Sunday, January 17, 2021

Jesus Christ: God's Son, Our Lord (Sermon 2 on the Apostles' Creed)

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” That's what we began to confess the last time we were here, as we began to unpack the core commitments of our faith as summed up in the Apostles' Creed. Last week, we explored who God is, and why we can believe he exists; we explored what it means that he's Almighty; we talked about how he created everything else that exists. Or as Irenaeus, granddisciple of the Apostle John, put it: “One God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, who fashioned the human race, brought about the flood, called Abraham, brought the people out of the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, gave the law, sent the prophets, and prepared fire for the devil and his angels” (Against Heresies 3.3.3). And we began to consider what it means to say that God is 'Father' – but in light of what we're about to learn, it takes on a radical depth of eternal meaning.

The Apostles' Creed goes on to say that we believe “in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Another ancient creed, the Nicene Creed, goes into even greater depth, confessing that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were made.” That's a bigger mouthful, but it just unpacks in greater detail what we mean by the simpler words of the Apostles' Creed.

When we picture God in eternity 'before' creation, God was solitary as regarded all things outside himself, but he wasn't lonely. He wasn't lonely because he had company inside himself. Eternally, God meditated on a Word, the single eternal thought of his own Mind. Eternally, God generated a Son who flowed forth from him as an extension of his very own divine nature. We say that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) – not just that God is loving, but that God is Love. And true love is never alone. God's very inner life is Love, God's inner life is relationship. Necessarily, because God is Love, God loves God – and the God whom God loves is the Word, the God whom the Father loves is the Son. This Son is unique, different from any other relationship that God could even have. This Son is begotten, not created: he is consubstantial with the Father, meaning of God's own essence. The Son comes from God and is God, comes from the Divine Light and is himself Divine Light. The Son is eternally being born, fathered, generated by God. This was so before time and space began to be. There was no creation going on, but there was eternal generation of the Son, eternal meditation of the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

And then God creates the world, creates the universe, creates everything that isn't God. But when he does that, he does it by means of his Word, by means of his Son. This Word is the 'Let-there-be' of creation (Genesis 1). “By the Word of the LORD, the heavens were made” (Psalm 33:6). “The universe was created by the Word of God” (Hebrews 11:3). Through “his Son,” God “created the world” (Hebrews 1:2). “All things were created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). And literally, in him all things were created” (Colossians 1:16). So Irenaeus calls the Son “the pattern of the things he adorned” (Against Heresies 4.20.1). In some way, the Divine Word or Divine Son became the template, the model, the archetype of the entire universe that God created through him. And that's why we have parents and children in the creation: all generation in the universe is a created reflection, a partial imitation, of the way that this Divine Son relates to his Divine Father eternally within the inner life of the one and only God. And all things in creation in some way are made in the likeness of the Son and Word of God the Father – especially us, whom they made in their image and after their likeness (Genesis 1:26).

Throughout the days of prior covenants, the Lord God guided the human race, speaking to us in many different kinds of ways according to the covenants he made. And as he did so, he frequently foreshadowed the revelation of the Divine Son. To Adam was given the title 'son of God' (Luke 3:38), in imitation of the true Divine Son. But this imitation, our forefather who received the commandment, became wayward under the influence of a dark infestation called Sin. Rebelling in pride, theft, and deceit, he with his wife was cast out of the garden of delight into a dusty world, and wandered off to squander the inheritance of creation: the first prodigal son. In time, God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, making and establishing his covenant with each, claiming this one human family as his own family. Through the sons of Jacob, there arose the tribes which God forged into a redeemed nation, Israel, by rescuing them from Egyptian slavery. For God had warned the Egyptians: “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go, that he may serve me” (Exodus 4:22-23). To this national son, God gave his Law and many other blessings, and as one of their members would later write, “To them belongs... the adoption” (Romans 9:4). But repeatedly, this national son broke their family law, leading to the exile from which God pledged to “bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth” (Isaiah 43:6). And long before that exile, God chose a young man named David to be their king, and said about David, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14). Later, God said of David's heir Solomon, “He shall be my son, and I will be his father, and I will establish his royal throne in Israel forever” (1 Chronicles 22:10) – so this special adoptive sonship would be inherited by every king of the line of David. In naming all of these as sons, God pointed to ways that their roles imitated and shadowed the eternal Divine Son.

