Our congregation is named Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. Today is Trinity Sunday. Trinity is the name we give our God to describe him as one God yet three distinct persons. The name Trinity is not in the Bible, but the Bible clearly teaches the doctrine of the Trinity. The Church did not invent the concept of God as three persons in one substance. God taught his Church through his holy prophets and apostles that he is one God yet three equal in majesty persons. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!", proclaimed Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 6 (:4). God is one. This is the first lesson any Christian learns about God. There is only one God. Yet the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Spirit is God as Scripture repeatedly demonstrates and as our creeds confess.
The teaching of the Trinity is not some advanced academic theory that remains largely unimportant for the common Christian. It is necessary for eternal salvation to confess the Trinity as the one and only God, as we confessed today in the Athanasian Creed, "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. And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance."
This is the catholic faith. Catholic means universal. The Christian Church has always confessed this. We Lutherans are catholic. We believe what the Christian Church has always believed since the Apostles. That is what it means to be catholic.
You cannot deny the Trinity and be saved. False religions such as Islam, Mormonism, the Jehovah Witnesses, and the Unitarians, who deny that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons united in one Godhead deny the only true God. They cannot be saved unless they are converted to the true faith. Now this sounds quite mean. People don't like this talk. How can we insist that you have to believe in one specific belief in order to be saved? And isn't it really all about Jesus? Can't we just say as long as you love Jesus you're saved? Why must we insist that someone confess the Trinity?
Well, first it isn't us who insist, but God himself. He did this when he said, "You shall have no other gods before me." Secondly, because there is no other God who saves than the Holy Trinity. Allah cannot save you. The god of the Mormon church cannot save you nor can the false god of modern Judaism. Only the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit saves. Outside of faith in him there is no salvation.
You cannot save yourself by your good works. You can only be saved through faith. Our Lord Jesus says, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
In Numbers chapter 21 Moses records that the people of Israel grumbled against God in the wilderness. So God sent fiery serpents to bite the people and many died. Try as they might, the people could not heal themselves from the deadly and no doubt very painful snake bites. No potions or ointment could counter the lethal venom. The people cried to Moses. God told Moses to build a fiery serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole. Whoever looked at the bronze serpent was healed. All their efforts to preserve their lives failed. But God provided their salvation. All they had to do was look upon the snake.
And so it is with Jesus. When the snake bites you, when you've sunk into filthy lusts, when you've spoken evil against your neighbor, when you've gotten unjustly angry, when you loved yourself more than your wife or children, when you've grown lazy and apathetic toward God's word, when Satan deceives you and seduces you into sin and shame and you writhe in the guilt of that bite, what do you do? Do you rush to some home remedy, a balm of your own invention to soothe the burning bite? Do you try to make up for your sins by doing good works? Or do you convince yourself that your sins are really not that bad? None of these solutions will draw sin's poison from you. Instead you must look to Jesus. Jesus, who although he had no sin of his own hangs on the cross in the very form of a sinner. You look to Jesus who takes your poison. And you live... eternally.
And as you gaze upon that curse hanging from that tree you see the God, who saves. You see the Father, who loved the world so that he sent his Son to die for us while we were still sinning (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). You see the Son, who although he was in the form of God did not see equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8-9). You see the one on whom God anointed his Holy Spirit, so that he would speak good news to the poor even from the cross (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 23:34). When you look at Jesus on the cross you see the Holy Trinity; the God, who saves.
Like the Israelites dying of snake bites in the wilderness there is nothing we can do to save ourselves from our dying condition. We can only look to Jesus. Our works cannot save us. Only faith in Jesus Christ and the Father who sent him saves. This seems easy, but it's not. It's impossible. It's impossible to believe in Jesus. "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.", says St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2. As our Lord says, "That which is born of flesh is flesh. That which is born of Spirit is spirit." You cannot believe in Jesus Christ your Lord or come to him by your own strength or reason. By nature you are dead in your trespasses (Ephesians 2:10). Dead in your unbelief. Dead people can't choose to be alive.
So what's the solution? Jesus says, "Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Your first birth did you no good in regard to the kingdom of God. You can confess with King David, "I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me." And so everything you received from your natural conception and birth is corrupted with sin; all your strength and reason is corrupted. You need to be born again. The first birth just won't do.
The word Jesus used for "again" can also mean "from above." And Jesus probably meant the double entendre, "You must be born again, that is, you must be born from above." For he himself said, "No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man." And so if you want to ascend into heaven (that is if you want to be saved) you too must be born from above.
Jesus was born from above by the Holy Spirit. His mother was a virgin. So the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the Power of the Most High overshadowed her, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus received a birth from above. This resulted in our God becoming a man. And so by the work of that same Holy Spirit you need a new birth, a birth from above so that you too may ascend to heaven.
How does this birth take place? Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God." You are born again and from above in holy Baptism. It is there that the Holy Spirit comes upon you and gives you a birth your mother could not give you. St. Paul calls this the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). The Holy Spirit comes upon you and changes you. You are no longer simply flesh enslaved to things of the flesh. You are of the Spirit, empowered to do works of the Spirit, to believe, to trust in God, to love your neighbor.
This work of the Holy Spirit is called Baptismal regeneration. Many deny Baptismal regeneration, because they don't want to believe that putting water on a baby's head changes anyone. How can water do such great things? Well, it's certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water that does these things. And the Holy Spirit works through this word of God in the water to turn hearts of stone to Christ. Your Baptism worked. That you are here learning about your Savior is testimony that the Holy Spirit worked and still works in you.
Your Baptism was your renewal by the Holy Spirit. Yet you were baptized not only in the name of the Holy Spirit, but also in the name of the Father and of the Son. The Triune God saved you. Only the Triune God can save you. Only the Father could send his Son to die for your sins. Only the Son could become man and take your place under the punishment of hell. And only the Holy Spirit can join you to the Son in Baptism and in faith.
In our Old Testament lesson Isaiah saw God sitting on his throne. In terror he cried, "Woe is me!" Now in our irreverent culture people might not get what the big hubbub is. "Isn't God everywhere?", they might ask. But God comes to us in specific places and in specific ways. That is why we sing the chorus of the Seraphim before we receive Communion, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth!" We confess that the thrice holy God, the very Trinity Himself is before us. He is here, because his word is here. He is here because Christ is proclaimed crucified for your sins. He is here, because the Father is preached as reconciled with you a sinner washed in the blood of Jesus. He is here, because the Holy Spirit is kindling your hearts even now to believe in this forgiveness and peace which can only come from the Holy Trinity.
We are in the presence of God, the Holy Trinity! And yet we do not cry in terror as Isaiah did. We do not lament, "Woe is me!" Because the Holy Trinity is here to save us. He has washed away our sins in the blood of Christ when he gave us a new birth in Baptism. He put his name on you in your Baptism and at the beginning of each service he proclaims to you again through his servant that his name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is upon his holy people. The Holy Trinity is here to bear testimony to you what he knows, that testimony is the love of God, which saves you through Jesus Christ. And even today God will touch our lips and take away our sins when he feeds us the divine and human body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, we are in the presence of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that is exactly where we want to be. Amen.