I Believe in the Holy Christian Church Despite My Eyes
I Believe in the Holy Christian Church Despite My Eyes People say, "Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see." Well, if it were not for the Word continually sounding in our ears, we would not be able to believe such a thing as one, holy, Christian Church existed anywhere, because what we see tells us otherwise.
What do your eyes tell you about the Church? They tell me that there is not one but many. In our text, the leaders of one church want Barabbas released and Jesus crucified. But then there is the church of the Apostles who certainly don't want Jesus to suffer. And what about the Jews like the Daughters of Jerusalem, a pious group that offered comfort to those about to be crucified? Were they in a third church?
The fact that you see many not one church bothers not just a few of you. You're sorely tempted to adopt the view of modern theologian, Rodney King and plead, "Can't we all just get along?" No doubt about it; it is scandalous to the world that there is a Christian church on this end of Mabel that is not in fellowship with the one on that end. It's scandalous to the world that the church at 45th and Mabel is not in fellowship with the Church at 45th and Red River. It's scandalous to the world that there are over 1,000 different Christian churches in America.
But it's even more scandalous than you think. The multiplicity of churches that exists today goes back to New Testament times. That there was one single, undivided, visible Church at anytime in the past is a myth. Paul struggled against other churches his whole life and died with the church visibly divided. John wrote in 100 AD that "many false prophets have gone out into the world." By 150 AD the pagan who desired to join the Church would be confronted with one on every corner claiming they were the church but not agreeing with the churches on the other 3 corners. I say this not to justify or make light of the present divisions, but to show you that before, during, and after the Apostle's Creed confessed to believe in one holy Christian Church, everyone saw many churches.
Not only do our eyes not see one church, we sure don't see a holy one. It's the church which cries, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" It's the church that asks for a guilty man and condemns an innocent one. It is the church that gladly calls down upon herself and her children the judgment for the blood of a Man whom even a pagan knew to be innocent!
Is the visible church of our day any better? Christ is crucified anew on Roman Catholic altars in every mass they sacrifice to pay for the sins of the living and the dead. Churches march against the death penalty for guilty murderers and pass resolutions that condone the murdering of the innocent unborn. Churches despise the blood of Christ saying it is barbaric to think Christ had to shed His blood to pay for sins. And don't think our church is holy because we do done of the above. Our sins as a congregation and a synod are more than enough for people to say they see no holy Christian church here either.
The church we see with our eyes is not one, nor is it holy, and it's hardly Christian. If we go by what we see, we cannot help but be plunged into despair. But our Apology to the Augsburg Confession says the Creed confesses that there is one, holy Christian Church where saints commune, sins are forgiven, and everlasting life is given, "so that we may not despair." If you only believe what your eyes see, you will and must despair. But there is a reality behind what you see, the reality of the hidden glory of the Church that transcends, time, space, and even sins.
What do the Scriptures say the Church is? A creation of men? No. A building? No. A society of men doing good works? No. The Scriptures say the Church is the Body of Christ. Do you kids remember the Latin lesson you got at the Seattle conference? Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia. These are words from St. Ignatius who lived from about 35 AD to 107 AD. They mean "Where there is Christ; there is the Church." If the Church is the Body of Christ, as Scripture tells us, then where He is She is.
So in our Passion reading, there is Christ beaten, bruised, and bloodied, crucified and dying surrounded by all manner of sinful men. Yet the Church is there. Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia. But where is Christ today? Not in the images of Him we have on a cross, not in paintings of Him, but in the waters of Baptism that clothe sinners with Christ, in the Absolution that forgives sins in the place of Christ, and especially in Communion which is the Body and Blood of Christ. Where you have any one of these, there you have Christ since He binds Himself to everyone of the Means of Grace. And where He is there you have the one, holy Christian Church. Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia.
