A Trinitarian Life – Sermon for June 15/16

Living a Trinitarian Life

2 Corinthians 13:14

Trinity Sunday

June 15th/16th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

A Pastor named Norman Nagel once quipped, “If someone asked you what God is like, you probably wouldn’t answer by reciting the Athanasian Creed.  After all, at first glance the creed looks like it was designed to show you just how mysterious and beyond comprehension God truly is.”[1]  It speaks of unity and substance, of the glory equal and the majesty coeternal, begotten and proceeding, and a whole host of other terms that seem to confuse more than explain.  But we have to remember the creed for what it is.  As another pastor put it[2], the Athanasian Creed is not written to be a creed that fully explains the mystery of the Trinity, rather it is written to be a statement of belief to which deceptive religions cannot agree.  For example, a group known as the Arians at the time of the creed’s composition and the Mormons of today will gladly say that Jesus is the son of god, but they will not agree that “the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one.”  They don’t believe Jesus is God in the same way or on the same level as God the Father.  The creed serves to set boundaries and the fence-line around what can rightly be called Christian theology and the teaching of the Scriptures, and what is something else.  As such, in many ways it is more helpful in clarifying what God is not than in fully explaining what he is.

But none of that changes the fact that today we are celebrating the Feast of the Holy Trinity, a day where it is appropriate to consider the nature of the Trinity.  But to do so, I do not want to spend a lot of time unpacking all the language of the Athanasian Creed; I’d rather we tackled some simpler language, language which you have heard many times in your life as a Christian, language you have heard even from this very altar.  I’d like to take some time this morning to reflect on the blessing that Paul left with the Christians in Corinth: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”[3]  I’d like to spend some time today using Paul’s words to reflect on the nature of the Trinity, and to attempt to understand how we as God’s children are shaped into living a Trinitarian life together.  To do so, I’d like you to look at the bulletin cover for this morning.Holy trinity

Take a moment to look over this artist’s depiction of the Trinity and notice first that the figure in the forefront of the piece is Christ.  Jesus is the one who reveals the entire Godhead to us.  In the painting, as in real life, you have to look through Jesus to see God. Isn’t that what Jesus himself told Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading?[4]  “We speak of what we know,” Jesus said, “and I know who God is and how He works, for I am God.  So if you want to know about God, you need only look to the one who knows.  And that’s me.”  We must look through Jesus to rightly understand God the Father, but so also God the Father looks through Jesus to see us.  This is what Paul is writing about when he prays that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ would remain with us.  Grace isn’t something that fills a person enabling them to complete a task.  That’s what knowledge is and how knowledge works.  If I learn something in theory about physics and engineering, then I am filled with that knowledge so that I can in turn use that knowledge to accomplish a task, like building a bridge or a building.  That’s not how the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ works.  Rather, his grace is his attitude toward us.  As you see in the picture, it was his gracious love that led him to be nailed to a cross for you.  It was his gracious love that led him to pour out his blood for you.  And most importantly, it was his gracious love that frees you from the chains of death, as you see the skull at the foot of the cross being defeated by the sacrifice of Christ there.  It is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that moved him to all these actions for you.  And when this grace remains with you, when this Jesus remains with you through the proclamation of his word and the participation in his sacrament, then you are kept right with God and your Trinitarian life begins to take shape.

Luther famously said that we are to be Christ to our neighbor.  In his treatise on Christian Liberty he wrote, “Just as our neighbor is in want, and has great need of our abundance, so we too in the sight of God were in want, and had need of His mercy.  And as our heavenly Father has freely helped us in Christ, so ought we freely to help our neighbor by our body and works, and each should become to the other a sort of Christ, so that we may be mutually Christs, and that the same Christ may be in all of us; that is, we may be truly Christian.”[5]  Part of the Trinitarian life we now lead as God’s children is to be like Christ to our neighbor.  Now, we certainly cannot defeat sin, death, and the devil for the people around us, but we can point people to God by living sacrificially.  We can provide for the proclamation of the Gospel in this place and around the world through our offerings and sacrificial giving.  We can be living examples of the sacrificial love of Christ when we sacrifice our own wants and desires for the benefit of our children – when we spend time together as a family apart from the constant distraction of having work email at the fingertips, when we sacrifice our own desires to do those things that make our children happy and build the relationships in our families.  Also, we as parents teach our kids to live sacrificially by having them put aside their own desires to instead attend their siblings’ activities and events.  We can live sacrificially in our school and church when we step back to look at the big picture, when we as church see the value of our school and support the ministry and efforts there, but also when we as school step back and see the value of our church and worship, supporting the ministry and efforts there.  There is no shortage of opportunity to live in sacrifice to the people around us.  To live such lives is to see the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ active among us, viewing the people around us with the same gracious and sacrificial attitude with which our Lord Jesus sees and acts toward us.  That is the first part of our Trinitarian life.