This Divine Son, as the Word, God's own Speech, had often given the ancient prophets hints that he himself, God's original and true Son, would one day walk among them as the Messiah, the perfect Son of Israel, and as the Last Adam, the perfect Son of Humanity. So Amos saw that God would raise back up the fallen “booth of David” (Amos 9:11). Hosea saw that some day, after a season of brokenness, the children of Israel would again return to “David their king” (Hosea 3:5). Isaiah spoke of a coming king who would rule with perfect justice (Isaiah 11:1-10), a servant who would bear the purpose of all the people (Isaiah 42-53). Micah was eager for an eternal ruler to “stand and shepherd his flock” and “be their peace” (Micah 5:2-5). Jeremiah hoped for a “righteous branch” from David's line who would “reign as king and deal wisely,” and in whose days “Judah will be saved” (Jeremiah 23:5-6). Ezekiel begged for “one shepherd” from David's line to feed the people and unite them (Ezekiel 34:22-23; 37:24-25). Daniel was awestruck by an “anointed prince” who was to come (Daniel 9:26) and the vision of an exalted human figure exalted to heavenly glory and worldwide rule (Daniel 7:13-14). Zechariah waited for a royal priest through whom God would “remove the iniquity of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:9), a humble king who'd rule forever (Zechariah 9:10). And Malachi awaited the sudden arrival of none less than God himself in his temple (Malachi 3:1-3).

In time, all these hints and hopes were rightly tied together under titles like 'Messiah': the Son of God who would live out that relationship perfectly, the Anointed King who wouldn't let his people down, the Savior who would turn history around. For as God tells the Messiah in Psalm 2, “You are my Son! … Ask of me, and I'll make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:7-8). Building on that, Jews began to say more openly that the Messiah would be, in some special way, the Son of God. One, writing a century or two before Bethlehem, imagines God speaking of himself and his Son (1 Enoch 105:2). Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls express hope for the time when God will “father the Messiah” (1QSa 2.12) and picture God appointing the Messiah as his “firstborn Son” and crowning him with the glory of the clouds of heaven (4Q369 2.6-8). Other Jewish writings of the first century picture God raising up the Messiah to punish the Romans and hand Israel the victory, and so God describes the Messiah as “my Son” (4 Ezra 12:33-34; 13:37,52).

And as we believe and we confess, the eternal Son of God did come to be the Messiah who, as a Davidic heir, would bear the royal title 'Son of God,' thus tying up the loose ends and bringing the plan full circle. But he did not come for quite the reasons some had come to expect. As we'll hear more next week, he came to unite to himself a perfect human nature in our world, for our sake, to rejuvenate humanity itself and to relieve us from the estrangement of sin into which we'd so willfully fallen. And when he came into the world, he bore the name of Jesus, meaning “Yahweh is Salvation.” It was the sixth-most-popular boy's name in his area, popular like 'Bill' or 'Bob' today. But in him uniquely, it carried its full significance. He carried that name as a promise that he'd rescue his people – first Israel, then all who call on him – from the clutches of sin, that dark infestation.

The Bible tells us many things about this Jesus. What we say in our Creed is built on that original testimony. Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:16). Martha said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). The Gospel of Mark aims to tell “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). The Gospel of John was written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The apostles went around spreading a message about faith “in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). All the elements of our confession are ripped from the lips of those who knew him.

