"Trumpeting the Trinity in Truth"
Feast of the Holy Trinity
St. John 3:1-17
June 11, 2006
IN NOMINE JESU
Today marks a rather unusual minor festival in the church year. We are not celebrating one of the events in the life of our Lord, such as the Annunciation, Epiphany, or Ascension. We are not even commemorating one of the Apostles or Evangelists. No, today we are remembering a doctrine, one that is unique to the Christian faith and essential for the Christian faith, the Triune God; that is to say, we celebrate the three Persons in the one Godhead. Today is known as the Feast of the Holy Trinity. In 1522, Martin Luther began his sermon on this text, on this festival, saying thus:
Today we celebrate the festival of the Holy Trinity, to which we must briefly allude, so that we may not celebrate it in vain. It is indeed true that the name "Trinity" is nowhere to be found in the Holy Scriptures, but has been conceived and invented by man. For this reason it sounds somewhat cold and we had better speak of "God" than of the "Trinity."
This word signifies that there are three persons in God. It is a heavenly mystery which the world cannot understand. I have often told you that this, as well as every other article of faith, must not be based upon reason or comparisons, but must be understood and established by means of passages from the Scriptures, for God has only the perfect knowledge and knows how to speak concerning Himself.
Yes, we are celebrating something we do not understand. We are celebrating one of the great mysteries of the faith, for we accept this mystery by faith. There are many articles of the faith that we do not understand. For example, we do not fully understand how the world was created, outside of what God tells us in His Word. Even in the creation, the Triune God was fully involved. We read in Genesis, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:1-2). And in St. John's Gospel, we hear of God the Son's work in creation. John writes: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made" (John 1:1-3).
Even today we cannot fully comprehend the article of faith on the Holy Trinity, but it is essential to our faith. A few moments ago we confessed this essential article of the faith as we confessed our faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed: "Whoever will be saved shall, above all else, hold the catholic faith. Which faith, except everyone keeps whole and undefiled, without doubt he will perish eternally. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance," and we went on from there. In short, for one to be a Christian, he must also be Trinitarian. To be Trinitarian, one must also be a Christian. There is no avoiding this reality. If a person is going to believe in one Person of the Trinity, he must accept all three Persons. While the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct, these Persons are inseparable; for to attempt to separate the Persons would be to try to divide the substance of God, who is indivisible.
Why did the Church invent the word Trinity? After all, God did not give us this word in the Scriptures. Luther said in a sermon, again on this text and on this festival, but in 1532, that it is necessary to use such words. "The words trinitas, unitas are really mathematical terms. And yet, we can't talk about God without using such words. But at the same time, it is also true that when we use human language to speak about God, it seems to have a different ring to it, a whole new connotation." Luther is most certainly true on this point. There are certain words that the Church has used and set aside especially for her own use, words we do not use in our everyday conversations. But the Church has her own language, so that all people may know that, when these words are used in a churchly setting, there is something very special going on, namely, that the people of God are being taught, fed on the Word of God, and that He Himself is present among us. We have a language all our own in the Church; it is hymnic, liturgical, sacramental, and catechetical by nature. This is the Church's witness to the world that in this sanctuary, in this chancel, great things are happening here, for our Triune God comes to us today through the public reading and proclamation of His Word and through the body and blood of Christ, by which He comforts us and strengthens us in our faith.
For us to receive the full benefits of what God gives us, we need to be regenerated, another word the Church uses; it means we need to be born again. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, so He says to us, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (v. 3). This was a concept foreign to Nicodemus, for Jews were considered believers by birth, and Gentiles were considered unbelievers because they were born outside the Jewish faith community. To be born again, one must be converted by the Holy Spirit. To be a believer in the one true God, the Holy Spirit must first bring a person to faith; that is a person's rebirth, his regeneration. But Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, did not understand what the Lord was saying to him. Nicodemus understood these words of the Lord only in human terms; he thought a grown person would have to re-enter his mother's womb and go through the birthing process all over again. If you think about it long enough, you will understand how ridiculous a sight that would be. But Nicodemus was yet not born again; the Holy Spirit had not accomplished His work in him at that time. Nicodemus was thinking only of the flesh giving birth to flesh. But Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit's giving birth to a person's life in Christ. This rebirth takes place through water and the Spirit; that is, through Holy Baptism as a person becomes baptized in and into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But Nicodemus had no understanding of this Baptism. He knew of the Jewish practice of baptizing pots and pans, that they would be rendered clean and fit for cooking. Saint Mark notes that "the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches" (Mk. 7:3-4). This is all Nicodemus knew in this regard. He was not yet a believer; so he could not yet begin to understand the things of God.
