Sunday, June 03, 2007

Sermon: The Feast of the Holy Trinity

3 June 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 3:1-17 (Isa 6:1-7, Rom 11:33-36)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There are no non-Catholics in heaven.

Do you believe that? It’s what you said just a few moments ago as we confessed the Athanasian Creed: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.” And, “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”

There are no non-Catholics in heaven.

The Creed goes on to describe what the catholic faith is: worship of the Holy Trinity, and confession of the divinely incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus Christ.

In the other creeds, we confess “one holy catholic and apostolic church” – though we American Lutherans have been saddled with a bad translation of the word “catholic” into English as “Christian.” For “catholic” – as properly translated in today’s Creed – is an important word. It means our faith, the saving faith, the one true Christian faith, is not an individual matter. Your faith is not “your” faith, but “our” faith (just as God is not merely “your” Father, but “our” Father).

The faith through which God saves, the faith of Jesus and the apostles, is universal, not limited by space and time, transcending language, culture, denomination, and nationality. It is the faith that has always been taught by the Church – which is herself a catholic entity – not limited to this congregation or that denomination, this synod, or that political affiliation. To be catholic means literally in the Greek language of the New Testament to be wholesome, universal, holistic, in its entirety, and one and the same regardless of time or place. In other words, the catholic faith is the same now as it was when the apostles preached, when our Lord Jesus walked the earth, when the prophets proclaimed the justice and the mercy of God, when the Triune God Himself created the world and called it “good.”

For apart from the recent superstitious delusion of atheism, everyone knows that creation logically requires a Creator. We can use reason to prove this much. But anything further requires revelation, a revealing, an unveiling of the Truth by God Himself. Without such revelation, men are left to wander and grope in the dark, guessing and inventing myths, speculating about the nature of God and the universe.

Consider Nicodemus in our reading. As a Pharisee, he did not cling to the catholic faith. His religious system denied the incarnation and the Trinity as well as distorted the revelation of God in Holy Scripture regarding grace and works. To his credit, Nicodemus knew that his religion was deficient. He went to Jesus seeking answers. As a lost and condemned person, he had to wander and grope about in the middle of the night in search of revelation. By God’s grace, he received it. But only because Jesus gave it to him.

“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit,” our Lord tells him, “he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” For, to hold the catholic faith is much more than simply being able to give the right doctrinal answer. Jesus informs Nicodemus (and us) that entering God’s Kingdom is not a prize for intellectual cleverness, not a payoff for memorizing the catechism. Quite the contrary, it is a birthright. Those who enter God’s kingdom do so not by their deeds, but by virtue of the silver spoon, having the right parents. You have to be born into this kingdom – born again of water and the Spirit. And having been born anew spiritually, Christians are then fed and nourished for their health and growth.

Christians are made at baptism and are nourished by lifelong feeding upon Word and sacrament - not made (and graduated) at confirmation, nor are they argued into the faith by clever debate or by the will to believe.

This is not something logic and reason can deduce. In fact, this “birthright” way of entering the Kingdom is illogical and contrary to reason. It strikes us as unfair and arbitrary. That is why

God saves us through “the catholic faith” and not through “the catholic logic.

We can no more comprehend the Trinity, understand how the Holy Spirit delivers eternal life through water and Word, grasp the mystery of how bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, and plumb the “depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” than a little child can understand the Law of Gravity. And yet, we can confess this catholic truth and trust God’s Word in spite of our reason’s objections just as a little child can trust that somehow he will not fall off the face of the earth even without knowing the first thing about physics.

For just as our Lord verbally teaches, instructs, reproves, and encourages Nicodemus, and reveals the catholic faith to him, he likewise reveals knowledge of Himself and of the other persons of the Holy Trinity to us through His proclaimed Word to the apostles and through the written Word of Holy Scripture.

And while God reveals some things about Himself to His chosen people, the Church, some things remain a mystery. In fact, the pastor’s work in distributing Holy Communion is called “stewardship of the mysteries.” As St. Paul asks rhetorically in our epistle lesson from his letter to the Church at Rome: “How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?”

There are those things that have been revealed to us, and there are those things that remain mysterious. And yet, we know enough to know our own limitations. By God’s boundless grace, we can indeed confess what we don’t fully understand.

We don’t know why the Lord is merciful. It is indeed a revelation of the Father when, per our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah finds himself standing before God’s awesome and terrible throne room, doorposts shaking, angels cowering and flying to and fro, incense smoke swirling, eternal divine liturgical worship of the Triune God who is not merely holy, but “holy, holy, holy.” Without anyone preaching the law to him, Isaiah is suddenly overwhelmed by his sins. He is merely feet away from the Almighty, and he knows that he is destined for total annihilation and destruction. But notice what happens: God instructs an angel to carry a holy element to Isaiah’s sinful lips, and Isaiah’s very real uncleanness is burned away by this communion. Reason tells Isaiah that he is “undone,” but the revelation of God tells Isaiah “your iniquity is taken away and your sin purged.” By virtue of his office as a servant of the Word, the angel is empowered to forgive Isaiah’s sin and allow him to stand before God.

Forgiven Isaiah can now “worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” He can now believe. He can now confess the faith. He can now hold the faith.

