4th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 7) LSB #’s 570, 704, 556:1-3, 5-7
Text – Romans 6:19b
For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity & to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
SLAVES TO IMPURITY, SLAVES TO RIGHTEOUSNESS
Many years ago, a husband & wife went to Korea. On one of their tours, they saw a son & his father working in a rice paddy. The old man guided the heavy plow as the son pulled it. “I guess they must be very poor,” the man said to the missionary who was their guide & interpreter.
“Yes. They are,” replied the missionary. “When the church was built, they were eager to give something, but they had no money. So, they sold their ox & gave the money to the church. This spring they are pulling the plow themselves.” After a long silence, while watching them plow the field, the woman said, “That was a real sacrifice.”
That is not the end of the illustration, but I’m going to interrupt in order to ask, “How do you think that dialogue ends? Was it a real sacrifice for the son & the father to pull the plow themselves?” My 2nd question is, “Are the father & the son acting as slaves to impurity or as slaves to righteousness?”
The word ‘slave’ has a very loaded meaning in our culture, & the negative connotations are enormous. To help you contemplate my question, we’ll first consider what Paul means by the phrases ‘slaves to impurity’ & ‘slaves to righteousness.’ Those are not terms that we use in our daily language.
In the simplest definition, slaves to impurity refers to anyone who does not trust in Jesus as Savior from their sins. Conversely, slaves to righteousness are those who do believe in Jesus as Savior from their sins. From God’s perspective, believers & unbelievers live very different lives. As sinful creatures, that is not our experience. We are not able to see, with any certain clarity, the difference. We see the outward actions, but not the heart. Everyone sins & therefore, given God’s standards of perfection, all we see are poor, miserable sinners. A slave to impurity is someone who is unable to do righteousness because that requires the Holy Spirit, which they do not have. Slaves to impurity have no ability to obey God.
Slaves to righteousness have been given the Holy Spirit & therefore the ability to live for God. That power is not their own, yet they do have access to it through God’s Spirit. St. Paul wrote of that in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Occasionally, we do resist eating that 3rd donut. Occasionally, we do resist spreading the latest juicy gossip. However, the chief distinguishing trait that slaves to righteousness exhibit is one of repentance. Yet that too is something that sinful creatures cannot see clearly even in themselves. From God’s perspective it is clear, but not from our own.
A slave to impurity has only one nature, that of independence from God. Though deadly, that life is less complicated. The child of God has a dual nature, that of saint & sinner. It is a life of constant struggle within & without. After spending the first 11 verses of Romans 6, writing about our baptism into Christ, at verse 12 St. Paul urges us on to the Christian life:
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body.” Effectively, the Holy Spirit is telling us, “Let the struggle begin!” The life given us in Baptism is diametrically opposed to the impurity that Satan desires for us. In Baptism, our Creator declares us to be alive again, yet, our circumstances often appear to contradict Him.
For those who are slaves to righteousness, especially when we are suffering we are alive in Christ. In fact, our suffering is amplified in Christ, because unlike slaves to impurity, we abhor our sins. They wallow in them. As slaves to righteousness, when we are anxious or depressed we are yet alive in Christ. When our bodies are outwardly wasting away, we are still alive in Christ. Repentance is the chief manner in which we live out our death to sin, & the life given to us in Baptism. It’s how we do battle against the Devil & his schemes. We honor Christ when we consciously join in that battle, for ourselves & for our neighbor.
Another thought that we can pick up from verse 12 is that this is not simply a spiritual struggle. Paul writes, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body.” Satan is not fighting in some ethereal reality. No! He is attacking us in our own mortal bodies. The gender dysphoria of our culture is but one manifestation of Satan’s battle plan to physically harm us.
Way back in chapter one, verse one, St. Paul introduces himself as a slave of Christ Jesus. His letter equates this to being made alive in Baptism. I expect that a majority of the Christians Paul was writing to were converted as adults. For many of us, Baptism occurred while we were infants. Adult converts more easily remember their days of slavery to impurity.