Holy trinity             The second part is drawn from God the Father.  Paul prays that the love of God the Father would remain with us.  As we celebrate Fathers’ Day, we hear much from our world about what dads ought to do.  We see commercials for power tools and golf clubs as if those items embody fatherhood.  But look again to the picture on your bulletin cover to see how this artist saw the love of God the Father at work.  There are two things to notice about Father in this painting.  The first is that he is sitting on a throne wearing royal robes.  This is obviously a confession that God alone is the true ruler of this world.  As the prophet Isaiah recorded for our Old Testament reading today, when he saw God our Father, our Lord was “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.”[6]  He is the King of kings.  He is the Lord of lords.  This is his creation, and we are all subject to him as our supreme ruler.  But the temptation in talking about the reality that God is the all-powerful Lord of all creation is to forget what He does with his lordship.  Look again at the picture and, as I’m sure many of you noticed right away, look at what the Father’s hands are doing.  They are holding up the cross of Christ.  Our God rules in love by sending his own Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.[7]  Our Father in heaven does not use his lordship as an opportunity to humiliate or subjugate the people of this world.  He created us to live in communion with him, and when that communion was shattered by sin, he set into motion a series of events to restore what was broken.  He made promises in Eden, made promises to Abraham and his descendants, remained faithful to those promises for his name’s sake, even though the people of Israel continually profaned his name among the nations.[8]  He used all his power and authority as God to redeem you, to restore the broken relationship with you.  God made a promise, and He remained faithful to that promise to the point of death – the death of his own Son on the cross – and now we have been given the crown of eternal life.

So also in our lives we have to deal with authority.  There will be many times where we find ourselves under the authority of another – be it a boss or manager, a parent, or teacher.  The mark of our Trinitarian life in those situations is that we are called to remember the fourth commandment and honor their authority, being obedient to their direction and respectful to their office, recognizing that there is no true authority except that which comes from God.[9]  But there are also instances in our lives where we find ourselves as the person in authority.  Fathers find themselves in position where they have authority over their children.  Sometimes we are the ones who are the manager or boss.  Sometimes we are the ones who are the government officials or the board and council members elected to positions of leadership.  It is in these instances where the contours to a Trinitarian life begin to become even clearer.  As we are called to lives of sacrificial love that enable us to be like Christ to our neighbor, so also we are called to use our authority in love, and in so doing be like God our Father to our neighbors.  Rather than using our authority as an opportunity to belittle or crush those under us, we act in love.  We treat them fairly and with respect.  We find ways to highlight each person’s individual skills so that we put people in a position to succeed.  Just as God our Father rules this world through various the vocations he has given people, like governments and parents, so also when we are the ones in positions of authority we allow other people to take on responsibilities, especially in the community of the baptized here at St. John and within the church at large, in order to foster a sense of community and camaraderie.  We certainly are not God the Father any more than we are Christ, yet just as we can act as Christ to our neighbor by living graciously and sacrificially, so also we live a Trinitarian existence when we act as God the Father to our neighbors by exercising authority in love.

