Sunday, May 23, 2004

Sermon: Easter 7

23 May 2004 at Holy Trinity L.C., Columbia, SC (Vicarage)
Text: John 17:20-26 (RCL)

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia.

The Gospel for today, the seventh Sunday of Easter, is a portion of a prayer of our Lord. This “Lord’s prayer” is much longer than the “Our Father.” We don’t recite the 17th chapter of John in our liturgy, nor do we make our confirmands memorize it. It is a long prayer. It concerns the ministry of the Father through his Son Jesus. It concerns the ministry of the Son on behalf of the Father. It concerns the ministry of the Church on behalf of the Son, as carried out by the apostles, and which is carried out into the world for all time.

Although today’s Gospel is only seven verses of this prayer, there is much upon which to ponder and to meditate. There is both cause for shame among Christians, as well as cause for comfort and rejoicing. In this prayer, Jesus provides for us a model of prayer as glorification of the Father, obedience, intercession for the church and the world, all centered on the work of Jesus.

Jesus prays: “I do not ask for these only” – meaning his immediate disciples – “but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” Jesus confesses with us that the church is “apostolic.” We don’t believe in Jesus because we saw something on TV or read something about him in Newsweek. Rather, we believe in him because we believe the word of the apostles – the disciples Jesus hand-picked and ordained to preach his Gospel. We have the apostolic witness of our Lord from the writings of the apostles. In fact, the word “scripture” means literally “writings.” Through human language, pen and ink, through the work of copyists, translators, and publishers, we can hear the actual words of the apostles themselves ring out in our churches. Through the Bible, the apostles continue to preach to us, and the Word of God continues to bring about miraculous faith.

Jesus prays that such belief in the apostolic witness would lead to unity among Christians, the kind of communion that exists between Jesus and the Father, a bond of unspeakable love. And this kind of love allows the Church to carry the Father and the Son within her, allowing Christians to bring that love to the entire world. Of course, this is a great mystery, but God dwelling in us, the Church, is what converts nonbelievers to the truth.

But, of course, today the Church is divided. As our Lord testifies, our unity in the faith spreads the Gospel. What conclusion can we draw but that the disunity of the Church impedes the Gospel?

The motto of the United States is “e pluribus unum” – “out of many, one.” To look at all the various divisions and denominations in the Christian Church today, we might reverse the motto as “ex uno pluralis” – “out of one, many.” There are literally thousands of church bodies within Christendom. Non-believers see this and scoff. If the Christians can’t agree what is true among themselves, why should anyone believe them about anything.

Indeed, the disunity that has plagued the Church for nearly a thousand years when the Eastern and Western Churches excommunicated one another doesn’t serve the proclamation of the Gospel. We Lutherans love to celebrate Reformation Day – as well we should, but for all the good of the Reformation, it comes bundled with the burden that it became the first of many divisions in the Western Church.

We cannot overstate the damage caused by our divisions. Satan uses our disunity as a wedge to wrest the Gospel from the world that so desperately needs it, dividing God from his beloved creation.

However, we must also clearly understand that unity in the church is much more than simply everybody being part of one big denomination, or merely going to each other’s churches, or by swapping preachers and communing outside of our own church body. For we can’t sweep our theological differences under the rug – not if we are going to be honest with ourselves. We shouldn’t fall prey to the temptation to join the wishy-washy world’s view that “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere.” Jesus never, ever says such a thing. It does indeed matter what we believe. We need to teach our children the small catechism, and explain to them why it is important. We need to boldly confess with St. Peter that baptism saves us, and with the Church of all time that baptism is for children, and that the amount of the water doesn’t matter. We need to confess with our Lord that his ministers do indeed have the authority to forgive sins. We must never weaken our confession that Jesus is physically present in the Eucharist – even if downplaying it makes us seem more “unified” with our Protestant friends and relatives.

In withholding communion from those who don’t share our confession, and when we refrain from communing when we visit different churches with our families and friends, we are painfully reminded of this disunity, of these unhealthy divisions. And yet, it is also a confession of the truth to which we cling. It demonstrates integrity, even when social pressure tempts us to cave in for the sake of a false unity. St. Paul even tells us such divisions among Christians have a purpose – to give us an opportunity to confess the truth. The reality of this division is painful, awkward, and often hampers the Gospel. The root of the problem is sin – and we can’t undo a thousand years of disunity by putting our heads in the sand and pretending we all confess the same thing. When Christians lack integrity, it does even more damage to the Gospel than does disunity. Sin – our own sins as well as the sins of our fathers – has placed us into unenviable circumstances.

But we can take comfort in the fact that not even our current multiplicity of denominations can truly destroy the church’s unity. Though she is racked with error, with bad doctrine, with scandal, with division, in short, though she is awash in sin, she still confesses one Lord, one Baptism, one holy catholic and apostolic Church. As our Lutheran confessions put it, the churchly unity that Jesus refers to doesn’t mean having the same name, the same bureaucratic structure, the same pope, the same synodical president, or the same patriarch – rather the oneness of the church refers to the proclamation of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments.