Still, even as slaves to righteousness, our sinful nature constantly longs to submit again in slavery to impurity. Satan calls us, hour by hour, to return to his realm. The Holy Spirit calls us, whenever we sin, to return to our Creator by repentance. We are tempted to look at that struggle as a losing battle because it is tiresome & makes us weary.
Satan deceives us into focusing on the perspective of our five failing senses, rather than focusing on the perspective that our Lord offers us. The last verse of the Epistle reading gives us that perspective, “…the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (6:23 ESV)
The Holy Spirit offers that perspective to encourage you & your friends & your family. This text is not calling us to obey God in order to gain eternal life. Rather, Paul is calling you to “present your members as slaves to righteousness” because the obedience you render reveals to others whose slave you are. Again, we honor Christ by consciously joining in the battle, for ourselves & for our neighbor. Yes, we certainly grow weary of that seemingly endless battle. So, we turn back to Christ in repentance & we also seek the rest that He offers, “Come to me, all who labor & are heavy laden, & I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 ESV)
Another way to picture this text is to consider, as you face the daily challenges of life, whose hand are you holding? It’s common practice for parents to train their children to hold their hand, when crossing the street, or going down a flight of stairs. However, that training is only as good as the hand the child is holding onto.
Whose hand are you holding on to? Is it the hand of one who would enslave you to impurity, or the hand of One would enslave you to righteousness? Paul makes the point that at one time, the people at the church of Rome had been holding onto the hand of Satan & now they hold onto the hand of God. Understanding that helps us live the life God has called us to.
Satan is still reaching out his hand to you & to me every day. Who we render service to reveals who we follow. We can see some of that with our eyes. We can see the corruption in our government, or in the media, or in corporations.
At one point, all that the prophet Isaiah would see was the unfaithfulness of Israel, yet God told him that 7,000 people had still not bowed their knee to the false gods. Paul is encouraging the Romans, & now you & me, to trust that He will prepare good deeds in advance for us to do, & He will give us the strength to walk in them. The Word of God is powerful.
Back to the opening illustration. “When the church was built, they were eager to give something, but they had no money. So, they sold their ox & gave the money to the church. This spring they are pulling the plow themselves.” After a long silence, while watching them plow the field, the woman said, “That was a real sacrifice.” After allowing the couple to think of it for a moment, the missionary responded, “They do not consider it a sacrifice. Rather, they are thankful they had an ox to sell.” That is but one example of what a slave to righteousness looks like. The family was not compelled to give back to God. They were thankful for the opportunity to do so, even though others might consider it a great sacrifice.
To them it was not sacrifice but love for their heavenly Father. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Renew me, O eternal Light, & let my heart & soul be bright, illumined with the light of grace that issues from Your holy face. Remove the power of sin from me & cleanse all my impurity that I may have the strength & will temptations of the flesh to still. Create in me a new heart, Lord, that gladly I obey Your Word. Let what You will be my desire, & with new life my soul inspire. Amen. LSB 704:1-3.
3rd Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 6) LSB #’s 904, 846, 550
Text – Matthew 9:35-36
Jesus went throughout all the cities & villages, teaching in their synagogues & proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom & healing every disease & every affliction. When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed & helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
COUNTERFEIT SOLUTIONS, OR CHRIST?
How’s your project list looking for the summer? Have you started any of them, maybe finished some already? Summer is just around the corner. Another milestone on the calendar is about to pass by. Where has the 1st half of this year gone? Time flies when you’re having fun, so the older we get, we must be having fun all the time.
That sort of dialogue is small talk. We discuss how busy we are in order to start conversations when we aren’t sure what else to say. However, when we know someone well, & see them often, we’re likely to start right out discussing more serious matters.