Holy trinity

This brings us to the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the third element to a Trinitarian life.  As more than one theologian throughout the years has said, the Holy Spirit is like the glue that holds it all together.  In the picture on your bulletin, the Spirit is located directly between the Father and the Son.  He is depicted as a dove, which is the well-known form that he took when he descended upon Jesus at his baptism.  So also the Holy Spirit was given to you in your baptism.  He is the glue that holds your Trinitarian life together.  For when you try to live a life of sacrificial love as Christ to your neighbor, you will find yourself unable.  You will find yourself manipulating the emotions of others: “I did such-and-such for you, why won’t you do what I’m asking in return?”  Or you will find your pride won’t allow you to be truly sacrificial without expectation of recognition.  You may not demand a standing ovation in front of the church, but you still feel embittered when no one, or not enough people, say thank you or truly appreciate all you do.  Our sinful flesh will not allow us to live a purely sacrificial life.  When you try to exercise authority in love as our Father in heaven, you will find the responsibility is more than you can bear.  You will make decisions that are secretly or subconsciously self-serving rather than being made for the good of your neighbor.  In anger or frustration you will seek vengeance and label it justice.  None of us can ever hope to fully live as Christ or the Father to our neighbors, which is exactly why the Holy Spirit is at work within us.  He is the glue that holds your Trinitarian life together.  He drives us to repentance when we fail, and sooths our wounds with the sweet healing words of forgiveness.  He gives us the desire to try to live in love and service again even after we have failed to do so before.  He keeps us coming to the well of our Lord’s church to drink the life-giving water of his Word, for it is only when that word is living and active among us that we can truly give and receive forgiveness, which is the key ingredient to living together.  That is the unity of the Holy Spirit.  That is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, that He calls us and gathers us together through the Gospel, enlivens us with his gifts of forgiveness and new life so that we can live a Trinitarian life: showing the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ through lives of sacrifice, showing the love of God the Father through the ways we rule and are governed, and living in the unity of the Spirit that binds it all together through mutual confession and absolution.

Such is the Trinitarian life.  Such is your life as a child of God baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  By the grace of God, may such a Trinitarian existence be recognizable among us here at St. John, so that all who come into contact with this place may see God at work among us.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  Amen.

 

[1] Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel p. 152

[2] Rev. Jonathan Fisk “I Bind Unto Myself Today” http://www.worldvieweverlasting.com/2012/11/30/i-bind-unto-myself-today/

[3] 2 Corinthians 13:14

[4] John 3:11

[5] Treatise on Christian Liberty (public domain translation by R. S. Grignon) p.37

[6] Isaiah 6:1

[7] John 3:17

[8] Ezekiel 36:22-28

[9] Romans 13:1

The Fiery Trial – Sermon for June 1st/2nd, 2014

The Fiery Trial

1 Peter 4:7-14

Exaudi Sunday (7th Sunday of Easter)

June 1st/2nd, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 Do not be surprised, beloved, when the fiery trial comes upon you to test you, as though something strange and unexpected were happening to you.  For you know that the genuineness of your faith will be tested by fire to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.[1]  Did not Jesus himself say, “If anyone would follow me, let Christian_Persecution_02_230pxhim deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”?[2]  Did not Jesus himself say, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”?[3]  Did not Jesus himself say, “In the world you will have tribulation”?[4]  Did not Jesus himself say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”?[5]  Yes, beloved, Jesus is clear.  We his children will have crosses to bear in this life.  We will have tribulation.  We will have fiery trials – so don’t be surprised when those trials appear.  Don’t act as if something strange were happening to you.  It is not strange.  It is life under the cross of Christ.  It is life as an enemy of Satan.  It is the life you now lead as a baptized child of God.

Persecution will find you, you don’t have to go looking for it.  Now, some trials that we suffer are the result of our own sinful actions.  As Peter says in the verse that immediately follows today’s reading, if you suffer because you are a murderer or a thief or a gossip or a rabble-rouser, then your suffering is simply the result of your choices and cannot rightly be considered persecution.[6]  Yet if you are insulted for the name of Christ, then you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.[7]  We should expect to suffer for the name of Christ.  I think we in the United States are only just beginning to get a sense of this type of suffering.  We haven’t really experienced it before because for the past several generations Christianity in the United States enjoyed privileged status.  Christian holidays were observed on a national level.  Nativities were displayed prominently in the courthouse lawn while Joy to the World and other Christian carols swelled the shopping mall and the church sanctuary equally.  The Christian view of marriage was accepted and unquestioned – at least on a cultural level.  Christianity was in the majority, and Christians led a fairly comfortable existence, one where we were allowed to worship and preach the gospel without fear of interference or retribution.

