A rather unusual festival in the Christian year falls on June 16 and it doesn’t celebrate the events in the life of Jesus or commemorate the saints of old. Instead, it celebrates a doctrine unique to and essential for the Christian faith: the Triune God, which is to say, three Persons in one God, the Holy Trinity.
In 1522, Martin Luther said in his Trinity Sunday sermon, “It is indeed true that the name ‘Trinity’ is not found in Scripture but has been conceived and invented by man … a heavenly mystery which the world cannot understand.”
Yes, Christians celebrate something we don’t fully understand, one of the great mysteries of the faith, one the unbelieving world doesn’t understand (or care about) at all. We accept it by faith. Similarly, we don’t fully understand how the world was created outside of what the Bible says. Even then, the Trinity was fully involved: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Genesis 1:1-2
We confess in the Athanasian Creed: “Whoever will be saved shall, above all else, hold the catholic (universal) faith. Which faith, except everyone keeps whole and undefiled, without doubt he will perish eternally. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance….”
In short, for one to be a Christian, he must also be Trinitarian. To be Trinitarian, one must also be a Christian. If a person is going to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord, he must confess the entire Trinity. While the three Persons are distinct, They are inseparable; any attempt to separate the Persons would be to try to divide the indivisible God.
Why did the church invent the word Trinity? After all, God didn’t give us this word in the Bible. Luther said in a sermon on Trinity Sunday in 1532 that it’s necessary to use such words: “The words trinitas (and) unitas are really mathematical terms. And yet, we can’t talk about God without using such words. But at the same time, it is also true that when we use human language to speak about God, it seems to have a different ring to it, a whole new connotation.”
There are certain words that the church has used and set aside especially for her own use, words we don’t use in our everyday conversations. But the church has her own language, so that all may know that, when these words are used there, something very special is going on, namely, that the people of God are being taught and fed by God, who is present among us, giving us His gifts. The language of the church is hymnic, liturgical, sacramental, and catechetical by nature, comforting and strengthening us in our faith.
That’s why we go to church. The Holy Spirit brings us there to worship the Triune God in spirit and in truth. He brings us there that we may receive God’s gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. God comes to us in His entire Triune-ness, and our worship is likewise Trinitarian. It begins the same way our lives as Christians began at our Baptism: In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
As we make confession of our sins, we hear the entire Trinity forgiving us: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy on us and has given His only Son to die for us and for His sake forgives us all our sins. To them that believe on His Name He gives power to become the sons of God and has promised them His Holy Spirit. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Lutheran Service Book, p. 185).
We can’t fully comprehend what our Lord has done, but the Holy Spirit we cling to, the forgiveness our crucified and risen Lord has won for us. We respond, giving glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. We pray to our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with Him and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
We hear three readings from the Bible, even as there are three Persons in the one Godhead, and, having heard God’s Word, the Holy Spirit moves us to confess our Christian, Trinitarian, faith in one of the three Ecumenical Creeds of the Church (Apostles’, Nicene, or Athanasian). Three is a very important number in the life of the church.
As our Lord Jesus, the Son of God, comes to us in His Supper, we sing the song of the angels: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” Isaiah 6:3
As we leave His house, He places His thrice-holy Name upon us in the Benediction (Numbers 6), as the Father blesses and keeps us, the Son makes His face shine upon us and is gracious unto us, and the Holy Spirit looks upon us with favor and gives us peace.
Mark Schlamann is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Tooele.