In past years, I’ve talked with friends who had far more serious problems to deal with than the passing of time. A list could include back injuries, broken bones, car accidents, house fires, deaths in the family, time spent in mental hospitals & suicide.
On the surface people will often say they’re getting along, things are okay. They do the small talk routine because, they’d be embarrassed to discuss their problem, they don’t know how to bring it up, or maybe we seem too busy to be bothered by their struggles.
On the other side, if we are talking to someone whom we know is hurting, we may avoid the issue because we don’t know what to say, or how to say it. On the inside, all of us are confused with & struggling with some issue. We never seem to be satisfied for long & the struggle never seems to go away.
There are many times when we are troubled & feel helpless like sheep without a shepherd. So, we look for solutions. In our culture, advertising bombards us with them. Try the new Ice Beer. The ‘24 model cars have arrived. Art Van has no interest or down payments for 2 years. TV commercials advertise TV shows which naturally will entertain our sense of humor, often with the latest trends in lifestyle. Sure, we would agree that a lot of today’s TV humor is not God pleasing, but it’s funny & we need to laugh.
So, we open our minds to the immorality & pretend that we are too mature to be affected by it. If we are so unaffected, why do we watch? Why do we laugh? Is God laughing along with us? Well maybe God is just an old prude after all! If Ice Beer or TV don’t help, maybe a new kitchen will be the solution to our lack of contentment.
Years ago, I was in the middle of remodeling my house. One night while adding a few teaspoons of chocolate powder to a glass of milk this thought occurred to me. In the poorest countries, they don’t have places to make the powder let alone the container the powder comes in. They certainly don’t remodel their kitchens & don’t necessarily have a house to live in.
Is the answer to our lack of happiness really found in that new car or remodeled kitchen? Just how small & pitiful are we? Can our puny little minds ever hope to find a solution to our struggles? Our consumer society claims to have answers – specialists in this & experts in that. Add memory to your computer. Tap into the Internet. We have how-to books for everything.
As for the Bible, it’s just an old book that uneducated people use; people who aren’t with it; people who don’t have a life. Reading the Bible isn’t as funny or entertaining as watching the Thursday night sitcoms. And, it is so outdated. People don’t think that way anymore. The Bible doesn’t relate to my life, not here in the 2020’s. I have so many other things to get done.
Have you ever thought that way? I, still act that way! It’s part of who we are as sinful beings. In Matthew 9:36, Jesus sees the crowds of people & feels sorry for them because they are troubled & helpless like sheep without a shepherd. That is, without a true shepherd; a shepherd who loves his sheep leads them beside still waters & guides them in the paths of righteousness. It is a false shepherd who consistently leads them anywhere near harm. In Jesus’ day, the people had many false shepherds.
The Pharisees, Scribes & Priests harassed their people with hundreds of manmade rules controlling the smallest details of their lives. They enticed the people with counterfeit solutions to their problems. They put ritual & law in the place of God’s mercy & faith in the Messiah. There are as many counterfeit solutions to our problems & many more salesmen pushing them.
How many of them have we bought into? Every time we follow the guidance of a false shepherd, we are harmed by it & we offend the true God. With all the sin & hatred in our world it should be easy to see where those false shepherds will take us. If you’ve ever doubted that hell is real, look at the evil in our country alone. Many forces in our culture are now celebrating it.
Do you ignore that you are a part of it? I certainly do my best to ignore my role. Sin is the cause of all of our trouble. No matter how hard we try, to be good or successful, no matter how much of our sin we ignore or cover up, inside our conscience knows that our sinful nature is evil & hates God. We know that we are troubled & helpless. Helpless!
Romans 5:6 tells us, “To be sure, at the set time, while we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.” That word ungodly includes us – you & me! Verse 8 continues, “But God shows His love for us by this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Now there is a unique & liberating solution.
