How Lutherans Worship – 9: Excursus: Trinitarian Nature of the Lord’s Supper

This post was written by Seminarian Christopher Gillespie at Outer Rim Territories.

How is the confession of the Trinity a description of the church’s experience at the Supper? There should be no doubt that the Trinity acts in the Divine Service[1]. We begin with the trinitarian invocation and end with the trinitarian benediction. Our psalms and collects end with a trinitarian doxology. Unfortunately for Lutherans, our catechetical heritage mistakenly cleaved God into three distinct characters- Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. These descriptions accurately portray the principal action of each person of the Trinity. Yet, good intentions gave way to a near modal understanding of God. The Father acts in the way of the Law, the Son makes it right with the cross, and the Spirit helps us believe these actions as true. While teaching in simple terms remains useful, the simplification has altered the confession, and so runs a dangerous course of altering the liturgy of the church.[2] In a reversal of lex orandi, lex credendi, the liturgy may be misunderstood in these simplified terms of theology.

The Lord's Supper by Salvador Dali

While the whole of the liturgy is necessarily trinitarian, it is also christocentric. The height of the Father’s love is the gift of His son Jesus Christ for the life of the world. The Spirit keeps our focus on Christ as the Word incarnate and the source of faith and life. “He comes to us and does things for us when we gather together in His name. He brings the Holy Spirit with Him and ushers us into the presence of His Heavenly Father. In worship, then, we come into contact with the Holy Trinity. We come into the presence of the Triune God and share in the ministry of Jesus.”[3] We begin our liturgy with trinitarian invocation and absolution to prepare us for the Lord’s Supper where participation confesses the same.

The forgiving Father comes to us in the Supper. He gives us of this forgiveness as we receive the gift of His Son, whose body and blood was given and shed for us. “Through [the office of preaching, giving the Gospel, and the sacraments], he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills in those who hear the gospel.”[4] The Spirit grants us faithful eating by His Word and Spirit. The prayer of thanksgiving[5] expresses this well: “Blessed are You, Lord of heaven and earth, for You have had mercy on those whom You created and sent Your only-begotten Son into our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior … Gathered in the name and the remembrance of Jesus, we beg You, O Lord, to forgive, renew, and strengthen us with Your Word and Spirit … To You alone, O Father, be all glory, honor, and worship, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”[6]

Trinity by Jeronimo Cosida

The liturgy entrance hymn, the Kyrie, reflects the Trinity with its triple reference “Lord… Christ… Lord, have mercy.” The trinitarian imagery continues in the Gloria in Excelsis, especially notable in Luther’s “All Glory Be to God Alone” and Decius’ hymn “All Glory Be to God on High.” Immediately following the Preface in the Service of the Sacrament is the Sanctus with its trifold “Holy.” The vision of Isaiah 6:3 is the Lord before the throne, whose glory fills the whole earth, as his body and blood are offered. The Nunc Dimittis refers directly to the Father’s gift of the Son, the salvation which is given “before our face” in the Supper.

Jesus himself is the liturgist of the Divine Service. Jesus is the “Word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) This Word is made flesh. (John 1:14) Jesus, the Word incarnate, is the bread of life. (John 6:35;48) This Word feeds and nourishes His people. By the Spirit, we receive Him.[7] And further, Jesus is the chief celebrant of the Service of the Sacrament.[8] He feeds us with Himself. We receive Him as His Word says, “this is my body … this is my blood.” The Sacrament is not enacted by Jesus alone but is the body and blood conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary and given by the Father for the sake of the world.[9]

The invocation of the Spirit (epiclesis) in the liturgy of the Sacrament follows Luther’s explanation of preparation for the Lord’s Supper. “Fasting and bodily preparation are in fact a fine external discipline, but a person who has faith in these words, ‘given for you’ and ’shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ is really worthy and well prepared.”[10] The Spirit is invoked to strengthen the faith of the recipients so that they are truly worthy and well prepared.[11]

The Creed sits in the middle of the Divine Service providing trinitarian focus. The Creed excludes error and summarizes our understanding of the Trinity.  It leads us to the full expression of the Trinity as He is present in the Supper. The Lutheran liturgy especially in the Sacrament is christocentric, focused upon incarnation, and sacramental, following with God’s trinitarian self-disclosure in the Word.

When the church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, it confesses the doctrine of the Trinity. The community of believers gather to hear the Word of the Father, the Son incarnate in body and blood, and the Spirit’s faith-giving breath. The communion of saints mirrors the trinitarian fellowship (koinonia) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God dwells with His people. In His supper He dwells within (perichoresis) His people. In the Word and Sacraments, the whole Trinity acts to redeem His people and keep them steadfast in this faith into eternity. The Lord’s Supper is not merely the presence of the Son but demonstrates the unity of the Trinity, acting for the salvation of man.

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Next: Exscursus: What is Lutheran Worship?