So we likewise confess that the Divine Son came into the world as Jesus. He bears the title of 'Christ' – the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word 'Messiah,' 'Anointed One.' He's been chosen and singled out, perfumed with his Father's own Spirit to make him rightly attractive to all in need, and to display him as worthy to act as prophet, priest, and king. Under the old covenant, just as the tabernacle and altar and holy things were anointed to set them apart (Leviticus 8:10; Numbers 7:1), so too would priests be anointed for their holy service (Exodus 29:29; Leviticus 6:22; 8:12). Under the old covenant, prophets could also be anointed (1 Kings 19:16; see also Psalm 105:15). And under the old covenant, kings had to be anointed. Saul was anointed (1 Samuel 10:1; 15:17). David was anointed multiple times (1 Samuel 16:13; 2 Samuel 2:4; 5:3; see also Psalm 89:20). His son Solomon was anointed after him (1 Kings 1:39). Later descendants like Joash (2 Kings 11:12), Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:20), and the rest had to be anointed to serve as king.

And we can't overstate just how much hope the people placed in their king as “the Messiah of the LORD.” In the Babylonian siege, Jeremiah overheard people lamenting that their king, whom Babylon captured, was the one under whose shadow they hoped to live, and indeed that this anointed king was the very life-breath that filled their lungs (Lamentations 4:20). And so to call Jesus the 'Christ' is to say exactly that – that he's the King under whose bright shadow we hope to live, that he's as vital as the breath that fills our lungs and gives us life, that he's been chosen and picked out by God as the fulfillment of all the old promises made true. The psalmist had declared of him, “God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (Hebrews 1:9; cf. Psalm 45:7). Jesus himself announced that God “has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18; cf. Isaiah 61:1). Peter declared that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38). To call him 'Jesus Christ' is to say that all these things are true.

Likewise, following the biblical witness, we confess that Jesus really does bear the relation of Son to God his Father. This same historical person is the eternal Divine Son who was before all things. This same historical person is the template of creation, the agent of the world's existence, the overflow of God himself, and the royal leader who stands between God his Father and we his people. His intimacy with God his Father comes through in his rich prayer life (John 17:1). His filial relationship with God is the defining feature of his teaching: he was always going on about “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21; 12:50; 18:14; etc.). And we read how this Jesus is “faithful over God's house as a Son” (Hebrews 3:6). For “Jesus, the Son of God,” is not only anointed king but also anointed as “a great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14), and “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:18).

And finally, just as we've confessed that Jesus is the Christ and is God's unique Son, so we confess that he is our Lord. He is, first of all, LORD – the God we meet in the Old Testament. When “the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), Jesus is that LORD. When “the LORD saved Israel... from the hand of the Egyptians” at the sea (Exodus 14:30), Jesus is that LORD. When David says that “the LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1), Jesus is that LORD. That's why the books we know as the Old Testament are a Jesus story. That's why we know we're meant to worship Jesus, to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. But to confess Jesus as the Lord is also to admit that he has supreme authority. He is Lord over every power, heavenly and earthly. He is Lord over the angels, and they are required to obey him. He is Lord over the stars, and they are required to obey him. He is Lord over the nations, and they are required to obey him. He is Lord over the presidents and the lawmakers and the judges, and they are required to obey him. Caesar could only dream of being Lord like Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord over all the corporations and the countries, the media and the militaries, the foundations and the families. His word is law. His heart is love. And when we say in the Creed that he is “our Lord,” we're making a promise – a conscious promise to submit to him, to belong to him, to serve and obey and worship him. Others may build their lives around Lord Money or Lord Pleasure or Lord Politics or Lord Skin-Color or Lord Hobby or Lord Self, but we are given leave to worship none of these things. We are strictly reserved for Jesus, the Lord who is jealous for us (cf. Zechariah 1:14). To say the words of the Creed means that we believe these things are true and right.