Advertisements tell us that we deserve a break, or that we can ‘Just do it.’ Does our corrupt & broken world look like it deserves anything better than hell? Do we really deserve a break? Have our lives matched that of Christ’s? If our society were capable of just doing it, the problems of war, famine & disease would have been conquered by now. After all we did put a man on the moon. It is obvious that we cannot cure sin or the results of it. In that we are helpless. Therefore, while we were helpless, Christ came to earth & He just did it. No waiting until we were good or successful, to love us.
Jesus gave His life for poor wretched sinners & we will hardly consider giving up our rights to do as we please in order to really care for & love the people that we say we love. Would you give the time of day to Vladimir Putin? Christ gave His life by death on the cross for him. That’s how much God loves all of us & it is the supreme act or proof of His love.
None of the false shepherds are offering that solution. All the sin of the whole world has been paid for. That includes our feelings of guilt, worry & lack of trust in the Lord. We have no reason to doubt God’s love, & the sin of even those doubts has also been paid for. The question now is, “Where do we go from here?”
In spite of the fact that all our failures have been paid for & we are made right before God, it is obvious that the world is still a mess. Our lives are still lacking. Verse 35 of the Gospel lesson takes us in the right direction:
“Then Jesus traveled through all the towns & villages teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, & healing every kind of disease & sickness.”
That verse sums up all of Matthew 9. The chapter began with Jesus forgiving the sins of & healing a paralyzed man. After leaving that place Jesus finds Matthew, a tax collector, one of the most despised occupations in all of Israel, & Jesus calls him to be His disciple. From there Jesus heals the bleeding woman while on His way to raise the daughter of Jairus from the dead.
Then, Jesus restores the sight of 2 blind men, & He drives out a demon. The man who was possessed is now able to speak. Verse 33 ends, “And the crowds marveled, saying, ‘Never was anything like this seen in Israel.’” But the Pharisees respond, “[Jesus] casts out demons by the prince of demons.’” (Matthew 9:34b ESV) What a sad & wrong answer! These false shepherds were blind to the miracles, & to the Son of God. You see, our world cannot give us anything but counterfeit solutions because it is blind. It will believe any solution except the one true solution; Jesus Christ & Him crucified.
All these healings, of every kind of disease & sickness, are part of the kingdom of God. The Gospel lesson stated that Jesus was preaching the Good News of the Kingdom. Christ’s miracles are part of that Kingdom & that Kingdom is here now, not only in our future, which we call heaven. This worship service is the presence of that Kingdom.
If it wasn’t for God’s grace, we surely would not be here. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask, “Thy kingdom come.” But in that we are not merely praying for Christ’s 2nd coming – His heavenly kingdom. We are also praying that the Kingdom of God which is already here, His spiritual kingdom, would grow, expand & be strengthened, especially in our own hearts.
This spiritual kingdom exists in all who have faith in Jesus as Lord & Savior. It’s planted in us by the Holy Spirit through the action of God’s Word & through Baptism. God’s rule there is strengthened as we receive the Lord’s Supper. When our heart is faint & weary, we need to receive Holy Communion, for in it, Christ comes to strengthen & renew us.
The spiritual kingdom is where Christ’s love & compassion dwell in us. That love is what makes our lives worth living. That is what makes life bearable & that kingdom is the source of love for our neighbors & even our enemies. This kingdom is a gift of God by His grace & mercy.
It is in this kingdom that suffering produces endurance & endurance produces character & character produces hope. When all human solutions fail, when the leadership of the false shepherds is revealed, this kingdom is where God gives you the strength to go on, to continue even when all seems lost & we are despondent. When we are absolutely helpless, we only need to look at how helpless Christ appeared hanging upon the cross. Yet through His resurrection He was proven triumphant.
Through the faith which God has placed in your heart you are triumphant. The kingdom is here, now – in you & me. Christ’s 2nd coming will reveal that kingdom completely & perfectly. Jesus was no counterfeit solution.
