Matthew 28:16-20: The Holy Trinity

c05frescoc!Right now, I’m going to warn you. I’m going to use the word “catholic” a lot in this sermon. That’s because “catholic” is a Lutheran word, even a Christian word! When we let the Roman-Catholic Church steal that word away from us, and claim full right to it, we have only become the poorer for it. For then we no longer see ourselves in the fullness of who we should be.

So, don’t let your Lutheran porcupine quills rile up against something the Lutheran Church has always confessed to be. From the beginning, the Lutheran Church asserted that she was teaching nothing new, but taught and believed what the Church from antiquity in all places has taught and believed. That’s what catholic means.

And this is the catholic faith: We worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God. Yet, we don’t confuse the persons or divide the divine Being. Or as Jesus put it: “Disciple the nations by baptizing them into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to keep all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Today is Trinity Sunday, a feast day devoted to the mystery of the Godhead. This is a mystery that God reveals to us in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, in His words for baptism. It’s a mystery that we can’t know by our own reason or senses.

This is the catholic faith. It’s not simply the Christian faith–it’s the universal consensus of Christians from the beginning, which is what Jesus handed to His Apostles, which they, in turn, handed down to us. That’s why Lutherans are catholic, for if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be believing what Jesus gave to His Apostles, which God has called the entire Church to believe, teach, and confess.

The Athanasian Creed confesses over 400 years of theological reflection in the early Church about what it means that God is both One and Three. How can Jesus and the Father be one and yet Jesus prays to the Father? How can the Son send the Spirit from the Father and yet they are but one God?

Even during creation, the first verses of Scripture introduce us to the mystery: God the Father, the Spirit of God, and the Word of God are all present and active in the creation. It’s even hinted in the way that God speaks to Himself: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).

And from Numbers, chapter 6, our Old-Testament reading, God drops another bread crumb about His three-in-oneness and one-in-threeness. He commanded that three blessings be spoken over His people. And yet, they are all from the one Lord, Yahweh. It was one blessing from each person of the Trinity, who were all the Lord.

But nowhere does Scripture express the Trinitarian mystery so plainly than in the baptismal words of our Lord: “baptizing them into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” They aren’t three names but one name, as in, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And yet these three Persons are distinct, but not divided; they are coequal, yet ordered.

The Son is born of the Father in eternity, outside of time. The Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. God is internally distinguished but externally undivided. What does that mean? It means that where the Son is, there also is the Father and the Holy Spirit. And it’s significant that Scripture teaches the Mystery of God’s three-in-oneness most clearly in the words of baptism.

It’s in baptism that we learn who the Triune God is and what He does to save us. Just as the Trinity was fully present and active in the baptism of Jesus–the Father spoke, the Spirit descended, and the Son was baptized–so was the Trinity present and active in your baptism. In baptism, you are given the name of God, and to have His name is to have God as your God. That’s why baptism saves.

Now, to our ears, the Athanasian Creed seems ponderous and long. That’s partly because our sinful minds don’t want to be told what to believe. We want to have our gods our way and fashion them in our own image and likeness. But the Athanasian Creed stands firm: “This is the catholic faith. Whoever does not faithfully and firmly believe this will not be saved.” Christianity is not a do-it-yourself religion.

The Athanasian Creed reminds us of the antiquity of our faith. That creed came to its final form in the 5th century. The Nicene Creed, the creed we confess before receiving the Lord’s Supper, dates from the early 4th century. And the Apostles Creed, the Church’s baptismal creed, dates from the 2nd century. The catholic faith wasn’t made up on the fly; it wasn’t composed on Saturday for use on Sunday. Christianity has nothing new to offer except new life. There’s nothing new in the catholic faith.

Well, there is this: what is “new” in the Church are the newly baptized who hear the Word of God and believe and confess the catholic faith with us. The catholic faith is traditional, that is, it was handed down from one generation to the next, from the Church in its continuing mission to disciple all the nations by baptizing and teaching. That’s how the catholic faith was handed down to us. The Church disciples us, that is, baptizes and teaches us into the one, true faith.

Trinity Sunday reminds us that Christianity is also confessional, that it involves confessing the fullness of God. In the fullness of the faith, there’s no such nonsense as “deeds not creeds” or “the Bible unites but doctrine divides.” How can that be? The minute you say one word about what the Bible teaches, you are doing “doctrine” and confessing a creed. Everyone who believes something has a creed; the only question is, “Which one?” Is it a creed of your own making or is it the catholic faith?

The first good work that flows from faith is to confess the faith that you believe. That’s a creed! What you believe you confess; and so, creeds lead to deeds! The Christian life is both believing and doing. Even more, doctrine doesn’t divide–unbelief does. The truth unites; it’s falsehood that divides. It’s rejecting the truth that divides.

Doctrine is that work of love that loves God, not only with the heart and soul, but also with the mind. And in that work of love for others, it seeks to speak the truth of God in love. In other words, it’s because the Christians of the past loved God and loved others that they hammered out creeds and confessed them.

Now some may object and say that the word “trinity” isn’t found in the Bible and so it can’t be biblical. For that matter, the word “incarnation” isn’t in the Bible, which we use to describe Jesus becoming human. Yet, that’s a biblical truth. The word “sacrament” isn’t in the Bible, but it’s our way of describing how God comes to us in the ways He has chosen to deliver His forgiveness of sins. That’s biblical. So, don’t let anyone dupe you with such a weak argument.

Besides, what words would you use to describe the three Persons of God who are one Being? What analogies could you use? They would all be wrong in some way. Is God like water, steam, and ice? Water, steam, and ice are all three forms of water, but not at the same time. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all at the same time. Is God like an apple? An apple is the skin, the fruit, and the core. But the core is not the full apple. Yet, Jesus is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and the Father is God. Every analogy to describe God fails in some way.

So, what’s the point? The beauty about today is that what we receive is how God has revealed Himself to us: the God who created us, redeems us, and sanctifies us. He’s the God who works through the Word, Jesus Christ. He’s the God who is the Word, Jesus Christ. He’s the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into whose name you have been baptized.

If Trinity Sunday teaches you anything it’s that God is not a means to some end, for He is the end, the beginning, and everything in-between. He’s the end of all things. He’s the goal of our salvation. He’s the reason the Son came to die, rise, and ascend, all so we could live in the life and love of God forever.

Now, all this might confuse you. You might leave here today scratching your head. But in the end, our confession is not by our reason, senses, or ability to put three and one together. Our confession is a gift of grace, of undeserved kindness, from God because of His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit.

We are given to know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and to confess them in their triunity. We are given to worship the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity. We are given to confess the catholic faith, the faith of the apostles, the faith that the Holy Spirit works through the Word. Yet, we are given not to understand or fully grasp the fullness of God. Instead, He calls us to confess and believe in Him faithfully and firmly. That’s a gift of God, not something you can achieve, so you have no room to boast.

Luther taught that we shouldn’t look for God where He doesn’t promise to be. For if you spend your effort and time where God doesn’t promise to come to you, you’re just spinning your wheels. Instead, we look for God where He chooses to save us: In baptism, in the Supper, the voice of absolution, and in the Word, in particular the preached Word. For as St. Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17).

Look to the God revealed in His Son Jesus, who touches us by His human nature. And it’s through God the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament where He brings you to Jesus, who then brings you to the Father. Indeed, even the way of salvation confesses the Triune God.

That’s the catholic faith, the faith we confess, the faith we learned from the Scriptures, the faith once delivered to the saints and handed down to us through the bride of Christ, the Church. Amen.