Sermon for Trinity Sunday based on the Athanasian Creed and John 3:1 – 17
Dear confessors of the faith: grace, mercy and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.” Those are the first two verses of the Athanasian Creed which we just confessed. They make quite a bold and serious confession of faith. You must hold the catholic faith or you will perish eternally. This is of course not referring to the Roman Catholic faith, but rather the faith of the whole Church throughout the world and throughout all time; the universal faith that is believed by all Christians.
The Athanasian Creed is one of the three creeds all Christians confess. The other two creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, are more familiar to us since we confess them more often. However, for Trinity Sunday, it has been the custom to recite the longer Athanasian Creed.
A creed is a statement of what we believe. It is a summary of our faith as taught in Scripture. Historically, there came to be a need for creeds primarily for two reasons: to deal with false teachings within the church and to deal with false teachings outside the church in the form of other religions.
The Apostles’ Creed has its origins as early as the first century [cf. Irenaeus’s Adversus haereses]. It is a summary of the Christian faith founded on the Great Commission of Christ when He sent out His apostles to teach and to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles’ Creed thus confesses faith in the Triune God since Jesus instructed the nations to be taught and baptized in the name of the Trinity, and to confess such faith. Thus, the Apostles’ Creed became a baptismal confession and is still used as such in our rite of Holy Baptism and in our remembrance of Holy Baptism.
The Nicene Creed was written in A.D. 325 to combat false teachers, especially one named Arius, who started teaching that Jesus is not really God. The heretic Arius taught that God the Son is not eternal with the Father and that He must have been created by the Father and can have no communication with or direct knowledge of the Father. He also taught that God the Son was thus not truly God, but some sort of demigod in a human body.
Such false teaching needed a response from the church, and the church did respond by condemning Arius and his teachings and by writing the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed thus confesses that the Son is equal with the Father and is very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father. The Nicene Creed thus confesses the Scriptural position of the church in the face of the lies which were causing trouble in the church.
The Athanasian Creed, written about a century later, fleshes out the Trinity further. It further delves into the mystery of the Trinity and precisely confesses what Scripture teaches us about the Triune God. But more than that, it provides us a bit of a wake up slap in the face. Sometimes we forget that to confess one thing to be true, we at the same time necessarily confess that anything that is opposed to this truth must be false. It is easy to say that we confess the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. It’s a bit harder to say that anyone who does not confess the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed is heading for eternity in hell, but that is in fact what necessarily must be true.
This is confessed in the Athanasian Creed as it starts out by saying, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.” The Athanasian Creed also concludes with saying, “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.” In order to be saved, it is necessary to hold to the faith as taught in the Athanasian Creed, and to believe what the Creed confesses about the Trinity. Those who do not confess this cannot be saved.
You will notice that the Athanasian Creed uses very precise and careful language. Sometimes it may seem repetitive and long, but each phrase gives us exact language of the way Scripture describes the Trinity. If we use imprecise language or make up our own words it becomes very easy to fall into heresies like Arius did and others have because they tried to understand the incomprehensible.
The Holy Trinity is not something we can understand. We cannot possibly understand God. Three persons but one God? We don’t get it. How can this be? We don’t know. What does it mean exactly? We’re not exactly sure. But why should we think that we can understand God? Should we really be shocked that we cannot understand everything about the creator of the universe and also our creator? So we confess about God what He has told us about Himself even if we don’t fully understand it. We confess to the certainties that God has told us about Himself instead of making up our own thoughts and ideas about Him.
This confession of faith in a God that we cannot comprehend goes hand in hand with confessing the faith in situations that we cannot comprehend. God has not given us an explanation for everything that happens to us. He hasn’t told us why we go through certain difficult experiences.
Christians living in Syria may wonder why God is allowing Muslims to persecute them and desecrate their churches. Christians in Texas may be wondering why God allowed flooding to cause such destruction, ruin, and death. Christians in our congregation may be wondering why God is allowing them to suffer with pain, illness, or loss. We do not understand. But why should we think that we can understand God and His reasons? Do you expect a God that you cannot comprehend to do only what makes sense to you? If God would only do what makes sense to you there would have been no coming of God in the flesh in the person of Jesus. If God would only do what makes sense to you there would have been no death of the Son of God in your place. If God would only do what makes sense to you the water of your Baptism would have been nothing more than a sprinkling of water that does nothing.
But God, in His infinite wisdom did send His only Son into the world so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. God became man and took the punishment of our sins on Himself, dying on the cross in our place. And you have been washed clean in your Baptism as you were born of water and the Spirit.
With Nicodemus we can ask, “How can these things be?” but we already have the answer. It can be because God is God. We cannot comprehend Him and we cannot comprehend what He does. But He tells us that He is one God in three persons, so we confess this to be true. He tells us Baptism saves (I Peter 3:21), so we believe that it is true. God tells us that He did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (Jn. 3:17), thus in faith we cling to His promises. Thus when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead and requires us to give an account of our deeds, we know we will have no sinful deeds of which to give an account because they are all covered by His blood. Psalm 32 says, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” We are blessed because our transgressions are forgiven. We are blessed because our sin is covered. Incomprehensible as this may be, this is what God tells us in his Word, and on this we can rely.
We cannot know why we have to face difficulties in our lives but we do know that God’s will for us is eternal life away from this world of sin and suffering. This He will grant to us for Jesus’ sake.
We thus continue to confess our faith in the words that God has given us in His Word, as summarized in our creeds. We will continue to confess that although we cannot comprehend God, He has given us His Word which tells us who He is and how we are to speak of Him and know Him. And we will continue to confess our faith in Jesus Christ our Lord who gave His life so that we might live with Him eternally. This is the catholic faith; whoever believes it faithfully and firmly will be saved. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.