Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sermon on John 8:48-59, for Holy Trinity Sunday, "The Holy Trinity"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today, a little different than usual, rather than focusing on a single text, I’ll be focusing on the theme of the Trinity, and related Bible passages. When we reflect on that teaching—do we think of it as a high and lofty “doctrine” that has no practical bearing on our Christian life? Or is it central to all the articles of Christian faith? You can probably already guess my answer. The word “doctrine” has a tendency to cause a knee-jerk reaction, or raise suspicion that we’re talking about something abstract or academic. Strangely, the word “teaching” doesn’t cause the same reaction, even though teaching and doctrine are the same thing. Doctrine is simply the church’s teaching. And the “doctrine” or teaching of the Trinity, while it may be lofty, mysterious, and even difficult to grasp—is not just for academics, nor is it impractical and irrelevant to our lives.
Granted, the terms that theologians later used to describe these mysteries, can be difficult. And granted, it’s possible to have a very academic discussion about the Trinity—but the truth about who God is in His persons and essence is vital for our faith. Scripture proclaims a high mystery to us; one that can be explored to incredible depth, but also a mystery which we’re called to believe and confess. Every Christian doctrine, every article of faith, relates to who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whether the doctrine of our human nature or original sin, the teachings about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, all the articles of faith concerning salvation and the Christian life, everything in both the visible realm and the invisible realm, is related to the teaching of the Trinity.
Who God is and what He does is inseparable from the teachings of God’s Word. How so? At the most basic level, we simply wouldn’t exist apart from God, and His having created us. Psalm 100:3, “Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” As created beings, we are to know who God is and that He has created us. And while we confess the Father primarily as creator, Scripture says the Spirit hovered over the waters in the void before creation, and say of Jesus, the Word of God, that “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:3).
Also, knowing who God is and what He does shapes how and why we worship. The ability to cry in worship, “Jesus is Lord” or to pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, or through the Holy Spirit, or the action of baptizing in the name of the Trinity, all hinge on who God is as three in one. While the Athanasian Creed we confess today might seem too abstract for some, John Henry Newman observed that above everything else, the Creed has its goal to glorify Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in “declaring their infinite perfections” and to “glorify God in His incomprehensible majesty, and to warn us of the danger of thinking of [God] without reverence” (Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, p. 141-2). God’s identity, and how we understand it, shapes how we praise, honor, and glorify Him. We ascribe majesty and the greatness to God because of who He is. Psalm 29:1-2 says, “Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.” Because of God’s worthiness, His power and strength glory is “due” to Him. His actions and mighty deeds throughout salvation history directly inform why we praise Him, as Psalm 9:1 tells: “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.”
Let’s say someone said it was enough to believe in “God”—but felt free to define ‘god’ however they liked—and it wasn’t particularly important to describe God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All that mattered was their “relationship” with God, but not how they understood Him or addressed Him. Could you claim to have a relationship with a spouse or even a friend; without really knowing who they were, what their likes and dislikes were, or even to be able to get their name right? Would it truly be a relationship if you were oblivious to what made them who they were, or didn’t care to learn about them? Would you claim to be friends, and not know their name, or say they didn’t mind whatever you called them? It would be absurd. How much more then, should we want to know who God is, how we can address Him by name, His desires for how we live, His attitude toward us, and how He makes a right relationship with Him possible. If we don’t know any of these things, it should be a warning to us that our relationship with God might not be all that we think or say it is.
The Jews who were ready to stone Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, were certain of their relationship with God—to the point they thought they had God’s implicit approval. But they rejected and dishonored Jesus. And by rejecting Jesus, they rejected God’s chosen instrument for revealing Himself to them and all humanity. Where does the Bible say that? It’s peppered all through the Gospels, but a couple of examples: John 14:6-7 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” We know the Father through knowing Jesus. He says the same in Matthew 11:27, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one 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.” Jesus teaches that there is no way to know God apart from Him.
So the doctrine of the Trinity is inseparable from the doctrine of who Jesus is as the Son of God. Apart from Jesus we simply can’t know God. He’s the self-revelation of God to humankind. Only through the knowledge of God we have in Jesus, can we know and address Him in prayer as “Our Father.” Only by knowing God in Christ Jesus His Son, can we know that He has made an atonement for our sins in Jesus’ death on the cross, that He has Himself repaired the way between us and God by the forgiveness of our sins. Only by knowing God in Jesus His Son, can we know that God is loving, and this love motivated Him to send His only begotten Son into the world, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Only Jesus gives the peace of heart and conscience that rests in God’s love for us and the certainty of our salvation.
