In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Each year on Trinity Sunday we dust off the sometimes dreaded Athanasian Creed. It seems tedious, especially with some of the archaic language in our hymnal’s translation of the Creed. Its repetition is tiring. So, why bother? It is the most airtight confession of our Triune God. It was written to combat those who denied the Trinity and that Jesus was fully God and fully Man. When you’re dealing with heretics, brevity is not your friend. So we confess the faith by way of the Athanasian Creed, not to recall heresies of the early Church, but to remind ourselves of the mystery of the Trinity. It also reminds us that as hard as we try to define God in human terms, we are still unable to do it in a way that our minds can comprehend.
But each year there is something that stands out to us and makes us second guess the use of the Athanasian Creed, not just in general, but especially for us as Lutherans. And, no, it’s not the use of the word catholic. Catholic, when used with a lower case C, simply means “universal,” another description of the whole Church as she is gathered by the Holy Spirit and built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, Christ Jesus Himself the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). What makes us as Lutherans stop in our tracks is the third- and second-to-last sentences, which read: “At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.” Did we suddenly adopt works-righteousness?! What about Ephesians 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9; emphasis added) or Isaiah, “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Is. 64:6)?
This is why the Gospel Reading for Trinity is Jesus speaking with Nicodemus. These Words of Our Lord show us that the Athanasian Creed does not adopt any new or heretical doctrine. Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” In other words, those who remain in the flesh, those without faith, can only sin; their good works, though good by worldly standards, are not good in God’s eyes. Jesus told His disciples: “A bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Mt. 7:18) and St. Paul told the Romans, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). On the flip side then, the people who do good works are those who are born of the Spirit. This is Scriptural code for faith. Faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit, caused by His work in the Word (Rom. 10:17), making those who are “born of the Spirit” people who have faith. Their works are pleasing to God only because they are declared righteous by grace through faith. So it is not our works that make us righteous. First God declares us righteous for the sake of Jesus’ death and resurrection, given to us by faith, and then faith then naturally does good works as proof of its existence (Jas. 2:17), and that without our knowledge of it—remember the sheep and the goats: “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed you…?” (Mt. 25:31-40). So to say that “they that have done good shall go into life everlasting” is to say that they have faith. Faith must be present for anyone to do good in God’s eyes. You can’t work your way into God’s favor. Only God’s work can do that.
Nicodemus couldn’t take it in. As a Pharisee, religion was a matter of obeying the rules to appease God. The thought that he was spiritually dead and unable to please God was unthinkable, which is why he assumes that when Jesus says you must be reborn He means a physical rebirth, something completely absurd and impossible. But Jesus tells him, no, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” This is a spiritual birth, water and Spirit joined together to give new life.
But this doesn’t mean that Baptism is some kind of “get out of hell free” card, just be Baptized and then live however you please and expect to walk into heaven. It is possible to be Baptized and go to hell. That’s what happens when someone is Baptized by well-meaning grandparents who have the baby for the weekend and then that child never again hears the Word, prays, attends the Divine Service, or in any way conducts himself as a Christian. It’s the equivalent of planting a seed but never watering it, weeding the soil, or doing anything to help it grow and mature. The seed may have been planted, but without nutrition nothing happens to it and it’s good for nothing.
But that’s not just something for those superstitiously Baptized to worry about. We can all fall prey to this by thinking “I’m Baptized, so now I can go do whatever I want! I can break every Commandment in new and imaginative ways and still be right with God!” Not so much! Repentance is part of faith. Remember the vows made on your behalf at your Baptism: “I renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways,” vows which you repeated at your Confirmation. True faith wants to live a God-pleasing life. True faith hates sin and wants to run away from it, no matter how much the world tells you to embrace it. But take heed: Faith can be eroded through willful sin and eventually drive the Holy Spirit away, placing you outside of salvation. Sin is nothing to flirt with.
But as long as Jesus is still present in the world through Word and Sacrament, there is still time for conversion, repentance, and salvation. So long as the Church exists—and she will until the trumpet sounds on the Last Day—faith can be established and strengthened. This is the will, the burning desire of our Triune God. This is what Trinity Sunday is all about. It is about the gracious operation of God on behalf of sinful men, for our salvation and eternal life.
Jesus told Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is the Trinity at work! When you see Jesus lifted on the cross, you see the Father. There on the cross is the Father’s love, because He sent His only-begotten Son into this world to suffer and die for us on the cross. There you see His heart, His passion, that He does not desire the death of a sinner, and so He gives His Son to save the whole world.
You see the Son, who is both the eternal Son of the Father and the Son of Mary. Our brother bears our sin. He died for you, bearing your sin, paying your debt and in exchange He gives you His righteousness.
And all of this is revealed to you by the Holy Spirit who shows you that this was done for you. He is the one who tells you that this forgiveness by way of innocent death was the Father’s will and the Son’s joyful task. He is the one that tells you that by Jesus’ crucifixion comes forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and reconciliation with the Father.
And this same Holy Trinity that brought about your salvation on Calvary’s cross two thousand years ago is still active today. It is He who placed His saving Name on you at your Baptism. Because you are Baptized into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all they are is given to you. You are now a child of the Father, an object of His love. You are a brother or sister of the Son, your Savior. You share His flesh, and where His flesh is—seated in heaven—is where yours will go, too. You are a recipient of all the Spirit’s gifts: forgiveness, knowledge of Jesus Christ, the ability to call God your Father, and a promise that He will come to you in the Means of Grace to strengthen your faith which receives all these gifts and keeps you to life everlasting. And with the Name of the Trinity placed on you, your works done in faith are pleasing to God, and proof of saving faith. Because you are a child of the Triune God, you will be counted among all they that have done good and with them shall inherit life everlasting.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).