Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2001| Rev. Rolf Preus
“But the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.”
We Lutherans aren’t used to calling the church our mother. We call God our Father, but we hesitate to call the church our mother. But we may not have God as our Father if we will not have the church as our mother. This is an important truth that folks ignore to their own peril. Jesus, however, has made it crystal clear. He has bound his gracious presence to his Christian church here on earth. If you will have nothing to do with her, you have nothing to do with Jesus Christ, her head.
God is not our mother. He is our Father. Modern feminism is nothing less than old-fashioned paganism when it suggests that we may address God as our mother. This is a thoroughly unchristian opinion. Nowhere in all the Scriptures is God ever referred to as our mother. The worship of a goddess is idolatry.
This is not to say that God is a male as a male human being is male. God is a spirit and he doesn’t have body parts, so he cannot be thought of as male in opposition to female. But God is Father, not mother. The Bible makes this clear. The Father begets the Son from all eternity and there is no mother involved. God the Father does not become the Father of the Son. He is eternally the Father, even as the Son is eternally the Son. We confess in the Catechism about Jesus that he is “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity,” and in the Nicene Creed we confess about him that he was “begotten of the Father before all worlds.” God the Father has always been God the Father. He did not become God the Father by begetting the Son, because the Son has always been the Son of the Father.
The Bible does not call God Father in order to compare him with human fathers. No, God is Father, even as God is the Son of the Father and God is the Holy Spirit.
There is a difference between a human father and mother. It is a difference that is grounded in our creation. God made us in his image and he made us male and female. A male is capable of being a father and a female is capable of being a mother. A male cannot be a mother and a female cannot be a father. The two are not interchangeable. The Bible doesn’t talk about parents. It talks about fathers and mothers. There is a difference.
A father gives his name to the mother. The mother receives the father’s name. The father fathers a child. He begets a child. The mother cannot father a child. She cannot beget a child. She receives the seed from the father and she bears a child. She then nurtures the child she bears. She receives; she doesn’t give. Without the seed of the father, she couldn’t be the mother. But no father worth the name will abandon the mother of his children, and certainly no father will permit his own children to disregard their mother, to despise her, to ignore her, to pretend that she doesn’t exist or that they don’t need her.
If God is to be our Father, the church must be our mother. When Jesus bought us with his own blood on the cross, he also purchased the means by which we would be born from above. You may recall how he told Nicodemus that he had to be born again, or born from above, if he wanted to enter into the kingdom of God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” Jesus reminded him. A new birth, a spiritual birth, a rebirth from above, a birth engendered by the Holy Spirit was necessary for anyone to find the kingdom of God. This is what Jesus said to Nicodemus. “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit,” Jesus said, “he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Now I ask you, to whom did Jesus give this washing? To whom did Jesus entrust the sacrament of Holy Baptism through which the Holy Spirit gives us the new birth, the heavenly birth, the rebirth to eternal life? He entrusted it to his holy church.
In our Gospel Lesson for today we see how Jesus, just before the celebration of the Passover, also called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, miraculously feeds five thousand men, not counting women and children. As we read through the rest of this chapter we see our Lord using this miracle to teach that he is the manna come down from heaven and that his flesh and blood are the true food that faith feeds upon. He says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51) To whom has Jesus entrusted the preaching of his gospel? He has entrusted it to the church. To whom has he entrusted the Sacrament of his body and blood? He has entrusted it to his church.
What makes the church our mother? What she has received makes her our mother. She has received the means by which God becomes our Father. That is, she has the pure gospel and the life-giving sacraments of Christ.
The church has God’s law and she has God’s promises as well. By means of the law we learn to see that we are enslaved by our sins. The law cannot make us free. The law can only show us that we are slaves. It can do nothing toward gaining our freedom. This is because the law’s purpose is to be obeyed, and if you don’t obey the law, it can only condemn you for your failure. Those who rely on the law rely on themselves because the law is to be obeyed.
So when we say that the church has God’s law we are not saying that this is what makes her our mother. After all, the state also has God’s law. The state has the power of God’s sword to punish the bad guys, to defend with deadly power if necessary those who obey the law from those who would commit crimes against their neighbor. But the state is surely not our mother.
But the church is. And that is because she has the gospel given to her. In fact, this is how you can recognize her as being the church. It is because she has God’s promise. Hagar had the son and Sarah was barren. The law said that the firstborn son would become the heir and Ishmael, Hagar’s son, was the firstborn. What did Sarah have? She had neither a son nor the law. She had nothing but God’s promise that she would have a son and that from his line the Savior of sinners would one day be born. She had the promise and that’s all she had.