[1] For a fuller exposition on this theme see: Maschke, Timothy. “The Holy Trinity and Our Lutheran Liturgy” Concordia Theological Quarterly 67 (2003) no. 3-4:241-269.
[2] “When we speak of the relationship between the Trinity and worship, we are speaking of the relationship between theology and liturgy. Since theology is the language of Christ and liturgy is the language of the church, their relationship reflects the marital union between Christ and the church. In other words, theology is to liturgy as husband is to wife. This defines theology as the source and life of the liturgy, and liturgy as the expression and glory of theology” (Bushur, James. “Worship: The Activity of the Trinity,” Logia 3 [July 1994]: 3).

[3] John W. Kleinig, “The Biblical View of Worship,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 58 (October 1994): 247.

[4] AC V:1-2, Kolb and Wengert, 40.

[5] “The eucharistic prayer underscores this trinitarian emphasis as we praise the Father, remember the Son, and invoke the Spirit.” (Reed, Luther D. The Lutheran Liturgy: A Study of the Common Liturgy of the Lutheran Church in America. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960, 264.)

[6] Lutheran Service Book, 161.

[7] “Where Jesus’ words are going on, there is also the Spirit (John 6:63). Any spirit apart from Jesus is not the Holy Spirit (John 16:15). The Holy Spirit is most pleased when we speak of Jesus and not of him. He gives only Jesus gifts.” (Norman E. Nagel, “Holy Communion,” in Precht, Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, 290.

[8] “The chief celebrant is Jesus, our great high priest in the heavenly sanctuary. He leads us in our worship by representing us before the Father in intercession and thanksgiving (Hebrews 7:25; 9:25) and by representing God the Father to us in proclamation and praise (Hebrews 2:12). By means of His service in the heavenly sanctuary Jesus leads us, together with the angels and the whole communion of saints, in the performance of the heavenly liturgy (Hebrews 2:11; 8:2; 12:22-24; 13:15).” (Kleinig, “Biblical View”, 246.

[9] Maschke, 260.

[10] SC VI:9-10, Kolb-Wengert, 363.

[11] Maschke, 265.

The original post is at Outer Rim Territories

Matthew 28:16-20 – First Sunday after Pentecost-a—The Feast of the Holy Trinity

For What Would You Be Willing to Die?

(Memorial Day, 2002)

St. Matthew 28: 16-20

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)

It is traditional on Memorial Day weekend for families to gather at the graves of those who have served this country in the Armed Services, and for former military personnel to remember and recall comrades who put their lives on the line to secure a trench, a beach, a village, a road, or maybe just a moment of safety in a foxhole.

The remembrance of their heroism causes us to ponder, “For what would you be willing to die?”

It seems unlikely that for most of us involved in the “day-to-day” of our lives, that we would be called upon to defend the safety of our nation, or the principles or our Constitution. Then we hear about the ordinary everyday passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 who successfully thwarted the terrorists on board so that their plane did not add to the destruction that occurred on 9-11 in New York and Washington. Their heroism ended in their death in a field in Pennsylvania.

For what would you be willing to die?

Last Sunday, our Confirmands stood before this altar and pledged what you and I pledged at our confirmation, that with the help of God, “[I ] intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.” It seems the right thing to say at the time. It seems rather unlikely that in our day and age we would be called upon to die for our faith or Church. Then we are brought up short by the remembrance of events like Columbine High School; where a young girl in the overshadowing menace of death fulfilled such a pledge.

Her confession of faith was her final word. It is that for which she was willing to die.

The confession, “I believe in God the Father, and in God the Son, and in God the Holy Spirit” is essential to Christianity. It is the very center and foundation of Church’s faith. It is a confession that many have died for over the centuries. Some might say that surely everybody believes the doctrine of the Trinity and it is quite unnecessary to preach on it. But not everybody believes it, and therefore it is necessary that it be preached.

Even within the so-called Christian Church there are many who no longer believe what the Christian Church confesses in the three articles of the historic and ecumenical Creeds. God the Father the almighty Creator of heaven and earth? No, evolution is the thing. Jesus Christ true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary? No, He was a great prophet but a mere man, the same as you and I, and not the Second Person of the Godhead. Man regenerated by the power and working of the Holy Spirit? No, it is all man’s doing. There are not three Persons in God, but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three names for one and the same person.

You and I, in confessing the Athanasian Creed, confess, “This is the catholic faith, which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.” Why do we still teach and confess the doctrine of the Trinity? Because we understand it? By no means! No one can understand or explain how there can be three Persons and yet only one God. Yet we teach and believe that there is one God and three Persons in that God, because in His Word God tells us that this is true. If God in His Word reveals a truth which we cannot grasp with our reason, we bow to His superior wisdom, put chains on our reason, and humbly exclaim with St. Paul in this day’s Epistle: O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! …From Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever.”

In this frame of mind we step before God this day and learn from His infallible Word what He has revealed to us concerning Himself. We remember the saints who have gone before us and answered the question “For what would I be willing to die?”