The Apostle John records these words of our Lord & Savior, “My sheep listen to my voice, & I know them, & they follow me, & I give them everlasting life. They will never be lost, & no one will tear them out of my hand. My Father who gave them to me, is greater than all others, & no one can tear them out of my Father’s hand.” (10:27-29 NET)
People who simply believe this are those sheep & God says they will never be lost. And that is not small talk. Amen.
Your hand, O Lord, in days of old was strong to heal & save; it triumphed over ills & death, over darkness & the grave. To You they came, the blind, the mute, the palsied & the lame, the lepers in their misery, the sick with fevered frame. O be our great deliverer still, the Lord of life & death; restore & quicken, soothe & bless, with Your life-giving breath. To hands that word & eyes that see give wisdom’s healing power that whole & sick & weak & strong may praise You evermore. Amen. LSB 846:1, 3.
2nd Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 5) LSB #’s 901, 618:1-4, 673
Text – Matthew 9:10-11
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors & sinners came & were reclining with Jesus & His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors & sinners?”
EATING WITH THE IRS
At the church where I did my vicarage one of the young men who used to serve as an usher showed up for church one morning with his hair bleached blonde but with large black polka dots dyed into it. It was quite a sight & got your attention, as I’m sure it was meant to. Beyond that I thought nothing of it until the next Elder’s meeting.
It was brought up that someone complained about the young man’s hairstyle. I was surprised by that & said so. I figured if a 16 year old shows up to usher, when his parents do not express interest in church, then you thank God & encourage the guy.
Apparently the person who complained was someone with influence, because an Elder was asked to speak to the usher about his hair color. You can guess what happened. That 16-year-old tax collector & sinner never came back. In your life, you too have heard comments from Pharisees, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors & sinners?”
What is Jesus thinking? Those kind of people are the scum of the earth & they’re unclean! They foul everything they touch. No self-respecting Rabbi would be seen in public with them let alone eat with them. That’s where the Pharisees were at, unbridled disgust & disrespect for fellow creatures which our loving Father had created.
Tax collectors & sinners were not allowed to enter the Synagogue. According to some members in our churches neither should people who have blond & polka dotted hair. In the congregation where I grew up all the men wore a suit jacket & tie to every church service. There’s something to be said for treating the house of God with reverence & with honor, yet teaching a balanced & proper distinction between the two extremes is key. Telling a 16 year old with funny hair that he can no longer usher because of it is a tragedy. Jesus made it clear to the Pharisees that He desires mercy, & He purposely came to earth in order to eat with the sinners. Times had changed. The Pharisees didn’t get it.
While living in North Dakota I found only one member there who regularly followed the NFL. He was an elderly & divorced gentleman so Don would invite me over for company to watch football with him. As you all know, commercials appear on television very frequently. Naturally, they became a topic of discussion.
Don mentioned one day that he just didn’t get the point of many of the commercials. I believe the Blue Man Group had just done one for the Pentium Four computer chip, & if you’ve ever seen the Blue Man Group perform, they’re certainly out there. The guys are painted blue from head to toe & they do things like playing music with plastic piping.
What was especially interesting is that prior to that Sunday’s game I’d read that times have really changed with respect to commercials. They are now targeted at more specific audiences. They don’t care if older people can’t understand today’s commercials, because they’re never going to buy the product anyway. The Pentium Four is a perfect example.
Don had no use for a computer so he didn’t need to understand the point of the commercial. Concerning Jesus’ eating with tax collectors & sinners, the Pharisees didn’t get the point, but for the most part few of them were going to buy the product anyway. They enjoyed the status quo & saw no need to change. There was nothing in it for them.
Why do we need to eat with tax collectors & sinners? Why do we need to have ushers with funny hair? What does a Pentium Four chip do for me? Are you recognizing the self-centered outlook so common to each of us? It’s like saying to Jesus, “What have you done for me lately, instead of wasting your time eating with those boys from the hood? If you’re going to be a leader you should be hanging out with a respectable crowd.” Are you missing the point of why churches try reaching out to people in our society who may not speak like you do, dye their hair like you do, or pierce their tongue like you don’t?