Once again, we might ask, “Okay, that's what we say we believe, but practically speaking, what does it matter?” Well, I'll tell you just a few ways. First, this confession practically matters because if it's true, then Jesus is the key to understanding all creation. As the Word of God and Son of God, he was creation's original template, we said, and he still even now “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). That means Jesus makes a difference no matter what you're doing. He makes a difference for chemistry, for economics, for agriculture, for mechanics, for philosophy, for political science, for comparative religion, and more. All those things are studying created phenomena that God originally patterned according to his Word, his Son. In some way, they are reflections of Christ. And so to understand anything and everything, we're best served to start by sitting at the feet of Jesus, gazing in adoration at him as we studying anything at all about the world.

Second, Jesus is worthy of our worship. As God's Son, he is consubstantial with his Father – he shares in God's own essence, he's everything God is. And so even the angels of God, who behold the Father's heavenly glory, also gladly worship God's Son, Jesus (Hebrews 1:6). What that means is that 'good moral teacher' doesn't cut it, 'prophet' doesn't cut it, 'revolutionary' doesn't cut it – none of these trendy appellations rises to the level of Jesus' true dignity and worth. We love our atheist neighbors, but just like they're wrong on God, so they miss the mark on Jesus, missing the whole point and purpose of his life and work. We love our Jewish neighbors who follow the traditions of the rabbis, “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Romans 11:28), but they also miss the mark on Jesus: they reject Jesus as Israel's Messiah, refuse to see all God's promises made good in him (2 Corinthians 1:20), encounter him as a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23), and so, in Paul's words, “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” (Romans 11:7). We love our Muslim neighbors, heirs of Ishmael whom God blessed (Genesis 17:20), but they also miss the mark on Jesus: they call him 'Messiah' without knowing its meaning (Qur'an 4:171), they're dead-set against calling him God's Son and even curse this confession as a lie (Qur'an 9:30), and so their own core confession falls short of the truth of the Lord. We love our neighbors embedded in belief systems like Jehovah's Witnesses, who name Jesus Lord and Son of God but without seeing he shares the Father's essence, and so they too miss the mark on Jesus. We love neighbors of many doctrines, but some of those neighbors fail to honor Jesus by giving him right worship, and “whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). And that is very practical indeed.

Third, Jesus is worthy of our imitation, because he's the template for the world as it's meant to be, and worthy of our obedience, because he's the Lord, our Lord whom we gladly claim. He told us, after all, that if we love him, we'll keep his commandments (John 14:15). And Peter reminds us that “Christ... left you an example, so that you might follow in his steps...” (1 Peter 2:24). Sadly, professing Christians don't always follow in his steps or keep his commandments. Sometimes, we get things badly wrong, and I can think of three messed-up versions of Christianity where we do that. One of them is Callous Christianity. That's what's put on display whenever we get so wrapped up in truths about Jesus that we lose sight of the person of Jesus, his actual character as kind and gentle, refusing to break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Matthew 12:20; cf. Isaiah 42:3). Or we get so rigid about our vision of right living that we disdain the weak, stumbling, and fallen – or even disdain people of the wrong race, people of the wrong sex, people of the wrong generation, people of the wrong income level, people of the wrong politics, people of the wrong beliefs. Callous Christianity, though, is an abhorrent thing, a pharisaic thing, a self-righteous and hypocritical and cruel thing that treats the Lord as our pedestal for dishing out condemnation. It's a thing that looks so little like the real Jesus. And we dare not go that way.

Another is Licentious Christianity. That's what's put on display whenever we think we can have Jesus without actually believing the things he's recorded to have said. It's what's pur on display when we write speeches for him in our heads, pretending he didn't say much that shapes our lives except for a nebulous call for good vibes, man. It also gets put on display when we imagine that cheap grace gives us cover to do what's right in our own eyes, and so – like so many prominent figures these days – we excuse the indulgence of our desires. But this Licentious Christianity is an untrue thing, a poisoned thing. It kicks against the goads. It suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. It treats the Lord as our very own Play-doh to remake at whim. It steals the kingdom of God from us. And we dare not go that way.