This is the catholic faith. This is the saving faith. This is the very faith of which St. James writes in his epistle, the living faith that yields good works. For the Athanaisian Creed further defines the catholic faith in this way: “those who have done good will enter into eternal life and those who have done evil [will enter] into eternal fire.” Our works flow from our faith, and the catholic faith is a mystery.

No amount of clever philosophy or sophisticated scientific inquiry can draw such conclusions about the mystery of our perfect, merciful, triune, and incarnate God. The catholic faith is a revealed faith. It is a confessed faith. It is a lived faith. It is the faith that bears the fruits of repentance and service to neighbor. It is the only faith that bears the promise of eternal life and the boundless forgiveness of sin. It is the faith held by the faithful angels before Adam and Eve were created, and it is the faith rejected by unfaithful Lucifer when he refused to submit to God’s created order. It is the faith lovingly delivered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and it is the faith that was deemed of less value to them than a bite of a forbidden fruit that delivered knowledge not meant to be revealed by God. It is the faith of the New Adam, “perfect God and perfect Man,” the One who submitted to His Father’s will, having become the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all.

For the wants, desires, and yes even the well-intentioned faith of the individual are the enemies of what our Creed calls both the “Christian truth” and the “catholic religion”. The individual in his pride battles against submission to what God has revealed and what the Church of every time and place has always confessed. Even the word “church” in Greek, “ecclesia” – is an assembly, a group. The Church is not an individual thing, but rather as we confess in the Apostles Creed, a “communion of saints.” Our Lord Himself speaks of believers as a diversity of sheep in need of being herded into a flock. He warns of the dangers of those individualistic sheep who become separated, and of the need of shepherds to seek out the lost and the wandering and bring them back to the fold.

The opposite of the catholic faith is the faith of the heretic. The catholic faith is faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as confessed by the church catholic, whereas the faith of the heretic is a faith in himself, in his own private interpretation of Scripture, in his own claimed revelations from God. The world is full of cults and sects who have wandered from the catholic fold and have no idea the danger they are in.

An individual Christian, even one who prays and reads his Bible faithfully, but who avoids coming to church, is living in a state of false security. He trades the catholic faith for a faith of his own invention. He is destined to become food for the lurking wolf and prowling lion. For as we confess in our Creed, the saving faith is not individual, but catholic. It is not held privately, but confessed collectively and in public. We are branches of a common Vine, not separate plants. The true faith is not modern and contemporary, but timeless and eternal. It is not the Missouri faith, nor the Lutheran faith, but rather the catholic faith – having been confessed before there was a Missouri Synod, before the birth of Martin Luther, before the incarnation of our Lord, and even before Adam was formed from the earth.

The saving faith, the catholic faith, is not whatever the individual dreams up, interprets, or desires – but rather is a submission to what God our Father and the Church our mother have taught and continue to faithfully and unchangingly teach their children. For we children are born of water and the Spirit, cleansed by the Word and the mysteries, confessors of the same true faith held by all who have been made worthy to stand in the throne-room of the one true God, whom we worship both in His Unity and in His Trinity, through the incarnate Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, now and unto eternity. Amen.

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


Fr Watson SSP said...

Fr. Hollywood, Fantastic sermon (per normal). You're one of the best homiliticians I know. But,... the "so-called" Trinity picture is hideous. Can you say "Tri-theism" (and where's Ganeesh?) Plus, I hate faggy angels.
Fr Watson SSP

Father Hollywood said...

Father Jay:

I love you, man! (And it has nothing to do with "faggy" angels, either). [n.b. Jay may be the one Lutheran pastor even more cranky than I am (not counting Dan Grams, of course) - a faithful pastor and dear friend and brother].

I don't know that I have *ever* changed a graphic based on a reader complaint, but for you, "fiat!"

And let Ganeesh try to stick his trunk into *this* graphic. No angels for Prancin' Gene Robinson to use as sacristy pinups either. ;-)

Namaste, and drop by more often!

Fr Watson SSP said...

You are far too kind to me Rev'd Father. This Grams fellow... I must meet him (I will bring the Bourbon and Cigars).
Thank you for the substituted "Augustinian" schema of the Blessed Trinity. Abstract (and unreal) as it is, I much prefer it to florid, 19th century papist art.
You do know however that Augustine's diagram bears an uncanny resemblance to Doc Brown's (Christopher Lloyd)"flux capacitor" from 'Back to the Future I'

Your observation about "tight-bluejean" Robbinson was hilarious.

I too count you a dear comrade, intrepid Confessor and true Man of the South.
Deo Vindice
Fr Watson SSP

Peter said...

I've never been big on the Trinitarian diagram you use. It makss it seem as if there is a God apart from the three persons (I know this is a quibble, and there are reasons). But, it makes it seem all too much like math, and not like the personal relationship that it is. God is our Father, who sent his Son. And from the Father and the Son came the Spirit. Ah well, in the age of Islam and Mormonism, we will enjoy our Trinitarian God all the more.

Father Hollywood said...

Goodness! There's just no pleasing you people! ;-). I forgot to include Peter in the top echelon of pastoral crankiness.

Glad to see there is still a healthy misanthropy out there among the brethren. It gives me hope for the future. But only a little. :-)