Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Feast of The Holy Trinity

John 3:1-17; Romans 11:33-36; Isaiah 6:1-7

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Does it not often seem that the most direct, the clearest, and the most simply stated of our Lord’s teachings are the most difficult for us to understand and to believe? For example, as Jesus held up bread, blessed it, broke it, and distributed it to His disciples, He plainly and clearly said, “This is My body.” I ask you, is there anything unclear about those four, precise words? Truly, if Jesus wished to communicate something other than the reality of His flesh and blood presence in the Last Supper, He could easily have said, “This is a symbol of My body,” or “This represents My body,” or “This is a spiritual presence of My body,” or even, “This has been transformed into My body.” But, no, our Lord did not say any of these things, but He plainly, clearly, distinctly, and precisely said, “This is My body,” and “This is My blood of the New Covenant shed for your for the forgiveness of sins.” Similarly, Jesus taught plainly and clearly concerning His divinity saying, “I and the Father are one,” and “He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” and “Before Abraham was, I am.” The religious leadership of the Jews understood that last one plainly enough; they took up stones to stone Jesus to death for blasphemy, because they understood that He had publicly claimed to be God. Likewise, many who believed in Him followed Him no longer when Jesus taught them saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Those who heard Jesus’ words understood precisely what He meant, even if it was hard to believe. Why don’t we?
The historic Gospel appointed for The Feast of the Holy Trinity is, somewhat surprisingly, not an overtly Trinitarian text, but is, rather, about spiritual regeneration, Holy Baptism, and being “born again.” And, this Gospel is yet another example in which our Lord Jesus spoke most clearly, plainly, and precisely, and yet extreme mischief, confusion, and outright deception has been committed by Christians in interpreting and applying Jesus’ teaching concerning spiritual regeneration, Holy Baptism, and being “born again.” Nicodemus, a learned Pharisee and teacher of Israel, came to Jesus under cover of night that he might inquire of the Rabbi concerning His being the Messiah of God. Nicodemus confessed that he was inclined to believe Jesus because of the miraculous signs He performed, but Jesus answered Nicodemus saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus, also, understood Jesus’ words at face value saying, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” That is the plain, simple, natural reading of Jesus’ words. His words are not mysterious or difficult to understand, no more than Jesus’ words, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” By Jesus’ words alone, Nicodemus was right to understand them plainly and literally.
However, in this case, Jesus was not speaking literally, but spiritually and metaphorically. How do we know this? Because Jesus went on to explain precisely that saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus offered no such spiritual explanation of His words concerning His body and blood in the Supper. One must be spiritually “born again” in order to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus’ use of the analogy of birth is of extreme importance. Jesus beckoned Nicodemus to consider his supernatural and spiritual rebirth in light of his natural and physical birth. We are completely passive in our natural births. We did not choose to be born, when to be born, or where to be born. We did not choose our parents, grandparents, or siblings. We did not choose our race or ethnicity, the geographical location of our birth, or our nationality. We did not even choose whether we would be male or female. In truth, birth is not something that you choose in any way at all, but birth is something that happens to you wholly apart from your choosing, your reason and understanding, and any decision you might make. That is precisely how Jesus would have you consider your spiritual rebirth in Holy Baptism: Being “born again” is something that happens to you, wholly apart from your choosing, your reason and understanding, or any decision you might make. Being “born again” is the work of God the Father, by His Holy Spirit, working through His Word, His Son. And so, being “born again” is the work of the Holy Trinity in unity.