The gospel lesson ends, “…I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” The 2nd person of the Holy Trinity was a radical preacher. It’s the people unlike us who need something. They need Jesus Christ as their Savior. As people who already today have eternal life it is your privilege to share the good news with those who do not already have it.
Our communities are filled with the walking dead, tax collectors & sinners, people who have no relationship with the Great Physician, the healer of their soul. They are the walking dead because although they appear to be alive, without Christ living in them, they are already & have always been spiritually, therefore eternally, dead.
The Righteous or the Sinners, which of those categories do you fall into? And let me warn you that are a loaded question if you’ve ever heard one. PAUSE
Why do things have to change? Why does Jesus come along & mess with our comfortable routine? Why can’t He just leave things the way they’ve always been? In case you haven’t noticed, life on earth is not exactly paradise. You should be praying that God’s Spirit does bring change into this world, & into your life.
For Jesus, the point is not whether eating with tax collectors is appropriate. The point is that eating with them is a necessity. It’s what God the Father has commanded us to do, & Christ had no reason to be ashamed of His presence in the house of a sinner.
We have no reason to be ashamed of the presence, in God’s house, of one who dyes black polka dots into his bleached blonde hair. People who are looking for attention need
the attention of their Savior just as much as you & I. The main emphasis in the Gospel of Matthew is on the undeserved love that has appeared to us in Christ Jesus. But that undeserved love was offensive to the Pharisee. If Jesus loved the sinners, just as much as He loved the righteous, then what good does it do to work so hard to appear respectable?
The Pharisees felt threatened by the changes Jesus was bringing. If you feel threatened by change keep in mind that the changes Jesus brings are intended to remove not God’s will from our lives, but our sin. It’s human nature to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, so we seldom feel the need to change ourselves, or our routine.
We’d rather blame others, like the tax collectors, the sinners & the politicians, & expect them to change. So Jesus says to the Pharisees & to us, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9 NIV) If tradition gets in the way of God’s will, than we are sinning, plain & simple.
Those traditions can be hairstyles, the way we dress, the way we worship & many other things. So, back to the loaded question. Are you one of the Righteous, or one of the Sinners?
It appears that, as Jesus uses these words in the Gospel reading, the Righteous are those who think they have no sin, thereby deceiving themselves. The Sinners appear to be those who feel their sin & the curse that follows it. The Righteous are those offended by Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, because His offer suggests that they need forgiveness.
The Righteous are offended by sinners who come into their church, daring to act as if Jesus is their friend. Those Righteous measure themselves by the weaknesses of their fellow men & become proud.
The Sinners are those who measure themselves against Christ. By that standard they become very aware of how far they fall short. Sinners turn to God with a burdened conscience, rather than in pride. They think not of the weaknesses of others at all. The Sinner stands utterly alone before the holy God. Hosea wrote of God in the OT reading for today: “I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt & seek my face, & in their distress earnestly seek me.” (5:15 ESV) Then, Hosea wrote how people of faith responded:
“Come, let us return to the Lord; for He has torn us, that He may heal us; He has struck us down, & He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; on the 3rd day He will raise us up, that we may live before Him.” (6:1-2 ESV)
The Pharisees had no use for the tax collectors & sinners, but Jesus did. He is our Savior & friend. We trust in His mercy & in His sacrifice. God then declares us righteous on account of what His Son has done on the cross of Good Friday. With that definition of the word righteous we see how God’s children are both Righteous & Sinner at the same time.
We are sinner on account of our actions, but we are righteous on account of God’s action & declaration. Faith in Christ then, is the attitude & action of a beggar who simply receives the love of God. That is how Matthew writes of the tax collectors & sinners in the Gospel reading this morning. Jesus welcomes them & eats with them.