So when the Jews rejected Jesus, they were rejecting God the Father as well. Jesus firmly told them that He did nothing to seek His own glory, but everything glorified and honored His Father. They were greatly offended that He as a man was asserting that He was equal to the Father. But the real irony was that Jesus was not a man “making Himself to be God” but rather that He was God, who had humbled Himself to become man. He was not crossing the chasm between God and man in the direction of a man claiming to be God, but the other direction of God condescending to become a human being. His origins were from of old, from eternity. He said to them, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” They instantly recognized this claim to be God, and were ready to stone Him for it. The real irony was that God had become man. It would have been difficult to impossible for them to grasp.
Indeed, this Biblical teaching, that we call the doctrine of the Incarnation, is all about how God became man in Christ Jesus. It is certainly another sublime mystery, a holy truth, the depths of which we will never fully explore. But, like the Trinity, it is a doctrine that is not “disposable” or insignificant, but has everything to do with how God was revealing Himself. That Jesus, 2,000 years ago, on a particular day in a particular town called Bethlehem, born in the unique circumstances of being conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was God become man—and that this was the who, what, when, and where of God’s self-revelation. We confess it each week in the creeds, and this particular person of Jesus is key to knowing who God is and how our salvation came to be.
So to reject Jesus, and who He is, is to find ourselves in the same shoes as the Jews in the reading, rejecting God in His very act of revealing Himself to us. But on the other hand, to confess these truths, to say “I believe” and “we believe” to these doctrines of Scripture, is not to claim we comprehend all the deep mysteries of God, but it’s to confess with our mouths and believe with our hearts what Scripture plainly says. It’s to say that this Truth, even if a mystery, is vital for our salvation. The Athanasian Creed that we use for the special occasion of Trinity Sunday, is divided into two halves, along just these lines. It says in the first half, how it is necessary for Christians to believe and worship God the Trinity. The second half says it’s necessary for our everlasting salvation to faithfully believe in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
You can’t be a Christian and reject these Biblical teachings of the Trinity, or the incarnation of Jesus. Any person or church body, even that calls itself “Christian,” but rejects the sound teaching of the Trinity, or that rejects the truth of Jesus Christ as both God and man, ceases to be Christian. It’s unthinkable that anyone would try to substitute another God or different teachings than the Bible, as though God, the very author of Scripture, could be replaceable. Such would cause irreparable damage to the Christian faith. The word “catholic” with a small “c”, in the creed, simply means “according to the whole” or refers to the total Christian church on earth. Defined by the faith the Bible sets forth, and the creeds confess.
As Christians, then, we embrace wholeheartedly what the Bible teaches about God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We confess that Jesus is Lord and the precise revelation of the Father to us. And we embrace what the Trinity and the Incarnation mean for our lives—because this gives us our very identity as baptized believers, and it’s the heart of God’s loving action of coming down to us, to die for our sins, to conquer death, and rise again to life for us. And it’s the soul of our life and salvation. In the name of the blessed Trinity and the undivided Unity, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Note on the Athanasian Creed: The end of the creed makes reference to all people rising and giving an account concerning their deeds, and that those who’ve done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. Examine these Scripture passages that refer to the judgment: Matt. 12:35-37; 25:31-46; John 5:21-29, esp. vs. 24, 29 & John 6:28-29; cf. Rom. 8:1. While works are examined in the final judgment, those who have faith are spared judgment and condemnation on account of Jesus’ righteous life.
  2. “Doctrine” and teaching are one and the same. Why does Scripture teaching that “sound doctrine” is so important? 1 Timothy 1:3-11; Titus 1:9; 2:1.
  3. How is the Trinity described in the following passages? Matthew 3:13-17; 11:25-30; 28:19-20; John 14 & 16.
  4. Why is it vitally important to know who God is, and not just have a vague notion of God? Psalm 100:3; John 1:3; 14:6; Acts 4:12.
  5. Read the Athanasian Creed in your insert, or p. 319-20 in the hymnal. How is the Creed occupied with glorifying and praising God? What is the reason we praise Him? Psalm 9:1, 11; 29:1-2.
  6. Why is it important to be certain of who we’re talking to when we address God, and know what His will for us is? How were the Jews in John 8:48-59 misled about their relationship to God?
  7. How is Jesus the distinct self-revelation of God to humanity? John 14:6-7; Matthew 11:27. What does He show us about the Father’s heart? John 3:16. 

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