Text: Ezek 10:1-5, 18, 19; Gal 2:6-20; Matt 16:13-19                                                  W Reformation Day


 

Where’s the Church?


 

            In the name of Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord: in just ten short years we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Christian Church that began inconspicuously enough when a previously unknown Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses against the sale of indulgences to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg.  As he swung his hammer, he had no idea that its blows were landing squarely on critical hairline fissures that spread out like spider’s webs all throughout the crumbling rotten-stone foundation that held up the corrupt institution that the western Church had become.  All he wanted was to have a reasoned academic discussion aimed at correcting some of the worst abuses and crassest practices that had recently sprung up; namely the buying and selling of human souls:  God’s forgiveness for sale to you and your deceased loved ones for one low bargain price or in three easy payments.  He just wanted to talk about it.  Instead, by striking where he did, he inadvertently and quite literally broke wide open the cracks that the brought the teetering, top heavy house down.  And part of the reason for it is that by simply asking questions he ran up against the indignant authoritarian response that’s so typical of calcified bureaucracies that are used to getting their way:  “How dare you question what we are doing? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know that if the Church of Christ does it, it must be right?”  I’m not sure that the saying even existed back then, but a good modern reply that Luther might have made is this:  “And don’t you know that in this fallen world absolute power always corrupts absolutely?”

 

            But that, as I said earlier, was almost five hundred years ago and much has happened since then.  Now we are used to the Christian Church in the west being fragmented into hundreds, even thousands of different denominations.  And I think it’s fair to say that for the most part it’s considered poor manners to speak at all of the differences that divide us.  It’s “Let’s just focus on what we share in common and try to get along.”  It’s even come to the point that many people say that the whole Reformation was really nothing more than a big overreaction to a tiny misunderstanding.  Besides, they say, all of the issues they argued about so heatedly back then have either been properly addressed and changed by the Church of Rome, or they weren’t really that important in the first place.  So there’s no point in even talking about it any more.  In fact, they’ll say it’s really rather antagonistic for us to continue rehashing these old issues.  It’s rude to keep bringing up embarrassing parts of history that are best swept under the rug and forgotten – you know, like the way Germans today don’t want to talk about WWII and the Holocaust.  In the same way, they say, let’s just cool it on the Reformation.

 

            Yes, that is what some people say.  And I have no doubt that they are very sincere and well-intentioned; but I’m equally certain that they are sincerely wrong about it.  The Reformation was not just a little misunderstanding.  It was hugely significant for by it the Lord brought back the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the truth that the Son of God suffered and died for the sins of the whole world that those who believe in him might be saved – to its rightful place of prominence in the Church’s faith, life, and worship.  The light of that all important truth had all but been completely obscured by accumulated layers of traditions, distortions, superstitions, and false works by which people were taught to earn merit before God.  They were told to listen to the doctrines of men and to neglect and ignore the Word of God.  The crass sale of indulgences was only the tip of the iceberg.  And it’s important that we remember and relearn the lessons of the Reformation even—no, especially today because if the history of the Church proves nothing else, it’s that the danger always exists that the saving truths of the Gospel might be largely lost to it again.

 

            As a matter of fact, it has already been wholly or partially lost in an increasing number of church bodies and denominations that proudly claim the Reformation as part of their heritage.  In the majority of mainline Protestant churches today you won’t hear any teaching about your sin and God’s grace to you in sending his Son to die in your place.  In some churches that central truth is there, but it’s being neglected.  For others it’s something of an embarrassment.  And in still others they are openly hostile to the idea.  “What kind of horrible god would demand the death of anyone, much less his own son? No, no!  God is all about love and forgiveness!  The death of Jesus was obviously some kind of terrible mistake.” And no, I’m not making it up. That’s the way it is in a lot of churches.  And then, having robbed their churches of the Gospel, mostly they’ve turned what they call Christianity into a program of social justice and economic welfare that is supposed to be achieved through trying to be nice to each other and learning to celebrate our differences – whatever that means.

