By Paul Koch –
Today the church calendar calls for us to focus our attention on the teaching of the Holy Trinity. Now of all the days that this ancient calendar brings into focus, this one is quite unique. After all, every other day has to do with an event. Christmas, Easter, The Baptism of our Lord, Pentecost, Palm Sunday, these are all events that we then examine and learn from. But today is not an event at all. Today is the one time that we focus specifically on a doctrine. Today we focus upon the church’s teaching that we have one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the name into which we are baptized, the name that begins our worship together, the name that marks us as Christians.
To confess the Holy Trinity is a defining mark of Christianity. And so as we move throughout our days, weeks and months, we make sure that one day is set aside to focus on this teaching.
Now it is tempting to think that we don’t need a day set aside for this. After all the Trinitarian name is used regularly in the church, it is a common enough practice among us to say that we believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so why not just move on to other things? But what we find is that this teaching stands at the heart of our whole life of faith. It is something that we shouldn’t simply assume we know and move on to other things. It is good and right that we meditate upon this doctrine for the defense of it weaves throughout the history of the church as enemies ceaselessly try to introduce heresy among the faithful.
The catholic faith, that is the universal faith of the Christian church, has fought for and maintained the faithful teaching of the Trinity. This is why the Athanasian Creed which we recite especially on days like this begins 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. 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.” Now this faith impacts everything. It impacts our worship, our hope and confidence of salvation, our understanding of the gifts of God and the promise of eternal life. In fact, even Santa Clause is impacted by false teachings about our God. No, really he is.
Way back in the early 300’s there was a priest by the name of Arius. Now Arius defended and spread a heresy in the church that claimed that our Lord Jesus Christ was not really God. It gets kind of complicated, but essentially he taught that Jesus was a creation of God but was not God himself. He was better than you and me, he was righteous and just, but still not God. Now this teaching grew so rapidly and became so widespread that the emperor Constantine called for the first ecumenical council of the church in 325 to settle the matter. The council met in Nicaea. Not only was Arius there to spread his false teaching but Athanasius was there as well to try and confess the truth. But there also was a Nicholas of Myra, or as we better know him St. Nicholas. Yes, that St. Nicholas.
Now as the legend goes, while Arius continued to argue that Jesus was not God Nicholas became more and more agitated. When he could no longer tolerate the blasphemy he got up crossed the room and punched Arius in the mouth. The bishops gathered there were shocked. They brought him to Constantine where he was stripped of his robes, bound in chains, and thrown into jail until the end of the council. That’s right, even Santa Clause was so worked up about someone denying that we worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity that he popped him right in the kisser. Clearly we shouldn’t pass too quickly by the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, especially if it will rile up good ol’ St. Nick.
For those who oppose the faith, the divinity of Christ always seems to stand as a hallmark of their departure from the truth. From the very beginning of our Lord’s work the denial of his divinity was constantly on display. As he was driving out demons and healing the sick and giving sight to the blind and teaching the truths of the kingdom of God they began to ridicule and accuse him saying, “Are we not right in saying that you are s a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus, of course, doesn’t back down. He presses saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” “Now we know you have a demon,” they say, “Abraham died, as did the prophets, Are you greater than our father Abraham?” You see, they get it. They are beginning to see that Jesus is making himself out to be more than a man. His teachings, his miracles, his understanding of the Word of God begin to reveal that he just might actually be the Messiah. God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made. Their recourse is to tear him down, to say he has a demon, for then his words have no weight, no truth in them.
Here we begin to see what is at stake in the confession of the Trinity, why it matters to focus on it, and why we confess long and beautiful creeds that speak of the mystery of one God in three persons. For that matter we begin to see why Santa Clause would punch a guy in the mouth for denying this great truth. To confess the Trinity is to confess the powerful and wondrous working of God in our midst. God is our creator, redeemer and sanctifier. He impacts us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One is not greater or lesser than the other. All three are the one true God that comes to seek and save the lost. To begin to break this up, to begin to make the Almighty God form to our reason and understanding doesn’t change God but changes our confidence in his continual work.
By denying the words and works of Christ his enemies cut themselves off from the only source of assurance and confidence for eternal life. If Jesus is no greater than Abraham, then what is the value of what he says? Why put any confidence in his words at all? But again our Lord does not back down. “Your father Abraham” he says, “rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” And if that wasn’t enough to really shock the world he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” I am, the name that God gives Moses from the burning bush, in Jesus of Nazareth we see the eternal God. As Abraham rejoiced in the continual work of God’s blessings, in his constant deliverance, and the promises of life, he was rejoicing in and seeing the work of God’s only begotten who does the work of reconciliation.
From before the creation of all things and through our lives here today and on into the promise of eternal life our God, the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity, is at work for you. The Spirit works through the means of grace to enlighten and gather you. By his gracious working your eyes are turned away from the works of your own hands, turned away from the futile task of manmade righteousness, and instead you are filled with Christ himself. Christ who was sent by the Father: born, suffered, and died for you, also rose so that you too might have eternal life. Through their work you are reconciled to the Father, through the mysterious working of the Trinity, you are declared to be the sons and daughters of the Almighty. That is a hope worth fighting for! Just ask Santa Clause.
We focus on this teaching today not only because the confidence of our salvation hangs in the balance but because the attacks on the true faith are never absent from the church. Sometimes they come from the outside and are easily spotted but they can sneak right in to a fellowship of believers. There are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
A modern day version of the teaching of Arius is found in the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witness who come so innocently knocking on our doors. A good friend of mine Marc, who is a pastor in Florida, told me a story when a few came knocking on his door. His usual response was to invite them in and talk to them for as long as possible. He figured he was confident in his confession, and so the longer they spent with him the less opportunity they had to corrupt the faith of someone else. But one particular day he had a couple in his home and he had a Santa Clause moment. As they denied the divinity of Christ he just snapped. He started yelling at them and calling for their repentance. They quickly left his home but he followed them out onto the street where he was screaming after them to also leave his neighbors alone.
My wife just had a Santa Clause moment on Thursday afternoon. Some new perversion of the faith knocked on our door and they were trying to convince her that she needed to believe in a mother god who they found as the bride of Christ. She worked through the text with them for a while as my children watched from the door, until they said that salvation was not by faith in Christ alone. Their perversion of the Trinity led them to a loss of hope in a Christ-centered assurance. At which time she started speaking louder and louder calling for them to repent because they were not Christian. This made for great dinnertime conversation, by the way.
In the end, St. Nicholas was let out of prison and restored to his position, for the council of Nicaea went the way of the true faith. That faith was argued passionately by a young man named Athanasius and so the great creed of the Trinity now bears his name. It is a creed that we still confess today and with it we confess our confidence, our assurance, our hope in the free gift of salvation secured and delivered by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.