“If you take one of us, you have to take all of us.”
As children, this is how my wife Joy and each of her siblings always responded to a common compliment from that era: “You’re so cute I just want to take you home with me.”
Today, children hearing such a thing would probably run away shouting, “Stranger danger!” But back in the day we all heard that simply to mean that we were good children.
The response that Joy and her siblings gave was unusual. Then again, they were and still are an especially tight-knit family. Joy, Carol, Patsy, Martha, and Jim are each very different people. And yet, the sisters in particular are inseparably interwoven.
Now don’t get me wrong. They will bicker and get on each other’s nerves. Their career paths and parenting styles and marital ideals diverge. But make no mistake, they are a posse. Two or three of them would never dream of celebrating a big event or planning a major gathering without including all the rest. You know, like birthdays and Christmas and Arbor Day.
If you take one of them, you have to take all of them.
I discovered this firsthand early on in my relationship with Joy. I was going to meet all of her sisters for the first time at a dinner party hosted by her older sister Patsy. Joy made it perfectly clear that our relationship only had a future if I passed the sister test. If I met with their approval, we might end up someplace. Otherwise, count on this being a passing thing.
For the record, Joy insists that she doesn’t remember telling me this. I think that this might be another test.
In its own imperfect way, the Bruce clan—Joy’s family of origin—reflects the life of the Trinity. If you take one of them, you have to take all of them.
The odd thing about God—well, one of the odd things about God—is that God is a community. God is one. And God is three. The unity of God is found in the diversity of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You can tell them apart. But you can’t really know who one is without knowing all the rest and seeing how they all relate to each other. For instance, the Father is a Father only by relating to a Son. Being an offspring works similarly. A son or daughter is such only in relationship to his or her parent.
While we’re talking about head-scratching beliefs, consider this one. The first chapter of Genesis says that we’re created in the image of God. Now some folks say that our resemblance to God resides in our reason. Others insist that we reflect God in our creativity or in our capacity to love or in some other dimension of our humanity.
Each of these human traits has something to commend it as a way in which we humans reflect God to the rest of creation. But given that God is a community, we have to remember that God’s image is not only within us. We are the image of God in how we relate to one another. We reflect the life of the Trinity in the kind of community we form and inhabit.
And speaking of community brings us to today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew. For such a short passage, this text bears a lot of freight.
One scholar suggests that these few words tie together the entire Gospel according to Matthew. In any event, Matthew gives us more than we could digest for now. So let’s content ourselves to thinking together about what this passage says about what a community that reflects the Triune God looks like.
For starters, let’s consider what people often call the Great Commission. Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The word “nations” is “ethne” in Greek. We could and probably should render it “peoples” or “cultures,” maybe even “ethnic groups.”
In other words, Jesus said, “Go make disciples of people who are different from you.” Jesus did not say, “Go make people who are different from you just like you.” He said to make them disciples. People who follow and learn from Jesus.
Go invite people different from you to form an authentic relationship with Jesus. Expect that relationship to look different from what you’ve seen before. And try not to freak out.
And while we’re talking about things likely to raise your blood pressure, Jesus tells us to include these people in our community without trying to make them fit in perfectly. In fact, he tells us to bring different people in precisely because they will stretch our sense of who we are as a community.
Who we are is derived from our relationship with Jesus. You’ve probably heard it said this way: who we are comes from whose we are.
When we form a community from people just like us, we can easily begin to think that our unity comes from our common likes and dislikes, our shared social position, or our political preferences.
Something remarkable happens in genuinely diverse faith communities. Our differences of political persuasion, economic class, and ethnic background help us to see that our unity lies elsewhere. In something deeper and more abiding. Our unity lies in Christ. And in Christ, our differences become manifestations of that deep unity.
The Great Commission is not a directive to save individual souls in isolation. Instead, Jesus instructs us to grow the community of his disciples in diversity and variety. In the Other we will find new and thrilling depths of Christ, and in the process our community of faith will reflect more accurately the Triune God to whom we are devoted.
In addition to sending us out to make disciples of people different from us, Jesus also tells us, “[Teach] them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Matthew’s Gospel is composed of five major teaching blocks. Jesus probably had all of this in mind, but I will just highlight two things that help us understand more clearly the kind of community that the Triune God is calling into being.
In Matthew, Jesus issues the Great Commandment, what Episcopalians generally call the Summary of the Law:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)
In other words, Jesus does not issue a detailed code of conduct. Instead, he gives us a general principle to be applied appropriately to the varied, complex situations that are real life. He tells us that in all things we should seek to be God-saturated and person-nurturing.
Just how that will look will take wisdom. We won’t always get it right. In fact, perfection is not the point here. Giving what you’ve got—giving yourself to God and to neighbor—is the point.
And that brings me to the second commandment (or set of commandments) that Jesus probably had in mind: The Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7) There are clearly some ways of being together that mirror the very life of the Trinity. And Jesus lays them out in the Sermon on the Mount.
Here are some of the them in a nutshell:
Remember that your entry into the Jesus community was by Christ’s mercy, and that’s how you keep your membership. Nobody gets into the community on the basis of moral or spiritual achievement. So greet and welcome every stranger with humility and grace. They come in and stay in on the same terms you do.
Forgive each other. Period. Every time. No matter what. We are all mercy recipients, and mercy is only given to the undeserving. Get over holding out your forgiveness until somebody else deserves it.
Respect every single human being. Nobody is on this planet to make you comfortable, to meet your expectations, to line your pockets, to satisfy your desires, or to live up to your standards. We are all here to serve God by serving one another.
Everything you have has been given to you so that you can give it to further God’s mission. Your money and your position don’t make you better than anyone else and you can’t take it with you. If you hang on to it like it’s yours, it will become your master.
When Jesus said love your enemies, he wasn’t kidding. Love the ones who are hard to like, who don’t love you, whose company makes you look bad, who make you uncomfortable, and who probably struggle with loving themselves.
Jesus calls us to be a community that, in our own imperfect way, reflects the very life of the Triune God. We do that by how we love one another and by how we remain open to the stranger. Jesus teaches us to be the community that says, “If you take one of us, you have to take all of us.”
This sermon was preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Monroe, Louisiana.