Feast of the Holy Trinity (Matthew 28:16-20)

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It is impossible to fully comprehend the mystery of the Trinity.  It isn’t a math problem to be solved—three in one and one in three, or a puzzle to be unlocked.  It’s an article of faith—something we believe because that’s what God has told us in His Word.

In the first several centuries of the Church, many false and dangerous confusions arose about one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There was the Patripassian controversy associated with a priest named Sabellius in the 200’s.  He confused the suffering of the Son with that of the Father.  Then, there were the Arians who said the Son was a creature and not true God from eternity, Eutychus who said Jesus Christ wasn’t simultaneously God and Man but some blend, and Nestorius who went the opposite way and said you couldn’t say that God was born and died, but only Christ did those things.  And not to be left out, the Pneumatomachians contended that the Holy Spirit was of lesser rank, perhaps an angel or an impersonal energy.[1]

Confusions like these were the occasion for the Athanasian Creed, named after the 4th century champion for the Trinity, Athanasius.  While these debates rage among theologians and philosophers, if you’re not skilled in that, you might wonder why it all matters to lay people?

God is Almighty and unknowable. His judgments are beyond our ability to fathom.  Solomon confesses, “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)  So, how can we claim to know God, understand His will, or be sure that we are worshipping Him in a fitting manner?  If this point gets pushed too far, we could find ourselves in serious, existential doubt about our faith.

But the reason we know God isn’t false confidence or ignorant bravado.  God reveals Himself to us.  The Holy, Triune God wants to be known by His creatures, who are made in His image. So, He reveals Himself to us in weakness—in words, in water, in the flesh, in bread and wine.

In the age of information, our lives are filled with words.  Sometimes we become overwhelmed with the volume or a perceived irrelevance of what people are saying.  But has always used words to relate to His creatures—“by the word of the Lord the heavens were made,” (Ps. 33:6) the first words He spoke to Adam in the garden, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path” (Ps. 119:105), “As the rain and snow come down form heaven…making it bring forth and sprout…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty” (Isa. 55:10), “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen His glory” (John 1:14).  Human words only carry so much power—the power other people give them.  But God’s Word, received those who have ears to hear, accomplishes faith, forgives sins, heals broken spirits, casts out demons, and on the last day will even raise the dead (John 5:28-29).

God also attaches His Word to otherwise ordinary, humble things.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The teaching of His disciples, the word of forgiveness they speak are not their own, but God’s.  The water of Baptism goes through the same treatment plant and pipes as the water with which you drink and take a shower, but when it is combined with God’s Word, according to His command here, it is a life-giving water, rich in grace and a washing of new birth in the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5-8, Small Catechism).  In the same way, there are countless types of bread, some quite exotic and delicious.  There are many kinds of wine with flavors so subtle only connoisseurs can appreciate them.  But only the bread and wine set apart by the Lord’s Word, according to His institution, has the promise, “This is my Body given for you; This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”

At the same time, these gifts which we call Sacraments are not meant to take on a life of their own.  We do not baptize because we believe it to be a magic formula that makes us bulletproof from harm, or free to live a godless life.  We do not confess our sins to the pastor so that we can get a clean slate to go out and sin some more.  And the Lord’s Supper is not a ritual to make us feel more pious. Neither are the elements themselves the focus, but Christ Himself and the forgiveness of our sins.

While the Athanasian Creed makes it very clear how careful you have to be with the doctrine of the Trinity, what this actually looks like is when people despise the way God comes into our life, and neglect those very plain ways the Infinite God wants to dwell with us finite creatures.

In the blindness of sin, we neglect these simple means, not simply by ignoring them but by making other things more of a priority.  When we think we’re wise and spiritual, we only sense God’s presence when we have an emotionally-moving experience.  The music has to be just so, the congregation has to show signs of having the Holy Spirit, and the pastor has to be dynamic and relevant.  But Almighty God does not promise, “Behold, I am with you always to the end of the age, except when you’re bored by the liturgy and think you’ll lose your kids if there isn’t an exciting youth program.”

No, He says He is with us always in very concrete ways that are so simple a child can understand and accept them.  Therefore Jesus says, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  With simple trust in what our Father has said, we find that in these simple means, the fulness of deity is pleased to dwell.  That is what Christ our Lord commands before ascending back into heaven: That believing this, we follow His instructions and don’t think ourselves wiser than Him—make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the Name of the Triune God, and teaching them His Word continually.  It is in these that He promises to be with us always to the Day of His return.

In them—the Words, the water, the absolution, the bread and wine—God lays out His heart for you.  In them is His power to loose you from sin and hell and open eternal life.  With these, He adopts you and your children as sons, and gives the perseverance you need for every trial, temptation, disappointment, and sorrow of this world.

All who despise His Word reject the true and Holy God.  But all who hold fast in faith will be blessed for ages to come. God keep you all in the promise and power of His gifts! Amen.

[1] For more information, see Leo Donald Davis, “The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787)”

Matins Devotion for June 7

Feast of the Holy Trinity (John 3:1-14)

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.