Trinity Lutheran Church, Lockport, New York
IN NOMINE JESU
What is the Church? Is it a building where people are gathered to worship the Triune God? Is it a gathering of people who have come together to worship the Lord? Is it where even two or three are gathered in the Name of Jesus, gathered around His Word and Sacraments? The answers to these questions are "Yes." In the Apostles' Creed we confess we believe in "the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints," and, indeed, this is what the Church is. We learn from the Augsburg Confession that
It is also taught among us that the one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. [AC VII 1-3]
Again, although the Christian church, properly speaking, is nothing else than the assembly of all believers and saints, yet because in this life many false Christians, hypocrites, and even open sinners remain among the godly, the sacraments are efficacious even if the priests who administer them are wicked men, for as Christ himself indicated, "The Pharisees sit on Moses' seat" (Matt. 23:2). [AC VIII 1]
You may be scratching your head at the second excerpt from the Lutheran Confessions. How can there be false Christians, hypocrites, and open sinners in the Church? I thought they were to be shunned. Recall from your days of catechesis the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. In the explanation section of the Catechism, the question is asked, "What is the visible church?" The answer is: "The visible church is the whole number of those who use the Word of God and profess the Christian faith, but among whom, beside the true Christians, there are also unbelievers." The next question asks, "Are there then two churches, one visible and the other invisible?" The answer: "There is only one church—all believers in Christ. The visible gathering is called church because of the believers gathered around the means of grace in an assembly in which there are also hypocrites." This means that, in the visible church believers are mingled with unbelievers in an assembly such as what we see here this morning. This is why it is called visible: it is what we see with our own eyes. The invisible church we cannot see because in her are only those who truly believe in and confess Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord; excluded are false Christians, hypocrites, and open sinners. For those of us who indeed believe in and confess the Name of Jesus, we get to rejoice, for we are living stones in the Church, "being built up [as] a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (v. 5). We are stones in the Church, built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ our Lord. "Christ is our corner-stone, On Him alone we build" (TLH 465:1). "The Church's one foundation Is Jesus Christ, her Lord; She is His new creation By water and the Word" (TLH 473:1). "On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand" (TLH 370:refrain). Just as a cornerstone was built in older times to support a building, Christ, our Cornerstone, supports us, living stones of His Church, keeping us together with the mortar that is His Word and Sacraments. As members of His Church, we are His stones, and we are His priests, called to live in His service until He calls us home.
The blessed Apostle St. Peter calls us "a holy priesthood." To pose the Lutheran question: What does this mean? We need to first understand the concept of the priesthood in the Old Testament. One of the tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi, was set aside by God to serve as His priests in the temple. Their ministry was located in the temple. They were not to leave. God had called prophets to proclaim His Word, and He sent them to do just that, wherever the need was to hear the Word. The priests, however, were to remain in the temple. Their duties were to offer up sacrifices for the people and to pray for them in the temple liturgy. They would face the altar, the symbol of God's presence among His people, and pray for the people; they interceded for the people, doing so in the Holy Place of the temple, where only the priests were allowed. But even the priests were not allowed in one part of the temple: the Most Holy Place, also known as the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The high priest would confess the sins of the people, and of the priests, over the head of the scapegoat, which was sent away to die in the wilderness, and the high priest would offer up the sacrifice by slaughtering the other goat. He prayed for the people and for the priests. It was only the high priest who was allowed behind the curtain in the temple, where God was present. This was the work of the priests and of the high priest. But on Good Friday, with Jesus' death, the temple curtain, a thick cloth, was torn in two from top to bottom, thereby opening the way for us to come before our heavenly Father with our prayers, which is our spiritual sacrifice. As the writer to the Hebrews says:
Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation. But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? [Heb. 9:6-14]
And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them," then He adds, "Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more." Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin. Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. [Heb. 10:11-25]
