The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 6, 2016
“Our True Mother”
“But the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” Galatians 4:26
Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the third century, famously wrote: “He can no longer have God as his Father, who has not the church for his mother.” He was right. As surely as God is our Father, the church is our mother. God becomes our Father in the same way that the church becomes our mother. The Holy Spirit regenerates us. We must be born again to enter into the kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings about this new birth. He does it without any help from us. He does it by means of the gospel.
The gospel is not a law. Laws depend on the flesh. They depend on our willingness and ability to obey them. The gospel depends on the Holy Spirit. God’s law is summarized in the Ten Commandments. The law tells you what you must do. It doesn’t enable you to do what it says. It doesn’t make you want to do what it says. It commands and it threatens those who disobey. The law promises life, but only to those who obey it. The law can give you only what your flesh can do. What you, of yourself, in your own flesh, cannot do, the law cannot do for you. The law’s promises depend on your obedience.
Let me illustrate. My wife and I raised a dozen children. I learned something. I learned that just because I told one of my children to do something didn’t mean it would be done. Don’t get me wrong. My word had authority. I am Dad, after all, and what Dad says goes. But my word didn’t have the power to get the job done. I tell him to do it and he forgets, or he begins to do it and gets distracted, or he decides there’s something else he needs to do first and never gets around to it, or – well, you know how it goes. The law doesn’t necessarily work. I tell one of the boys to take out the garbage. Does it get taken out? I don’t know.
With the gospel, you know. God promises it and it is done. God says to Abraham that his wife Sarah will have a baby in her old age. She laughs. Impossible! But God promised it and so it happened. God told Mary she would have a Son even though she was a virgin. She said, “Let it be unto me according to your word.” It was. It was done according to God’s word. Faith doesn’t make the promise true. Consider Sarah. She didn’t believe until she felt the baby moving inside of her. God’s promise succeeds because it depends on his faithfulness, not ours.
The church is our mother because God has entrusted her with the promise. He didn’t give it to the civil authorities. Politicians spend millions of dollars to persuade people that they are the best thing since sliced bread, but the power on which they depend is no more powerful than what the flesh can do. It depends on the obedience of the people, and that’s never particularly reliable. Politicians promise what they think they can do, but since their only power is the law and the law’s power depends on sinful, fallible, forgetful, and weak people, their promises are only conditional, that is to say, uncertain.
The church is our mother because she has the gospel. The gospel’s promises are sure and certain. The law depends on us. That’s why it cannot rescue us from our sins. The gospel depends on the Holy Spirit. That’s why it can and does rescue us from our sins. The gospel creates spiritual life, not by making demands on us or by threatening us. The gospel makes no demands and issues no threats. It is the power of God to save everyone who believes it. The gospel is the good news about Christ’s obedience, suffering, death, and resurrection from the dead. The gospel is the message of forgiveness. It is the teaching of God that opens heaven to faith. We don’t get to heaven through our own struggles, efforts, satisfactions, prayers, or any other kind of work that we do. We receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life through faith alone in Christ our Mediator and Redeemer. This is what the gospel tells us.
The gospel belongs to the church. The gospel gives us new life. Therefore, the church is our mother. Listen to how we confess this precious truth in the Large Catechism, one of the confessions of our church:
The gospel, the Holy Spirit, and the church go together. The church is our mother. She is not a legislative body. Christ did not give his church the authority to pass laws that Christians are bound to obey. Jesus tells his ministers to teach everything that he has commanded. He doesn’t say that he will command something new in the years to come. The Epistle to the Hebrews begins with these words:
God has spoken. He has entrusted his holy Word to holy mother church. What is written in the Holy Scriptures is the standard, the only standard, by which the church is to judge what she teaches. Jesus has said what he has to say. He has nothing more to say than what he has said. Christ gave no authority to the church to teach anything, to require anything, to insist on anything beyond what is written in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. The church is to teach God’s law without compromise. Since it doesn’t change from year to year the church may not change her teaching. It is God’s. The church may not get with the times. The heart of her teaching has always been and will always be the gospel of the forgiveness of sins that delivers us from the curse of the law and opens heaven to all who believe it.
The treasure of the church is this gospel and Christ’s holy sacraments. Baptism washes us in the blood of the Lamb and makes our robes white with Christ’s innocence. In Holy Baptism we are born from above by water and Spirit, as Jesus said to Nicodemus. Since Holy Baptism belongs to the church, she is our true mother.
The Lord’s Supper belongs to the church. It is Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for us, for the forgiveness of sins. It is the feast of salvation. The church is the ark of salvation. There is no salvation outside the church because Christ has entrusted the preaching of his gospel and the administration of his sacraments to the church, to the whole church, and to the church alone. This is what makes the church our mother. Her maternal churchly authority is the authority of Christ himself, the authority on earth to forgive sins. Listen to what Luther says about the church as our mother. He writes:
Ishmael was older than Isaac. Islam claims that Ishmael was Abraham’s legitimate heir. They rely on the law, but the law’s power is limited to what the flesh can do. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Only those born according to the promise, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are legitimate heirs of God’s inheritance. You don’t work for the treasures of God’s kingdom; he gives them freely, by his grace, for Christ’s sake. You receive them through faith and through faith alone.
Ishmael is not heir. Isaac is. Hagar is not the rightful mother. Sarah is. Sarah’s son was born by God’s promise against the laws of nature and the ability of the flesh. She was barren. She was many years past menopause. God promised and she conceived. Isaac was born by the promise. The promise of the gospel doesn’t depend on our power. It depends on God’s faithfulness.
So it is for the church. She looks old and withered and infertile. See how her numbers are declining. Surely, we need to get with the times and amend our message to be more palatable to today’s religious seekers! Well yes, if we depended on the flesh! If we depended on the flesh, we would make our message appeal to the flesh. And we would no longer be the church. We are born of the Spirit. We are like Isaac. It was impossible, but God did it. We were dead, blind, and hostile to God – and God graciously brought us out of death to life. He did so by means of the gospel promise. This is why the church, if she is to be the church, must preserve the gospel pure from adulteration.
The church is the Jerusalem that is above. She has the gospel authority of the Holy Spirit. She has the authority of Sinai, but doesn’t rely on it to give birth. Legal authority can do only what the flesh can do. The law can only accuse, judge, and condemn. That’s not what our mother does. Her authority is to set free. The Jerusalem that is above is free. She is our mother. Her freedom is our freedom. It’s the freedom of the gospel.
Freedom means we don’t live under judgment. God doesn’t judge us and we don’t judge one another. God himself has forgiven us and reckoned to us the righteousness of Jesus. We live under God’s grace as saints. Freedom means we are forgiven of all our sins. It means we belong to God’s family. We are not outsiders looking in. We belong. We share in the family’s wealth. God is our Father. The church is our mother. We are children of God.
Rolf D. Preus