Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sermon: Holy Trinity

11 June 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 3:1-17 (Isa 6:1-7; Rom 11:33-36) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today is the most politically incorrect day of the church year. On this day, Christians around the world commit what our culture considers to be the unforgivable sin: we confess in the Athanasian Creed that we have the truth, and anyone who does not believe as we do is going to hell. To say such a thing is considered “hate speech” in 21st century America, and will even get you jailed in some places around the world.

We said it only a few moments ago: “Whoever will be saved shall, above all else, hold the catholic faith. Which faith, except everyone keeps whole and undefiled, without doubt he will perish eternally.”

This is highly offensive to people who claim that one’s beliefs don’t matter, one’s conception of God doesn’t matter, that one’s doctrine doesn’t matter. What do such people claim matters? Some claim that being sincere is what counts. Being a good person is all that matters. Loving God, loving Jesus, trying one’s best, believing in something, anything, as long as one believes it with one’s heart – is what guarantees the love of God and life after death.

But here we are in 21st century America reciting a creed written in Latin in the fifth century that reflects a worldview that denies salvation to Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, and those who don’t believe in any one God. How is it that we Christians can continue to confess this same creed, without change, for 1500 years? It is as though we believe truth doesn’t change.

Yes, that’s exactly right. We Christians believe truth is absolute, that it is what it is, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not. And truth, being what it is, we can’t change it. We can’t wish it away. All we can do is submit to it, and confess it.

Notice what we say right up front the catholic faith is: “that we worship one God in three persons…” We don’t simply intellectually acknowledge the abstract reality of a Triune God – we worship him. That is to say, we submit to him, we acknowledge that we are not God, we are beneath God in dignity and honor, we are slaves, property of God. And this, dear friends, is why people reject the catholic faith. The original sin of Adam and Eve was disobedience to God driven by a desire to overturn the order of creation, our desire to place ourselves on the throne and to place God under us, or at very least in a position of equality. This was Satan’s original sin as well. This desire to exalt ourselves over and above the Holy Triune God is the curse we bear, the curse that condemns us to death, that would condemn us to Hell were it not for the second person of the Trinity who died to pay for our rebellion in order to conquer death and recreate the original order of the universe.

For there are many trinities that we worship: Fame fortune, and honor. Me, myself, and I. And the most ancient of all unholy trinities: sin, death, and the devil.

But the catholic faith is that we worship the one true God, the one saving God, the God who created us (not the other way around): the God into whose name we are baptized: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, the Son, confessed this truth to Nicodemus when he told the incredulous secret disciple: “You must be born again” by water and the spirit. For even as the Trinity was at work in the beginning, with God the Father creating through the Word, with the Spirit hovering over the waters, we see this same Trinity at work in a new creation as Jesus is baptized: the Son submitting to water baptism, the Holy Spirit descending upon him, and the accepting voice of the Father proclaiming him as Son. And this very same Trinitarian action is at work in our baptisms. It is no coincidence that Jesus himself commands the apostles to baptize with water: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

For these are not mere words – this is a confession of who God is, of how we are saved, of our worship of, and submission to him, in his three persons. To see a baptism is to see the catholic faith in action, to see the Father recreating a soul in a mystical rebirth, the Son applying his death as an atonement, and the Holy Spirit descending upon the new Christian as a Helper, a Comforter, a Guide.

For we can never separate the Trinity, the cross, baptism, and salvation. We baptize in the name of the Trinity, we give the sign of the cross at baptism, and the person is saved by baptism. And when we recall our baptism, what do we do? We make the sign of the cross, we say “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and we are assured of our salvation. Trinity, cross, baptism, salvation: whole and undefiled, the catholic faith.

We are like the Israelites to which our blessed Lord refers in our Gospel text. They were being punished for their sins (actually, for taking their salvation for granted and grumbling against their pastor), and the Lord sent an affliction of deadly snakes that bit them. Realizing their sin, they repented, and the Lord himself gave them the antidote: a bronze serpent on a pole to gaze upon, a symbolic representation of Jesus on the cross. Moses held up the world’s first crucifix for the children of Israel to look to as a reminder of where their salvation comes from.

