A few weeks back, I was teaching a Bible Study on Church History for students at Wayne State College. We’ve been tracing events in world history, including the good and the bad of Christian responses. Sometimes the Church was on the receiving end of violence and government coercion. Such hardship brought people together around what really matters: Christ alone. At other times, certain leaders and groups perpetrated violence in the name of Christ, coercing conformity and even ‘conversion’ by legislation and by force. This really brought people together too, but in a way that brought corruption, oppression and death, heaping unworthy shame on the name of the Lord.
We’ve not whitewashed these difficult matters. God only calls genuine terminal-case sinners to repentance and faith. Rather, we’ve taken an honest look at how Christians sometimes misunderstood or abused sacred Scripture. Some responded poorly to the challenges in the culture and world around them. At other times, Christians held firm by faith to the Word, even against mounting societal pressure to compromise Christ’s teachings and forsake their obedient practice. God’s people responded by rising to the challenges with faith, compassion and a clear, pure confession of the Gospel.
The passage for our sermon this week (Ephesians 4:1-6) speaks of Christian unity. The Apostle Paul repeats the word “ONE” over and over again in the text. In a world so sorely divided by plenty of sin all around, God creates a new spiritual unity. From the margins and dregs of society, the Holy Spirit calls and gathers His people together into one spiritual communion of saints in Christ. St. Paul writes, be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Yet throughout human history, some remain eager to destroy it—from the time of Christ until now.
Religious and political leaders unite, conspiring to maintain their rule and power by rejecting the kingdom of heaven’s own King. The ethnically diverse Gentile and Jewish masses unify against Jesus, as their common enemy. The hearts and mouths of so many would-be do-gooders unite with one voice to demand justice by both Caesar’s and God’s Law. “Crucify Him!” is their protest chant, their common rally cry. Different agendas of different groups all converge in this one united, common cause: the condemnation, the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy One of Israel hangs humiliated, dead on a cross. One body of the Lord they commit to the tomb, with futile effort to guard and keep it buried away there. Behold humanity’s own shameful, hand-made, sham unity!
Regardless, His body is raised to life, still bearing the wounds which reconciled us to God and man. He breathes on His disciples and says, “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven!” This forgiveness is His bond of peace.
Through the Church’s history, some attempted to unite the church around certain prominent leaders, religious or political. Others tried to uninfy the church by hostility against common enemies. Some united ‘for the common good’ against individuals for public humiliation, persecution, legal prosecution, even execution. Entire church bodies engaged in the united exercise of military force with their own privately funded armies.
Now and then, Christians attempted to establish and rule over entire cities, regions, even nations—appointing their own chosen rulers, emperors and kings in the civil realm. While He was on trial, about to be condemned and crucified, “Jesus answered [Pilate], ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’” Likewise, following the execution of John the Baptist, Jesus observed, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)
Christians are often tempted to seize a worldly power God has not given to them. Some can’t resist taking the bait and falling miserably right into the Devil’s own trap. Surely, secular powers also attempt to force church unity, excommunicate people, punish heresy. The world is seldom shy as they try to manipulate and micromanage the spiritual affairs of the Church. Thirst for power and glory abides in the hearts of all humanity. Tyranny is an equal-opportunity employer whenever your own heart’s for hire, regardless of age, race, gender, creed and such.
Gathering around prominent leaders, despising and opposing shared enemies, rallying people to Puritanical “common causes” in community or civil governments—none of these rightly constitutes the nature or focal point for true unity in the church. Only Christ can unite His church. Throughout history many misguided souls have tried to unify people around these other things, waving His holy name like a flag to cover their ulterior motives.
Personalities, enemies, even common ‘causes’ aren’t the Lord’s own means by which we establish or even recognize the genuine oneness of the church. History tells the sorry tale that such idolatry almost inevitably ends in tyranny, violence and death, never true repentance and faith in Christ. God sets before us a very different unity in Scripture, a communion of saints which the Lord alone established, initiates and preserves.
The Lutheran reformers cite our Ephesians passage as they write in the Augsburg Confession of 1530:
1] Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.
2] And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and 3] the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. 4] As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5-6.
Much to think about as we consider God’s Word regarding the “one, holy, Christian* and apostolic Church.” We confess, we do believe in one…Church. Genuine unity abounds in this Church. Not the kind that will ever impress the world—nor forcibly be wrought by misguided human attempts to create unity by our own sinful means. Both before the time of the Reformation and after, some only discover this the hard way.
In the end, Jesus teaches us all that we best “render unto Caesar what is Ceaser’s, and to God what is God’s” alone. God alone creates unity. The Lord himself unites His enemies with a word “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” By one baptism, in one faith, our one Father joins them together in the body of His Son. His one Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies and keeps them together in Christ Jesus, by means of the Gospel.
Here is the Word we consider this coming Sunday, from Ephesians 6:1-6 (ESV)
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
*The ancient, original text of the Nicene Creed says “catholic” rather than “Christian” here, though it’s meaning is “universal,” “according to the whole” Church, and not a reference to any particular denomination.