The last of these to mention now is Riotous Christianity. Sadly, we've seen our share lately. This was displayed a month ago in our nation's capital city, when false prophets rallied alongside hucksters and shock jocks, mingling the holy name of Jesus with calls for martial law, sales pitches for merchandise, and threats of violent uprising. So we should hardly have been surprised the other week at its fruit, when, not so far from the flags emblazoned with crosses and the signs declaring “In God We Trust” and “Jesus Saves,” a mob dragged, beat, bludgeoned, even killed police officers in the name of reverence for a politician. This wasn't merely an evil thing; it was a blasphemy and a betrayal of Christ. And so too do we betray him when we fail to name it for what it is. But these events were only the ugliest tip of Riotous Christianity, a deep and growing trend that drowns truth in cynicism and conspiracy, that itches to fight and scoff and mock, that debases holy words to glorify the profane, that strips off Christ's seamless robe so as to dress him up in a stars-and-stripes tracksuit. It treats the Lord as our very own pet and mascot, to dance the raging tune of our agendas and our causes. And once again: we dare not go that way.

Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, is Lord – and we claim to honor him as our Lord. That means we cannot and dare not remake him. It means we must refuse the temptation of Riotous Christianity, Licentious Christianity, and Callous Christianity. We must follow in the footsteps of the real Jesus, the Lord, not of our counterfeits.

Fourth, Jesus provides the template for our own adoption into God's family, in that Jesus' Sonship to God his Father is our gateway into sharing that relationship by grace. It's written that God “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:5). Paul draws a clear and definite link between Jesus' title “God's Son” and the possibility that we, too, can receive “adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Only since Jesus has God for his Father can he share with us the right to call out to God as our Father in heaven. And Jesus is very eager to do that! “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). And he can do that by grafting us into his relationship with God as his Father.

Fifth, this confession matters practically because it's crucial to our own spiritual health. John tells us that. He asks, “Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:5). Victory over the world, real success in life's struggles, is contingent on trusting Jesus exactly as God's Son. “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15). To the extent we really believe in “Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,” we can abide in God, rest in God, and have the presence of God in our lives, transcending and overcoming the pressures of the world! And to openly confess “that Jesus is Lord” is a key element of being saved, rescued, from our sinful situation (Romans 10:9): “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). It doesn't get more practical than that! So in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Lord, do we place our trust.

Lastly, this confession matters practically because even beyond the wisdom he teaches, the example he sets, or the salvation he offers, Jesus, in and of himself, is just too amazing to miss out on. He is “the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16), “the radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3). He's fairer than meadows and than woodlands, than sunshine and than moonlight, more bright and more beautiful than angel choirs or nations in their splendor. To meet him, really and truly, is to realize “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Nothing can compare with Jesus. Nothing would be worth trading Jesus away – not all the riches of the universe, not all insight and might and deathless delight – none of these amount to any good apart from Jesus. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25)! Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

One God and Maker of All (Sermon 1 on the Apostles' Creed)

What a week it's been! We need a firm foundation for our minds and hearts to rest on, focus on, when so much else is giving way. And we have, of course, the Bible... but what does it say? We have our faith... but what's in it? What do we actually say when we're asked what we believe? To answer that, the very early church began coming up with binding summaries of what it's all about. And these confessions of faith are called creeds. Whenever someone wanted to be baptized into Christ, part of the ritual of baptism would involve affirming the baptismal creed: either by reciting it from memory, or by answering yes to its parts in question form. A creed had to be a memorable and pithy way to put together the beliefs that should govern a Christian's mind. And so one ancient Christian said: “This summary of our faith is a great thing, since between the heart and the tongue, the whole mystery of human salvation is up for consideration and is being accomplished.”1 But a creed wasn't just something that you would learn for baptism and could then forget. Creeds were for both worship and for day-to-day life. Another ancient Christian said: “When you've received [the Creed], write it on your hearts. Recite it daily to yourselves. Before you go to sleep, before you go forth, fortify yourselves with your Creed.”2