Jesus now waits for the final heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb that has no end. It is prominent in the 19th chapter of Revelation. When our bodies are raised glorious on that final day, all of God’s children will be there, tax collectors & sinners. John writes:
“Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters & like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice & exult & give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come…’ And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’” (19:6-7, 9a ESV) Amen.
I come, O Savior, to Thy table, for weak & weary is my soul; Thou, Bread of Life, alone art able to satisfy & make me whole: Lord, may Thy body & Thy blood, be for my soul the highest good! Amen. LSB 618:1.
Holy Trinity Sunday – A LSB #’s 507, 644, 506
Text – Matthew 28:19
Go therefore & make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit.
The Athanasian Creed: Incomprehensible?
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday the one day a year when we confess the Athanasian Creed out loud. We believe, teach & confess what it proclaims 365 days a year, but since it is rather long we speak it line by line just this one Sunday. The true Christian church has three ecumenical confessions: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, & the Athanasian Creed.
We call them “ecumenical” creeds, because they are held to be true across all Christian denominations. If fact, if a church body refuses to confess even one of these creeds, we should be very careful in looking at what they teach & what they practice.
The Apostles’ Creed is the most ancient of the three, emerging very early in the time after Christ. This creed sums up the teaching of the apostles as found in the pages of the NT. It has always been the creed that is used at baptism. It is the creed that Luther explains in the Small Catechism. The Apostles’ Creed is meant to be our daily companion in faith & in life.
The Nicene Creed was adopted in the year 325 at the Council of Nicaea as a corrective to the heresy threatening the foundation of the Christian faith. The heretic Arius was gaining many followers by saying about Christ that “there was a time when he was not.” In other words, Arius denied that Jesus is God, & said He was only a created being, like we are.
That false teaching undermines & destroys everything that Christ taught. If Jesus were only a man, & not true God as well, He could not save us from our sin. Therefore, the Council of Nicaea came out with a creed that strongly emphasized the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ: “…the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.” The Nicene Creed marked off orthodox Christian teaching over against dangerous heresy. We typically confess the Nicene Creed during the Divine Service, to say that all of us here are in agreement with the true faith, before we come to the Lord’s altar.
The Nicene Creed then leads into the Athanasian Creed. At that Council of Nicaea there was one man in particular who stood out as the most able & staunch defender of the faith. He was the bishop of Alexandria, a man by the name of Athanasius. He thought deeply & wrote persuasively on the person of Christ & the doctrine of the Trinity.
While he did not write the Athanasian Creed, it does reflect his influence & is named in his honor. Since it goes into the most depth & detail on the doctrine of the Trinity, it is fitting that we speak it aloud on Holy Trinity Sunday.
When I say “depth & detail,” it’s no lie! The Athanasian Creed is longer than the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds combined. That’s why you get to be seated as we read it, & we do so responsively. This creed is meticulous – painstakingly so – in the careful distinctions it draws among the three persons of the Trinity.
For example: “the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated; the Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal. Yet there are not three Eternals, but one Eternal, just as there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites, but one Uncreated & one Infinite.”
Those are heavyweight theological terms, packed together in close proximity. There’s sentence after sentence like that – all of them careful distinctions. The effect of reading can be mind-numbing. On that point, the older English translation read: “The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, the Holy Ghost uncreate; the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” Which led the witty British writer Dorothy Sayers to comment: “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible – the whole thing incomprehensible!” That’s how Miss Sayers thought the average person would describe the Athanasian Creed: “The whole thing incomprehensible!”
The intricate language of this Creed is overwhelming & difficult to understand. Should we expect the Creator of the universe to be simple for us to comprehend? Should we dismiss the Athanasian Creed as an old relic of incomprehensible theological jargon? Not if we understand that the reality of the triune God it confesses is absolutely essential to our salvation.
Let’s take another look at the beginning of the Athanasian Creed: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole & undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.” Those are rather blunt statements.