This is not to say that we should give up on all theological discussions to bring about unity - not at all. We should enter fellowship where we have agreement, and we should keep talking where we don’t. Where we confess the same thing, we should rejoice, and where we differ, we must have the integrity to acknowledge it. Some accuse our synod of being isolationist – and there is probably some truth to the charge (this too is a result of our sinful nature). However, many people don’t realize that the Missouri Synod is in fellowship with more than forty different church bodies. We are constantly dialoguing with churches all over the world. This summer, pending a vote in convention, we will unite in fellowship with our Lutheran brethren in Kenya. Such worldwide unity is essential to carry out the Great Commission. We must work hard to forge agreements with those who confess as we do. We must realize that division in our churches is a scandal. It does interfere with the Gospel. It’s part of our mission as a church body to strive for unity with more and more church bodies for the sake of the Gospel.

On the other hand, we must avoid the temptation to seek unity above the truth. When church bodies prioritize themselves to serve unity before truth, they quickly surrender the Way, the Truth, and the Life for a false sense of unity. Unity like this is a self-serving fraud that does not confess, does not stand for the truth – the Truth which ultimately, is Jesus himself. For we confess with Jesus that our faith is apostolic – it is a confession. It cannot be changed at will to make it more friendly for unity.

In the last generation we’ve seen what a watered-down confession has done to the faithful. When for the sake of unity and popularity churches began to downplay the Scriptures, to ordain women, to waffle on the issues of sex and marriage, to trade in the biblical liturgy for entertainment, to replace confessional hymns with toe-tapping ditties – we’ve seen a degeneration of the faith. Within a generation of these experiments, formerly faithful denominations have seminaries teaching that the resurrection is a myth, we’ve seen male and female bishops arguing that Jesus and the apostles may well have been homosexuals. We have churches which call themselves Lutheran paying for the abortions of their own priestesses – while congratulating themselves on the unity they have achieved with other denominations. Unity is too expensive if the price tag is the very faith itself. As important as unity is, it is less important than obedience to our Lord and integrity of confession – even if it divides us.

And so our Lord’s prayer is both troublesome and comforting. It is disturbing insofar as it shows our shortcomings as his people. When we meditate on our Lord’s fervent prayer for unity in the Church for the sake of the Gospel, we can only hang our heads in shame. Our own sin has resulted in this mess. When we have deviated from the apostolic witness, we have created division. We Lutherans, who rally around Scripture and the Book of Concord (a word which means “agreement”), are today shattered into dozens of church bodies. In our own church body, we have all sorts of factions, each with its own newsletter, newspaper, website, and free conferences. We have political conventions complete with campaigning and arm-twisting. Dear friends, does this advance the Gospel? When we consider our own church body’s disunity, we should hopefully see Law in our Lord’s call for unity. We should see our own sins, be driven to the cross, plead for forgiveness from God, and seek reconciliation with our brothers in our synod.

But at the same time, such reconciliation must be a true reconciliation, a true unity of confession and expression of the faith, not merely a bureaucratic procedure that gags discussion and leaves crucial questions of doctrine unanswered.

But our Lord’s prayer is not predominantly Law. Not by a long shot. For the Lord’s prayer for unity among Christians is not simply something our Lord orders us to do, and then berates us for our failure to do it. Instead, we see that the unity of the Church is being driven by God the Father, who dwells in the Son, who in turn dwells in the Church. Our Lord tells us we have been gifted with his glory – the same glory of God which led the people of Israel out of bondage, the same glory of God which radiated from the resurrected body of our Lord Jesus Christ, blazing into the universe and conquering death. In spite of our sin, the Lord’s glory is given to the Church through his Son. We are to strive to be faithful and obedient, trusting in his Word, confessing doctrine correctly, and living a life motivated by Christian love.

Living a life motivated by Christian love is a hot topic today – with books and Bible studies about living a “purpose driven life.” People are hungry for the sense of community and service that is missing from our current “me first” culture. But the kind of love Jesus speaks of – the familiar Greek word “agape” – isn’t something that can be achieved by pop-psychology and law-driven programs. Life cannot be driven by a purpose, rather it is driven by the Gospel, fueled by the forgiving blood of our Lord, given physically to us in the Lord’s Supper, with our eyes focused on the cross. Living a life of love is about the forgiveness that wells up in us and, like the cup of the twenty-third psalm, running over, spilling out into the lives of those around us.

This, dear brothers and sisters, can’t be achieved by reading a self-help book or by whipping ourselves up into an emotional frenzy with trendy slogans and fads. Rather, we live out a life of love – the kind of love that Jesus tells us in our text is a testimony of both himself and his Father – by ordinary means. You don’t have to join the green berets to be a hero – you are a hero when you spend time with your children. You don’t have to start a religious order in India and devote your life to the poor, by simply committing to give a certain amount of your resources to the Lord’s work, no matter how humble, no matter how unnoticed by anyone else, you are allowing the Lord to dwell in you, just as Jesus prays. When you conduct your work and business with honor and integrity, when you go the extra mile to help a client or customer, when you smile at a stranger on the street, or offer consolation to someone who is grieving, you are testifying before all the world, the hope that is in you. The Lord daily provides us opportunities to demonstrate this “agape” love as a testimony to our Lord, as a way of overriding the disunion of the Church with the unity that comes from serving our one Lord by virtue of our one baptism in the one faith – as Jesus prays to his Father, “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

If the Church is ever to be reunited on this side of the grave, the Lord will bring it about in his way and in his time. This is of great comfort to us, the imperfect, the divided, and yet forgiven and still “one holy catholic and apostolic Church. For the unity of the Church isn’t about us, but rather about our victorious, resurrected Lord, who forgives us all our sins. And so, it is the Church’s prayer and song:

The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
She is his new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her
To be his holy bride;
With his own blood he bought her,
And for her life he died.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia.

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