 

            The sad truth is that today you can find whatever you want out there in terms of teaching about Jesus and the Christian faith.  It’s perfect for our current consumer driven mentality in which so-called “cafeteria Christians” walk down the doctrine serving line taking a little of this and a little of that, and “oh, please, I’ll have none of that, thank you very much”.  It’s become the situation described in the Epistle lesson we heard last week in which Paul wrote, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

 

            Of course our friends in the Roman Catholic Church are quick to point at all this chaos and confusion in the Protestant side of the house and say, “See? See?  This is what comes of rejecting the authority of the Pope and leaving the one true Church.  If you had stayed with us, none of this would have happened.”  And no, I’m not making that up either.  And to prove it, just a couple months ago his holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who is the Bishop of Rome and the head of the Roman Catholic Church, issued a statement that said, among other things, that all the churches that sprang out of the Reformation (which would include ours) cannot even be called churches in a proper sense.  Why not? Because these churches lack what they call “apostolic authority”.  The idea is that Christ’s headship and authority in the Church has been handed down through the generations through a succession of men, specifically the popes of Rome; and if you are not under the pope, if you do not recognize his supremacy over you through a chain of command consisting of cardinals, bishops, and priests all appointed and approved by him, then you are not truly and fully connected to Christ.  Or say it another way, what the Pope is saying is, “We are the Church.  What you guys do over there is only play church. You don’t have the authority to proclaim the forgiveness of God.  Your sacraments have no validity.  Your Lord’s Supper is an empty ceremony.  Jesus has left your building – or to be more accurate, he was never there to begin with.”

 

            Now, that’s a pretty serious charge; one, I hasten to add, I would never say about the Roman Catholic Church.  I know sometimes people get upset by what I do say, but I have never said anything even close to being as inflammatory as that.  But it’s a charge that I think we need to investigate, because if the Pope is right, then we’re in the wrong place this morning—both physically and much more importantly, spiritually.  And in a broader sense, especially with all the confusion in Christendom today, what the Pope said raises the questions, “Where is the true Church and how can I be sure I’m part of it?” “Where can I find the truth?”  And “How can I know for sure it is the truth when I hear it?”

 

            For a Roman Catholic, the answers to those questions are easy.  It’s “We’ve got the truth over here and the authority that Jesus gave the Pope proves it.”  So for them, there’s never any reason to argue about doctrine or what the Bible says because they have a person in authority who is above the Bible.  If there’s a dispute about something, he settles it and it’s over.  And let me tell you a lot of people find this very attractive.  I’ve heard about many former Protestants who converted to Catholicism precisely because they were tired of all the debates about doctrine.  They didn’t know what to believe anymore and they just wanted someone to tell them.

 

            The trouble is that it’s not that simple.  You see, even though Roman Catholics hold that the Pope is an authority above the Bible, they use the authority of the Bible to prove it – which is kind of circular reasoning.  Anyway, they base the claim on two things.  First, on the primacy of Peter; that is the idea that Jesus left him in charge of the Church as his primary representative, and that all the other apostles and ministers get their authority through Peter and those chosen to succeed him.  The second thing on which they base the claim is the notion that it only makes sense that Jesus would leave on earth just one visible institution through which he would operate.  That is to say God wants it to be obvious who’s in charge of his church precisely so that we won’t have to argue about doctrine.  And so God himself ensures that the one visible church he has, namely the Roman Catholic Church, is incapable of making any doctrinal errors.

 

            All of which sounds great—but is that what the Bible says? The answer is decidedly no.  The Scriptures we heard today prove it.  For example, Paul makes it very clear in the reading from Galatians that he got his authority to baptize and preach the Gospel from Jesus, not from Peter.  He says Cephas, that is Peter, had his ministry and I had mine.  Yes, after we met we were in fellowship; but God shows no partiality.  There is no sense in which Paul thought of Peter as his superior.  In fact, Paul saw fit to publicly rebuke Peter when he came to Antioch.  The problem was that while Peter’s words were proclaiming the Gospel of forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ crucified, his outward actions and behavior were teaching a louder message of earning righteousness by observing the ceremonial laws of the Jews.  Paul saw that Peter’s mixed message was leading even stalwart believers like Barnabas astray, and so he took him to task and condemned him in front of the whole group – and this was after Peter had already supposedly been made the infallible head of the Church.  Obviously he was neither infallible nor was he seen as the ultimate authority.  And that pretty well topples the first argument about the primacy of Peter.

