The Checkered History of the Church
One of the definitions in the dictionary for the word "checkered" is "full of ups and downs." It is in this sense that I use the word in the title for tonight's message: "The Checkered History of the Church."
Anyone can examine the history of the Church. It is a matter of public record. Turn to Genesis and start reading. After Revelation there are volumes of records and reports on the doings of the Church both from inside her walls and outside of them. There are no skeletons in the closet of the Church. They have long, long ago been thrust out into the open. It has never been the will of Her Lord to keep skeletons hidden or not to air dirty laundry. From the get-go in Genesis we see the checkered history of the Church. There is strife, hatred, murder, incest, adultery, and many more disgusting things. Unbelievers, such as Madalyn Murray O'Hare, have found the history of the Church so disgusting, that they have wanted it banned from being read in schools or found in libraries.
They, of course are right, the history of the Church is disgusting. How can you disagree with that? Didn't you pay attention to the Passion Reading? After Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, He is taken to Annas and Caiaphas. These are the heads of the Church at Jerusalem. And when it says Jesus was hauled before the Sanhedrin that was like the Supreme Court of the Church of that day.
Forget for a moment that it is holy Jesus, meek and mild whom they put on trial. What would you think of an official in the Church today hauling off and striking a man who was bound? What would you think of a Church Supreme Court who was forbidden to meet at night, meeting at night? What would you think of them calling on false witnesses to convict someone? Forget for a moment that they did this to God the Son. What if they had just done it to you or me?
Some of you who have been around the Church for years know that things we see going on in the Passion reading still go on today. I've seen the church railroad an innocent man. I've heard people lie in voters meetings. I've known the church to break her own rules just to do what the majority wanted. And you know what? Just as the Church in the Passion reading didn't believe they were abusing God the Son, the Savior, so the Church of today salves it's conscience the same way. We think we are only manipulating, misusing, or "managing" men, but it is really God we are doing these things to.
And no, it's not just a case that the Old Testament Church was so corrupted and fallen. The New Testament Church fairs no better in our text. Peter, the first apostle, blatantly denies he knows Jesus 3 times. Of course, John was also there. Now we have no record of him denying Jesus, but we have no record of him confessing Jesus either. There is no doubt that these men believed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. Yet they would not own Him before men.
The church today does no better. I'm sure there are people who can convict us of doing the very same thing as Peter and James. I'm sure we have denied Christ some times and at others refused to confess Him. I'm sure people can point at us and say, "Some church they are. Some church people they are."
None of this, however, shows the church in her worst light. What shows the incredible ugliness of the church is when Judas goes to the Church confessing his sin. "I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood," Judas said to the chief priests and elders of the Church. And they replied, "What is that to us? That's your responsibility." They did not forgive, they didn't absolve a man who confessed his sin to them. The chief purpose of the Church of all ages is to forgive sins on earth. That's why the Lord established her on earth. Yet, the Church in the text failed to do this.
I'm sure the church today has failed in this way too. I'm sure we have given people the impression that some sins are in essence unforgivable. They just can't be sent away by the church because they are too horrible. Or, we have given the impression that it really is up to the individual to work out his or her own forgiveness. If you have a problem with sin or guilt, go to a counselor, a therapist, a self-help group, we have nothing for you here.
Can you see why people run away from the church? It is worse than many human institutions. The Masonic Lodge doesn't have a public history more checkered than the Church's. You can't say of any other institution that they are guilty of crucifying the Son of God. Based on our checkered history it is not a wonder that so few people join the Church. The wonder is that anyone at all does.
Why anyone at all does join the Church is because the history of the Church is checkered. It has not only DOWNS but UPS. The up side of the Church is what draws people. "What is the UP side," someone will ask? "Show me it in this text," someone will demand?" "Show me it in the Scripture at all," another will challenge?" "I can't see it," they'll confidently proclaim. And they will be right. You can't see the up side to the Christian Church. For that reason, the Creed has never said "I SEE the Holy Christian Church," but "I BELIEVE in the holy Christian Church."
Since we don't ever claim to SEE the holy Christian Church, we ought to stop looking for her. When people look, they tend to find. People looking for the holy Christian Church come upon the Roman Catholic church in all of her gold, finery, ritual, and power, and think, "This must be the holy Christian Church I'm looking for. Look how beautiful she is dressed. Look how stately she walks. Look how prestigious she is. Surely she must be the Bride of Christ." Others looking to see the holy Christian Church come upon a Reformed Church which talks a lot about how to live a Christian life, how to behave as God's people and they say, "Surely this must be holy Christian Church! Look how holy the people act; they all carry their Bibles into Church; they all go out of their way to be nice to each other; they name of God is always on their lips. Surely, this must be the holy Christian Church."