To illustrate this point even further, Jesus taught Nicodemus using the analogy of the wind saying, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Once again, in relation to the wind, we are completely passive. You cannot will the wind to blow upon you any more than you can will it to stop. So it is, says Jesus, with the Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit creates faith and trust in men when and where He pleases. We do not participate in our being “born again” anymore than we did in our natural births, anymore than we can direct the wind to blow upon us or not. For, apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, we are spiritually deaf, dumb, and blind – in truth, we are spiritually dead. Only God can open deaf ears to hear, release dumb tongues to speak, give sight to blind eyes, and raise the dead to life by His Holy Spirit through His Word. Therefore we confess with Luther: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
Largely the result of 17th century Lutheran Pietism, which focused upon personal inward holiness as opposed to what was perceived as formalism and intellectualism, contemporary Evangelical Protestantism is infected and crippled by spiritual egoism and, consequently, with Semi-Pelagian works righteousness and self-justification. The cliché “born again” has been completely divorced from Jesus’ clear meaning and teaching concerning our passivity in spiritual regeneration and has been reinterpreted to mean that we must make a decision, open our hearts to Jesus, and accept Him as our Lord and Savior. Please, I ask you, can you honestly say that Jesus taught anything remotely like that in our Gospel today? Truly, you have to perform some incredible linguistic and interpretive gymnastics to arrive at such an interpretation. You see, the problem with such an interpretation of “born again” is that it is all about “I” – “I decided,” “I accepted,” “I chose,” accompanied by “I feel,” “I do,” and “I will.” It’s all about what you have done, what you feel, and what you will do, and not about what God the Father has done by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ His Son and Word. Such an understanding inevitably leads to one of two, seemingly paradoxical, results: The believer is pumped up with self-righteous pride, believing that he is justified and sanctified because of his decision and feelings concerning Jesus, or, he falls into hopelessness and despair because he feels unworthy and his works fall short of obedience. I assure you, Satan delights whenever your eyes are taken off of Jesus and placed upon yourself – your decision, your feelings, your works, your righteousness.
Indeed, that is why Jesus concludes today’s Gospel by teaching about the serpent God commanded Moses to raise up in the wilderness. As those bitten by venomous serpents were healed when they looked upon the fiery serpent raised up on the pole, “so,” Jesus says, “must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Jesus Christ, crucified, died, risen, ascended, and returning, stands outside of you as an objective, unchanging sign that “it is finished,” you are justified, redeemed, healed, and forgiven wholly apart from your choosing, your reason and understanding, your faith, or any decision that you might make. Because Jesus’ sinlessness, obedience, death and resurrection stand outside of you, you can have confidence that you are redeemed and forgiven and that this will never change or be revoked. Your justification doesn’t depend upon how you feel, what you do, what you understand, or anything else about you – Your justification doesn’t depend upon you, but it depends upon Jesus alone.
However, you must believe. And, that is what Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus is really all about – How does one believe? How do we come to saving faith in Jesus? Justifying and saving faith, belief, and trust are the work of the Holy Spirit as He creates them in men when and where He pleases. Just as the wind blows upon you, just as when you were born, you are passive in coming to faith. You did not, could not, and would not choose Jesus, but He has chosen you and, by His Holy Spirit through His Word, He has created and sustains faith in your hearts. Faith is absolutely necessary. Apart from faith in Jesus you cannot be saved. This Jesus taught saying, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me,” and “He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe will be condemned.” All living things are born, and to be spiritually alive you must be born again of water and the Spirit. This is a clear reference to your Holy Baptism in which you entered again into your Mother’s womb, the baptismal font of the Church, and emerged clean, new, and alive having the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit. This is the work of God the Father, by His Holy Spirit, through His Son Jesus Christ – water, Word, and Spirit. In your Holy Baptism you were passive as the water poured over your head, as the Word of God was spoken over you and into you, and the Holy Spirit descended upon you and remained with you. Because it came from outside of you, your justification is not dependent upon your choice, your reason, your understanding, your obedience, or your feelings, but it depends only upon the Word and Promise of God that never changes and never fails. What promise is that? Jesus concludes saying, “For God so loved the world in this way: He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus, your baptism, your faith, the sealing of His Holy Spirit, are God’s precious gifts for you. Do not dare to take credit for them yourself, or to claim that you have chosen them, decided to take them, or earned or merited them in anyway. Such theft is blasphemy and unbelief. Rather, as when you receive any gift, say “Thank you,” and love, honor, and obey God, the giver of the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
None of this should be surprising, for the consistent teaching of the Holy Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation is the monergism of God in creation and justification, that these are His work alone. In the beginning, God created all things by speaking His creative Word into lifeless nothingness. The Church calls this creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. Creation is the work of the Holy Trinity alone. Natural birth is God’s work alone. Your justification in Christ is God’s work alone. And your being “born again” of water and the Spirit is God’s work alone. However, once you have been “born again,” then you do indeed begin to cooperate with God the Holy Spirit as you do good works, not good in themselves, but sanctified and made holy through the blood of Jesus. That you might remain in this good and saving faith and be fruitful in works that are pleasing before the Lord, the Holy Spirit keeps you in the Church, the body of Christ, forgives you anew, feeds, nourishes, and strengthens your faith, and equips and sends you in loving service of your neighbor to the glory of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us.”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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