 

            But what about the second, that God sees to it that there is one visible institution that he guarantees will always have and proclaim his truth – is that a biblical idea?  Again, the answer is no.  This is seen in today’s Old Testament reading from Ezekiel.  What we read was the prophet’s vision of the glory of God departing from the Temple in Jerusalem.  You see, the religious authorities in his day were saying that God lived in the Temple and that his abiding presence would be there always.  It didn’t matter what we said, what we taught, or what we did:  God is on our side and he’ll never leave us.  They said this despite the fact that they had made the holy Temple of the Lord into a corrupt money making machine full of pagan idols and every vice you can imagine.  Meanwhile, a number of people had been taken away as hostages into Babylon.  They lived in what amounted to ancient concentration camps.  Life was hard for them there.  Conventional wisdom, especially among the religious leaders in Jerusalem, was that those who had been taken away were the faithless ones whom God had decided to punish.  They got sent away into Babylon far away from God and his special presence in the Temple because they were evil.  We’ve got the Temple still, they said, therefore we must be the faithful ones. The truth is that it was exactly the other way around.  The Lord showed Ezekiel that his true glorious presence was hidden from view among the faithful in Babylon, and that he had withdrawn his presence from the Temple in Jerusalem because he was so disgusted with the shenanigans going on there that he had decided to destroy it and everyone who still worshipped there.

 

            Of course, the same thing happened at the time of Christ.  Once again the entrenched religious establishment in the Temple had become corrupt.  That would be the second Temple, which had got off to a good start 500 years earlier, but things had since soured.  You would not have known it by looking; I mean, the Temple with all its marble columns and gold appointments and what not, not to mention the priesthood and the sacrifices going on and everything else – to the typical Jew it would have looked like “this is where the Church of God is”.  Wrong. The leaders there had heard about and rejected the One the Church is all about.  They were planning to kill him.  The true Church at that time was not in Jerusalem.  It was with an itinerant preacher in Galilee who taught in the open air on beaches and on hillsides to unwashed crowds of country folk.

 

            My point is this:  if the truth of God was not preserved by the visible Old Testament institutions which were set up for that purpose, what makes anyone think there should be one visible institution today that is immune to becoming corrupt or being led astray? The repeated lesson of Scripture and that of the Reformation is that no such visible institution or outward human organization exists.  But that shouldn’t disturb us, because while Jesus said that his Church would prevail against the gates of hell, he didn’t say that is was going to be an organization discernible to human sight.  No, the Church of Christ is by its very nature invisible.  It consists of those who have faith in Jesus and his Gospel of salvation.  And one thing you can never see is the faith of someone else.  You can only hear it confessed.  And that’s why Jesus said to Peter, “On this rock I will build my church.” He wasn’t talking about building his church on a weak and fallible man, a man he called a stone like you might skip across a pond; he was talking about the massive rock mountain that was Peter’s confession of faith:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

 

The true Church is not an organization, or a building, or a particular denomination (not even ours).  The true Church consists of everyone who trusts in Jesus and receives from him the forgiveness purchased by his sacrificial death on the cross.  It exists wherever people gather around Christ in his Word and receive him in his Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “Where two or three are gathered in my name”, Jesus said, “there I am in the midst of them.”  To the extent that that is happening in any place among any group whatever they call themselves, there is the One True Church.  And to the extent that that is not happening due to his Word being distorted, or added to, or subtracted from, or neglected, or twisted and turned and mangled or obscured in any other way, people are in peril of losing their faith in Jesus and with it their place in his Church on earth and his Kingdom in Heaven.

 

This is the lesson of the Reformation and why it is that on this side of life it never really ends.  As long as the Church is in the world, Satan will be attacking it with his lies. He’ll be trying to lead people away from their faith in Jesus.  And so it should be evident that wherever the True Church is, there Satan will be the most active.  This is why we constantly have to be in God’s Word, learning and relearning its sacred truths, and asking ourselves, “Do I believe what Scripture says?” “Is the pastor teaching me what Scripture says?”  “Is he pointing me to God’s Word and saying, ‘Don’t believe it because I said so.  Believe it because I’ve shown you that God’s Word says so’?”  It isn’t the name on the sign in front of our building that makes us the Church; it isn’t the shape of the building.  It’s the one true holy and apostolic faith in Jesus that is proclaimed among us and believed and confessed by us.  And we all have a part to play in ensuring we have it right, because no one can believe the Gospel for you.  And so we pray, Lord, keep us steadfast in this saving faith and in your holy Word. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


 

Soli Deo Gloria!