First of all, don’t be afraid of the word “catholic.” It literally means “according to the whole.” In this context, it refers to the orthodox Christian faith, as it has been taught rightly in all times & in all places. It does not mean the Roman Catholic Church, headed up by the pope. “The catholic faith” is the same as saying “the Christian truth.”
We, in our church, hold the catholic faith. That’s a good thing, because this is, according to Jesus, the only faith that saves. It is faith in the only God who is, the only God who exists, the only God who can deliver us. There is none other, only the triune God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. One God in three persons – the Holy Trinity.
To believe in any other god is to believe in no god at all. There is no other god who can save you, save you from perishing eternally. This God can, & He reveals Himself in three persons. Continuing in verse 3: “And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity & Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” The whole section that follows, verses 4-26, is designed & structured to balance those two aspects of God; the Trinity of persons, & the Unity of substance. There are three distinct persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Yet, there is only one God. Three persons, one God; one God, three persons. This is how God revealed Himself to us in Holy Scripture.
The Trinitarian nature of God is a truth that transcends the ability of our finite reason to comprehend. That is a jarring thought only if we overestimate our own intellect. How does this God save sinners? That’s where the section on Christ comes in, verses 27-39 – the very heart of the Gospel: the person & work of Christ, the only Savior of mankind.
He is the eternal Son of God, who came in the flesh, true God & true man. That is the person of Christ. His work is laid out in verses 36 & 37 which read much like the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds:
Christ “suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the 3rd day from dead, ascended into heaven, & is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the living & the dead.”
Only Christ, the God-man Savior, could do this great work for you! It took the death of God to cover the sins of the world. His holy blood, poured out on Calvary’s cross, is the great price that was paid for our forgiveness. Our sins are covered completely, washed away forever. Jesus paid it all. Take refuge in Him whenever anxiety causes doubt & fear.
By His victorious death & resurrection, Jesus conquered the grave for you! He has defeated the forces of hell & proclaimed His victory there. Christ is risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, & seated at God’s right hand, the place of all honor & authority. Christ your Savior is now governing all things for the good of His church.
Though it appears to be, the world is not spinning out of control. Jesus is guiding it
toward His goal: the end of this age, when He will return & inaugurate the age to come. Meanwhile, Jesus is with us all the moments & days until then. When He returns to judge the living & the dead, what will happen on that day? The Creed tells us, at verses 38–39:
“At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies & give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, & those who have done evil into eternal fire.” Don’t let this scare you. Let this give you hope! For you will stand acquitted on the Day of Judgment – not guilty on account of Jesus’ work.
Your sinful deeds will not be revealed on that day. They’ve been forgiven, remembered no more. Only your good works will be cited, as evidence of a living faith. Recall the story of the sheep & the goats, from Matthew 25. It is faith in Christ that will save you, a faith given to you as a free gift in your baptism & nurtured every week here by Word & Sacrament.
“At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies & give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, & those who have done evil into eternal fire.”
Again, don’t let this scare you. Let this give you hope! For here is the resurrection of the body & eternal life. This is the goal we are headed for, guaranteed by the sure promise of God.
In conclusion, verse 40: “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully & firmly cannot be saved.” But for you who do believe this catholic faith, you will be saved! You will be raised to life, with a glorious immortal body, in a restored creation. We will live forever with our Creator God along with all His saints of all times & all places.
This is the Athanasian Creed. The Biblical teaching it confesses is indispensable! What is incomprehensible, in the best sense of the word, is the great mystery of the triune God & His amazing love for us! “Oh, the depth of the riches & wisdom & knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33a ESV) Oh, the breadth & length & height & depth of His love! Blessed be the Holy Trinity & the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us. Amen.
The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord; she is His new creation by water & the Word. From heaven He came & sought her to be His holy bride; with His own blood He bought her, & for her life He died. Though with a scornful wonder the world sees her oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, “How long?” & soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song. Amen. LSB 644:1, 3.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet