SERMON FOR THE HOLY TRINITY, MAY 27, 2018
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
For preachers on this day, in the Lutheran church, there are a couple challenges that arise on the Feast of the Holy Trinity. First, we are challenged to confront some theological terms. Substance and person, infinites and coeternals. We confess a creed, starting, with an A, that’s long, and difficult to say. The second challenge is that congregations, again, on this day, have a renewed suspicion that their Lutheran pastors are subtly suggesting they become Roman Catholics – and pledge their loyalty to the pope.
To the latter concern, you may rest assured, that we’ll stay Lutheran. It is not arrogant to say that to be Lutheran is to be Christian – it is simply the clearest expression and confession of the Christian faith. However we also acknowledge that it’s not only Missouri Synod Lutherans, who belong to Christ's Church, and who now rest from their labors. Hopefully it’s not a disappointment or surprise that heaven is also filled with those who didn’t call themselves Missouri Synod or even know what that is. Consequently, we are catholics, in the sense that we acknowledge the universality of the holy Christian Church, all believers, at all times, and all places. Holy apostles, martyrs, saints, angels, and archangels.
To say Christian church, in one sense, is a redundant phrase. Of course the church is Christian what else could it be?
But catholic, now we’re emphasizing the unified confession of the one church in all times and all places, built upon the doctrine of the apostles and prophets, whose cornerstone is Christ, believing, teaching, and confessing what has always been believed, taught, and confessed. Catholic is actually a Bible word, from the Greek catholika, emphasizing to us the broad, wide-reaching embrace of the love of God, and the faith shared by our brothers and sisters the world over – in the mutual confession of Christ and him crucified. And in that sense, the word catholic must likewise always be Christian.
The first challenge I mentioned, about unfamiliar words, phrases, and theological terms – will continue to bewilder in our present age. In an age of tweets, Instagram, and social media – I’ve often wondered if that Athanasian Creed is met by our churches with some degree of confusion or even annoyance. “Pastor,” folks may say, “leave that stuff to the theology professors and seminaries. Theology may be fine for you, but give me something simple, give me a practical religion, something that I can really use in my life.” In one sense they are right. Teaching and doctrine should be clear and understandable. There is nothing worse than a preacher or teacher talking above his students. Folks should be able to make connections and apply theology and Christian doctrine to their lives. All preachers can be better at this, including myself.
Yet in another, sense, those folks are dead wrong in their criticism. They are wrong in their assumption that everything about our holy faith ought to be simple, and easy, and that if anything about what is taught or confessed here becomes too complicated, they can check out, dismiss it, and leave it to the professionals – with advanced degrees.
The dangerous underpinning of this thinking is that the Lord is primarily there to help me live a better more fulfilled life, to make me feel better, to help me with the practical stuff – so I can have a better sense of control over my life, etc.
To a degree there is some of this thinking in Nicodemus, a practical man, if there ever was one, who wants to understand Jesus in a way that fits the Pharisees focus on rules for righteous living – a little more practical, “give me something I can really use”. We and Nicodemus have a lot in common in that respect.
But Jesus doesn’t indulge him: “truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The sermon Jesus goes on to preach must have sounded very strange, complicated, and impractical – for Nicodemus, a well-intentioned man, genuinely wanting to serve God.
But our Lord turns it all around, and rather than focusing on man’s work to please God. He speaks of God’s mysterious and wonderful work in man. This is the work of God, said our Lord, that you believe in him whom he has sent. You must be born again. Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. He goes on to preach about his incarnation – his divinity, saying, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” He spoke of his crucifixion and resurrection, saying, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believe in him may have eternal life.” He speaks of judgment, For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Jesus speaks of the Trinity: Of the Father and of the Son “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” He speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit “the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear it sounds. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
How did Nicodemus walk away that day? Maybe a little like so many Christians confessing the Athanasian Creed: a little puzzled, perplexed, maybe even slightly little annoyed.
The Athanasian creed may seem impractical – a bit irrelevant for the day - the stuff of professors and theologians. But how wrong we would be! These aren’t some old, outdated doctrines from dusty books. This is life, and salvation, to know God as He has revealed Himself: as Father, as Son, and Holy Spirit. To know who we are as creatures, sinful, crying out like Isaiah, Woe is me; for I am a man of unclean lips,” yet redeemed by the God-man Jesus. Above all, the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation in the Creed today should make us think about the crucifixion of Jesus. Because there hangs God, giving his life for you. That flesh is God’s flesh, and that blood is God’s blood. And that suffering is God’s suffering, and that death is God’s death.
Theology literally means the science of God. It’s practical, it’s relevant. It matters. There are certain unalterable facts about His own nature that He has revealed to us. In Christ, we see the fullness of God. When God speaks He speaks Jesus. And in Jesus we see the Father’s kind and loving heart toward you. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
What’s more practical and relevant than the fact that Jesus is God. What’s more useful and helpful than being raised from your grave on the last day, with an incorruptible body, to enjoy life everlasting. What’s more relevant than baptism, the washing away of sins, and participating in the communion of love with the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
As misdirected as Nicodemus was – he had perfect vision to be at the right place at the right time – when it really mattered. He who came first to Jesus in the secret of night now comes boldly in the light of day. He took our Lord Jesus down from the cross. Bringing myrrh and aloes he anointed Jesus in his death. He gently wrapped his body in linen clothes, and laid him in a garden, for sleep in a new tomb. He was at the same time the first great theologian of the cross, and the first head of the altar guild.
We can learn something here. Namely, that all of our questions, are answered by Jesus death on the cross. Furthermore, from Nicodemus we learn to be at the right place at the right time, to be as close and near to the crucified and living Christ as we can be. How can a man be born again? To be baptized into his death – to be raised in his resurrection – to participate in the life of the Triune God. To have the blood of Christ touching your lips; and the Lord, declaring, “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Prayer of the Church
Let us pray for the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs.
For an increase in devotion for all the saints, for the faithful proclamation of the Gospel by all pastors in Christ, for an end to schism and division within the Church Militant, and for the proper fear and fervent praise of the Holy Trinity among all those born again from above in Holy Baptism, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For Jonathan Jennings, preparing for ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry – that he would be a blessing to his congregation, exercising the office of the keys in the stead and authority of Christ, and administering the life-giving medicine of the Holy Gospel, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For the sojourner and stranger, for the persecuted and oppressed, for prisoners and their families, for the enemies of the faith, and for the true repentance of all, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For thankful hearts, and for the faithful support of the Church and the work of the Lord, here and throughout the world, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For the safety of all those who travel, and for a time of enjoyment and refreshment among all who gather together with family and friends, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For the nations and those who lead them, for peace in the world, for an end to violence and war, and for the remembrance of those who defended our liberty with the cost of their lives, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For those mourning the death of loved ones, especially Martha Galvin at the death of her brother Rodney, that all would find comfort and peace in the blessed hope of the resurrection and a happy reunion in heaven, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For reverent awe as our lips receive the very body and blood of Christ from the holy altar, for the removal of our guilt and deliverance from evil, for the strengthening of our love for God and for one another, and for an increase of faith, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
For the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.
All glory, honor and praise be to the most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Holy, holy, holy is He whose name is majestic in all the earth, through whom we receive forgiveness, life and salvation. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.