The End of the Beginning
The Allies had one of their first victories of WW II in the Second Battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942. Afterwards Churchill said, "now is not the end. It's not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning" (The Last Lion: 1940-65, 591). That's what Trinity Sunday is. It's a Johnny-come-lately as Church festivals go only added officially in the 14th century. It caps the celebration of historic events in the life of Christ with a confession of faith in the Triune God. Trinity Sunday is the end of the festival half of the Church Year, but the Year's not over. It's just getting started.
And "you can't handle the truth". That's from a 1992 Jack Nicholson film. It's funny that a line from a completely forgettable movie, to me anyway, can live on like it does in memes, gifs, ringtones, and now a sermon. Here it's fitting. Because it's the apostles that Jesus Himself says can't handle the truth. Actually, He says bear'. He doesn't say they can't understand' it or handle' it but bear' it. This Greek word describes supporting a burden. It's used of Christ bearing the cross. There are vistas of truth the apostles can't see let alone bear without the Spirit of Truth guiding them. All sorts of illustrations come to mind: the hero of the story can't get through the Forbidden Swamp without a guide. In Greek mythology, no mortal can bear to look at Medusa. If they do, like ELO they turn to stone. Or from real life, the prophet Daniel can't bear the Lord's revelations without the Lord first strengthening him, and even then he is ill for days. The truth! You can't handle the truth.
Ah, but we think we can, don't we? Augustine comments on wishing to know what it was Jesus says the apostles couldn't bear. "But which of us would venture to assert his own present capacity for what they lacked in ability to receive" (ACC, IVb, 204)? I venture. I think though the Man on the Moon could tell me things that would kill me, the Maker of moon, sun, and stars couldn't tell me anything that I couldn't bear. Worse than that I think He is at fault when I think He isn't explaining Himself adequately to me. We're not like one of my kids who came into the bathroom while I was showering and said, "Dad, what's the Trinity?" I said, "3 persons in one divine being or essence." He said, "Okay," and left. Not us, not me. I don't take God at His Word, but only if and when His Word agrees with my puny little thoughts.
But heaven can't wait to tell you the truth. There are 2 movies entitled Heaven CanWait. The 1943 movie is about a man who has to prove he belongs in hell; in the 1978 movie a man is mistakenly taken to heaven before his time. For 2 different reasons, heaven can wait. With us, it can't. Jesus tells the apostles, "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when, He, the Spirit of Truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth." Jesus says this on Maundy Thursday. Before Jesus can send the Spirit to dead, defiled, corpses like us, He must go through the Garden of Gethsemane where the cup of God's wrath against all sins is going to be handed to Him. Before the Spirit can be sent to sinners, the innocent Jesus must pay for the sins of sinners being betrayed into the hands of Death and Devil by His best friend and His heavenly Father. Before He gives up the Spirit on Calvary's cross, He will go into the very depths of hell to suffer your greatest fear, your deepest shame, your worst pain.
Having done all that, He won the right for our flesh and blood to inherit heaven. On Ascension Day, the Man Jesus takes His seat on heaven's throne and on Pentecost He pours out the Spirit on all flesh. This Spirit He promises will lead the apostles, Greek ho-da-ge'-o, into all truth. Remember Jesus declared Himself self to be not only the truth but the Way, Greek ho-do's. You see. The Spirit of Truth leads you to the Truth, not a truth, or truths, but the Truth. Simon and Garfunkel sang in 1966, "I stand alone without beliefs/ The only truth I know is you." That's about a woman. The Spirit of Truth guides us to the Man who is not only the Truth but also the Way: the Way to everlasting life, the Way forwards, the Way to live, to die, to rise.
Heaven isn't holding out on you is the point. Jesus says, "Whatsoever should hear the Spirit, He shall speak." He even makes known to the apostles things that are to come. But His focus is all on Jesus: "Out of Me He takes," says Jesus. And Jesus has whatever the Father has. Do you see the Trinity going on here? What is true, what is the truth and the revelation of that truth to the fallen children of mankind is intricately caught up with the mystery of the Trinity. The Father has the truth; the Son won and owns it for fallen mankind, and the Spirit takes it to distribute it.