We are to exhort one another, confessing our faith to one another and lifting one another up in prayer, to "pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs." This is the duty of the priesthood of all believers, a duty not reserved only for those in the pastoral office. The pastor is a member of the priesthood of all believers, but not all members of this priesthood are pastors. As St. Peter writes to all of us who are in Christ, "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy" (vv. 9-10). This means that in your vocation, whatever it may be, your call from God is to pray for all people, not just those in your family or in this congregation or only those people you like or know. You see, the Church is not confined to this building of bricks and mortar, but she is where true believers in Christ are gathered in His Name, where disciples are made in all nations, baptized in and into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. There are Christians on six continents on this planet, and these Christians are all our brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow living stones of the Church, all of us having this same call from God that we do, praying for all people and to render thanks unto His Name. We tend to conveniently forget that we are all members of the universal priesthood of all believers. We want to shift our God-given responsibilities to someone else. We justify our actions (or, rather, lack of actions) by telling ourselves that someone else will do it. While this may be true on the surface, if everyone felt the way we do, then no one would be praying to God because everyone would be thinking that someone would be doing it, when no one would be. We need to pray for others, just as we need our fellow believers to pray for us. We cannot leave our praying for someone else to do, whether he is paid to do so (among other things) or not. Such unwillingness to pray is the result of the sin that plagues us and manifests itself in our thoughts, words, and deeds. This refusal to heed our Lord's call means that we are disobedient, and, therefore, "'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,' and 'A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.' They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed" (vv. 7-8). On the Last Day, Christ, the Chief Cornerstone, will come and crush those who scandalized, tripped up the by the message of this Stone, that is, the Gospel. He will crush the dead stones finer than powder; they will be obliterated in the final judgment, just as He has crushed the head of that serpent, the devil.
But this Chief Cornerstone remains strong. He remains supreme. He remains the foundation for His Church. This Rock cannot be destroyed. The devil knew he was crushed when his Adversary, the Lord Christ, was crucified. Yes, the devil struck His heel, but the Cornerstone crushed him. The devil stumbled over this Stone and did so to his own destruction, for Christ has defeated the devil for good—for our good. By His death our Lord has destroyed death, and by His resurrection He opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. By His death and resurrection our Lord has "called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light, who once were not a people but now are the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy" (vv. 9b-10). We are the blessed recipients of this divine mercy from Jesus, our great High Priest. He is truly our great High Priest, for He "fulfilled the Law perfectly in our stead." As the writer to the Hebrews says, "Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:14-16). He is truly our great High Priest, for He "sacrificed Himself for our sins." Again, we hear in Hebrews, "For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people's, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever" (Heb. 7:26-28). He is truly our great High Priest, for He "still pleads for us with His heavenly Father." As the blessed Apostle and Evangelist St. John writes in his First Epistle, "My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 Jn. 2:1a).
What does this mean for us today? It means that Jesus remains our great High Priest. He has made the once-for-all-time sacrifice for us, so that we would have life, eternal life in His Name. He continues to pray for us. He has sent us His Holy Spirit so that we would give thanks to God for sending His only-begotten Son to die for our sins and to rise for our justification. He has sent us His Holy Spirit so that we may come to our heavenly Father in prayer. You see, our Lord by His death tore the temple curtain, the curtain to the Holy of Holies, so that we may come directly to our heavenly Father, offering up our prayers in Jesus' Name, for He has promised to hear us. He says through the prophet Jeremiah, "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:11-13), and through the Psalmist, "Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him on high, because he has known My Name. He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him, and show him My salvation" (Ps. 91:14-16).
And as the risen Christ continues to pray for us, He has sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts, so that we too would pray for others, that our heavenly Father would give us and all people all that we need to support our bodies and lives, that He would give us all each day our daily bread, forgive all of us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, lead all of us not into temptation, and deliver us all from evil. As the blessed Apostle St. Paul writes, "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all" (1 Tim. 2:1-6a). And so, in a few moments, fellow priests, we will have the opportunity to "pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs." In peace, let us pray to the Lord: Lord have mercy.
Christ is risen! HE IS RISEN INDEED! ALLELUIA!
In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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