✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
There is a strong temptation in times like these to let news headlines determine what we talk about and meditate upon here. Much is unsettled and disordered in the world. These things can dominate and consume our attention and energy. But in the church we focus our meditation and our attention first and foremost on God’s Word; that’s where we always start. For the Word of the Lord endures forever. Only the wisdom that it imparts can help us to see ourselves and our world rightly. Apart from the Word there is only delusion and division and the lure of this or that political ideology. But in the Word we find peace and truth. For there we find Jesus, the One who bore our sicknesses and carried our sorrows, the One who shares in the humanity of all people of every tribe and race and people and language, the One who has united us in Himself by the Gospel. The answer to what ails us and the world is to be found only in Christ.
So on this Holy Trinity Sunday, we begin by directing our attention to the nature of the only true God–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 1 John 4 says that God is love–not just that He is loving in some sappy sense, but that He actually is love, within Himself. He is the perfect union of persons in one divine essence. And He is therefore by nature the God who gives of Himself in order to redeem us fallen human beings. We heard it in today’s Gospel reading, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The God who is love demonstrated that love by giving His only Son to the death of the cross to save us and all who believe.
There can be a temptation, though, to take that John 3:16 verse, which beautifully sums up the Gospel, and reduce it to a sort of trite and simplistic bumper sticker. So let’s not forget the context in which this is spoken and the deeper insight that provides us. Remember that Jesus says this while talking to Nicodemus. Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus means when He says, “you must be born again.” And unfortunately, many don’t understand Jesus’ words still to this day.
To a lot of folks, being born again means having a spiritual experience of God centering on inner emotions. They say that being born again means making a religious choice, a decision to follow a certain way of life. But if you think about it, none of that has anything to do with birth or the process of being born.
When you were born the first time, you weren’t even aware of exactly what was happening. You didn’t make a choice to be born. It wasn’t about your emotions, except maybe for the fact that you were fussing and crying. When you were born in the flesh, you were helpless, dependent, not capable of making decisions at all. Jesus uses that metaphor of fleshly birth to teach us about spiritual birth. Just as your first birth was your parents’ doing, so your second birth is God’s doing. Life and birth is not something you do, it’s something you receive. Our life with God is entirely a gift from Him; we are dependent on Him for everything, as an infant is dependent on his parents. That’s why Jesus said on another occasion, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
This is what our Lord also is teaching Nicodemus here: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” As in the beginning when the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters to bring life to creation, so the Holy Spirit hovers over the baptismal waters to bring about new life and a new creation. As a baby is given birth from the watery womb of his mother, so also a Christian is given rebirth in the watery font of our mother, the Church. Titus 3 says: “[God the Father] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
Jesus commanded the apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Note two things there. First of all, it says “all nations”–literally, all ethnicities. There is no favoritism or racial barriers in Christ’s church. Whether it’s Jew or Gentile, or black or white or Asian or Hispanic, among those who are baptized there is real and eternal unity and fellowship. You and I have so much more in common with a Christian in Africa or Mexico or India or the inner city than we do with our “spiritual but not religious” neighbors across the street. For we share in the same life of Jesus with fellow believers; we’re members of the same divine household–brothers and sisters in Christ. So there may be some political or cultural things that can be done to help address our nation’s current issues. But the real and lasting solution is spiritual; it is the peace and reconciliation that comes only through Jesus.
And then second of all, notice that Jesus doesn’t say to baptize the nations “in the names” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but rather “in the name,” singular. One name, one God, three distinct Persons. That’s the truth and the beautiful mystery of the Holy Trinity.
We Christians are under a lot of pressure to back off from our Trinitarian Creeds, to compromise our belief that this is the one and only God, or to retreat from Jesus’ words that He is the only Way to the Father and eternal life. We are encouraged instead to pray to a generic “God.” We are pressured to treat Jews and Muslims–and sometimes even Buddhists and Pagans–as people who pray to the same God as we do. But all religions do not lead to the same God, just as all roads don’t lead to the same destination. Unless we worship the Trinity, we are walking the wrong path. If people deny that Jesus is God, they are praying to a false god. If they are praying to a “life force in the universe,” they are praying to a false god. If they deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit, they are praying to a false god.
And let me add that this is not a mere matter of ivory tower theologizing. This is very practical and relevant. For only in the true God is there real life and love. Only the Holy Trinity is the God of pure grace and mercy. Every other religion tells you in some way that you have to save yourself and earn your own way into divine favor. Every other so-called god is a delusion and a lie that ultimately leads to the destruction of those who embrace it. If we really love our neighbor, we want them to know the truth.
And the truth is this: we all must be born again. For our first birth inevitably leads to death. We are born under the curse, inclined to lawlessness and selfishness. We cannot escape from judgment by our own efforts and merits. That’s why Christianity is not merely about getting your life together; it’s about getting a whole new life, the life of Christ. You can’t fix or reform your way into heaven. Your old Adam won’t allow it. He’ll just try to use religion to his own perverse advantage. No, according to Scripture your old Adam must be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance, so that a new man may emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. St. Paul put it this way in Galatians 2, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live by Christ who lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Jesus gave Himself for you, lifted up on the cross like the bronze serpent of old, so that everyone who believes in Him would be rescued from the lethal venom of sin and have eternal life. It is only through Jesus that we come to fully know the Holy Trinity. He is the One who reveals the Father. He is the One who sends the Holy Spirit. He is the One who shares fully in our humanity so that we may share fully in His divine life.
So let us remember and affirm this day what the Christian, Trinitarian faith is. We believe in the Father who created us and the Son who redeemed us and the Holy Spirit who makes us holy. We believe in the Father who loves even us sinners, in His one and only Son who redeemed us with His precious blood, and in the Holy Spirit who pours out that love upon us by water and the Word. We believe in the Father who reaches out to us fallen creatures in mercy, whose Son takes on our nature and bears our judgment and saves us, whose Holy Spirit unites us as one holy, Christian, apostolic Church in the preaching of the Gospel and the holy supper. It’s all from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit; and then back again in the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.
This is the catholic faith, with a small “c,” what the church in all times and places has taught, the Scriptural faith which binds us together as one people of God, whatever our background may be. Whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