Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Holy Trinity, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 19, 2011 (The Holy Trinity, Series A)

The Trinity is one of those teachings of Christianity that doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant to us as we struggle to live our Christian lives here in this world. Especially for those Christians who understand Christianity (and religion in general) to be a matter primarily of faithfulness and morality in this life rather than of trust in the promises of God which lead to eternal life, the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything at all. And that’s what we all are according to our old sinful nature, namely people who understand religion and relationship with God as being primarily a matter of how we live our lives rather than what God tells us about His eternal life. We all tend to think religion is about our behavior rather than God’s gifts. How does it help us to be better people who live better lives to believe in the abstract and illogical idea that God is neither just one nor just three, but three-in-one?

And yet, the Athanasian Creed (which we will confess together in a few moments) asserts that unless we believe this doctrine of the Holy Trinity faithfully and firmly, we cannot be saved. And, in fact, it goes into a rather large amount of detail as to what we are to believe and not to believe about the Trinity and the three Persons in one God. This seems unreasonable to our natural minds. And it would be unreasonable if the idea our natural minds hold about religion were actually true. The doctrine of the Trinity really is irrelevant to a religion that focuses on man’s life in this world, man’s good works and avoidance of sin, and man’s happiness and healthiness. If that’s all that religion were about, namely helping us to live a more moral life, or a happier life, or a healthier and more well-adjusted life, the doctrine of the Trinity would not only be unnecessary, it would be a problematic and dangerous source of conflict and argument. After all, having conflict and controversy with one’s fellow human beings is not exactly conducive to healthiness or happiness in this life.

The reason why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important that one cannot be saved without it, is precisely because all of that isn’t what Christianity is primarily about. Christianity isn’t primarily about helping us live better, happier, healthier, more purpose-driven, and more well-adjusted lives here, it is about our eternal destiny after we die to this world. It isn’t primarily about what we do in service to God or our neighbor (though God does have plenty to say about that in His Law) it’s about what God has done for us. The most important message of Christianity, in other words, is not Law but Gospel. It’s a religion of creeds rather than deeds. It’s a matter of trusting God’s promises rather than obeying His commands first and foremost. And in order to trust in His promises, one must understand what He did for us. And in order to grasp that, one must have at least a basic understanding of who He is that He can do such a wondrous thing for us as die for our sins and take away our punishment and give us His perfection in its place. And that’s not something the natural heart of man is able to grasp. Which is why all other religions besides Christianity are religions that focus on what we do, how we live our lives here. And its also why Christianity itself is so often misunderstood in the same way by those both inside and outside the Christian Church.

If Christianity were a religion that was primarily about what we do, then Christianity could be understood and studied rationally, the way one studies and understands the owner’s manual of a car. But since it is a matter of trusting in the promises that come from outside of ourselves, it is a matter of having a relationship with the one who made the promise. And you can’t understand or study a relationship between living persons unless you’re part of that relationship. That’s why the new birth in Holy Baptism, which is instituted in today’s Gospel lesson, is essential to being a Christian. The old sinful self wants to base its relationship with God on its own reason or strength, on its own merit or worthiness. And if you base your relationship with God on what you do, it really doesn’t matter whether God is three-in-one or not. But the old sinful self always falls short, and is always going to fall short. The only way we can enter into that relationship in which He is our heavenly Father and we are His true children who trust His promises to give us eternal life and salvation, is if that old self is put to death and a new self comes forth and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Which is why being baptized into the community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is how one becomes a disciple. It’s about what He did for us and does in us, not about what we do.

God gives us that blessed death and resurrection in Holy Baptism, where the old sinful self who wants to be a spiritual loner is drowned and the new you who is created in the image of the true God, was brought to life. You now live in that new life, a life lived in relationship with the Triune God. After all, God did not create you to be alone. It’s the old, fallen self that wants to do his own thing in spiritual matters, whether that be in terms of ignoring God’s commandments or in terms of trying and failing to earn his way back into God’s good graces. Instead, God created us to be in relationship with, and therefore dependent upon, other persons. And of course, the most important relationship of all in this connection is the relationship with Himself. After all, we are created in His image. And He is not alone, but is both three and one. Each Person of the Trinity is in an eternal relationship of giving and receiving with the others. And so it is not surprising that our salvation, our life, is to be found in dependence on Him, in trust in His promises, in being recreated by Him, rather than in what we do or decide.

And this is true not only of the beginning of our Christian life in Holy Baptism, it is true of the entire life we live as Christians. We are sustained not by treating the Bible as an owner’s manual showing us what we’re supposed to do, but by what God does through His living and active Word which is what He gave us the Bible for, the living and active Word which, read and proclaimed, renews in us daily and weekly that trust in the promises of our Father who has adopted us through rebirth into His kingdom. And we are further nourished and sustained by that Word incarnate, Jesus Christ Himself, who not only washes us in the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, but causes us to eat and drink that forgiveness by giving us His own body and blood as our food and drink. It is precisely the Son of God who is in eternal fellowship with His Father and the Holy Spirit whom we eat and drink today. No wonder this is called the “medicine of immortality.” It joins us with the Creator himself, and does so for eternity. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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