If such a learned man as Nicodemus could not understand the teachings of the Lord, how can we expect ourselves to understand what the Lord is teaching us? We find it easier to give up on the teachings rather than to accept these by faith. Why believe in something we will never understand? we ask ourselves. We begin to make excuses for remaining ignorant in what our Lord teaches us. Then what little knowledge we have of our Lord we lose, and we do not seem to care. We begin to look elsewhere for teachings we can accept, for pictures that are clearly drawn for us. The Trinity is a hard teaching for us to understand, and in our pluralistic society, it is harder for us to accept. We live in an age where we no longer accept what God tells us in His Word, even what He clearly tells us. Even as I tell you that Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (14:6), and again, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (v. 5), your sinful nature is wont to say to me, "Well, that's just your opinion, Pastor," or, "I don't believe that." You see, we have become products of our society. We have become what those images we see and hear all around us want us to be. This is why many hold to the false teaching that all people, Christians and non-Christians alike, will go to heaven. A twentieth-century theologian in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Fred Lindemann, wrote extensively on this particular point of doctrine in a sermon for this day. He goes to great length to explain what we believe, teach, and confess regarding the Holy Trinity, writing thus:
Furthermore, we make the right use of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity if we bear in mind that the Triune God is the only God. It is often said that all men have the same God. It is argued that Jews, Mohammedans, Buddhists, who die without having heard and believed the Gospel, will not be damned if they were sincere in their particular religion. In this connection many say: "We all believe in the same God." We do not! The only God is the Triune God. The Jew does not believe in the Son of God and rejects the Second Person. He has not the true God. The Mohammedan knows only Allah, no Son and Holy Spirit. He has not the true God. The same is true of the Buddhists and any other heathen. The Unitarians in our own country have not the true God, for they do not believe in the God of three Persons and deny that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are separate [distinct] Persons. All of our modern preachers who do not accept the doctrine of the deity of Christ, who make the Son a mere man, have not the true God. Every fraternal organization that does not recognize the three Persons in God but worships and prays to a non-descript supreme being who is acceptable to Jew, Mohammedan, Buddhist, and Hindu, is worshiping a false god. The only true God is the Triune God, and the worship of any other is idolatry. Our Lord said: "The Father...has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him." ...St. Paul knew but one God, and He is God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Lindemann continues:
Can we not join in the worship of a false god if we think of the true God when the false is mentioned? If we privately and personally believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, can there be any harm in outwardly joining in the idolatry of others? The Corinthians in St. Paul's day thought there was no harm in that. They participated in the feasts of the heathen and ate of the sacrifices offered on such occasions. They argued that they knew the true God and that the gods the heathen worshiped were no gods at all. Therefore they looked upon the sacrifices of the heathen as harmless and innocent. But the Apostle wrote: "My beloved, shun the worship of idols....What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the Cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the Table of the Lord and the table of demons." St. Paul argued by the Holy Spirit that although there was no such god as the pagans worshiped, their sacrifice was not as innocent as it looked. Since they did not worship the true God, they worshiped demons, their sacrifice was offered to demons, and the Corinthian Christians should have nothing to do with such worship. "I do not want you to be partners with demons." The worship of the true God and the worship of demons do not mix. Christians can have no fellowship with such as sacrifice and offer worship and pray to a false god. They cannot drink the Cup of the Lord and the cup of demons, cannot be partakers of the Lord's Table and the table of demons. To join in the worship of a god who is not the true God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, would be idolatry. Shun the worship of idols!
May God by His Holy Spirit give us grace to confess and acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, to continue steadfast in this faith, and always to make the right practical use of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
For this reason we are here today, that the Holy Spirit would lead us to confess and acknowledge the Triune God and to continue in this Christian, and therefore Trinitarian, faith. The Holy Spirit has brought us here today to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, worshiping Him in spirit and in truth. We did not come here on our own, but the Holy Spirit has called us to worship, for He has called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, sanctified and kept us in the one true faith. He has brought us here that we may receive all the blessings of our Triune God. Our God comes to us through His Word, and we respond to Him with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. God comes to us in His entire Triune-ness, and our worship is likewise Trinitarian. We sing of this great mystery, "God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!" Our worship of Him begins in the same way our lives as Christians began: In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. As we make confession of our sins, we hear the involvement of the entire Trinity as He forgives us: "Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy on us and has given His only Son to die for us and for His sake forgives us all our sins. To them that believe on His Name He gives power to become the sons of God and has promised them His Holy Spirit. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved." In this declaration of grace we hear also the central message that our Lord has given us in our text for today. He says to us: "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. ... For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved" (vv. 5, 16-17). God the Son was lifted up on the cross so that the bite of sin would no longer lead to eternal death for us, and so that God the Father would declare us forgiven for His Son's sake. The sinful nature does not comprehend what our Lord has done, but by the Holy Spirit we cling to this forgiveness our Lord has won for us, and we respond, giving glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, even as we sing, "Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father." Our prayers go to our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with Him and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. We hear three readings from the Holy Scriptures, even as there are three Persons in the one Godhead, and, having heard this life-giving word, the Holy Spirit moves us to confess our Christian, our Trinitarian, faith in one of the three Creeds of the Church, and today we confessed our faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed. As our Lord, the Son of God, prepares to come to us in His body and blood, we sing the song of the angels in our Old Testament reading for today: "And one called to another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!'" (Isaiah 6:3). We, as do the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, sing praises to the holy Father, the holy Son, and the Holy Spirit, for He comes to us in His glory, bringing heaven to earth, as He does in the Sacrament of the Altar, of which we shall partake in a few moments. And as we leave our Lord's house today to live according to the callings He has given us, He places His thrice-holy Name upon us. As we entered for worship this day, He placed His Name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, upon us, and He will do so before we leave through His words of the Benediction as the Father blesses and keeps us, as the Son makes His face shine upon us and is gracious unto us, and as the Holy Spirit lifts up His countenance upon us (looking upon us with favor) and giving us peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding. Yes, the teaching of the Holy Trinity is a mystery to us, but we need not worry, for our Triune God, the one true God, has given us all that we need, that we may accept this by faith. And, as Pastor Lindemann reminds us,
With the Festival of the Holy Trinity the festive half of the Church Year comes to a close. We have observed Christmas in honor of God the Father, Easter in honor of God the Son, Pentecost in honor of God the Holy Spirit. Today we commemorate that the greatest and the only true religion in the world presents God as three in distinct Persons yet one in Essence.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!
SOLI DEO GLORIA
Send Pastor Mark Schlamann an email.