The Feast of the Holy Trinity
June 11, 2017
Grace, mercy and peace be multiplied to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Dear friends, it is odd that on this holy day, the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, we have a text that at first glance seems a bit out of place, after all, what does Nicodemus have to do with the Athanasian Creed? The answer to this can be found both in our Gospel text today, but also throughout the Athanasian Creed. What is proclaimed in the third chapter of John is not a dogmatic text expounding upon the Triune nature of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Nor does this text divide the persons of the God-head systematically, giving us a detailed list of what each person does. Rather, our fathers in the faith who designed the lectionary would have the Church focus not only on who God is, but who God is for us. The holy catholic and apostolic faith is not a detached faith, but an intimately personal one. Therefore, on this day, the Church’s focus is not only on God’s Triune nature, but also His work. And these two things ought not be separated, for God’s work manifests His character.
Now to be sure, the Gospel of John is not a dogmatic text book. Thanks be to God, it is a much quicker read than that, but it does contain doctrine, that is, core fundamental truths about who God is and His work in the world. Often theologians fall into the bad habit of detaching doctrine from daily living. This was as true in the Middle Ages as it is today. This in turn, has led many, regardless of denominational affiliations, to regard church doctrine as something stuffy and boring. But this is looking at doctrine in the wrong way. Just as a game of chess becomes more interesting when you are playing instead of watching on the sidelines, in a similar way, doctrine takes on new significance when you come to understand that it is not detached from your personal life.
Who God is matters, because He is not a clock maker or scientist waiting to see how an “experiment” turns out. Rather, our God is intimately involved in His creation. Thus, what your church body states in its doctrine about who God is, also matters. And this doctrine must derive from Holy Scripture which must remain the source and norm of all doctrine. Therefore, if your church’s teaching is contrary to what God says about Himself in Holy Scripture, then you have a duty to either reform your church or to leave the heterodox church body. This is because our doctrine, our confession of faith, proclaims who God is for us. If God were a bully, which He is not, but if He were, this would affect our lives. You could say, “we have skin in the game”, as the saying goes.
If we are wrong, if our doctrine is false, there are sure to be consequences. If we have so warped who God is by false doctrine, then we would worship a false god, and such worship, whether you call your god Jesus as the Mormons do, or Allah as the Muslims, or Jehovah as the Jehovah Witnesses, such gods cannot save. So too, you cannot cherry pick the doctrine of your church as if it were a buffet, taking the things you like, while disregarding other fundamental doctrine. For example, you cannot at the same time uphold the Lord’s incarnation and universal atonement as meet, right, and salutary, and think that killing the unborn for the sake of imagined freedom is God-pleasing. Such a view is contrary to Holy Scripture, and warps God into someone He is not. As a side note, staying away from church does not vindicate you either, it only reveals the sinful condition of one’s heart, showing forth a heart that despises Christ and His gifts.
Yet, the danger of making God into someone He is not, by insisting that the Triune God has separated Himself from His Word, brings to mind the devil’s words to Eve, “Did God really say”. This danger exists in all facets of life, from changing the definition of marriage, to changing the definition of what a holy life consists of. In short, to worship a god who is an antinomian, that is a god who is against the law, is to worship a god not revealed in Holy Scripture and therefore a god who cannot save. And so, doctrine matters. And as we turn again to our text, we see that Nicodemus’ doctrine of Christ matters. Nicodemus believes Christ is a man sent from God, “a prophet”. But a mere prophet can neither rescue one from sin, open the gates of heaven, nor prevail against the gates of hell.
Christ seeks to strengthen Nicodemus’ confession by teaching Him who God is for him and how God has loved the world. Nicodemus saying that Jesus is a good person is not enough. Saying that Jesus is a man whom God is with, as God was with other prophets of old, like Moses is not enough. Jesus would bring Nicodemus to a true and vibrant confession faith. Yeah, saying that Jesus is God is not enough, for even the demons reluctantly confess that Jesus Christ is very God of very God. But in all three Ecumenical Creeds we confess that Jesus Christ is our God. In the Apostles’ and Nicene, we profess, “who for us men and for our salvation.” And today, in the Athanasian Creed, imbedded in the last paragraph is this, “For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven; He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.”
We see in our Lord’s interaction with Nicodemus this same singular focus. He does not seek to teach Nicodemus about the intricacies of the divine majesty, rather He would teach Nicodemus what is necessary to see the kingdom of God and to enter therein. Christ therefore directs His conversation with Nicodemus away from miracles and toward a proper confession of the faith. Christ teaches Nicodemus how it is possible for sinful men to enter the kingdom of God.