The Athanasian Creed states that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, and neither confounding the Persons nor divide the Substance. The three Persons in God are separate and different. Each Person is different from each of the others. The Father is not made or born or created, but from eternity. The Son is born or begotten of the Father from eternity. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son from eternity. All three are equally eternal, equal in glory and majesty. The Father is not greater than the Son or the Holy Spirit.That is the Biblical doctrine: one God, three distinct Persons.

“This is the catholic faith, which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.” That is the faith that must not be denied, this is the faith to which you and I have pledged to: “continue steadfast…and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.”

But just 300 years after Christ’s birth it was being denied. A man called Arius preached that Christ was a creation of God, the first of all His creatures to be sure, but a creation nonetheless. He was not of the substance or nature God. [He insisted] ‘There was a time when the Son was not’. The followers of Arius even came up with songs with catchy tunes to promote their heresy with the people.

Back then the majority of Bishops could not abide with this denial of Christ. Many of these same Bishops had suffered in the Roman persecution of Christians around 303 AD. But by 325 AD it was a different day with a different type of Emperor. Emperor Constantine himself convened the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea to try to bring peace to his newly legalized Christian Church.

The Bishops got rather angry with Arius because his teachings were not only unscriptural, but they undermined the confidence we have in Christ. The Bishops questioned Arius and his followers and asked: “If Christ is not God, how can He overcome the infinite gap between God and Man?” “…Jesus had to be truly man, otherwise how could He represent man?” “If Christ was not God, then how could man be saved, for only the infinite and holy God could forgive sin?”

During the Council of Nicea, a bishop stood to speak in favor of Arius’ teachings about Christ, and attempted “to prove logically that Jesus, the Son of God, was a created being.” In response the bishops limped and stumbled to this Arian speaker. Men whose robes covered the scars of their deeply scourged backs, men with gouged-out eyes, men who drug their legs because they had been hamstrung, and men with deformed hands and limbs that had been horribly beaten and burnt because they would not deny their confession of Christ.

Those men…those saints who had heroically suffered under the hands of imperial Rome…those men who would have suffered all, even death, rather than fall away for their confession of Jesus Christ…those men of God lost their patience, grabbed the speech, tore it to shreds, and threw it to the floor. In the face of horrible Government brutality they had not denied Christ. And they would not deny Christ for any so-called ecumenical unity if that unity was to be built on the denial of Jesus, as the Son of God and Savior of humanity. Those crippled scarred veterans of the cross won the day and preserved for us the one “catholic faith, which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”

Yet the deniers of Christ have continually hammered at this confession and faith, and keep hammering away at this faith even today. Sometimes subtly, other times blatantly. Hammer, hammer, hammer. ‘How can you be so arrogant as to say that only those who confess the same as you will be saved?’ Hammer, hammer, hammer. ‘Your Triune God is not logical, for how can God be one and three?’ Hammer, hammer, hammer. How can the man Jesus be the only begotten Son of God who existed always with the Father and Holy Spirit?’ Hammer, hammer, hammer. ‘How could the eternal almighty Son of God be nailed to a cross to die?’

But He was and by faith in Him and in Him alone, you are saved! A mystery, yes; but a secret? NO! This is the very message of God’s Gospel which he has revealed in the Holy Scriptures in these last days as he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe! This is most certainly true!

It will never make any logical sense to our sin-corrupted minds, but the profound mystery of the Christian salvation proclaimed by the Scriptures—and confessed and held by the true Church throughout history—is the faith by which we are saved. We must never depart from this faith at any cost! Apart from this one true faith there is no salvation, but only sin, death and hell!

This true faith calls us to repent of all sin and be saved by the mystery of the salvation conceived, accomplished, and delivered for you and to you by the Triune God. The mystery of the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has been revealed to you and put on you with the water of Holy Baptism—the Baptism which now saves you and unites you with the life, death, resurrection, ascension and impending return of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This true faith calls you to repent of all sin and live out your Christian baptism all your lives long by confessing your sins and receiving Christ’s forgiveness in Holy Absolution—from the pastor as from God himself, just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself. It is Jesus himself who says to you, “I forgive all your sins!

This true faith calls you to repent of all sin and receive ever more of this same forgiveness as often as you eat the holy Body and Blood of Jesus with the bread and wine of his Supper, proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes again.

I pray that you are never called upon to give the ultimate answer to the question “For what are you willing to die?” God grant that you or your children are never called upon to make the ultimate confession of faith in the overshadowing menace of death. But be assured where ever you confess faith in Jesus Christ, you fulfill your pledge, you confess the whole of Christian faith, for it is in Christ Jesus that the God head chose to dwell bodily, it is only in Jesus Christ that God reveals his grace and mercy, and it is through Jesus Christ that the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, has come to you and made you a member of His Church.

Soli Deo Gloria