Worship: The Work of the Trinity

Worship: The Work of the Trinity

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the blessed Trinity into whose name you were baptized: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Trinitarian name which we consider today on this Trinity Sunday is the heart of Christian worship. It saturates the divine service from invocation to benediction. It is the essence of baptism and our object of praise in the Gloria in Excelsis, the Gloria Patri, and the Sanctus. However, the doctrine of the Trinity suffers from neglect today. It has largely been reduced to discussions on Trinity Sunday and in catechism class. But for the Christian Church, the Trinity must be more than just a dogmatic proposition. He is the God who created and redeemed us. He is the mystery who gives life to the Church’s worship.

When we speak of the relationship between the Holy Trinity and Christian worship, we are speaking of the relationship between theology and liturgy. Theology is the theo-logos; the knowledge of God. Theology is the language of Christ, and liturgy is the language of the church, so the relationship between theology and worship reflects the marriage between Christ and His Church. In other words, theology is to worship as husband is to wife. This defines theology as the source, life, and strength of our worship, and worship as the beautiful, precious expression and glory of that theology.

When the one-flesh union of theology and worship is put asunder, however, both suffer. This is dangerous in several ways.

First, theology is best fulfilled and most profoundly expressed in worship. When they are separated, theology loses its proper expression and becomes just an academic exercise. The Triune God is transformed from the omnipotent Father (who reveals himself by sending his Son to save us and his Spirit to give us faith) into the impersonal object of man’s investigation. Theology then teeters on the edge of the abyss of idolatry.

Second, worship draws its life and language from theology, like Eve was drawn out of Adam. When divorced from theology, however, worship is forced into an illegitimate union with sociology. Worship becomes our activity, not God’s. This reduces God to a passive object, and replaces the activity of the blessed holy Trinity with the activity of man. For example, some churches replace the invocation with a “call to worship.” Instead of imploring the Triune God to fill worship with His activity, human beings are called to fill worship with their activity.

Third, when the Trinity is not the focus of worship, man becomes the object whose wants are glorified and satisfied, rather than the one whose deepest needs are addressed by his Creator. Worship twisted into that unholy contortion then seeks to create an emotional experience in the individual to hold his interest, like a product being marketed.

If we take this view, the purpose of worship is no longer to convict us our sins and to receive the assurance of our forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life as a result of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, but instead attempts to influence our inner mood. This tears us away from receiving God from the external Word and Sacraments, and directs us to seek him in inner experiences of the heart.

Luther warns against this when he writes,

“To cast aside the external Word and Baptism is surely the true mark and sign of all false and heterodox spirits. … They disdain to hear from Him how they are to find Him; but they presume to teach and prescribe to Him how He should deal with them.”

But the Father, Son, and Spirit can never be separated. All attempts to seek God through personal experience rather than by His work in us are shallow and false, because they seek God apart from the means of grace.

Yet the question remains: how do we keep theology and liturgy—our God and our worship—united?

As I said before, it is essential that we do not reduce God to an academic subject we think we can study and eventually master. We must not lose true worship, which is not an imparting of knowledge about God but the revelation of God himself. We do not investigate and discover facts about God.

Rather, God reveals himself to us. Worship as the revelation of God becomes clearer when we understand three points: God is mystery, God’s name is proclamation, and God’s name is confession.

In our culture, there is very little left in the realm of mystery. That’s because instead of admiring a mystery in wonder and humility, we feel we must know everything about it, or else we can’t understand it, critique it, and manipulate it. Everything is analyzed to the point that nothing happens without someone giving his opinion about it. God is often treated like a political candidate. He is analyzed and forced into a neat system that has all the right answers to life’s toughest questions. In such an environment, the doctrine of the Trinity is not a popular topic because in the biblical revelation of God, the Trinity is incomprehensible and, therefore, impossible to analyze.

However, the doctrine of the Trinity is vital for the church’s well-being precisely because it is beyond our understanding. In the trinitarian name, God reveals himself to us. He gives us a way of speaking about him so that we can stand in awe of the divine mystery. The hymn properly says it: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand.”

If the church’s doctrine of the Trinity is to be orthodox—which means, “correct praise”—it must be spoken in worship, not in analysis. The Trinity is to be encountered and confessed, but never figured out. Think of it like this: Faith in God is not the same as the certainty that we have in geometry. God is not the logical conclusion of reasoning. To believe in God is not to accept his existence because it has been “proved” to us. It is to put our trust in Him whom we know and love for our own existence, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

Faith is, in fact, radically opposed to reason. Reason seeks to eliminate the mysteries of God through scrutiny, but faith thrives on God’s mysteries, realizing and accepting that he is beyond our comprehension apart from that which he reveals to us.

