The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
September 27, 2015
“The True Unity of the Church”
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Ephesians 4:1-6
Whenever the pope visits America it’s a big deal. He is, after all, one of the most famous men in the world. The men who hold the papal office come and go, but the papacy as an institution remains. Whoever the pope happens to be is going to be a celebrity.
The pope’s church claims that he is the head of the whole Christian church on earth and that to be a faithful Christian one must submit to the pope’s authority. Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
The pope is regarded as a symbol of Christian unity. Christian unity is our topic this morning. St. Paul addresses it in today’s Epistle Lesson. There are seven ones: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all. Seven ones mentioned, and the pope is not among them.
Jesus did not establish the office of the papacy. He made Peter equal to the other apostles. All Christian pastors are equal in authority because the only authority the pastor has is the authority of God’s Word. Jesus alone is the pastor of the whole Christian church. He is the Good Pastor who gave his life for the sheep. The unity of the one body is created by the one Spirit who calls all Christians to one hope. The one Lord Jesus Christ belongs to all who share the one faith that is engendered by the one baptism that makes us children of the one God and Father. The unity of Christ’s church is a unity in the gospel.
The pope’s church turns the gospel into law and then seeks unity based on the law. It’s a unity based on obedience to the church’s rules and submission to the church hierarchy headed by the pope at Rome. That’s a man-man unity. The true unity of the Holy Spirit is a gift from God. God creates it by freely forgiving us all our sins for Christ’s sake and giving us the credit for Christ’s obedience all the way to the cross.
The papacy is not a sign of Christian unity. It is a source of ongoing division. The pope rejected the faithful confession of the gospel at Augsburg in 1529. Here is what we confessed at Augsburg:
The pope and his church insist that we are justified by becoming inwardly just. But if that were the case, nobody could be justified before God. Our sin is too deep and too vicious. It permeates us all. As long as we are living in these bodies we will be sinners. If the righteousness by which God justifies us lies within us, we haven’t got a prayer of making it to heaven. Only the just can enter heaven. If we aren’t righteous, we must go to hell. The pope’s doctrine locks us all out of heaven, depriving us of the only righteousness that truly avails before the righteous God. The only way we can become righteous before God is by God reckoning to us as righteousness the obedience and suffering of Jesus. His obedience and suffering are perfect. That is our righteousness.
But who cares? Who cares about the righteousness by which sinners are made into saints? Who cares about the gift of eternal life earned for us all by the perfect obedience and vicarious suffering of Jesus? That the pope would deny this righteousness and replace it with a different way to heaven, a way that doesn’t lead to heaven, is ignored. The theologically illiterate talking heads on television that have celebrated his visit to America the way adolescents celebrate the arrival of the latest pop star ignore it. Religious and political leaders who want to bask in a bit of borrowed glory from this religious superstar ignore it. That everyone is a sinner in need of a gracious God, guilty of loveless acts against God’s holy law, guilty in thought word and deed of sins that keep them out of fellowship with God, out of heaven, and doomed to eternal punishment in hell . . . well, who believes that anymore? Instead, let’s focus on such pressing matters as climate change, income inequality, immigration, and various economic issues. As the pope pontificates on politics nobody seems to notice that in his speech before the joint session of Congress, the so called Vicar of Christ said not one word about Jesus Christ, or what he has done to save us sinners from our sins.
The unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is impossible apart from God forgiving our sins, blotting them out, and covering us with the robe of Christ’s perfect righteousness. The righteousness by which sinners become saints is hidden from sight. So is the church’s unity, her beauty, indeed, her very existence. Self-justifying moralists cannot understand this. Those who believe that they gain God’s approval and goodwill by doing this or obeying that have an exaggerated sense of their own spiritual prowess. They think too highly of themselves. Their notion of humility is packaged, staged, and choreographed. St. Paul writes:
Note the virtues he mentions: lowliness, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love. These are virtues of humility. These virtues are the natural fruit in the lives of those who are justified by faith alone. They know that their own righteousness does not pass the test of God’s law and that if God were to regard them according to their inner purity he would condemn them as sinners who are unworthy to stand before him. They also know that God, for Christ’s sake, justifies them, washing away their sins by Jesus’ blood. This truth defines how they see themselves and others.
They don’t latch on to status or honors or recognition. They have something much more precious. They have the forgiveness of sins. This is what they want others to have as well. Only sinners who acknowledge their sins can receive the forgiveness of sins through faith. Christians know this. The life of a Christian is a life of humility, gentleness, and patience because the life of the Christian is lived under the shelter of God’s grace in Christ. Only those who live under this unmerited forgiveness of sins, enriched by a spiritual treasure they will never deserve, can live lives of genuine lowliness and patience. They already have everything they could possibly desire. They don’t need to grasp for honor at the expense of their brothers and sisters.
Pride is the source of division. Pride is the sin of Adam and Eve. In their pride they replaced God’s Word with what appealed to their own senses. Listen to God’s Word. There is one body. Pride is not content with being a part of the one body. It wants special consideration. Me first! No, listen to me! The body can wait. In pride, a part of the body assumes preeminence over the whole body.
There is one Spirit. Pride wants its own notions to be regarded as more spiritual than what the Holy Spirit reveals in the Bible. Pride parrots the slogan, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual,” and ignores what the one Spirit, the Spirit of truth teaches about spirituality in the book he wrote.
There is one hope of the Christian’s calling. Pride insists on having its way here and now instead of leaving vindication to the God who has prepared for us an inheritance in heaven. Pride isn’t content with the one hope. It wants what it wants and it wants it now.
There is one Lord. The eternal Word became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Pride cannot understand how God can become a man, denies what he cannot understand, and produces heresy. From the ancient heretic Arius to the modern Jehovah’s Witnesses – pride denies the true deity of Christ, denying the one Lord who bought them.
There is one faith: the true and unadulterated Christian truth revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Pride places its own reason and experiences above God’s clear teaching in the Bible, questioning the divinely revealed truth at will. Pride won’t submit to God’s Word but insists on standing in judgment of it. Pride forces the faith into a faithless mold. It despises the heart of the Bible’s teaching that we sinners cannot do anything to help God save us, but are rescued from our sin and forgiven solely by the grace of God through faith in Jesus the Savior.
There is one baptism. Pride wants to control the Spirit and fly up to heaven by its own spiritual powers. So it severs the Holy Spirit from Holy Baptism. Pride denigrates the baptism Jesus gave us, calling it “water baptism” as if it’s only a symbolic washing with water, and claims that a Spirit baptism is far superior. But God’s Word says that there is only one baptism. The baptism with water is the baptism with the Spirit.
There is one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Pride objects, and finds some other God than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and follows him. Pride makes its own gods.
Christ’s apostle tells us to walk a Christian walk worthy of the calling with which we have been called. Bury your pride in the waters of your baptism, where you died and rose from the dead. Don’t consider yourself to be any better than your brothers and sisters. Carry their burdens. Put up with them. Forgive them as you have been forgiven. Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace by confessing with your brothers and sisters the truth that sets us free.
The truth unites us. The unity of the church is a gift of God that he establishes through his truth that he teaches us. Church politicians try to establish the church’s unity by politicking. Clever theologians try to establish the church’s unity by getting truth to agree with error. God establishes the true unity of the church by his truth. So we preach it, teach it, confess it, and shut our ears to the voices of those who deny it. We are sheep of the Good Shepherd and we hear his voice. The voice that gives us eternal life will also unite us as one body.
Rolf D. Preus