“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Sunday of the Holy Trinity is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, Holy Trinity Sunday has a tendency to be a bit confusing. The Gradual for this day declares: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable.” After we confess the Athanasian Creed this morning, I think you will all heartily agree. I am of the opinion that only pastors and vicars actually like reciting this creed, and I think we all have this plot brewing to confess it every month, if not every week. Some may say that this is because you need a seminary education to understand the Trinity, but I would disagree. All a seminary education gives you is a shelf full of books about the doctrine of the Trinity, where everyone pretty much says, “we don’t get it either.” But there is a great difference between knowing the ins and outs of the Trinity and simply confessing what the Bible tells us. In the Athanasian Creed we will confess, “The Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another. But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one.” That’s not any kind of math I’m used to, but that it what Scripture teaches us.
Humans quite simply don’t understand God, in fact, we cannot. On the other hand, Jesus has us figured out, as John tells us right before our text: “[Jesus] Himself knew what was in man.” Just in case we don’t believe John’s testimony about Jesus, we are given an example. “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with Him.’” Nicodemus has some flattering words, but he doesn’t know what he is getting himself into. The answers of Jesus leave Him befuddled, all of His great intelligence and standing before the people counts as nothing before Jesus. “Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’” He is in the same boat as the rest of us. Humans cannot understand the mystery of God, we are unable to probe the depths of His mind, and the effort often leaves us confused and frustrated.
Why is this? Jesus tells Nicodemus in our text. “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We have been born in the flesh, the sinful corrupted flesh that was given to us by all who came before. This sin, which clings to us like a disease, not only keeps us from understanding God, it keeps us from knowing Him in the first place. We are born separated from God, unable by any effort of our own to come to Him or know Him. But this separation is not just one of knowledge, as if we could go to the library and fix it. This is a real, physical separation. God created man to be in fellowship with Him, but our sin continues to push Him away. We cannot come to God, but we can and do make the gap wider and wider- with every lie, every evil thought, every moment of hatred toward others, every time we profane His Name. Our focus is in the wrong place, as Jesus said: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Our sinful selves are focused on earthly things, the things of this world, rather than on heaven. The concerns of our lives on this earth so often drown out any concern about the things of God. Isn’t that how the world tells us to live, with our eyes focused on the ground, on our wants here in this world? The teachings of Christ about the Trinity mean little to the world, because it does not see our real needs- that we have a sin problem, we have a death problem, we have a hell problem.
To solve those problems, to fulfill those needs, the only needs that matter in eternity, the doctrine of the Trinity is indispensible, because for our salvation, the Trinity sprang into action. We will confess in a few moments: “We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in relationship together, an intimate relationship that is incomprehensible to the human mind. But Jesus declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” Jesus of Nazareth, who appeared to human reason as simply a man, had a window into that relationship, for He was a part of it. He was true God and true man, the Second person of the Trinity. “No one has ascended into heaven except Him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” They are three distinct persons, yet one God. We can spend all day trying to figure out how one God could be three distinct persons, but here we simply confess what we have been given to confess- that the three persons of the Trinity work in relationship to accomplish our salvation.
God saw our corrupted state, that we could neither understand Him nor come to Him, that we were born separated from Him and condemned to death, and He acted. And He acted in love. “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 first person of the Trinity sent the Second person into our creation, Jesus Christ became man for us and our salvation, that man and God may no longer be separated. “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.” But the Incarnation was not victory in itself. Jesus had come to deal with our sin problem, our death problem, and our hell problem, and to do that He needed to defeat them all by offering Himself in our place. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.” Moses crafted a bronze serpent, the very embodiment of the punishment for the people’s sin, and placed it high upon a pole. This bronze serpent had no poison in itself, but instead all who were bitten would look to it and live. Jesus Christ, who bore our very flesh, but yet without the poison of sin, allowed Himself to be taken up high upon the pole of the cross. There He gave His life, there He shed His blood, there He endured the abandonment of God for our sin. Jesus was in that intimate relationship of the Trinity, but on the cross, God turned His back upon Christ, unleashing hell upon Him for us. And with His wounds we are healed, with His blood our sin is atoned for, with His death, death itself is defeated, and with His resurrection, we have the promise of eternal life.
But Jesus’ death and resurrection would mean nothing if the benefits were not brought to us. For this task, the Third person of the Trinity would be sent. In our text, Nicodemus tries to butter Jesus up with some flattering remarks about their admiration for His teaching. But Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter. “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” We were born with the corrupted flesh that we inherited from our parents, indeed from our first parents, Adam and Eve. We were barred from the kingdom of God and condemned to death. In love the Father sent the Son, who accomplished salvation, and then the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit, who brings people into the kingdom of the Son. And He does this by giving us a new birth. “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’”
In our physical birth we received the inheritance of sin, and so we needed a different birth to give to us the inheritance of salvation. “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” In Baptism, we are washed with water and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. There the Spirit does His work of bringing us the gifts Christ won for us, of making us new. We are given in Baptism the rebirth in the Spirit, a new birth of life that brings us into Christ’s promises, into the kingdom He established with His blood. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Through Baptism we are given a new birth, a birth from above by water and the Spirit, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. We are baptized into the fellowship of the Trinity- it is no surprise that Jesus instructs us to baptize in that Name: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Through Baptism, the new birth of the Spirit, we are made children of God, God is now our Father, as Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer. That is what characterizes our eternal existence- intimate fellowship with the Triune God. But though we are born of the Spirit, we do not therefore reject our bodies. Our flesh is a good gift of God, and He will raise it up and renew it as well on the last day. That is the promise that we have through Baptism, that all of us, body and soul, will dwell with Christ forever in heaven.
Nicodemus, after hearing of the miracle of Baptism, that God would give life to sinful people through the washing of the water with the Word, asks “How can these things be?” But Jesus has already given him the answer: “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.” The Spirit works as the Lord has ordained, and He works in mysterious ways, bringing people the blessings Christ won through simple words, water, bread and wine. And so, even with the birth of the Spirit in Baptism, the things of God still remain mysterious. We will not be able to completely understand the Trinity, we will not be able to fully comprehend how God could become man and accomplish salvation, nor how the Holy Spirit could use such ordinary means to bring us salvation. We remain in the flesh, and so we confess what we have been given to confess from the Scriptures. And the Scriptures teach us to confess what we cannot see, what we cannot fully understand, that the Father sent His Son to accomplish salvation, and the Father and Son sent the Spirit to deliver His gifts to us. That is where we place our confidence- on what Scripture has taught us, what Jesus has taught us, and what we will confess in the Athanasian Creed. We believe in the Triune God that created us, defeated our enemies for us, and gave to us a new birth through the washing of the water with the Word. May the Triune God, the only true God, strengthen and preserve you in that baptismal faith until life everlasting, Amen.