Don't think because I used Roman Catholic and Reformed churches as examples that we Lutherans aren't guilty of this. We are. Lutherans seeking for evidence of where the Church is to be found can latch on to large numbers, impressive buildings, many programs. "We are so popular. We are so growing. We are so successful; the Lord is blessing our ministry so much; what I see around me must be the holy Christian Church!"
Dear friends, God's people have never said that they see or can see the holy Christian Church; forever and always they have said that they believe in it. It is an article of faith not sight. That is, we believe there is a holy Christian Church not because we have at anytime seen it but because God says it exists. Just like we believe the forgiveness of sins is in the waters of baptism not because we see it but because God says it, just like we believe the Holy Communion is the Body and Bread of Christ not because we see it but because Christ says so; just as we believe the pastor can send our sins away not because we feel them go but because Christ promised he could, so we believe there is a holy Christian Church just because Christ promised there was.
Jesus tells us "the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church." If hell can't prevail against the Church, then surely sinners can't either. If hell can't drive the holy Christian Church off the face of the earth, then surely sins can't either. So that means even in the Passion reading, the holy Christian Church was there. I don't want to pin down where though. That is hard to do, and if I do, then I'm making visible that which is an article of faith. I could, however, point out that Joseph of Arimetha and Nicodemus, members of the Church's Supreme Court did not consent to sending Christ to death. I could point out that even on Calvary the thief on the cross joined the holy Christian Church, so She was still there. I could point out that even in Christ's death, the Centurion confessed Him and joined the holy Christian Church. But I think I would rather point out what God did to Elijah when he felt the Church was no more. The Lord told Elijah He had reserved for himself 7,000. Even though Elijah couldn't see the Church, she was still there.
The holy Christian Church is the Body of Christ; it can no more cease to exist than Christ Her Head can. Furthermore, the Head takes care of the Body, not the other way around. When we are despairing of the ugliness, the littleness, or the weaknesses of the Church in the world, we are forgetting these things. We are forgetting that the Church is not a human institution but a divine institution. It has existed since Adam and Eve, and even when weak on earth, she is very strong in heaven. In the Nicene Creed we confess to believing in "one holy Christian and Apostolic Church." There is only One Church consisting of all those the Holy Spirit has brought to faith both on earth and in heaven. To us, earth is separated from heaven by the deep, wide, cold river of death. Not to God. To God, the river of death is no more than a pencil thin trickle. The Church in heaven is not far away but as close as the Body and Blood of Christ because where the Head is the Body must be too. So even when our numbers are small visibly; they are not really.
Okay, so despite the checkered sins of the Church, the Church goes on and prospers fed by Word and Sacrament. There is a continual up side to her even though we cannot see it. But what about those down sides? We can dismiss some of them by saying that Satan sows tares where Christ sows wheat, so some of the visible sins of the Church are the enemies' fault, but what about our sins. How can we very unholy sinners live in the holy Christian Church? We really have been like Peter and John. We really have denied our Lord or not confessed Him when we could!
Well, what makes the holy Christian Church holy? The right actions of people? As long as we don't break the Commandments the Church is holy? As long as we think good thoughts, believe hard enough, love long enough, the Church will be holy? No, we believe the Church is holy because Christ has said He has made Her so by the washing of the Water and the Word, that is by Baptism. In Revelation the Church is described as being adorned by Her Husband, Christ making Her without spot or even wrinkle.
Friend, we must learn the lesson Peter had to in Acts. What God has called clean we are not to call unclean. God for Christ's sake in Baptism, pronounces every son and daughter He receives into the Church, holy, without sin, pure as the driven snow. That is him, her, you, me, we, us. Stop listening to your eyes which can see at best a checkerboard church. Listen to the Word which declares all those in Christ holy and righteous by forgiving them of all their sins. The forgiveness of sins is how Christ keeps His Church holy. The same forgiveness that cleanses all newborn Christians to begin with is able to wash away the most checkered Church members. The history of the Church is indeed checkered, but Her future is only glorious. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Lent III (3-14-01) Passion 3