Feast of the Holy Trinity + John 3:1-5
In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The catholic faith, that is, the common Christian faith as taught in the Scriptures, and taught by the Apostles is that we worship “one God in Three Persons and Three Persons in one God.” Today the church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Trinity, a day set aside to contemplate the mystery of the Trinity today and confess our common Christian faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed. But we shouldn’t think that Trinity Sunday is the only time we confess and worship the Triune God. We do so each Sunday. The historic worship of the church drips with Trinitarian praises all throughout the year. We sing the Gloria Patri, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As is was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” We praise all three persons of the Godhead equally because the glory of the persons is coequal. The church’s prayers to the Father end “through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee, and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.” We praise One God in three persons in the Sactus, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and in the Gloria at the end of the Nunc Dimittis. The service ends with the Aaronic benediction, where God places His name upon us three times. For the church is always confessing and continually worshiping the God who is three persons yet one God.
Worshiping as we do each Sunday, year in and year out, helps us understand the Athanasian Creed a bit better. It sounds complicated and to some extent it is. The creed summaries everything that can, and can’t, be said about the true God who is beyond our comprehension and finite reason. But it’s also quite simple. The three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are one God. Their glory is equal because they are all God. They’re coeternal because none existed before the other, none of them being created. They’re each incomprehensible to human reason. They are each almighty. They are each God. They are each Lord. Not three almighties, three Gods, or three Lords, but one. This is the unity. But there is distinction in the Godhead. There is a “Threeness.” The Father is unbegotten. The Son is begotten of the Father from all eternity. That means He’s the Father’s true and only Son, but he’s eternally begotten. He’s always been with the Father, so that that the Father has always been Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son eternally. Doesn’t this sound like the way we worship God each Sunday? We worship three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But we worship them together and in a certain order: the Father who is the source, the Son who is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit who proceeds. They’re never separated, always working the same work and receiving the same glory and praise.
To confess the Triune God is to confess the God who reveals Himself to us to save us. This is why the Creed is bold to say, “He, therefore, that will be saved is compelled thus to think of the Trinity.” Jesus says in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” You have to know the true God to have eternal life. But no one knows the true God by nature. One of the effects of our birth sin is that we don’t have knowledge of God. The world around us tells that there must be a creator. “Every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God” (Hebrews 3:4). Our consciences tell us that there’s a God because we feel bad for things that we’ve done and know we deserve punishment. But apart from Christ we can’t know the true God. Jesus says in Matthew 11:27, “No one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” This is the reason that the Father sent the Son, to reveal the Father to us. “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18). Jesus doesn’t just tell us about the Father, He is “the express image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3) so that He says to Philip in John 14:9, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”
What does the Son reveal about the Father? That He “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). He shows the Father’s displeasure with human sin but shows the Father’s love for sinners, a love so deep and wide that He would put the sins of the world on His only-begotten Son, so that His only-begotten Son, by dying for the sins of the world, could pay for them and earn forgiveness and perfect righteousness. St. Paul says in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The Son teaches us about the Father. And is the Holy Ghost who leads us to the Son. Jesus said, “He will testify of Me” (John 15:26) and “He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ. It is only by faith, worked by God the Holy Spirit, that anyone can confess Jesus as Lord to the glory of the Father, for it is only by faith in Christ that the Father applies Jesus’ death and righteousness to sinners for their justification. So all three persons work inseparably for your salvation, to acquire it and then daily apply it to you. This is why he that will be saved is compelled thus to think of the Trinity. The Trinity is the true God, the God of Holy Scripture, the God taught by the common Christian faith, who redeems sinners and justifies them by faith so that they have everlasting life.
Nicodemus sees the contours of this mystery in today’s appointed Gospel lesson. He sees, though dimly, the true God. “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” All things are “from God” in the sense that all things are created. But in the person of Jesus Nicodemus sees one who is from God in essence, being eternally from God. He sees in Christ one who is distinct from God yet working the same works as God, “for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” To this confession of Nicodemus Jesus adds the Holy Spirit, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The Spirit rebirths sinners through Holy Baptism, uniting them to Christ and bringing them to God the Father. In fact, it is in Holy Baptism that we see mostly clearly the Triune God. You are baptized into the name, not “names,” of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In Holy Baptism God washes you with water and His Word, He places His Triune name on you, adopts you as His child, and forgives you all your sins. Nicodemus doesn’t understand all this, yet by the end of John’s gospel He is a believer in the Triune God.
Like Nicodemus, we do not fully understand the Godhead. And who can? If we understood God in His essence then we would be God and not creatures. Like Nicodemus, we don’t always understand earthly things, so we shouldn’t expect to understand heavenly things above us. But like Nicodemus, we aren’t to understand so that we may believe. We’re to believe so that we may understand as much as the Son has revealed about the Father, which He gives us through the Holy Spirit. He reveals that the Father loves us, sent Christ to atone for our sins, so that the Holy Spirit might work justifying faith in us, so that we receive the benefits Jesus earned for us. This is why we worship and confess the true God; One God in three persons, and three persons in one God.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.