louder than words. Mike Denness was the captain of England’s Test Cricket side in the early seventies and had a disastrous tour of Australia, famously dropping himself from the side! Whilst in Australia he received a letter addressed simply to “Mike Denness, Cricketer”. When he opened it he found the words: “should this reach you, the post office clearly thinks more of your ability than I do.”
Whatever we call ourselves, our actions speak louder!
It is this principle which is at the heart of our understanding of who Jesus is.
If someone came to you and said “by the way, I am God” I suspect you would quietly shuffle away. If instead that person restored sight to the friend you knew had been blind from birth, you would take notice. The way in which Jesus revealed his identity to the the Jews around him was to act in the ways in which only God could act. He didn’t simply stand up and say “I’m God” but did the things only God could do: forgave sins, gave life to the dead, restored the blind and lame to wholeness.
In the Gospel of John these acts are called “signs” because they point to who Jesus is. They are not tricks, but rather they are pointers to Jesus’ divinity. In his great sermon at Pentecost, the Apostle Peter made the point that Jesus is “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22).
Of course this method requires faith on the part of those who see, or hear about, Jesus in action. They need to join the dots, and come to their conclusion. Even after the resurrection (and what a sign that was!) we read in this Sunday’s passage that “some doubted”. Even as you hear about Jesus with the the combined testimony of those who have followed him over the past two millennia, you still have to place your own faith in him. This evidence still requires your verdict.
As the earliest Christians understood Jesus to be God, that gave them an issue. After all as good Jews they knew that at the core of their faith was the belief that “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Numbers 6:4-5). But if Jesus is God, then doesn’t that mean that the Lord is two? And then what about the Holy Spirit? After all, in passages such as Isaiah 63 the Holy Spirit seems to separate from the Father and have a personality:
But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them… Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit? (Isaiah 63:10–11).
So should it be “the Lord is three”? The settled answer of the earliest church was no. After all when Jesus was asked “Which commandment is the most important of all?” He answered, “the most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.“ (Mark 12:28-29). We should also note that in today’s passage the disciples are commanded to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. The name is singular. It is not the names of the Father, Son and Spirit but the name. The Lord is one.
So it is that Jesus, by his actions, has shown himself to be God. The Holy Spirit, by his actions, has shown himself to be God. The Father, by his actions, has shown himself to be God. And these three are one. And yet three!
That, my friends, is the doctrine of the Trinity. It is an insistence that God is one in essence, and three in persons. He is one in one way, and at the same time three in another way. This is how God has been from all eternity and into all eternity.
That may make your mind gently stagger, but to be honest I’m grateful to have a God who is so infinite and different from me that I can’t grasp his being in my tiny mind!