Already in John 14:26 Jesus promises the apostles, "The Holy Spirit will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." And our text promises that they will be guided into all truth. The only truth we know is the God-Man Jesus and what He did to save us. The only way we can know this truth is from the apostles whom Jesus promised the Spirit would teach, remind, and guide into all truth. God has no secret truth beyond the apostolic and prophetic Word. A doctrine of Catholicism is that "sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church" stand together as the guide to salvation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 29, 95). A doctrine of Pentecostals, charismatics, and even some Evangelicals is that God's revelation is ongoing. God reveals Himself in other ways and places than the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, and we are to seek Him there.
And that's exciting. It can even sound Biblical. The Bible is the dead letter Jesus and Paul warned us about. The Spirit is found in fresh revelations. Pagan rulers like Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar had dreams from God. Daniel and Zechariah had visions. Didn't the prophet Joel promise and didn't Peter say Pentecost fulfilled this promise? "Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams"? There you go. All those dreams I have, all those feelings, intuitions, spirits that haunt me are God trying to tell me something. And there are legions of people willing to tell me what it is. And "the centre cannot hold."
That's a line from Yeats' 1919 poem "The Second Coming" which is not about Christ or Christianity but uses our imagery. The poem is after the horrific World War I. It's in the spirit, and I use that word on purpose, of "Something Wicked This Way Comes", or the theme for Jaws. The first verse is, "Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." A revelation centered on men and their spirit cannot hold, and goes bad in a hurry because of the passionate intensity" of the worst men. Think Jonestown, think Hale-Bopp and Heaven's Gate. Jesus is the only center that can hold.
C.S. Lewis observed that only once does God simply say, "I AM" proclaiming the dizzying mystery of His absolute self-existence, but many more times He says, "I am the Lord." "I, the ultimate Fact, have this determinate character, and not that. And men are exhorted to know the Lord', to discover and experience this particular character" (Miracles, 140). And that particular character' is none other than Jesus. Jesus is emphatic about this. I emphasize the words Jesus does; "He will bring glory to ME by taking from what is MINE and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is MINE. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is MINE and make it known to you." Jesus' Person and Work is revealed by the Spirit in the written Word and in the visible Word of the Sacraments. You want revelation? You want to know the secrets of God? You want to know what only God knows and only as much as God wants you to know? Look in these Words, in that font, on this altar.
The true Jesus is the very anthesis of what Yeats saw slouching toward Bethlehem. The last lines of The Second Coming are "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" Jesus was born at Bethlehem to take on that Beast, to deliver us from its mouth, and slay it. The Beast had us in its jaws by virtue of God's holy Law which convicted us every which we turned. The Beast had a right to sinners. So Jesus was born at Bethlehem born of a woman, born under the Law to redeem them that were under the Law. That's what Apostolic Scripture says in Galatians 4. He redeemed us, purchased us by living a perfect life in place of us, a life so perfect the Law couldn't find one thing wrong with Him or with anyone in Him. But there is more. He redeemed us from all the curses of the Law not just the eternal ones but the temporal ones. That's what the Apostolic Scriptures say in Galatians 3: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us."
Jesus bore the sickness, the diseases, the guilt, the shame, the dying, damning, and death you deserve. The hour of the Beast has come and gone for you. In Christ you are freed. Baptism baptizes you into Jesus' victory. Absolution separates your guilt from your and by means of Bread and Wine you are bodied and blooded to the One whose heavens gates must open to and the gates of hell cannot prevail against.
Luther too saw Trinity Sunday as a line of demarcation. It is about "'who God is in Himself, unencumbered by any clothing or works, solely about His divine nature'" (Peters, Creed, 31). This is true but we don't live here. At the end of the beginning of the Church Year, we pause in awe, worship, and wonder to own this incomprehensible Mystery before retreating to where Father, Son, and Holy Ghost lead us to Jesus, and so be led, as He promised in the beginning, into all truth. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Holy Trinity (20190616); John 16: 12-15