“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
During my years of ministry in the church, today, Trinity Sunday, was the Sunday in the year when preaching a sermon was always a challenge. There seemed no words adequate to the task, and the words there were could leave people as much confused as they were enlightened.
It is good, therefore, that Jesus’ words at the end of Saint Matthew are the Gospel reading for the day. One word within that passage points to a need for Christian people. Jesus tells his friends to go and make disciples and it is the word “disciples” that is important.
In the First Century Greek in which the Gospel was written, the word “disciple” is “mathetes.” The word means a “learner,” it comes from the same root as our English word “mathematics.”
The friends of Jesus might have been with him for three years, but in his final words to them he still calls them learners. Their knowledge is incomplete, imperfect, following the teachings of Jesus would be a process of learning.
Why are they still learners? Because God was beyond all understanding, human language could do no more than express a human understanding. It could not express God as he was because only God himself had that power.
The disciples are learners because their life following the way of Jesus would bring a gradual unfolding of the truth of his words, but they would never reach the end of the learning process.
Mathetes, disciple, is a reminder of the mystery of God, a reminder of his transcendence. It should be a reminder to Christians that they have no more than a vague apprehension of the truth. As Saint Paul wrote in the first letter to the church at Corinth, “now we see through a glass darkly.”
If Christians are involved in a lifelong process of learning, then no-one has the right to claim that their version of God is the only one that is right, that their explanation is the one that should be accepted by all other Christians. Being no more than learners themselves, Christians should assume an attitude of humility when they meet those whose understanding of God differs from that which has been the foundation of Christian teaching.
Not only in doctrine, but also in life, Christians should acknowledge that Jesus treats them as learners. The prejudices that have been part of Christian history might have been avoided if there had been recognition that Christians were learners, that they did not possess all the answers, that they had no monopoly of wisdom.
The news stories of the past week are a reminder that there are still Christian people who are deeply racist. Any reading of church news stories would reveal that sexism and homophobia are still deeply entrenched in the minds of Christians.
When one realizes that a disciple is a learner, it becomes obvious that Christians should assume no right to tell others what they should believe or how they should act. People without all of the answers should be open to the possibility that there are still lessons to be learned.
If we took nothing more from Trinity Sunday, then the understanding of disciples being learners should encourage a spirit of humility and a willingness to hear the voices of others.