Monday, May 23, 2005

Sermon on Matthew 28:19-20 (Trinity Sunday)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Although Trinity Sunday comes only once-a-year, that isn’t meant to suggest that we shouldn’t be singing, praising, speaking of, or teaching about the Holy Trinity year-round. Rather it draws special attention this Sunday to the question of “Who God is;” and I think, as a special bonus, it gives us a fitting day to use the Athanasian Creed. The sermon text this Trinity Sunday will be Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” I also will be making frequent reference to the Athanasian Creed, so you may want to look at that creed in your bulletin insert.

When I say it’s a special bonus to say the Athanasian Creed this Sunday, I’m not joking. It gives such a clear picture of the Scriptural doctrine of the Trinity, that is named in today’s text and in our baptism and at the beginning of each service and in our prayers and in so many other places. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each one of the three ecumenical creeds that we use—the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds—testify or bear witness to the Scriptural teaching of the Trinity. And we confess these creeds because in saying them, we are bearing witness to the objective truth of who God is—the God in whom we believe. As Romans 10:10 says it, “With the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” In other words, the faith in our hearts speaks what it believes. So as a natural response to what God has revealed to us through His Word and Holy Spirit, we speak back that Truth which we believe. And those words that we speak are not our own personal, individual words, but the corporate words and faith of our common Christian confession throughout the ages. The Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds each arose both out of the natural response of faith, and also in response to errors in the church. And these errors weren’t just a problem in the first few centuries of Christianity; they are still with us today, in new clothes. Specifically, the creeds address false teachings concerning the Trinity and the Person of Christ. The Athanasian Creed was written probably in the late 5th century AD, and especially focuses on the equality of the three persons of the Trinity, and on the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Let’s briefly look at how the Athanasian Creed answers the question who is God? The first half of the Creed describes God’s qualities or attributes, and how they are shared among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three persons have a shared and equal glory and majesty, and are all equally uncreated, infinite, eternal, almighty. The three persons should not be confused with one another, yet they remain and are One God, not three Gods. One Being, not three beings; One Lord, not three lords. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to be worshipped alone, and neither one nor the other is greater or lesser than the other persons. Thus we avoid falling into the errors of saying there are three gods or three lords, or on the other hand of not acknowledging the distinct persons. The Athanasian Creed also outlines the distinctiveness of the Three persons of the Trinity. The Father, is neither begotten nor incarnate (in human flesh) like the Son. And the Holy Spirit is neither begotten nor incarnate, but is proceeding from both the Father and the Son.

Of course this is not the half of what could be said concerning who God is, or what the doctrine of the Trinity is; but it already tells us quite a bit. But now that we know something about Who God is, the next question the Athanasian Creed answers is “How do we know Him?” The answer to this question is given in the second half of the Athanasian Creed, beginning with the line, “Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s precisely through the second person of the Trinity becoming incarnate as a man, that God has been revealed to us. Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no ones knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27). Apart from the Son’s choosing to reveal Him, none of us could know the Father.

Through Jesus, the Trinity is revealed to us, and we learn of what God’s purpose is, and the relation between the Three Persons of the Trinity. Through Jesus, this description of who God is begins to take shape in it’s meaning for us. Through the appearing of Jesus, death was abolished and life and immortality were brought to light through the Gospel (2 Tim. 1:10). Through Christ’s incarnation we learn that He is the Word, the Son of God, who was there at the beginning with God, and through Him all things were made. Through Jesus we learn of the work of the Holy Spirit, who points us to Jesus and guides us in faith, so that we are able to confess that Jesus is Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). Through Jesus we see the love of God not only in word, but also in action. For being in darkness and dead in our transgressions and sins, we could neither know God as He truly is, nor could we come to Him. Without the revelation of Christ and His Word, we could only know vaguely of a god of wrath, judging from the suffering, pain, and death in this world. Yet it was the very sin that blinded us that brought this wrath and death upon us. But only through Christ could we come to know more than God’s wrath against sin, and to see His true love for us in the willingness to take that wrath upon Himself at the cross, to provide forgiveness for us. Only then could we see that God still desired to save us from our sins and had a plan to do it.

And here again the Athanasian Creed speaks so clearly and distinctly about the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.” For it is essential to our salvation that Jesus was and is truly both God and man. Again, this is partly why the Athanasian Creed was written, to counter the various errors that were arising in the early church, that either denied Jesus was fully man, or that He was fully God. If He was not fully man, than He could not have truly been our substitute and truly paid our penalty of death. Had He not been fully God, then He would have been unable to rise from the dead, or to make His death effective to forgive all sin. So the words of the Creed affirm those essential Biblical teachings, that Jesus’ divine nature came from God, and that His human nature came from Mary, so that He was perfect God and perfect man. But not as though He were two, but rather is one person, the Christ. In His Godhead He is equal to the Father, but in His humanity He was subordinate to the Father.

And Jesus didn’t become the God-man by transforming the Godhead into human flesh, but rather by taking up the human flesh into God. Not so that it was absorbed or changed into something that is not human, but so that Jesus’ divine and human natures were united as one Person. This is what it means when the Creed says “One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.” So divinity and humanity were not confused or mixed together, but united as one. All of this was essential to what comes next in the Creed, namely the description of Jesus’ suffering, death, descent into hell, rising from the dead, ascension to heaven, and His return to judge the living and the dead. And this is where the Athanasian Creed concludes. Those who have done good—namely those who have believed in Jesus Christ, will rise to life, while those who have done evil—namely those who have not believed the Gospel, will go into everlasting fire. And here you might notice that the Creed ends by saying this is the catholic faith by which we are saved, just as the Creed began by saying the same thing. And so the entire Creed is bracketed at beginning and end with what the purpose of this all is—our salvation. For who God is and how we know Him ultimately leads to what He has done for us in salvation through Christ Jesus.

The words “whoever will be saved shall, above all else, hold the catholic faith” is an earnest reminder to us of why we believe, confess, and teach this Christian faith. For without it you will perish eternally. And this is why we have the earnest responsibility to pass this faith on to those who follow after us, just as it was passed down to us. We aren’t the first Christians, and neither they nor we are innovators of the faith, but rather we carry on what was handed down to us and revealed in Scripture. Neither can we ignore this faith, because unless the Lord returns first, we will not be the last Christians either, and the generations ahead need to believe this same faith.

But here in the Creed we are reminded how the importance of the Trinity comes down to us. For this God who is 3 in 1, and who revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ, is the God who saves us. And this Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the one God whose name we have been baptized into, as the words of Jesus said: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” In baptism, the God who is 3 in 1, became the God who saved us by the washing of the baptismal waters in His name. Here the great mystery of the Trinity and the salvation Christ accomplished for us is made our own, and marks us as God’s saved children. Here in baptism we are joined in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us. Here there is forgiveness and life, full and free. Amen. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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