In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit
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.
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 gives a sourpuss face 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, just as Jesus says in perhaps the most familiar verse in all the Gospels: 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 sent His Son Jesus to reconcile sinners to the Father. God accepted you as His child and has declared Himself as your Father for the sake of Jesus Christ. Every family in heaven and on earth is named in the heavenly Father.
We recognize God the Son in the Holy Trinity in His acquiring of our 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. He does not recognize Jesus as the true Son of God Who is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
Jesus is still held by some as a great moral teacher. Oh, sure, He is also God’s Son and Savior, but He is merely a man. The way to heaven is through Christ, but only if you follow and do everything He tells you. The way Jesus saves becomes a matter of obedience of His example.
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 Saint Paul in Romans chapter nine when He calls Jesus the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. So does Saint 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. So does the author of the epistle to the Hebrews: [the Son] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Jesus is the Son of God because of 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 to be true, you are able to say with Thomas: My Lord and my God!
We also recognize God the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity in how He appropriates the salvation earned for us by the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The verb “to appropriate” is one we don’t use much these days. “To appropriate” means, “to take to or for oneself; take possession of”. You might think that means the Holy Spirit should receive partial credit in making salvation our own. Not so. 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 modern-day Christians deal with this inability to believe in Jesus by reason or strength by leaving the power of God alone. They pretend it doesn’t exist, or pretend that it comes upon people in some sort of personal, mysterious way.
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. He also works powerfully in the hearts of men through the Gifts Christ gives His Church, through Word and Sacrament. He enlightens them and regenerates them into children of God by faith.
Jesus tells Nicodemus: Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God…. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. This is a dark mystery to children of the world. They can’t get their mind around it. The reason why this is easily misunderstood or not understood at all is because it is a matter of faith. Either you believe it or you don’t. Faith is caught, not taught. Only the Holy Spirit teaches you to say in firm faith: Abba, Father.
As we confessed in the Athanasian Creed a bit ago: “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.”
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit