14th Sunday of Pentecost August 14, 2016
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
467:1-3, 464, 477, 467:6-7
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Nearly three years ago, our congregation celebrated its 50th anniversary. As our celebration on that special Fall afternoon came to a close, some of our members wondered, “Will there be a 100th anniversary? Or a 150th?” A hundred years from now, will there be a house of worship on this property anymore? Three hundred years from now, will there even be a Michigan or a United States anymore? Only the Lord knows those things, but we do observe that buildings fall down. Congregations disband or move. Everything in this life is like the flower of the field; the wind blows and it is gone.
But what if I said to you that there is a Church that lasts forever, a Church that is not affected by the ravages of time, a Church that will still be here when Christ comes again—and will exist even into eternity! You would say, “That sounds great! Where do I join?” And I would have the pleasure of telling you, “You’re already in it!”
Today, we will take a closer look at “the Church that lasts forever.” We will see I) What it consists of, II) What it does not consist of, and, most importantly, III) The comfort and confidence which the existence of this everlasting Church gives to us in our daily walk.
Now when Paul addresses the “church of God in Corinth” at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, we notice that although he is writing to a local congregation, he does not describe the church as an outward organization. He describes the “church of God in Corinth” as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.”
The Church Paul addresses here are the believers who are in Corinth:
The sanctified, who have been called out of the darkness of unbelief and set aside to be God’s children.
The holy, who trust that the Lord Jesus Christ has suffered for their sin, covering them with His own righteousness, and are led by the Spirit to work against sin in their lives and pursue godliness.
In the Apostles’ Creed we refer to this Church as the “Holy Christian Church” or the “Communion of Saints.” Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles wrote: “A seven-year old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (III, XII.2). And in the confession of our own church body about the Church we say, “The Church, according to its inner nature and essence, is the total number of all those whom God recognizes as His dear children by faith in Christ Jesus” (“Concerning Church and Ministry,” Thesis 1).
This is why it can be said that you are already part of this Church, for you believe that Jesus lived and died for you. You rely on God for the forgiveness of your sins. You believe that God does not keep a record of your wrongdoings, but has made Jesus guilty of them. You know that God punished His Son for your sin in your place on the cross, and has declared His sacrifice accepted by raising Him from the dead. All those throughout the world who believe this, including you, make up the Holy Christian Church. You are a part of this “little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ” (Martin Luther’s Large Catechism, II.51), “together with those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—Their Lord and ours.”
This Church of all true believers everywhere is an invisible fellowship. We say it is invisible, because we cannot tell with certainty if those who say they are Christians truly believe in their hearts. Nevertheless, everywhere the word of God has been or is being preached in the world there are believers, for by the Gospel the Spirit does His work to grow this Church. Even in visible church organizations which teach error along with the truth, the truth that is taught there may still bring hearts to faith in Christ. Our Lutheran fathers confessed as we do: “We teach that this Church, which is the invisible communion of all believers, is to be found not only in those external church communions which teach the Word of God purely in every part, but also where, along with error, so much of the Word of God still remains that men may be brought to the knowledge of their sins and to faith in the forgiveness of sins, which Christ has gained for all men” (Brief Statement of 1932).
This Church is everywhere, and this Church lasts forever because there will always be believers in Jesus. Christ’s word will not pass away (Matthew 24:35), therefore this Church will not pass away. There will always be Christians, and in heaven the Holy Christian Church will be gathered, praising God for all time.
Indeed, we know what the Church is, but our Lutheran fathers found it necessary also to confess what the Church is not. At the time of the Reformation in Germany, 500 years ago, Rome was teaching that the Church was not just where faith was found, but that human traditions as well as certain rites and ceremonies instituted by men also needed to be present. In other words, you would not be a part of the Holy Christian Church merely through believing in Christ, but you would also need to follow all the traditions and customs that pope and church councils had laid down. To Rome and her followers, the Church was the “supreme outward monarchy of the whole world” (Apology of the Augusburg Confession, Article VII.23) with authority to demand whatever it wished from the people before they could be considered members of the true Church.
But this is not what the Church consists of. “The Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites, as other governments, but at its core, it is a fellowship of faith and of the Holy Spirit in hearts” (Apol, VII.5). The Holy Christian Church is not recognized by its outward ceremonies or human traditions, but by the evidence of faith in Jesus, the preaching of the word of God, and the use of the sacraments.
The danger of insisting on human traditions becomes clear when you hear how many insisted that observing particular customs was necessary for salvation:
“Many foolish opinions about traditions had crept into the Church. Some thought that human traditions were necessary services for earning justification…as though these observances were acts of worship and not outward and political ordinances. Such ordinances have no connection with the righteousness of heart or the worship of God…So the ignorant have imagined that faith (or the righteousness of the heart before God) cannot exist without these ceremonies.” (Apol, VII.32).
We also need to be on our guard that we do not think of the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, as made up of those who follow certain human traditions or religious customs. Church history is littered with examples of those who have fought over human traditions such as when Easter should be celebrated. In modern church history, you find arguments over other traditions and customs such as which translation of the Bible should be used, which hymnal to put in the pews, which orders of service to follow, or what type of organizational structure a church should have.
Yet, Paul simply describes the Church as, “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There is no mention of customs regarding food and drink, festivals or Sabbaths, hymnals or worship orders, only faith in Christ. In areas where there is no conflict with the clear word of God, there is great freedom, and we find that the people of the Holy Christian Church exercise their faith in a variety of ways. The Church that lasts forever is not a Church consisting of those who follow particular human traditions, rites, or ceremonies.
We’ve been considering the “Church that lasts forever,” what it is and what it is not. Let’s turn finally to the comfort and confidence that the existence of this Church gives to us. For what good is it to know what the Church is, if it makes no difference to us today?
First, it must be said again that you are a member of this Church, the body of Christ, the fellowship of believers everywhere, the Communion of Saints. This ought to be a source of comfort and joy to each of you—to know that you are God’s child by faith in Jesus, that your sins have been forgiven, and that heaven awaits you. What comfort and joy is yours to know that the Holy Spirit has captured your heart and brought you from the darkness of unbelief and eternal death into the light of faith and life. Christ continues to care for His Church, for you, now and into eternity.
Second, it is a comfort to be reassured that this Church will last forever. It will last, no matter what the world may throw at her. She will last, no matter how believers now or in the future may be despised or condemned. The devil will not overcome this Church. He will never wipe her completely away. There will always be those, along with you, who believe. And you will never be alone in your faith; even when you think you are, know that you are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).
In closing, listen to this fine summary from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
“This article has been presented for a necessary reason. We see the infinite dangers that threaten the destruction of the Church…the number of the wicked who oppress it is too high to count. Therefore, this article…shows us these consolations in order that we may not despair, but may know that the Church will remain until the end of the world. No matter how great the multitude of the wicked is, we may know that the Church still exists and Christ provides those gifts He has promised to the Church—to forgive sins, to hear prayer, to give the Holy Spirit” (Apol, VII.9).
That is good news!
That is the confidence we share, because…
There is a Church that lasts forever!
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.