Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Catholic Day

Here is my sermon for tomorrow, based loosely on all the readings for Trinity Sunday. Following the same pattern as last week, I pretty much preach a whole sermon before I get around to about a paragraph of exposition of each lesson for the day. And perhaps I err on the side of preaching a "doctrinal sermon," but I think you have to do so now and again, to make sure some teaching is getting through. If I were challenged to identify where Law and Gospel were in this sermon, I would probably say: "Law: If you let go of the doctrine of the Trinity, etc., you lose the Gospel. Gospel: God has revealed so much about Himself so that you can believe in His salvation for you, and thus be saved."
Today is a good day to talk about creeds. In a way, the Feast of the Holy Trinity celebrates the creeds we share with all Catholic Christians. Yes, you heard right. We are Catholic Christians. We are Catholic because we believe, teach, confess, and worship One God in Three Persons—Father, Son and Holy Ghost. We are Catholic because we believe, teach, confess, and worship Christ, whose Two Natures—God and Man—remain forever complete and distinct within one undivided Person.

We are Catholic because we share in the faith confessed in the Catholic creeds. These creeds are a standard of faithfulness to biblical teaching that unites all truly Christian communions and denominations. These creeds also separate us from groups who reject our most essential articles of faith, so they cannot properly be regarded as Christian. For if we do not agree on the nature of God, or on the person of Christ, then we cannot worship the same God or believe in the same Christ. So the Feast of the Holy Trinity celebrates the teaching that unites all true Christians, and that protects us from false teachers who deny Christ and serve another god.

So this is what it means to be Catholic—no more and no less than what it means to be Orthodox. Yes, the root meaning of the word “catholic” is something like “ecumenical” or “worldwide.” But don’t be led astray. When the Athanasian Creed says, “This is the Catholic faith,” the doctrine it confesses is precisely what “Catholic” means. Don’t be misled by cant words like “catholicity” and “ecumenicity,” which are often used as though they meant no more than “cultural diversity” or “religious unionism.” Being Catholic means believing these articles of faith. As members of the Church Catholic, we have a profound unity with all other Christians who share the same beliefs.

We disagree on many points of doctrine with the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. Our differences with them in faith and practice are serious matters, and it is very right in view of these differences that we withhold from them full fellowship in Word and Sacrament. But we regard them as fellow-members of the one holy, Catholic and apostolic church. We regard them as Christians; and in spite of the errors mingled with their doctrine, we recognize that they worship the Triune God and particularly the Divine and Human Christ. And so they are not without the Holy Spirit, or the true and saving faith.

One of the creeds we hold to is the Apostles’ Creed. It’s that short statement of faith that we say once or twice a month, when we use the order of Divine Service without Communion. It seems so basic, simple, and lightweight. Yet it condenses a huge amount of life-changing, world-shaking teachings into an amazingly compact package. A package so small that every one of us, down to quite young children, could carry it anywhere without lifting so much as a scrap of paper. It is the creed we were baptized into, the creed to which we renewed our vows when we were confirmed, the creed whose explanation in Luther’s Small Catechism may be among the most beautiful things you ever learned by heart.

I challenge you to think about it intently when next you speak it. Don’t just mumble it thoughtlessly. Don’t let it dribble off your lips like the drool that comes when the dentist numbs your mouth. Think about what it means when you confess the article on creasion, on Jesus’ virgin birth, His death and rising again, His ascension into heaven, and His long-expected return. Realize that you are confessing a Church that is the communion of saints, and that you profess the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. This is not meaningless mumbo-jumbo to recite like a good-luck charm. These are present realities that the world cannot see, that many people firmly deny, and that better men and women than you or I have laid down their lives to confess. And if we have to, so shall we.

Then we have the Nicene Creed. Like the Apostles’ Creed, it confesses the Three Persons of the Trinity by name; but it also specifically says, “One God.” It distinguishes the invisible things God created at the beginning of time from the Son who was begotten in eternity. “God from God,” it says of the Son: “Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, one substance with the Father.” So God the Son isn’t just a lesser god, or a similar being, or a created person whom God lifted up above all others; the Son is God, exactly as the Father is God. And yet, at the same time, He comes from God, in the same way that a son comes from a father. The Son shares in the same divine substance as the Father, and by the Son were all things made, as John 1:3 teaches.

