June 5, 2007

Trinity Sunday Sermon: John 3:1-15

A member of Immanuel who has now fallen asleep in Christ once said to me that when he first came to Immanuel, Pr. Mensing, who was pastor here for many years in the middle of the last century, conducted a service that seemed very “catholic” to him; but when Pr. Mensing began to preach, he knew he was in the right place.

Even some Lutherans have not been exposed to a full Lutheran service, and when they are, it sometimes gets labeled “catholic.” This is not a new concern. C.F.W. Walther, one of the Saxon Lutherans who emigrated to America in the nineteenth century, and who became the first president of the Missouri Synod, once wrote:

Whenever the divine service once again follows the old Evangelical-Lutheran [church books], it seems that many raise a great cry that it is “Roman Catholic”: “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants “The Lord be with you” and the congregation responds by chanting “and with thy spirit”; “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants the collect and the blessing and the people respond with a chanted “Amen.” Even the simplest Christian can respond to this outcry: “Prove to me that this chanting is contrary to the Word of God, then I too will call it ‘Roman Catholic’ and have nothing more to do with it. However, you cannot prove this to me.”

If you insist upon calling every element in the Divine Service “Romish” that has been used by the Roman Catholic Church, it must follow that the reading of the Epistle and Gospel is also “Romish.” Indeed, it is mischief to sing or preach in church, for the Roman Church has done this also . . . .

Those who cry out should remember that the Roman Catholic Church possesses every beautiful song of the old orthodox church. The chants and antiphons and responses were brought into the church long before the false teachings of Rome crept in. This Christian Church since the beginning, even in the Old Testament, has derived great joy from chanting. . . . For more than 1700 years orthodox Christians have participated joyfully in the Divine Service. Should we, today, carry on by saying that such joyful participation is “Roman Catholic”? God forbid!

Therefore, as we continue to hold and to restore our wonderful divine services in places where they have been forgotten, let us boldly confess that our worship forms do not tie us with the modern sects or with the church of Rome; rather, they join us to the one, holy Christian Church that is as old as the world and is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

That is the stream in which we stand, brethren. We want to stand in that stream of the one, holy, Christian Church, by whatever name she is called in our day and place. I am a Lutheran not because of birth or party spirit, but on account of her doctrine. I don’t want to be a member of a denomination, or of a non-denomination; I want to be a member of Christ’s Church, His body; and where I see the doctrine of Christ’s Word, where I hear the Scriptures confessed and the Sacraments purely administered is among the churches of the Augsburg Confession. That’s why I am a Lutheran. And that is also why I am a catholic.

Not a Catholic as in that denomination headquartered in Rome, although we Lutherans do not deny there are Christians there too, for where the Word of God is read and the Sacraments administered, the Holy Spirit is also working to create faith. But we will not so easily give up the word “catholic”; truly we claimed it for ourselves this morning when, as is our custom on Trinity Sunday, we confessed the Athanasian Creed: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith.”

And just what is this “catholic faith”? “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.” And then, after detailed explanation concerning the Trinity, this symbol of the true catholic faith continues: “But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Those are the two main points of the Athanasian Creed, as it sets forth what is the right faith, the catholic faith, the Christian faith: that we worship the Trinity, and that we believe the incarnation, that God became man in our Lord Jesus Christ, to suffer for our salvation.

On that everything hangs: who God is, and what He has done for you. You see then, that all the other things you obsess about are really idols, false gods. Have you made are your leisure, your control, your pleasure, your health care, your home, your finances, your family, your earthly citizenship, to be your gods? Is that really where your heart is, what you worship? That is not the right faith. The right, Christian, catholic faith is that we worship Father, Son, Holy Spirit, one God, and the trust of our heart is that Jesus came as God in the flesh to save me.

And that is really why we have the ceremonies. Carrying the cross in procession, or chanting the Gospel and wearing a robe – these things do not save us. But they are supposed to teach us to be reverent and point us to Christ. Our Lutheran Confessions say, “The chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ.”

That brings us to Nicodemus in today’s Gospel. He needed to be taught about Christ. But not in the way that one is taught about other subjects. He came to Jesus “by night,” that is, in the darkness of not understanding, because he looked at Jesus simply as a teacher: “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God.” Now it is true that Jesus taught, just as it is true that Pastors are called “teachers” in God’s Word, for Jesus commissioned the Apostles to teach His Words. But the Church is not so much a school as it is a hospital; particularly, a maternity ward. For what does Jesus say? “You must be born again.” Or rather, “You must be born from above.”

Nicodemus answers with something ridiculous, even scandalous: “How? Can a man crawl into his mother’s womb to be born a second time?” No, rebirth comes by water and the Spirit. We saw such a rebirth last Sunday. Little Sofiya was born on Exaudi from her mother, and after admiring her cuteness, all we can really say about her birth is what we say of our own, with the words of the Psalm: “Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” But then, on the eighth day, on Pentecost, Sofiya was reborn in the waters of her mother the Church.

Now today, Ben and Kara in a few moments will come to confess with their mouths the blessings they received in Baptism, and join us at our Lord’s table.

What happened at Baptism for Sofiya, and that Ben and Kara now confess, is this: they were born of the flesh, and reborn by the Spirit. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” In a couple of minutes, Ben and Kara, when you renounce the devil and confess Christ, you will really be saying, “Yes, I am born of the flesh, and need to renounce the devil and his works, which my flesh wants to do; but I am born of the Spirit in my baptism, and I don’t look to my own goodness or actions, not even my confirmation, but I look to my Lord Jesus for all my help.” And then you will come to the Table and receive for the first time the flesh of Jesus which is the antidote to our sinful, dying flesh.

That, then, Ben and Kara, and all of you – that is your life, hearing the Spirit’s Words, living from Christ’s Table, no matter where you go. We always need to keep coming to His Table, because the birth from below, the birth from the flesh, wants to overwhelm us, turn things around so that we renounce Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and follow the devil, and his works, and his ways instead.

That which is born of the flesh says, “Me first!” That which is born of the Spirit says, “God first, and my neighbor before myself.”

That which is born of the flesh says, “Hold a grudge!” That which is born of the Spirit prays, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

That which is born of the flesh is stingy and greedy; that which is born of the Spirit is generous to neighbor and gives offerings to God freely and cheerfully.

That which is born of the flesh says, “I am good”; that which is born of the Spirit says, “I am a sinner, but God in Christ has taken all sins, even mine, upon Himself.”

Take up the cross and struggle, my friends! For we always have in this life the sinful flesh hanging about our neck. And God does not want to teach this flesh but subdue it; He doesn’t want to pamper it but chasten it; He doesn’t want to coddle the flesh but crucify it. So God will crush all your idols by troubling them. Why do you think you have trouble in your marriage, or with money, or with your health, or with your time, or with sex, or whatever? Where you are troubled, there see God at work, driving you away from your idols and false worship, and leading you back to the catholic faith, the worship of God, who alone can save you.

And then, when your flesh is destroyed, He will raise it up again, and all of us together, in glorified, resurrected bodies animated by the Holy Spirit and rid forever of the sinful nature, shall worship the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity, praising Father, Son, Holy Spirit forever for the great mercy and kindness shown to us poor sinners. +inj+

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