“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this Holy Trinity Sunday comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, today is a unique day in the Church Year. The rest of the Church’s calendar is shaped by the events of Christ’s life; we remember, we meditate upon, we receive the gifts won by His holy incarnation, perfect life, and innocent suffering and death. But this day is different; today we focus on a concept, on a teaching: the Church’s confession of the Holy Trinity. We examine the teaching of Christianity throughout the ages that there is one God, three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our God is triune; this is a profound statement, a controversial statement, and the Church struggled for centuries to determine how to confess it properly. Today, though, we take it for granted; our eyes glaze over while we confess the long, complicated, and repetitive Athanasian Creed. It seems that the doctrine of the Trinity has very little to do with my life as a Christian; it just seems to be some vague concept floating around that keeps professional theologians busy debating and writing books. What does it really have to do with me? What does the Trinity, three persons, one God, really mean?
The confession of the Holy Trinity means death, Christ’s death. Jesus confesses the Trinity to declare His unity with the Father, a declaration was the cause of His suffering and death. Jesus was put on trial, condemned, and executed for His confession of the Holy Trinity. Yes, it is that important. The Jews clearly understood that the God of Israel was the only true God, the God who had created all, the God who sustained all, the God who delivered them from bondage in Egypt, the God who promised salvation from sin and death. Their confession was also clear: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” But then Jesus came, claiming that only He truly knew the Father, the one God they worshipped. But even more than that, He claimed to be God Himself, the One God of Israel walking this earth in the flesh.
“‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day. He saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty year old, and you have seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’” Only God can call Himself the I AM, as He did to Moses from the burning bush. God simply exists, He has no beginning and no end. And Jesus declares Himself to be that God. There is only one God, as the Jews confessed; and this man, this wandering rabbi, has included Himself in the reality of that one God. With these words, Jesus declares a plurality in the unity: there is one God, but multiple persons. That is what Jesus claims; and whether you think He is lying, He’s a lunatic, or that He is actually telling the truth, He has confronted all humanity with this confession: “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
The confession of the Holy Trinity means death. The world hates the confession of the Trinity; it always has. The crowd begins by calling names: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” They end by becoming judge, jury, and executioner. “So they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.” Why did the crowd hate Jesus so much? Their hatred came from His confession of the Trinity, His declaration that He was in unity with the Father, the statement that only through Him can they know the Father. That is why they slandered Him, that is why they sought to put Him to death. That is why they did put him to death. The charge that Jesus was condemned under was His confession of the Trinity; He was killed because He claimed to be one with the Father.
The confession of the Trinity means death, both ours and Christ’s. Every Christian who dies under persecution is killed because he or she confesses the Trinity, just as Christ was killed for His confession of the Trinity. The world cannot tolerate the confession, from us or from Jesus’ own lips, that this man is also God. We think that we can honor God apart from Christ, that we can worship Him in any number of ways. We think that that they can have a religion apart from Christ, that we can conquer death ourselves, that there are many paths to God. But Jesus shatters these illusions. “You have not known Him. I know Him. If I were to say that I do not know Him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know Him and I keep His Word.” Apart from me, Jesus says, no person can know God, and for that confession, He will be condemned.
The confession of the Trinity will mean Christ’s death; Jesus doesn’t claim to be God from a big ego, an exaggerated sense of His own importance, but from obedience to the Father, even unto death. “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.” Jesus honors the Father by being an obedient Son. Jesus refused to glorify Himself; He left that up to the Father. “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’” Jesus is obedient to the Father’s will, and for that, the Father gives Him glory. He gives Him the glory for which He became man in the first place, the glory of death, the glory of the cross. There Jesus is exalted, there Jesus is glorified, executed because of His confession of the Trinity, sacrificed because He is the price for humanity’s sin. There, upon that bloody cross, Jesus is glorified as the obedient Son; the proof is Easter morning and the visible glory of an empty tomb and a risen Christ.
Jesus’ glory doesn’t come from men; the confession of the Trinity isn’t going to win Jesus or you any popularity contests. We’ve gotten so used to living in a so-called ‘Christian nation’ that we’ve grown soft, we think that our Christian faith can win us brownie points with others around us, that it can serve our own glory. We find it easy to forget that the confession of the Trinity means persecution and death; perhaps we will unfortunately have to learn this lesson again. We aren’t Christians, we don’t confess the Trinity, to impress anyone, to glorify ourselves. We confess the Trinity because it is the truth, and it is the truth that brings us life.
The confession of the Trinity means Jesus’ death; the confession of the Trinity means our life. The doctrine of the Trinity means salvation accomplished at Calvary and salvation delivered to you. The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t some abstract, ‘pie in the sky’ teaching; it is essential to our salvation. Only as true God can Jesus offer a sufficient price to pay for our sins. If Jesus were not God, He could die a thousand times and never atone for the sins of anyone. Only because He is God can His death have such effect; only because He is God can His Words give what He has won. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Jews thought this was impossible: “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’” How can you, Jesus, a mere man, claim that your words overcome death?
They were right. If Jesus was simply a man, then His words could do no such thing. But Jesus claims to be much more than simply a man. “Before Abraham was, I AM.” He is God in the flesh, come to defeat sin, death, and hell, bringing forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Father sent His Son to give His life as the required price for your sin, to be glorified upon the cross. The Father and the Son send the Spirit to work through Word and Sacrament to make you a Christian and keep you in that true faith. The Spirit delivers Christ to you in His Word, so that you ‘keep His word,’ which is nothing else than believing in it through the faith that He creates. When the Holy Spirit comes as promised on Pentecost, the doctrine of the Trinity is completely revealed. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, yet there are not three gods but one God, and this Trinity works in unison to accomplish your salvation and then to deliver this salvation to you.
What does the doctrine of the Trinity mean? It means life, eternal life. It means that death has no hold upon you. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Christ’s words have authority because He is true God, because He Himself has gone to the cross to win victory over death, because He has risen to proclaim that victory throughout the world. The doctrine of the Trinity is indispensable because without it, we have no assurance of our salvation. Only if Jesus is true God with the Father can He offer the sacrifice for our sin, conquering death itself. Only if the Holy Spirit is true God with the Father and the Son can He create and sustain faith within us through the Word and Holy Sacraments. When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” this is a word of pure Gospel, for it declares that the One who claims victory over death is the only One with the authority to make such a statement. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
There is a difference between dying and ‘seeing’ or ‘tasting’ death. You and I will die, but we will not see or taste death, for it has no hold on us; there is a reason that Scripture describes it as sleep. Those who are in Christ do not experience death as unbelievers do; they simply pass from death to life. In a sermon on this very text, Martin Luther declared: “I live, I let God decide how long; I die, God wills when and in what way; I pass away, I know where I am heading; I am mystified that I still am sorrowful.” We will still have sorrow over death, but it has no hold over us, we can face death calmly, without fear. The Holy Trinity, working together in unity, in unison, has brought us life, and their fellowship will be ours when Christ’s powerful, authoritative words come true, just as He has promised. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God, three persons, the Trinity we worship and adore, Amen.