Jesus alone, by Word and Sacrament builds this Church. That's what He says in Matthew 16. He says, "I will build My Church," not, "You will build My Church." And what does He go on there to say about the Church He builds? "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Now, He doesn't say the gates of hell will not rage and fight against it. They do. We see them doing so in the Passion reading. All of hell comes against the Body of Christ on the cross. But what happens? It appears the gates do prevail. Christ doesn't stop hell's flames, pain, or torture, but He does finish them. He soaks up all the punishment that hell has a right to dish out against sinners, and by doing so He overcomes hell for us.
And glory of glories, Christ doesn't loose one of the elect that have been chosen from all eternity to become members of the Church. We'll see in next week's reading that while going through hell for us Jesus pauses to pick up a dying thief and a centurion. It is not possible for even one of those God has chosen in Christ to perish. In the upper room Jesus praises the Father because not one of the ones He gave to Him had been lost. It is wrong to do mission work with the thought that unless we do something the gates of hell will somehow succeed in prevailing even against one person. Christ says different.
Our eyes tell us that one holy, Christian, Church doesn't exist, but we go by what Christ tells us. Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia. Where He is, there His Church is. He is still in this world through His forgiving Word and miraculous Sacraments. Therefore, we can know and believe that His holy, Christian Church is here today and will be so till the day eternity dawns. And this makes a profound difference in our life.
We have brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world. St. Augustine said of the churches riddled with error in his day, "As long as they pray the Our Father with us, they are our brothers." That Baptist friend, that Catholic coworker, that Methodist mailman remains a brother or sister in Christ as long as they continue to pray the Lord's Prayer to our Father in Christ.
Lutheranism has a wonderful breathe to it that other denominations don't. Unlike Roman Catholics and many Protestants, we recognize that other churches have true Word and Sacrament ministries that we may not interfere in. That means we don't steel sheep belonging to another Christian fold. And we have such a high regard for the power of the Gospel purely preached and the Sacraments rightly administered that wherever these are, even if they are buried under errors, we confess the Church is. Because Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia. Where Christ is in Word or Sacraments, we Lutherans confess that there the one, holy, Christian Church must be too.
Believing as we do in the Augsburg Confession "that one holy, Christian Church will remain forever" relieves us of a responsibility that we can't bear without despairing. We are relieved from growing, protecting, or preserving the Church. Our job is not to save the one holy Christian Church. No, the job of the holy Christian Church is to save us. As the Large Catechism says, She is "the Mother" who "begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God." Mothers are responsible for saving their children, not the other way around. Ah, but don't children take care of their mothers? Sure they do when mothers can no longer care for themselves. That's a sad day in the life of a regular family. It is a blasphemous day in the life of the Church, for that means Christ has broken His Word and the gates of hell have prevailed against the Church. But this can't be. Our Mother, the Church, the Body of Christ, can never be unable to care for Herself or Her children.
Since Christ says He will build His Church, we dare not try to do what He says He will. That too would be blasphemous. Christ is the Head; the Church is His Body. Now while the Head uses the Body to do things for the sake of the Body, the Head bears the responsibility for what is done. Your body is not responsible for your head, is it? Well, you are to live in the certain joy that Christ will do everything to grow and preserve His own Body. We confess as much in the Third Article saying it is only the Spirit of Christ, that "calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth."
Believing that one, holy, Christian Church exists on earth drives our life. Although we can't see it, we believe that the Church is a mighty army on earth that will never be defeated. She is like a tsunami. A tsunami is a huge movement of water produced by an undersea earthquake. It is invisible to the naked eye as it races around the globe. Only when it reaches a land mass does it appear as a huge wall of water. The one, holy, Christian Church looks like nothing more than small groups of people scattered all over the world around ordinary looking Water, Words, Bread and Wine. It looks unimpressive, unimportant, as weak and powerless as the Body of Christ hanging on the cross. But when when the holy Christian Church breaks on the shores of eternity, She will be seen for the immense force, presence, and miracle She has always been. See by faith now what you will see then, and rejoice. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Lent V (3-9-05); Passion Reading V