Not Just a Doctrine

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 29:25 mark.

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

The Feast of the Holy Trinity has always seemed like a different kind of day in the church year. It’s not like so many of the significant days, celebrating and recalling an action. Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit, or the Resurrection of our Lord. The Holy Trinity seems far too abstract, far too disconnected from actual events. In fact, it’s not an event at all, but a word that summarizes the Scriptural revelation that God gives about Himself.

And don’t we feel like there’s an impulse to explain? We may know that, of course, you can’t explain God, but why are we so compelled to try? We can’t explain how the Son of God becomes a man, or how He makes His Body and Blood present by His own Word for His Christians to eat and drink. But we are much less inclined to try. To children especially, we feel like we owe them something more than to say that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and leave it there. So we come up with analogies, metaphors, images, illustrations. Because God is not like a three-leaf clover, or an apple, or the three states of water, we are really not telling them the truth about God. God is not a created thing. There is no thing that is like what God is.

We want to explain, but take note of the Scriptures assigned for today, or to any of the creeds, including the Athanasian Creed, which we used today. None of them explain God. Even the Athanasian Creed, which seems most like a doctrinal explanation, isn’t. In the heat of controversy in the early centuries of the Church, the Athanasian Creed eventually summed up what the Scriptures teach. What it is really doing is setting up the boundary of the true Christian faith. It is like a fence built up between what the Scriptures say and whatever else people might think up about God. So there are not three Gods, even though there is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit. Nor are there three Fathers, three Sons, or three Spirits.

But none of that is explanation. It is marking out the boundaries, putting in the stakes to show where the land of the Scriptures lies, and where the lands of other, false gods lie. But within that land, inside those boundaries, there is still the same mystery, the same unknown, the same God who is beyond what can be spoken in human words, because He is God and we are not. This is not a “doctrine,” in the sense that most people use that word. It is a doctrine, because doctrine just means “teaching.” But it is not a dry and dead theological formulation. It is the living God approaching and dealing with people.

Consider the Scriptures for today. There is no explanation at all. There is simply proclamation. Here is the true worship of God: to recount and recall the actions of God in the world, and especially the actions of God for our salvation. Here, Isaiah falls on his face, not before an abstraction, or a written doctrine, or an illustration, but before God. None of our explanations or illustrations will make people fall on their faces and fear that they are dead men. But that’s what Isaiah does: Woe is me! I am a dead man! I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and I have seen Yahweh.

But that God has not torn back the veil separating the seen temple from the unseen throne and heaven of God in order to destroy Isaiah. So He sends a burning angel, who takes a coal from the altar of God in heaven, and comes near to Isaiah, not to consume him in death, but to cleanse him. Look, this has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.

So it is also in John 3, when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus. This is how God loved the world, He sent His Son into the world so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. And it is this Son who sends the Spirit from the Father, the Spirit who speaks the Word of Jesus, and so you hear His voice. Holy, Holy, Holy, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is not a theological formulation, it is the God of the universe, and He has to do with you!

Consider what we say in the Nicene Creed: I believe. And what do I believe? That for us men, and for our salvation, Christ came down and was conceived and born. For us also, He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. This is a God who doesn’t observe from afar. He has something to do with you, and your salvation. And this is what the explanations to the Apostles’ Creed do as well. This is the key; this is what we are saying when we say, “I believe.” We’re not talking in generalities, or theological niceties produced so that we can check off the boxes of all the “doctrines” we believe. We are saying something about what God has said about what He has to do with us.

I believe not only that God has made everything that exists, in an abstract way. I believe that He has made me and all creatures. He’s given me my body, ears, eyes, and all my members. He gives me everything I need for this body and life, and still takes care of everything He gives. It’s not only that Jesus died for the sins of all people, generally, abstractly. I believe that Jesus, who is truly God and truly man, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, and has purchased me with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. He makes me His own, so that I will live under Him in His kingdom forever, because He has risen from the dead. It’s not only that I believe in the Holy Spirit in general, abstractly. I believe that I never would have come to Jesus or believed in Him if the Holy Spirit didn’t call me by the Gospel, enlighten me with His gifts, make me holy, and keep me in Jesus’ Church. He forgives me daily and richly, and He will raise up me and all the dead and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.

This God, who is the Father who sent the Son, the Son who took flesh to die and rise, and the Holy Spirit who speaks of this Jesus and gives faith wherever and whenever it pleases Him—this God has something to do with me, just as much as He had something to do with Isaiah in the temple that day. And it is the work of this God for you and for me that we are here to proclaim, confess, and worship. The true worship is not to sing nice words about who God is and then fill in the content with the sort of things that we think illustrate those characteristics of God. No, the true worship of God is to hear what He has done and is doing, and recount those works and actions, because they are for me.

It’s everywhere in the Propers for today that this is not a Sunday for explaining, but for proclaiming and worshiping, just as much as we can’t do much more than worship the Son who became Man. In the Collect, we acknowledge, confess, and worship the Unity in the power of the Divine Majesty, and it is this God who will keep us and defend us from all adversities. In the Proper Preface, we will hear that in the confession of this one God, we worship the Trinity in person and the Unity in substance. In the Athanasian Creed, all of the things we confess are to drive us to worship this one God in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity. This is the truly universal and catholic Faith: to worship this God and recount His works of salvation.

And it is this God who has to do with you. You know He means to deal with you, because He put His triune Name on you in baptism. We entered this Divine Service in that Name. And you were absolved in that Name. This God is here to deal with you, but not in destruction or condemnation. As you join with the angels in singing Holy, Holy, Holy, you also recognize that this God has come to us covered in the flesh of Jesus. And while people were shouting Hosanna, blessed is He who cometh in the Name of the Lord! He was on His way to suffer and die, to atone for your sin and take away your guilt. And now, here, as certainly as the veil was removed between heaven and earth for Isaiah, it is for you. Here, heaven and earth are one in the Jesus who is Lord of all. And this Jesus, raised from the dead, ascended, whose word is delivered to you by the Holy Spirit, is here, the true Messenger, the true Angel of God. And His heavenly word is joined to these earthly elements, and given to you. When you hear the words of Jesus, you should also hear the words of His messenger: Look, this Body and Blood have touched your lips. Your sin is atoned for and your guilt is taken away. Do not be afraid.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/29/21

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