Bethlehem & Bethel Lutheran Churches, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Feast of the Holy Trinity + May 27, 2018
Text: John 3:1-14
The Feast of the Holy Trinity differs from the other three high festivals of the Church Year. Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost all celebrate the mighty acts of God for the salvation of mankind. Today’s festival, on the other hand, celebrates an important and mysterious article of the Christian faith, namely, that the true God is one in unity and triune in persons. The three articles about God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the distinct symbol of the Christian Church. Redemption and salvation of mankind rests in the true knowledge of the Triune God; not in the mere knowledge that there is a triune God, but in the actual knowledge of how Triune God has revealed Himself in the work of our redemption. The true knowledge of the Triune God is the foundation of our salvation.
What makes the Athanasian Creed so jarring is not its length, but the sentences at the beginning and then end: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.” And “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.” How could we confess such strict things about God, as to say that those who do not have the true knowledge of the Triune God cannot be saved? But, we object, we know so many honest, religious people who just believe a little differently than us. Does this mean their beliefs will lead them to damnation?
As Christians, we recognize God the Father in the Holy Trinity in the sending of His dear Son. Outside of Christianity, God the Father is seen as a mere creator and sustainer of the world, if those outside of Christianity even recognize a prime mover in the universe. The Father is seen as an affectionate sort of fellow, but a weak father of His naughty children. He cannot but look at His children’s sins as an earthly dad looks at the misdeeds of his own children. He shrugs his shoulders and tries to show His disapproval at what they say and do.
Christians even get caught up in this false understanding of our heavenly Father. Consider Nicodemus. He tells Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” God the Father is a wise man. He’s done a lot of good for people. He’s blessed our nation. He’s even given us prophets and wise men like Jesus Christ.
True knowledge of the Father sees Him as a holy and righteous God, to Whom all sin is an abomination. Nevertheless, the Father is full of love for sinners. He sent His Son for their salvation. He does not sit helpless in heaven, stroking his long beard and deciding if He’s going to be just or merciful today. He is at all times true to Who He says He is: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God the Father sent His Son Jesus to reconcile sinners to Himself, and through Jesus, accepted you as His child and has declared Himself as your Father. He is truly the Father of all, but especially of those who believe. (Isaiah 64:8)
As Christians, we recognize God the Son in the Holy Trinity in His working salvation on our behalf. Again, consider Nicodemus’ misplaced confession of Who Jesus is: You are a teacher come from God. As Nicodemus reckons it, Jesus is another teacher in a long line of great teachers sent by God, along with Moses and Elijah. If Jesus is just another Rabbi or Prophet, then perhaps others will come like Muhammad or Joseph Smith. Nicodemus does not recognize Jesus as the true Son of God, the only one who fulfills the Law which promised a prophet like Moses, and the Prophets who foretold that the virgin would conceive a bear a son whose name means “God with us” (Deut. 18:18, Isaiah 7:14).
Jesus is still held by some as a great moral teacher. Oh, sure, He is also God’s Son, but in the way that we’re all God’s children. Sure, we’ll call Him Savior, but only because He shows us the right way to live. He is merely a man. The way to heaven is through Christ, but only if you follow and do everything He tells you. For those enslaved by a fleshly understanding of the Son, we are saved because Jesus modeled the way.
True knowledge of Jesus Christ is more than acknowledging He is a good man Who says good things and gives you a good way to eternal life. Jesus Christ is God Himself in the flesh. He says so to Nicodemus in today’s Gospel: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” So does St. Paul in Romans chapter nine when He calls Jesus “the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever.” (Rom. 9:5) So does St. John: “we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)
Jesus is the Son of God because He is begotten of the Father from eternity. But, He shows Himself to be the true Son in what He comes to do for us. He redeems us by His life, suffering, and death for sin. He alone has earned our salvation. Jesus tells Nicodemus: “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” When you believe this, you are able to say with Thomas: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
We also recognize God the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity in how He makes the salvation ours through faith in Christ. Trinitarians are accused of not giving the Holy Spirit His due because we don’t look for extraordinary signs, tongues, or ecstatic experiences. But without the Holy Spirit, none of us could believe this “catholic faith.” We confess with Luther’s Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” Many Christians today deal with this inability to believe in Jesus as a matter of reason or strength. Reason says maybe the Gospel just needs to be shared in a more appealing or compelling way. Strength says that some people just aren’t as devoted to following God as “we” are.
The true knowledge of the Holy Spirit is to confess Him as true God with the Father and Son. He is the third Person of the Triune God, co-eternal, majestic and glorious, Who with the Father and the Son actively engages in the salvation of men. “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” You must be born again, meaning you cannot bring yourself. The Spirit must bring you and He must work faith and bestow heavenly birth to you. He also works powerfully in the hearts of men through the means Christ gives His Church—the Word and Sacraments. He enlightens them and regenerates them into children of God by faith.
“This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.” No one can give this faith to himself. It is an incomprehensible mystery to man, even to Nicodemus: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” You can no more contribute something to yourself when it comes to faith as you can to your physical birth. You are born flesh of flesh. Only God works this miracle by grace. God wants to work this miracle in everyone, so He lets His Word be preached to the ends of the earth.
So today, we bid farewell to the Festival Half of the Church Year and welcome once again the Church’s Half of the Church Year. Over the next several months, we will focus on the work of the Triune God on the Christian life. The Word of the Lord grows both outwardly and inwardly when we get out of the way and let God do what He does best: make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. He gives this marvelous mandate to His Church, both pastors and people who work together to strengthen one another and bring others into the ark of the Church. “Blessèd be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us.” (Introit for Holy Trinity) Amen.