And so Hagar persecuted Sarah. She stuck her nose up in the air and acted superior to Sarah. Sarah, you are a dried up old fool! You can’t even bear a son, but I can and I did and so I will have the honor, and you won’t have anything. I will have Abraham’s name and identity because I have a flesh and blood boy while you have nothing at all. You have a promise, a dead, cold, empty doctrine that is clearly untrue.
Well look at what happened! Hagar was thrown out! She was nothing but a slave! She had no right to Abraham’s name. She had no right to the name “church” even though she claimed it. No, the church is the mother of those who trust in the promise. The church is the mother of every Christian because to her has been given the promise.
It is easy to confuse the church with an outward organization with great wealth, beauty, power, and size. In fact, those who are most likely to call the church their mother are also most likely to confuse the church with an external hierarchical structure that makes all sorts of bold claims about being the church that Jesus established. But Jesus established his church on earth by giving to her the pure gospel and his holy sacraments. He didn’t give her the authority to legislate. Just as Jesus is not a new Moses, the church has no authority to pass laws of any kind. The church has rather received from her Lord the authority of the gospel, and that is the power to set people free. The gospel gives Jesus to sinners where they need him. The gospel tells sinners that Jesus has suffered for them and that for his sake God forgives them all their sins. The gospel doesn’t make any demands, it gives forgiveness to cover sin and it gives life in the face of death. The gospel promises the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
We need the church because she alone has the promise of the gospel. Now you don’t need River Heights Lutheran Church and you don’t need Pastor Preus. That’s true. But you need the church because you need to hear the gospel. You need the washing and you need the Holy Supper. You need to receive Jesus, not just once, but continually. This is why you need the church. Jesus cannot be found apart from his church.
The fact that God is our Father and the church is our mother means that it is wrong to put a woman into the pulpit as a preacher. The preacher or minister is to represent Christ, and Christ chose only men to represent him as ministers. Jesus also made it crystal clear through St. Paul (in 1 Corinthians 14 and in 1 Timothy 2) that God does not call women into the office of the public ministry. God doesn’t call women to do what he forbids them to do. And there is a reason why God did not choose women to exercise the pastoral office. God is Father and church is mother. That’s the reason. The mother receives what the father gives. This is the way of God. The church receives God’s holy word and by that word she is born to become the bearer of many children. It is through the word the church has received that the church can bear and nourish children, as many children as the sands of the desert and the stars in the sky. It was not long after churches disobeyed God by putting women in the pulpit that they started such heretical practices as calling God “our mother.” But God is not our mother. He is our Father, and the church is our mother.
You need your mother, the church. You need what Christ has given to her. You sin. You damage yourself by your sin. You hate. You envy and covet and lust. You break God’s commandments every single day. You soil yourself and make yourself dirty inside and out. You cannot clean up your own life. You need your mother. She has the cleansing blood of Jesus. She has the purifying power of the Holy Spirit. The preachers are given to her, even as the Christ they preach is bound in unbreakable love to her. She is the mystical body of Christ. Apart from her there is no salvation because Jesus has bound himself to her and to her alone to the end of time.
I have heard and you have heard folks claim that they can have a good relationship with Jesus without going to church. They use the expression “organized” religion as if their own disorganized version is better. But they simply betray their own ignorance of Jesus. Jesus died, rose from the dead, and instituted his holy church and ministry as the first order of business.
The same Jesus who bore our sins on Calvary to take them all away is the Jesus who gives us in his church the treasures he purchased for us on the cross. It was on the cross that Jesus offered his life up to God. There in that most holy sacrifice, Jesus forever silenced the accusations of God’s law against us that condemned us and that drove us away from God. There as he was lifted up, he made peace between God and us by getting rid of our sin, washing it away by his holy, precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death. That is what he did on the cross.
But he did not give any of this to us on the cross. He won the treasure for us then and there, but he gives us the treasure here and now, namely in and through his church. She has the blood of Jesus that silenced God’s wrath against sinners, and she has the promises of God that set sinners free. She is the heavenly Jerusalem because she is in holy communion with our Father in heaven through her mystical union with his only begotten Son. She is free and she has freedom to give. So we stay with holy mother church and we remain the free children of God. Amen.