And just as God the Father begets the Son without a mother, the same Son is born of a human mother, without a human father. The Nicene Creed borrows the language of John 1:14 in saying the Son “became flesh,” or “was incarnate,” through the Holy Spirit. The creed then distinctly adds that He “was made man.” The Nicene Creed adds still more details that the Apostles’ Creed left out. These distinctions were added not to split Christians into smaller, conflicting parties, but to defend the faith against the tireless ingenuity of false teachers, and even against well-meaning believers whose sophisticated ideas carried them too far. So the Nicene Creed makes it clear why Jesus suffered and died, namely: “for us men and for our salvation.” When it tells us that Jesus rose from the dead, the Nicene Creed adds the words, “according to the Scriptures,” so we understand this in the context of Old Testament prophecy. And now, having ascended into heaven, He will come again, not in terror but in glory, with a kingdom that will never end.

The Nicene Creed also has more to say about the Holy Ghost. He is the Lord and the giver of life, as it were the “breath of life”; He proceeds from the Father and the Son as a distinct person, but not in the same way that the Father begets the Son; He is equally to be worshiped and glorified as the Father and the Son; He spoke by the prophets. That’s really all the Holy Spirit needs you to know about Himself, as He directs your eyes to Christ and glorifies the Father. We then confess not just that the church is holy and catholic, but also that she is “one” and “apostolic,” that is, built on the apostles’ witness. And we confess one Baptism which actually gives the forgiveness of sins.

In third place we hold the Athanasian Creed, though we only publicly confess it once a year. Today we will confess it after the sermon, in place of the Te Deum. This is a good place for it, when you consider that Martin Luther regarded the Te Deum as one of the creeds. In a sense, much of our liturgy is a confession of faith. In the Gloria Patri we worship Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In the Kyrie we call on Lord, Christ, and Lord—a threefold pattern that signifies the Trinity. In the Gloria in excelsis we worship all three Persons of the Trinity, calling the Father “Lord God, heavenly King,” and calling Jesus the “Lord God, Lamb of God...that takes away the sin of the world,” who “sits at the right hand of the Father,” and who shares with the Holy Ghost in the glory of the Father.

In the Sanctus we echo the hymn of the seraphim in Isaiah 6, whose “Holy, holy, holy” signifies the Three Persons of the Trinity, and where the coal from the altar cleansing Isaiah’s lips signifies the sacrifice of Christ for sin. By joining this Old Testament hymn to the song of the Palm Sunday crowd, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” we mark Jesus as the same God whose glory filled Isaiah with awe. In the Agnus Dei we repeat our prayer to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—the sacrificial Lamb who is Jesus. And in the Te Deum, which regretfully we are skipping today, we again confess all Three Persons of the Trinity, repeating the seraphic hymn to the thrice holy Father, rehearsing the Son’s virgin birth and sacrificial death, his resurrection which “opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers,” his ascension to God’s right hand, and His return to be our judge.

As for the Athanasian Creed, it will shortly speak for itself. It expands the Nicene Creed’s description of the Three Persons in God, and the Two Natures in Christ, even further. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not separate Gods, but one God. They do not possess pieces of the divine substance, like slices of a pie, or even like the peel, core, and flesh that together make up an apple; rather, the Father is the whole God with none left over, and so is the Son, and so is the Holy Spirit. They are not aspects, modes, roles, or masks that God puts on in turn, like an actor who uses different voice to play all the parts in a one-man play. Nor is He like a man with three jobs who puts on a different hat to do each job. God is always the Father, always the Son, always the Spirit. His full essence is utterly committed to each Person, without dividing the essence or mixing up the Persons.

And if this isn’t difficult enough to understand, just wait till the part of the Athanasian Creed that talks about God and Man in Christ as One Person, never divided or separated, nor yet an indiscriminate mixture of the two—not like oil and water stirred together into a white, creamy, mayonnaise, which is apt so separate as it settles; not like two strings twisted together; not like two boards glued together; not like a man possessed; nor yet a divine being that has taken on a human disguise. He is a man in every sense; but also, He is God, with all the fullness thereof, and never shall the two be separated. Do we get it? No. Do we forget it? Never.