We too are laden with sins, our bodies full of the venom of the serpent that poisoned creation from the Garden of Eden onward. We too are dying, and without a miraculous act of God’s mercy, would find ourselves condemned to eternal death. But our Lord himself, the second person of the Trinity, was lifted up on the cross, and all those who look to him are saved. Jesus himself is the divine antidote to the snake venom – and this medicine is distributed right here in this hospital of souls.

And so it is with repentant and grateful hearts that we remember our baptism intertwined with our Lord on the cross – and so we “worship one God in three persons” every time we gather for worship with the sign of the cross and the invocation of the name into which we are baptized.

And notice that the Creed does not say “the catholic faith is this, that I worship,” but rather “we worship.” The Church is a communion of saints. We are not alone. It is not about your personal relationship with Jesus, for there is no such thing! Our Lord tells us he is the vine and we are the branches. Paul tells us we are one body, Christ is the head, and we are all parts of that body. A person can no more pursue the Christian life alone - even with a Bible - any more than a hand or foot can survive on its own without the rest of the body.

For look at Isaiah’s view of the throne room of God. Even God himself is not alone (of course, he is Triune, comprised of three persons and yet one God). The Triune God is himself surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. And this assembly sings with us: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Sabaoth, of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory!” We don’t sing this alone. We are not merely a collection of individuals at Salem singing this. Nor are we just a group of people in American churches singing this on a Sunday morning in the year 2006. No indeed! For our Triune God transcends all space and time, and so we sing this great hymn of praise and majesty with all the saints and angels from every time and place.

And we are like Isaiah, whose closeness to the Lord’s presence filled him with a sense of his own uncleanliness and unworthiness. Being in the presence of God was not something routine. He was not looking at his watch wondering how long the ritual would take because he has grass to cut, basketball to play, and TV to watch. Instead, he was overwhelmed by his own sinfulness at taking God for granted, at his desire to be in the place of God, at his lack of submission to God, at his lack of repentance and his many sins of omission as well as commission. He hangs his poor miserable head in shame: “Woe is me, for I am undone.” He doesn’t stroll into God’s presence in casual attire, he doesn’t walk up to God’s throne, slap him a high five and say “What’s up, big guy?” He doesn’t look around to see what everyone else is wearing, or make judgments about the other people in God’s presence.

Instead, he confesses not only his unworthiness, but also the catholic faith in falling down in worship of the Triune God – even as the praise “Holy” is repeated three times by the multitudes. He sees God, knowing that he is unworthy of the honor. But does the Triune God consume Isaiah? He does not. Rather he mercifully provides a way for Isaiah to be cleansed from sin’s snake-venom. An angel is dispatched with a hot coal that purges his sinful mouth and tongue of their uncleanness. The angel absolves him: “Your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is purged.”

This is how it is for us, dear brothers and sisters. In this flesh, God’s glory is veiled. Instead of searing hot coals, we see plain bread and wine. Instead of a glorious angel, we see an unimpressive pastor. Instead of a heavenly throne room filled with great saints and angels ringing out with glorious earth-shattering song, we see the Salem sanctuary filled with imperfect sinner-saints. We don’t see the hidden reality of the very present angels, and we only hear our imperfect voices doing the best we can to praise our Triune God whose glory is veiled beneath bread and wine. And yet, dear friends, it is all here. With the eyes of faith, we see what Isaiah saw, we sing the hymn he sang, we worship the same God he worships, and we receive the same burning coal on our lips as our sins are purged away.

And like the children of Israel, we look upon the crucifix, we remember our baptism, we call to mind the Lord’s death on the cross, and we are led to him who cures us and makes us whole.

And though the Trinity is truly a mystery that our small minds can’t fathom, we confess it as the very truth, the only truth, the truth that can’t be changed even by a well-intentioned desire to be inclusive and make people feel good. As St. Paul asks: “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become his counselor?” We are not God, but creatures, sinful creatures. We know we must submit to him who has saved us in spite of our unworthiness. And “this is the catholic faith which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.” Thanks be to God that we do believe, in spite of ourselves! Thanks be to God that we have been given this faith as a gift, that we have been born again by water and the Word!

Praise be to the Holy Triune God, now and unto eternity. “For of him and through him and to him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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