The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| September 14, 2008
Eph 4:1-6 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.
Legalism is the bane of religion. Man presumes to glorify God by making and enforcing manmade rules. There’s a Yiddish word for that sort of thing. It’s called chutzpah. It is a word that means unmitigated effrontery, impudence, gall, audacity, nerve, well, you get the idea. It takes a lot of chutzpah for the creature to dictate to the Creator how the Creator is going to be worshipped, honored, and obeyed. This is what legalists do. They make the rules. They insist that their rules come from God. But they don’t. God never said it. Saying God said it when God didn’t say it is taking God’s name in vain.
Relying on manmade religious rules makes religious observance a neat and tidy matter. Obey the rules and you’ll do just fine. But God’s law cannot be reduced to a list of rules. The law governs more than outward conduct. It governs the heart. It rules the mind. It lays claim to the will. Manmade religious rules are designed to enable us to fulfill our religious obligations. But they cannot do so. What is the fundamental obligation that God requires of you? You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. No number of rules can cover the duty toward God that the law of love lays upon you. Nor can any number of rules enable you to do your duty. You are to love your neighbor as yourself. No manmade list of rules can possibly include everything this requires of you. No manmade list of rules can establish in your heart true love for your neighbor.
The Ten Commandments summarize the duty to love. The first three commandments teach us how to love God. The next seven commandments teach us how to love our neighbor. How do we love our neighbor? We honor our father and mother; we do not harm our neighbor physically; we live chaste and pure lives; we do not steal or lie or try to deprive our neighbor of what is rightfully his. What kind of attitude is enjoined by these commandments? St. Paul tells us. He writes:
I 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.
There is no love without humility. Divine love cannot be known apart from the incarnation and suffering of the Son of God. The Bible makes this clear. God showed Abraham what God’s love required of God. He showed him in the only way he or any other human being could understand. He required that Abraham sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved. As we know, God did not require Abraham to go through with it. But God did. And so St. John writes, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4, 10) Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” (John 3, 16) St. Paul writes, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5, 8) We cannot know God’s love apart from the humility of Jesus.
We cannot show love to one another apart from the imitation of that humility. Walking worthy of the calling with which we have been called means walking humbly. It means bearing patiently with others. It means putting up with sins, faults, shortcomings, errors, and even and especially those things that annoy us and anger us the most.
Legalism places us all under rules. Rules then become personal weapons by which we fight with each other, raising up ourselves at the expense of others, proving that we are right while they are wrong. Walking the Christian walk is quite the opposite. Instead of serving rules we serve our neighbor. Jesus bore with humility the sins of all people as he suffered and died for the sin of the world. We bear with humility sins that have already been washed away by the blood of Jesus.
This is the Christian walk. It is a walk to which we are called. Every Christian is called by God to walk the Christian walk in this or that specific vocation. A vocation is that to which one is called. Every Christian has his own God-given vocation. Are you a student? This is your vocation. Do what you do as a student in humility, gentleness, and patience. Put up with things people do that you don’t like. Forgive those who do you wrong. Defend and speak well of those who are put down. This is the Christian walk.
Are you a husband and a father? This is your vocation. God called you to be a husband and a father. Treat your wife as Christ treats his holy bride, the Church. Put her needs before your own. Speak gently to her and forgive her her faults. Don’t treat her harshly. That’s not how Christ treats his bride.
Are you a wife and a mother? This is your vocation. God called you to be a wife and mother. Submit to your husband with respect, even as you submit to the Lord Jesus who died for you. Don’t criticize him to others. Be patient with him.
How do we walk as Christians? The walk of the Christian is grounded in the talk of the Church. The apostle writes: “. . . endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Note what he does not say. He does not say that we establish or create or bring about the unity of the Spirit. He says that we keep the unity of the Spirit. The Spirit establishes this unity. We live within it. The Holy Spirit calls us to our various vocations or callings. He does so by means of the gospel. He unites us. While we are powerless to establish or create Christian unity, we are perfectly capable of causing division.
Division is caused by pride. It is pride that refuses to submit to the authority of God’s Word. Pride is not satisfied with the revealed truth but insists on a new wisdom, a new teaching, a new idea. Pride wants to take credit. There is no credit in staying with the pure gospel and sacraments that Jesus entrusted to his Church. There is no credit in remaining faithful to the faithful teaching of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Scriptures. The credit belongs to God alone. But men who want credit, disciples, power, and fame learn that they can gain all these things by coming up with a new and exciting teaching that draws people after them. In this way the unity of the Church is threatened by novel and false teachings promoted by men.
Listen to the Apostle again:
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.
Seven ones: one body; one Spirit; one hope; one Lord; one faith; one baptism; one God. The one body is the Holy Christian Church. The one Spirit is the Holy Spirit who has called the Holy Christian Church together as a Communion of Saints. The one hope is heaven. The one Lord is the Lord Jesus Christ who has purchased the church with his own blood. The one faith is the holy Gospel that the Spirit has revealed and which the Church together confesses faithfully. The one baptism is the washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit by which we are incorporated as members of the Church through faith. The one God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father in heaven to whom we pray by Christ’s own authority.
The Holy Christian Church appears to be divided into numerous sects. It appears to be many different and competing churches. As the hymnist writes,
Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed;
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.
We do not trust appearances. Legalists trust appearances. We are not legalists. We are born again by the Holy Spirit himself. We do not judge by what our eyes can see. We judge spiritually. We judge according to the words of the Holy Spirit, that is, according to the words of the Holy Scriptures. The Bible says that there is one body. It does not say that there are many different churches. There is only one. And this is not a matter of sight. This is a matter of faith. As we confess, “I believe in one holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.” I believe this not because I can see her unity. I believe this because God’s Word tells me it is so.
While we cannot see the unity of the Church we can most certainly recognize it. Wherever the gospel is purely proclaimed and the sacraments of Christ are rightly administered there is the holy Christian Church, united in love without sect, schism, or heresy. This oneness is the Spirit’s gift. He gives the Church what to say. When the Spirit’s words are said there the Church’s unity is on display. The Church’s talk is God’s talk. And where the Church talks this talk, there it is that Christians are empowered to walk the walk.
There is much talk about empowerment these days. Those who have been excluded from political power and social prominence are promised empowerment. Of course, this empowerment usually entails passing laws that will empower more and more people. Give us more power. Pass more laws. This way we will be empowered to empower others.
Not so, for Christ’s Church. Indeed, it is in humility that we find power. It is as we humble ourselves that the Holy Spirit raises us up. He enables us to walk the Christian walk. He places us within the Church. The talk of the Church is talk of Christ’s walk. He walked obediently. He walked vicariously. He walked the walk all the way to the cross where he took upon himself all of our sin. He suffered. By bearing our sin he washed it away. Jesus has the authority on earth to forgive sins. And he does. He forgives sins. The walk of Christ is the talk of Christ’s Church.
And it is our walk. We walk the Christian walk as those forgiven of all our sins. This forgiveness is given to us freely by the Holy Spirit who comforts us. This is the power – this is the only power – to walk the walk worthy of our calling. This will enable us to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Amen