Why is this important? Why could we not be Christians if we didn’t believe this stuff? All three of today’s readings give part of the answer. In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet was faced with an appearance by God in the temple: a vision of awful majesty that made Isaiah tremble with fear, as would any unclean sinner in the holy, holy, holy presence of God. But this same overwhelmingly glorious God is also compassionate and forgiving. He is a God who sends a sacrifice to cleanse us of sin. So why do we need these far-out teachings on the Trinity and Christ’s Incarnation? Isaiah’s answer is: “This is what God has revealed about Himself. Even if we are overwhelmed by it, He cleanses our lips to speak it, and commands us to confess it.”

In Romans chapter 11, the apostle Paul praises God’s deep knowledge, His rich wisdom, His unsearchable judgments, His un-find-out-able ways. We do not know His mind; we cannot advise Him on anything; we can give Him nothing so that he will owe us in return. For all things come from Him, exist through Him, and return to Him and to His everlasting glory; a statement which Paul ends, creedlike, with “Amen.” So again, why do we need these creeds and their teachings? Paul says we need them because they are so far above us that they must be taken as articles of faith. No human being made this stuff up. If they had, they would have made up something that made sense to our reason. But what God reveals about Himself is so far beyond reason that it fills us with awe, and it compels us to say, “Amen.” There is no point arguing about it. There will never be an explanation that satisfies everyone. There can be no analogy that will not break down. If you pull out any one point that seems to keep the other pieces from falling into place, the whole thing collapses in an unrecognizable heap. What God has revealed is sufficient. Even though we cannot fully understand, it is our place simply to trust.

And finally, we are faced with Jesus’ own words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3. As a good Jew, Nicodemus struggled to understand how Jesus could be “God from God.” His Jewish upbringing had emphasized the “oneness” of God to the point where he had become blind to the Old Testament’s testimony to God’s Threeness. Because I have so little time left, I’ll spare you a list of these testimonies unless you want to discuss them privately. Instead, let’s look at what Jesus has to say. He says God the Father sent His Son into the world, and even gave Him up to death, so we might not perish but have everlasting life. The Father sent the Son to judge sin, not by judging sinners, but by becoming sin and being judged for us, so that we might be saved through faith. And we get this faith by being born again, born from above by water and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit and the Son together bear witness of the Father. This Spirit gives us life in a way that we can not understand, or command, or choose. The God who came down from heaven reveals to us the God who remains in heaven, yet He is one God. By looking on this incarnate God, by believing in the Son of Man lifted up on the cross, we are healed like the snakebit children of Israel who looked on the bronze serpent in Moses’ hands. Only we are healed for eternity, healed from the disease of sin and death. In short, what God has done to save us could only be done by a Triune God.

What other God could sacrifice God to God and make satisfaction for the sins of all mankind? What other God could bear witness to God, Two Persons—Jesus actually uses the word “We” to describe Himself and the Holy Spirit—Two Persons reflecting the glory of the Third? What other God could lift up the same God and show Him to us in His dying glory so that we might live? What other God could both rise from the dead, and be the ever-living God who raised Him from the dead? What other victim could atone for all sin than the One who can truly die as a man, yet who can offer Himself as a substitute for all mankind precisely because He is God? What other God could blow God out as the breath of His mouth, making Holy Baptism a washing of rebirth? What other God could be both just and the justifier of those who believe, both the object of faith and the author of faith? What God could do all this while remaining one God altogether?

So you see the most important reason why the Catholic creeds are to be cherished with faithfulness and thanskgiving. Their teachings are blessings from God, truly worthy of a celebration like today, a day on which even Protestants can proudly claim the name of Catholic. On this catholic day, we learn from Paul that the mind of God is so far beyond our grasp that we can only gape in awe and submit in childlike trust. We learn from Isaiah that although God’s self-disclosure is terrifyingly far above, beyond, and alien to our mind and senses, He has revealed it expressly so that we may speak of it, and He graciously sanctifies us to do so. And finally, we learn from Christ Himself that the very salvation for which we depend on Him with all our being, is a consequence of the Trinity and His own Divine-Human Person. It is this God who both intercedes for us and hears that intercession. It is this God who both gives us faith and dwells in us by faith. It is this God who both condemns sin and forgives our sins for Jesus’ sake.

Celebrate, little children, on this Catholic day, and every day! Celebrate the Triune God in Christ. Celebrate Him by reciting one of the creeds, or even by singing one of the pieces of liturgy I mentioned before. For it is the Triune God who has created us, redeemed us, and now leads us on to life everlasting. What He has revealed of Himself we will believe, teach, confess, and praise, for through Him we are saved. Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever! Amen.

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