Those times are gone now.  Our government and our culture have changed.  No longer does Christianity hold privileged status.  We are not the lap dog any longer – we’re back in the pack with the rest of them, fighting for our scraps.  The definition of marriage in our land is not that which we find in our Lord’s Word.  Christian displays are not tolerated on the front lawn of government buildings, and where they are allowed, they are adrift in a sea of religious pluralism.  Music celebrating the birth of Jesus has been banned from many public places in the Christmas season, which has itself been renamed the “holiday” season so as not to offend those who celebrate something other than the birth of our Lord at that time of year.  Federal regulations regarding health care, birth control and abortions force Christian organizations to choose between conscience and compliance.  The leadership of our Synod has already put congregations on alert that the property tax exemption currently granted to religious institutions will likely go by the wayside sometime in the next ten years.  There are other changes that have happened or will happen soon that will change the way the church operates in the U.S.  We Christians in the United States are experiencing a culture shock of sorts as the culture around us evolves and morphs into something new.  I don’t know what the future holds, but I expect that being Christian in America in the years ahead will require a more ardent confession, for the convenience of Christianity will be gone.

chickenlittle2But we ought not turn into Chicken Little.  Yes, our cultural context is changing, but the sky is not falling.  Losing convenience isn’t always bad.  Losing privilege doesn’t have to be the worst thing in the world.  What we are just now beginning to experience is nothing compared to what other parts of the world have endured for the past 2000 years.  That is why we often pray for the persecuted church, for those who suffer on account of the gospel, like the Sudanese woman who is to be executed for her conversion to Christianity.  Her story made global headlines due to the fact that she was 8 months pregnant when she was sentenced to death, but her situation is not especially unique.  There are several nations around the world where conversion to Christianity is a capital offense punishable by death.  During the days of the Iron Curtain, stories of Christian martyrdom and persecution were quite common.  The dangers posed to Christians around the world far exceed what we currently face here in the United States, yet it is precisely in hostile environments like Africa where the Christian Church is growing so quickly that it’s hard to get enough pastors and resources for all the new congregations.  Our situation in America may be getting worse, but even we can thank God that our problem is being told not to say Merry Christmas instead of facing execution for confessing Christianity.

We ought to be careful not to equate loss of privilege with genuine persecution.  For just like talk of financial hardship rings hollow when we have high definition cable TV, smart phones with unlimited data, multiple vehicles to gas up and maintain, and are willing to spend thousands of dollars on vacations, so also talk of persecution rings hollow when the extent of the struggle we are facing is whether or not a secular government allows us to set up a nativity on public property.  I don’t think that’s the persecution that Peter is talking about in his epistle.  I do, however, think we in the United States are on a collision course with the exact type of experiences that Peter is addressing.  But we need not lose hope.  Yes, the world around us is growing ever more blatant in its paganism.  Yes, the open acceptance of sinful behavior is considered normal now.  Yes, we live in a culture that has no problem with homosexuality, pornography, or any other sexual actions that are contrary to our Lord’s design.  In fact, sexual pleasure of any kind is glorified as the highest good that this life has to offer.  We live in a world that has no problem with ending life when that life is inconvenient, so long as that life is unborn or aging.  But Ivy League Ethicists have been arguing since the 1970s that even infants should not be given preferential treatment, and if you find yourself in a position where you feel the need to kill your 1 month old, you should have the right to go ahead and do it.[8]  We live in a world that believes the purpose of existence is survival of the fittest, to kill or be killed, to exert your will on the weak so that you may be made strong.  But we need not lose hope.