Remember the story of Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar. The king had a dream, and no one could interpret it. Daniel tells him, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery which the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known…what will be in the latter days.” After Daniel explains the dream, the king says, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” The point of this story is that God alone is the revealer of mysteries; God alone reveals what is hidden from men.

“Mystery,” as the Bible uses the term, entails two aspects: hiddenness and disclosure. It refers to that which is incomprehensible to man but revealed by God. In the New Testament, the gospel is referred to as the mystery of God. Paul writes, “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages.” The sacraments and indeed the entire Christian faith are mysteries to men, yet revealed by God. However, the revealed mysteries are not disconnected truths. Rather, they are united in the greatest mystery, the triune God himself. Paul writes to Timothy, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: [God] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” For Paul the salvation of man is found in the mystery of God’s self-revelation, a mystery that is revealed and hidden at the same time.

This concept of mystery has great implications for our time spent together here. Worship is not simply to be a time when like-minded people gather to analyze God and his work in their individual lives. It is a time when all of us, as the bride of Christ individually and collectively, stand in holy awe of the trinitarian mystery that is ever revealed, yet ever hidden.

The Divine Service is an encounter with God where we stand in unapproachable light, blinded by its brightness yet seeing more clearly than ever before. Yet what do we mean when we say that worship is an encounter with God? We mean that worship is the place where the Trinity becomes visible to us in the womb of the Church, creating new life in us by repeatedly bringing Jesus to us. That is to say, worship is the continuing incarnation of God. Therefore, the content and focus of worship must be nothing but Jesus Christ himself, who is God in the flesh.

Hermann Sasse, perhaps the greatest Lutheran theologian of the last century, writes,

“Therefore Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh, is the revelation of God in this world. Only in Him, the eternal Word, does God step out of His hiddenness. He is the content of all the divine Word; His incarnation makes the Word visible. The man Jesus Christ is the visible Word. Whoever sees Him sees God as much as God can be seen in this world.”

Just as God revealed himself by hiding in human flesh, in worship he reveals himself by hiding in human words, bread and wine, and water. In the Matins liturgy, we proclaim, “Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells:’ Thus in worship—the sermon, the sung responses, the hymns, the readings, the Sanctus, and the sacrament—the Holy Trinity is revealing the glory of himself in the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

The first and most basic revelation that takes place in worship is the revelation of God’s name. If his name is not known, worship is impossible. In the Old Testament God comes to his people through the revelation of his holy name to save them and to give them access to himself. In the New Testament this revelation of God’s name continues in Jesus, who comes in the name of the Lord. It culminates in baptism with the revelation and application of the trinitarian name to those who are—in that very act of God—made part of His body. Finally, in the worship of the Christian church, the trinitarian name is revealed in invocation, absolution, and the word that forms our confession in the Apostles, Nicene, and yes, Athanasian Creeds.

The revelations of God’s name always find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He is God’s name made visible for all to see. He comes in the name of the Lord in order to make the Father known as he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me. If you had known me you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.” And St. John writes, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” Access to God is given in the incarnate Son.

This access to God does not end with the ascension of Jesus into heaven; it is made even greater. Through the word and sacraments, people at all times and places can enter his presence. In other words, the incarnation of Jesus Christ continues today in the worship of the Christian church.

This is what we mean when we say that worship is revelation, for it is the place where God’s Triune name dwells. It is the place where the Son continues to proclaim the name of God so that man can confess that name and be saved. Hence in worship the divine name is proclaimed by God and confessed by man.

Therefore, the proclamation of the trinitarian name is nothing less than the proclamation of the gospel. It permeates our worship beginning in the absolution, continuing in the service of the word, and the service of the Sacrament, and ending in the benediction. That name was applied to you when God baptized you with water and word, imprinting it on you in an indelible and mysterious way. It’s invisible to the human eye, yet fully known to God. It is revealed to the world in your proclamation of the Gospel and your service to others, your witness never separated from your worship.

Rejoice this Trinity Sunday that you have been chosen by God to receive the mystery of His triune name. Beyond any possibility of our comprehension, it is nevertheless fully yours, fully functional, and completely beneficial in making you His child and giving you all that goes along with it. Call upon it each day in every trouble; pray, praise, and give thanks. And trust always that in carrying it upon your forehead, you are seen by God as His child: Loved, cared for, forgiven in Christ, and guaranteed the eternal blessings of heaven.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.