We have discussed the dangers, of turning Christ into a false Christ, by professing Him to be someone contrary to who He has revealed Himself to be in His Word. There is however another danger equally prevalent that is shown by our text. And far too often, both those inside and outside of the church, fall prey to this trap. Fallen men focus upon the divine majesty rather than proper doctrine. At heart, fallen men are theologians of glory. This is what we see Nicodemus do in his conversation with Jesus. Our text reads, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” In the previous chapter of John, the Evangelist records that Christ had begun to do many signs and wonders, and these are what both the crowds and Nicodemus focus on.
However, Christ shifts the conversation from earthly things, miracles and the like to heavenly things. In the second chapter of John we see one of Christ’s most well know miracles, turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and many other Christians, are particularly fond of this miracle because it shows that Christ is no pietist, for He does not forbid the fruit of the vine but graciously provides wine for the guests. Christians may partake in alcohol. This however, is not a license for drunkenness, and we would do well to remember that. The wedding at Cana should strengthen our doctrine of holy marriage and give insight into who our God is for us rather than bring forth fanciful notions of how good the wine tasted. Repent! Christ is the one who has compassion on us and graciously provides for all our needs. He blesses and sanctifies the union between one man and one women with His presence and this is the greater miracle, that God takes such an interest in human beings that He would attend, bless, and sanctify marriages that are entered according to His institution, and this our Lord still graciously does within His Church to this very day. Christ would strengthen our confession of faith by this great sign at Cana and reveal the God He is and continues to be for us.
Thus it is, that our Lord instructs Nicodemus, not in the intricacies of the divine majesty, but in what things are necessary for his salvation. It is necessary for Nicodemus, and for all men, women, and children to be born from above. (The translation of ἄνωθεν as “again” does not do justice to the Greek). Throughout the rest of the New Testament this word is either translated as from above or from the top. And the only reason the translator uses the phrase born again is because for some reason they follow Nicodemus’s confused logic. It is clear from Nicodemus’ question that he does not understand what the Lord is speaking about. Nicodemus asks about an earthly rebirth which he finds impossible, nor do I think mothers, as much as they love us, would be eager to double the number of times they went through labor.
Christ however, speaks of a spiritual birth. He answers Nicodemus saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” With these words Christ clearly indicates that being born of water and the Holy Spirit is necessary for salvation, that is to say, one must be baptized. There isn’t wiggle room here. Christ does not say, if it is convenient for you and when you get around to it, but if not that’s ok. He says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Holy Baptism is that important. Yet baptism is more than simply a command by God, although it is certainly that. Baptism is the way in which our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit places His name upon us, forgives our sins cleansing us from all unrighteousness, “rescues us from death and the devil, and gives eternal life to all who believe this.” That is why this day we rejoice with Patrick and Emma, at the baptism of Charlotte. We rejoice because Christ in His infinite mercy has sundered her from the number of the unbelieving and now she is safe in the holy ark of the Church. Christ has given Charlotte His solemn pledge that He will never leave nor forsake her. Christ has rescued her from mankind’s two bitterest foes, from death and the devil, and this day her body has been marked for resurrection.
And you too dear friends have received these same gifts in holy baptism. In baptism Christ has untied you to His death and resurrection. By His death our Lord Jesus Christ has atoned for, that is, made payment for all your sins, and by His resurrection from the dead you have been justified. This is who our God is for us. He is not a god who is far off and distant, but a God who is near at hand. He is the God who has loved us in this way, “that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
And this ultimately is the confession that our dear Lord would lead not only Nicodemus, but you also to confess. This is the confession that is beating heart of our Christian faith and separates us from the false religions of the world. We say, “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the Undivided Unity: Let us give glory to Him for He has shown mercy unto us. We focus not upon the divine majesty, but that God in Christ Jesus has had mercy on us. As He has had mercy on our dear friend and brother Mike. And just as Charlotte’s body has been marked for resurrection, so too has Mike’s.
Our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. And Mike lives. This day, you who have been born of water and Spirit come receive the nourishment which your risen Lord provides for you. Eat His body and drink His blood for the forgiveness of your sins and that He might also strengthen you in the holy catholic and apostolic faith until life everlasting. He has not abandoned you, but is with you this day and always. Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided unity: Let us give glory to Him, for He has shown mercy unto us.
In Jesus Name. Amen