We aren’t the first generation of believers to face opposition from the world.  Our world has always been at odds with our Lord, ever since the Fall, so if you are going to try to live according to our Lord’s Word, take Peter’s words to heart.  Don’t be surprised when you find yourself increasingly at odds with the culture in which you live.  Don’t be surprised when the voice of Christians is portrayed as unloving, uncaring, overbearing, and AB-IN-It-Not-Of-Itdownright evil.  Do not be surprised when the world cannot understand the Scriptures’ teaching on marriage and brands you as unloving for holding to it.  Do not be surprised when the world does not understand the value our Lord places on life and how such value is incompatible with abortion or euthanasia.  Do not be surprised as the situation gets a whole lot more serious than not being to put a nativity in the lawn at the capitol building.  Do not be surprised when you are insulted for the name of Christ, for if you are insulted in the name of Christ, you are blessed, because you have held to the confession of His Word, and through that Word the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.[9]

Don’t be surprised when that America arrives.  It’s coming.  In many ways it’s already here and has been for some time now.  Don’t be surprised, but don’t lose hope either, for keep-calm-remember-matthew-16-18Jesus said the gates of hell itself cannot overpower our Lord’s church.  Even the threat of death cannot silence the Gospel in Africa.  Neither will the gospel be silenced here, not as long as our Lord is active among us to kindle in our hearts a passion for the truth that sets us free.  Take heart, the church will survive.  We may lose privileged status, but we will not lose our Lord, for he will remain faithful.  We will not lose his Word, for while the flower withers and the grass fades, the Word of our God stands forever.[10]  So cling to that Word.  Don’t let the voice of the culture, of the music on the radio or the messages in the movies or the images on TV, don’t let the voice of the culture be the only voice that enters your ears and your eyes.  Hear the voice of our Lord in his Word, but do so knowing that as his word begins to give you a perspective on life that conflicts with the culture around us, the culture will not simply sit by and let you have your way.  It’s exhausting to swim upstream; you will get pelted with sand and dirt when you walk into the wind.  Do not be surprised when being counter cultural is difficult.  Do not be surprised when that fiery trial arrives, but rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.[11]  Be faithful unto death, and you will receive a crown of life.[12]

Don’t be surprised at the fiery trials, but don’t lose hope either.  Receive life’s challenges as a call to repentance and a reminder of our own sin and desperate need of salvation.  Rather than feeling victimized when someone scolds you for saying Merry Christmas or lamenting the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t accept the Christian worldview, repent of the sins of this culture of which we are each a part.  We have each contributed in our own ways to the world in which we live – and we are each called to repentance for it.  Rather than making excuses or finding loopholes to justify sinful actions and desires, repent of your sinful flesh and look to our Lord for deliverance.  While we will each of us suffer something in this life, we are like the thief on the cross, for we indeed suffer justly.  We get what we deserve for our sin.  It is Jesus who suffered unjustly.  It is Jesus who did nothing wrong but was left to face the consequences of our sin.  And he did so willingly, allowing himself to be captured rather than calling down legions of angles to defend him, giving up his spirit on the cross, laying down his life so that you could be his precious child.  He suffered great persecution so that we might have life beyond the grave.  He is the reason we cling to hope in the face of persecution, for who are we that we should be counted worthy to receive the same treatment our Lord received?  And even more, when this world has done its worst, when we have suffered the most, when death itself snatches our last breath away, even that is but the birth into the new heavens and the new earth.

Take heart in your suffering – for your salvation is secure.  Do not lose hope in your suffering – you are a child of God.  You are a child of life in a world of death.  Keep an eye on eternity during your time here, knowing full well that Satan does not want you to arrive safely in God’s eternal mansion.  Do not be surprised when fiery trials come upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  You have been baptized.  You now have a bull’s eye on your back as a new creation and an enemy of the devil.  But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad SquarePeg-RoundHole-01when his glory is revealed, for when his glory is revealed we too will be seen for what we are, not simply people who don’t fit in quite right with our culture, but the saints of God who will spend eternity with him in the new and perfect creation.

May God grant it for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

 

[1] 1 Peter 1:7

[2] Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23

[3] Matthew 5:11

[4] John 16:33

[5] Matthew 10:34

[6] 1 Peter 4:15

[7] 1 Peter 4:14

[8] http://www.equip.org/articles/peter-singers-bold-defense-of-infanticide/#christian-books-2

[9] 1 Peter 4:14

[10] Isaiah 40:6-8

[11] 1 Peter 4:13

[12] Revelation 2:10