The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
September 18, 2016
“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
Fifty years ago folk music was all the rage. It found its way into the church. As Bob Dylan sang about how the times they are a-changing, telling parents that their sons and daughters were beyond their command, parents of baby-boomers sought new ways to relate to their spoiled children, one of which was to package the Christian religion in contemporary popular music. One of the most popular religious songs of the sixties was written by a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Peter Scholtes. It was called “We Are One in the Spirit.” The refrain went like this:
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
By our love,
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
It was sung at youth gatherings, around campfires, and even became standard fare in the worship of grownups in many Catholic and Protestant congregations.
The songs we sing teach the faith we confess. The song, “We Are One in the Spirit” confessed the faith of the ecumenical movement. The ecumenical movement is an attempt on the part of representatives of many different church bodies around the world to bring about the unity of the church. They look at the church today and they see division. They see the church divided up into many competing sects. They point to how Jesus prayed for the unity of his church, but they cannot see this unity. They see division. They believe this is a scandal. So they get together to try to overcome their differences and present a united Christian front to the world.
What would that united Christian front look like? What kind of a message should a united Christian church be presenting to this world? A verse from this song gives us an idea:
We will work with each other;
We will work side by side.
We will work with each other;
We will work side by side.
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity
And save each man’s pride.
Did you hear that? We will save each man’s pride. What does Jesus say? He says,
For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Pride is the problem; not the solution. The effort to manufacture a visible unity of the church is invariably wedded to a distortion of the faith of the church. And it is pride – sinful, self-exalting pride – that lies at the heart of every false teaching that would divide people away from the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.
God’s word teaches that the church is already united. Listen once more to the inspired words from today’s Epistle Lesson:
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.
There is one body. That’s what the Bible says. There is one body because there is one Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life. He creates the church. He doesn’t create many different churches, each with its own hope, its own Lord, its own faith, and its own baptism. He is the Spirit of truth. He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies one church on this earth.
You cannot see the unity of the church. Does this mean it is not united? Can you see the Holy Spirit? All Christians share the hope of eternal life in heaven where the suffering, sin, and death of this world will be gone forever. Have you ever seen heaven? All Christians confess the same Lord Jesus Christ. I have never seen Jesus. Have you? We have seen baptism. But we haven’t seen the rebirth that baptism brings about. This is hidden from sight as is God the Father who is above all, through all, and in us all.
Why must we insist on seeing the unity of the church?
No one has ever seen God. Jesus said so. Yet he is above all, through all, and in us all. St. Paul said to the men of Athens, “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being.” The Psalmist declares that it is a fool who says that there is no god. Yet nobody has ever seen him. Neither can we see the church, her unity, her holiness, her glory, and her power.
But we can most certainly recognize where the church is and where she is not. Listen to what we confess about the church, based on our text for today, in the Augsburg Confession:
Our churches also teach that one holy church is to continue forever. The church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions or rites and ceremonies, instituted by men, should be alike everywhere. It is as Paul says, “One faith one baptism, one God and Father of all,” etc. Ephesians 4:5-6
The church is hidden from sight because it is through faith alone that we belong to the church. The church is the sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd. They believe what he says and they follow him. He gives them eternal life. They shall never perish and no one can snatch them out of his hand. We cannot discern faith in another. Only God can. But we can know whether the Holy Spirit is present to call Christians to faith. He is present in the pure gospel. He is present in the rightly administered sacraments.
Let us take a closer look at the text before us today. St. Paul has a list of seven ones. Three of these ones refer to the three persons of the Holy Trinity. There is one Spirit. There is one Lord, that is, one Lord Jesus. There is one God and Father. God is one. The three distinct persons are not three different gods. There is one God and only one God as God’s people during the Old Testament confessed, “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one!” We confess in the Athanasian Creed:
We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity,
Neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance
From the unity of God comes the unity of the church. There is one body – one holy Christian and apostolic church. There is one hope – one heaven. There is one faith – one pure, biblical gospel. There is one baptism – as we confess in the Nicene Creed, “I acknowledge one baptism, for the remission of sins.”
There is but one faith. It is perfectly true that many Christians make a poor confession of it. No one can deny that! The church has been plagued by false teachers ever since the beginning. We must constantly be on our guard against teachings opposed to the one faith. St. Jude writes in the third verse of his Epistle:
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
This is a serious business. We confess the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints in the creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. We confess the faith that was once for all delivered to the saint in our confessions: in the Augsburg Confession, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Smalcald Articles including the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and in the Formula of Concord. Far from being dead and dusty historical documents, these confessions are the living voice of Christ’s church on earth. They don’t belong just to us Lutherans. They belong to the whole church and are the confession of the whole church because they are grounded in and faithfully confess the one faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
There is but one baptism. There isn’t a baptism of water on the one hand and a baptism of the Spirit on the other. No, the baptism of water is the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The unity we enjoy isn’t something we create. It is something we hold onto. Listen to how St. Paul puts it. He writes:
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.
He doesn’t say we should endeavor to establish the unity of the Spirit. He says we should endeavor to keep it. You keep what is already there to keep. The unity of the Spirit is a gracious gift of the Holy Spirit that he, not we, establishes by his word. St. Paul was humbled in prison. Prison will do that to a man. He didn’t issue orders. He wrote, “I beseech you.” I beg you. Walk the Christian walk. What’s that? Swaggering around, pointing to ourselves, promoting ourselves, grasping the positions of honor and recognition? Not at all! The Christian walk is to choose the lowest seat and leave it up to others to honor you if they so choose. The Christian walk is a lowly, gentle, and patient walk. It puts up with the failings of others because the Christian has already been exalted up to heaven by Christ who is at the right hand of the Father interceding for his church below.
The unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is a precious thing. We hold onto this unity as we hold onto Christ and his word. He was glorified after he humbled himself in obedience all the way to the death of the cross. That act of humiliation has been rewarded by God the Father. No other act in human history has received such a reward as Christ’s obedience has received. Why? Because by his obedience we are exalted to heaven. By his obedience we are reckoned by God to be righteous. By Christ’s humble obedience, the church is washed clean of her sin, baptism receives its power to provide us with continual cleansing, the Spirit receives from the Son the words of peace we need to hear, the Father is glorified in his Son, heaven is won for those who were lost, and the church finds her true unity. Christ’s humiliation is our glory. This is why we imitate his humility, bearing with one another in love, forgiving as we have been forgiven. We don’t pray that our unity may one day be restored. No, we rejoice in God’s promise that we are now, right now, united with him and with all our fellow Christians, in a unity that is real, whether or not we see it or feel it. I believe in one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.
Pastor Rolf Preus