The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
September 23, 2018
“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
How do you get Christians to act like Christians? You can use threats. Frighten them into doing what they should do. You can use bribes. Promise them God will make them healthy and wealthy. You can manipulate them with guilt. Then they’ll know that to get rid of their guilt all they need to do is to start acting like Christians!
But there’s nothing we can do to get rid of our guilt, God doesn’t bribe anybody, and while God threatens to punish those who disobey him, he does not threaten anyone into the faith.
The way to get Christians to act like Christians, to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called,” as St. Paul puts it in our text, is to appeal to the pure and wholesome doctrine of God’s word. Give them the pure teaching of God.
I know this goes against popular religious opinion in our country and community. It is a truism in American religion that our creeds are not as important as our deeds. Believe what you want. That’s between you and God anyway. But live a decent life, a moral life, a godly life and that will matter much more than whatever doctrine you confess to be true. This is a truism. But it is false.
Doctrine is more important than life. Here’s why. In order for us to walk worthy of the calling with which we were called we must first be called. Do you want to be lowly and gentle? Do you want to learn patience? Do you want to know how to bear with the weaknesses of others, making brotherly love the pattern of your behavior? If you sincerely want to live the life of a Christian that God gave you to live when he baptized you and put his name upon you, you need to be taught by God. Jesus told his disciples to teach those they baptized. It’s not as if you are called by God to live a Christian life only to be ignored and left to your own devises. You need to learn God’s teaching. The word doctrine means teaching. You need to know the divine doctrine, the pure doctrine, the wholesome and life-giving doctrine. God’s doctrine is not the doctrine of the world.
Let’s talk about Christian unity. One is not the loneliest number. One is the most comforting number. God the Father is one. Jesus is one. The Holy Spirit is one. These three persons are not three Gods, but one God. There is one church, one body. The world with scornful wonder may see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, but the world doesn’t see the church as she is. She isn’t rent by schisms. She is one. She is united by one hope. There is only one heaven. All Christians and only Christians go to heaven. There is one faith. There are not multiple faiths, with everyone choosing for himself what to believe. The holy Christian Church is united in one faith. There is one baptism. There is not one baptism with water and another baptism in the Holy Spirit. The baptism with water is the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Jesus joined water to the Holy Spirit. What God has joined together, let not man put asunder! The baptism with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is the only baptism the church has.
The unity of God is invisible. We cannot see it. But it is taught clearly in the Bible. So we believe it and confess it in our creeds. The unity of the church is likewise invisible. We cannot see it. But it is clearly taught in the Bible. So we believe it and confess it. Martin Luther’s Large Catechism is one of the confessions of our church. We confess that it is fully in agreement with the Bible, the written word of God. Listen to what the Large Catechism says about the unity of the church.
This is a wonderful confession! It confesses, not what the world sees, but what God says. God says the church is one. Jesus prayed to his Father, “That they may all be one.” (Jn. 17:21) We confess in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one holy, Christian, and apostolic church.” I believe. This is a matter of faith, not of sight. “There is one body.” So says St. Paul. He goes on to say there is one Spirit. The one Spirit creates the one body. He does so by calling every individual Christian by the same baptism to the same hope. And he unites all Christians in the same truth, the same faith.
Which faith is that? How do we determine what the one faith that all Christians share is? Do we consult manmade organizations, examine what the various manmade church bodies say, find the lowest common denominator, and then present this watered down generic Christianity as the one true faith that unites all Christians? God forbid! This is taking God’s name in vain.
No, the one true faith, the faith that unites all Christians, is the faith we confess right here in our congregation. We don’t subscribe to Luther’s Small Catechism, the Augsburg Confession, and the rest of the Lutheran Confessions out of loyalty to the memory of Martin Luther, or to honor our parents or grandparents, or to choose that brand of Christianity with which we are most comfortable. No, we confess what we confess in the Lutheran Confessions because these confessions confess what Jude calls in his Epistle: “The faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
“How can you claim such a thing? How can you know? Surely, you can only say that this is what we believe, but what we believe is not necessarily what God says!” Is that so? We cannot know what God says? We cannot be sure that our doctrine is God’s doctrine? We cannot insist that the faith we confess is the truth God reveals? Jesus said,
Do you want to know why Christians fail to walk worthy of the calling with which they were called? Do you want to know why they exalt themselves above their brothers and sisters instead of humbling themselves as Jesus did? Why they are impatient and judgmental? Why they refuse to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? It’s because they despise God’s pure teaching. They think they are being humble by insisting that they cannot be sure their doctrine is true. But if God taught it, they have no right to concede it may not actually be true. That’s not humility.
When it comes to our doctrine we may not grant that it could be wrong. What we believe, teach, and confess as written in the Lutheran Confessions is taken from God’s clear word. We will not grant that God has not taught the truth. This is why we should immerse ourselves in it. We should not only go to church on Sunday, paying close attention to everything in the Divine Service and taking it to heart, but we should read our Bibles at home, attend Bible classes, discuss what God teaches with one another, and place his pure teaching at the very center of our lives. And what comes from doing this?
From this come a lowly spirit, gentleness, patience, and Christian love. Do you want to enjoy the bond of peace with your brothers and sisters in Christ? Go to the source! Jesus said,
A yoke binds you. You are coerced against your will. You are controlled. That’s how children are governed. They must be given external discipline until they learn to discipline themselves, and as we know, some children never grow up.
Jesus says, “Learn from me.” His yoke is easy. It is no burden. He doesn’t force us. He dies for us. He removes from us the burden we bear by bearing it for us. Our sins that flowed out of our sense of self-importance, our pride and arrogance, our impatience and judgmental attitudes – these sins were borne by Jesus. By his humble suffering he took those sins away. He forgave them. He forgave them freely by his own bitter suffering and death. The one Father sent the one Lord Jesus whose one Spirit called us to one hope by one baptism. This Spirit also unites us in one body, one church, and confirms us in the one faith.
How do you get Christians to act like Christians? Give them what makes them Christians. This is why we teach God’s word. This is why we learn the teaching of God’s word and cherish it, and regard the pure doctrine as more precious than money, comfort, status, or any other created thing. God’s word is eternal. It unites us in the true faith and binds us together as one body. It breaks down our pride. When we acknowledge our sins of pride, impatience, and lovelessness, the Spirit who has called us in baptism washes us in that washing once more, making our robes white in the blood of the Lamb. By teaching us that we are saints, he enables us to act like saints.
Rolf D. Preus