The Church Year has two divisions. The first half, which we just finished, follows the life of Christ—from His birth, through His life, and to His death, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The second half of the Church Year focuses on the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church, how He causes us to grow in the faith and in Christian living, but always keeping us grounded in the work Christ has done to win our salvation. But as a hinge between these two semesters stands today, the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. Today we are taught about the God who acted in the life of Christ, and we learn about the God who works in us in our life today.
It may seem like today is just about doctrine. We confessed the Athanasian Creed, which can feel very tedious as we confess who God is and who He is not. But God is far more than systematic theology. We know God by who He is for us. The faith is not a detached one, best understood in textbooks. Our connection to God is intimately personal. That’s why the Gospel Reading for this Sunday points us to Baptism and salvation, where we experience our Triune God personally. This reminds us that theology isn’t a classroom-only exercise, but is the stuff of daily life. Doctrine takes on new significance when we realize that it is not detached from our daily life.
Who God is matters because He is not a clockmaker, setting things into motion and letting life run itself. He is not a scientist waiting to see how the experiment turns out. Rather, God is intimately involved in His creation. That’s why we are so careful to express who God is and what He does. If we warp our view of God by false doctrine, changing our view of who God is for us, we could end up seeing Him as an uncaring God who abandons us and leaves us to work out our own salvation. If you see God as absent or apathetic, that will affect how you live your life. So, doctrine affects your daily life in far more ways than you might realize.
When we encounter Nicodemus in today’s Gospel we see that He has a different definition of who Christ is. He sees Him as a good guy, perhaps even a prophet, one sent from God, but not necessarily someone who has anything to do with salvation. But a prophet cannot rescue from sin or defeat the devil. Nicodemus wants to look at miracles to try to figure out who Jesus is. He has heard about what Jesus did just a chapter prior when He changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana. He’s caught up in majesty and glory and is not particularly concerned about salvation. But Jesus turns Nicodemus away from signs and to the real reason He came: bringing sinners into the Kingdom of God.
How often do we encounter this false view of Jesus in our world today? The Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly like Jesus. He’s a good guy, who said good things, but He’s certainly not God and has nothing to do with salvation. And many in society today see Jesus the same way, because they don’t think they need any saving from anything. They see Jesus as a historical figure with lots of wisdom. They think He taught us to love one another, to give to the poor, and so on. Yes, He did teach those things. But that’s not the limit of what He taught! Those behaviors are certainly part of sanctification, our life in the faith, but the reason Jesus came to earth was to save His people from their sins. That’s what His name means! And that’s why Jesus turns His conversation with Nicodemus from earthly things to heavenly things.
He reveals the Kingdom of God to Nicodemus by revealing to him how God admits people into that kingdom. He explains the Trinity by telling Nicodemus how he will experience the Trinity. God the Father desires man’s salvation, so He sends His Son into the world to die to take away man’s sin, and the Son sends the Holy Spirit to give birth from above, delivering to man all that Jesus has done for his salvation.
Baptism is where the Holy Spirit teaches us to know the Father and the Son, causing us to bless His Name and confess His truth in our lives. In His infinite mercy, Christ uses this flood to bring us into the security of the ark of the holy Christian Church, the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit keeps us in the saving faith created in us by the Word. As the Holy Trinity put His name upon us at the Font, He made a solemn pledge that He will never leave nor forsake us. Christ has rescued us from our greatest enemies: death and the devil. At the Font we were marked for the resurrection on the Last Day. In our Baptism we were shown who God is for us. He is not a God far off and distant, but a God who is near at hand. He is the God who loves us in this way: that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
And ultimately this is the confession to which Our Lord leads Nicodemus and all of us. This is the confession that is the beating heart of Christianity. Remember how the Introit began: “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us.” We do not glorify Him because He is omnipotent or omniscient or anything else. He certainly is those things and more, but we praise Him chiefly for the mercy He has given to us in Christ.
And in just a bit He will again give you His mercy as you who have been born of water and the Spirit come to receive the nourishment which your risen Lord provides for you. As you eat His Body and drink His Blood for the forgiveness of sins, He strengthens you in the faith until you enter life everlasting. He has not abandoned you. He is with you always.
All of this means that, while we certainly do embrace theology in its written forms, because right theology is a good gift of God, we experience it best in practical ways. The best way to understand the love of God is as it is given to you in Word and in the Sacraments. Blessed be the Holy Trinity, because He has given His mercy to us.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.