Text: John 17:20-26 [Seventh Sunday of Easter]
Forty-one-thousand. That is the number of Christian denominations around the world today. 41,000! That doesn’t even include all the independent, non-denominational congregations that have no affiliation with anyone but themselves. 41,000 is the number of pieces in the puzzle that makes up the Christian church (see endnote). Are all those pieces united? No! The majority of those pieces are not united or affiliated with anyone, although the majority of Christians are in affiliated groups.
What is wrong with this picture? What is wrong is that Jesus wanted his church to be united! Look at our Gospel lesson this Sunday. Jesus prays to his Father in heaven and says: “I do not ask for these [twelve apostles] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you . . . that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:20 & 23).
The Christian church has not only been afflicted by heresies, it has also been affected by major schisms that have caused the denominational divisions we have today. The first major schism occurred in the fifth century, when some churches refused to accept the doctrinal decisions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. These churches still exist in modern-day Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, India, and Armenia.
The second major schism occurred in 1054 A.D., when the Pope’s personal legate excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, and then the Patriarch excommunicated the papal delegation in return. The churches affiliated with the Patriarch are now known as Eastern Orthodox churches, with about forty denominations globally. The churches affiliated with the Pope are now know as Roman Catholic churches. This is made up of the Western Catholic church, by far the largest church denomination in America, and twenty-two Eastern Catholic churches.
In the sixteenth century, an Augustinian friar called Martin Luther questioned the authority of the Pope in Rome. His questions started the Protestant Reformation, the third major schism in the church. Most of the 41,000 denominations in the world today claim to be Protestant, of one type or another. The Pope and his court told Luther that his ideas and his layman’s Bible would produce endless divisions in the church–and they were right!
Most of you know from personal experience that the division of the Christian church into so many pieces is not merely a matter of historical interest. In many cases, the division of the church has led to division in your families. Some of you have children or grandchildren who were raised in the Lutheran church, but they departed from our faith–and you haven’t been able to talk about religion since. Some of you have children or grandchildren who stayed in this faith, but they married someone outside of the Lutheran church–and there have been family conflicts ever since over religion. Some of you are married to non-Lutherans and you know that you had to make your peace in some way, or there would be constant conflict at home–which is no good for any family!
It is obvious from our Gospel that Jesus wanted all believers to be one. Isn’t there someway that someone can fix all the divisions in the church? The problem is not that there aren’t ways to remove the divisions. The problem is that people can’t agree on how to do that.
The first idea was to join all the churches into one monarchical organization. Already in the 16th century, the pope said, in so many words, “Come home to Rome!” In other words, if everyone would just acknowledge the authority of the pope to speak infallibly on behalf of Christ as His vicar, and to make all important decisions regarding faith, doctrine, and morals, then the church could be united. The problem with this is that the popes have contradicted the Bible in countless areas, so you must choose between the pope and the Bible–you can’t honestly agree with both at the same time.
The second idea was to go back to the church’s historic roots. In the 17th century, a Lutheran theologian named Georg Calixtus (1586-1656) proposed that the entire Christian church could be unified in his day under the doctrinal consensus of the first five centuries. His ideas had some effect in Germany in the merger of Protestants, which many of the princes favored. But the Lutheran church soon realized that there was no doctrinal consensus in the first five centuries, that Calixtus’ ideas resulted in a watered-down Gospel, and that only the New Testament writers had a consensus among themselves due to the inspiration of one author–the Holy Spirit!
The third idea was to simply get rid of denominational differences. In the early 19th century, a religious revival occurred at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, which is northeast of Lexington about fifteen miles. Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians all participated together, in spite of their denominational differences. The Restoration Movement that began at Cane Ridge wanted to erase denominational differences, but the result were new denominations, such as the “Christian churches,” Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Churches of Christ. Modern Evangelicalism and non-denominationalism is the modern-day product of the Cane Ridge revivals.
The fourth idea was to join all churches into one democratic organization with delegates from each denomination. In the early 20th century, many churches joined this Ecumenical Movement and its World Council of Churches with the hope that it would produce social unity, social justice, and world peace. Many churches merged, while others recognized each other as being in altar and pulpit “fellowship.” The recent advocacy of these same churches for gay marriage and gay clergy has caused many people to have second thoughts about the Ecumenical Movement. They say that it had great ideas, but somehow the wrong people took control of the operation.
The fifth idea is the old Lutheran one, found in Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession, which reads: “It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever.” Notice that the Lutheran Church confesses that the Christian church is already one, it doesn’t need to become one. It gets this idea from the Nicene Creed which states: “I believe in one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.”
The Augsburg Confession continues:
This [one, holy Christian church] is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a true understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. (AC VII; Tappert, 32).
The word “Gospel” here means the “New Testament.”
Therefore wherever preaching, teaching, and the Sacraments are in agreement with the doctrine found in the New Testament, there you will find a true Christian church. All such churches, wherever they exist or whatever their name, will find that they have true spiritual unity with each other, because they agree with the words of the Holy Spirit found in Scripture. This is what Saint Paul meant when he wrote: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, on God, and Father of us all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
May you always seek this true church and remain faithful to it, so that Jesus’ prayer in our Gospel will become true in your life also. In Jesus’ name. Amen.