And one simple example of these early creeds has become known as the Apostles' Creed. The basic content of this creed is very, very, very old. In fact, it gets its name from a legend that it was actually written by the Twelve Apostles themselves after Pentecost – the legend being that on the night before they spread out into all their different mission fields, they wanted to make sure they had a unifying core to their message in every nation, so they got together and each said one line under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.3 And the truth is that the Apostle's Creed is a good summary of what used to be called the Rule of Faith, an organized pattern of Christian teaching that goes back deep into the roots of the church. And so our own denomination calls the Apostles' Creed “a uniform benchmark for general instruction in the basics of our faith,” and it also supports the practice of this creed being “read or recited in unison at worship services to affirm the believer in the united faith of the Church.”4 This will enter our worship together on Easter Sunday! But first, we should get to know what it is we're going to be saying we believe – and why we say we believe it!

So where do we start out? The first line of the Apostles' Creed goes like this: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” That's very simple. In the second century, Irenaeus – a disciple of a man named Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John – began describing the Rule of Faith as meaning that we have “faith in one God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and the seas and all things that are in them.”5 And later, building on this rule, the councils of the church expanded the phrase to say, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”6 See the similarities? The same basic components are constant throughout.

In the time of the early church, many of their neighbors couldn't even honestly say this with them. The typical pagan did not at all believe in one God; he or she believed in many. Far enough back, I know my own ancestors were Germanic tribesmen who believed in Wotan and Donar and more. Other people doubted that the highest God could be responsible for heaven and earth, because they thought physical things were too icky for him to dirty his hands with. And certainly, even among the enlightened few who believed that there was one God who created all things, few would have dared to confess him as their Father, the way we routinely do.

Today, we have plenty of neighbors who also can't join us in confessing belief in God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth. Some of our neighbors are secular humanists, or evolutionary naturalists, or other stripes of materialists, atheists, or agnostics. From 2009 to 2019, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as atheists doubled, now making up one in every twenty-five American adults; and that's not taking into account the other one in twenty American adults who now say they don't know.7 About three out of every twenty teenagers today say they don't believe that there's a God.8 All in all, adults and teens together, about one in every ten Americans doesn't believe in any sort of God,9 while about one in four are religiously unaffiliated.10 This rising population of atheists are also coming more and more into vocal public view in recent decades.

For our part, we disagree with them. We believe in God – the God confessed in our creed. “The Lord our God is one God” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And we ourselves believe with quite solid warrant, because we believe with the faith of the whole church. And the church has good reasons for what she confesses and commits. Paul was right to declare that God's “invisible attributes – namely, his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made,” leaving us “without excuse” if we fail to believe (Romans 1:20). Paul the Apostle was himself following in the footsteps of an earlier writer who declared that unbelievers were “not to be excused, for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?” (Wisdom 13:8-9).

Existence and the whole universe testify to him. We know that many facts are contingent, things that are one way but could've been otherwise; and we know that every contingent fact needs an explanation. (The birth of Ishmael was a contingent fact; it needs an explanation; and it has one, in the conjugal union of Abram and Hagar.) We know, then, that the big contingent fact that includes all contingent facts itself needs an explanation, a sufficient reason for why these things are so. This calls for a sufficient reason for the sum of all things, which can only be a necessary being, not a contingent one. So too, we know that the universe – the sum of all matter, energy, time, and space – began to exist, that there was once when it was not. And we know that all things that begin to exist need a cause beyond themselves, and that no causal history can be infinite or go in loops. This calls for a cause of the universe itself, a First Cause before all things. Secular and naturalistic approaches, which by definition are confined to the natural world, quest in vain to find a cause or sufficient reason that must be beyond the contingent and natural world. But we are not so limited! We confess the universe's Cause and Sufficient Reason as God, the Necessary Being whose will and power produce all contingent reality, including ourselves. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the world.11

Likewise, structure and order in the universe testify to him. We know that most ways the world could be would make it impossible for us to live in. Even the tiniest adjustments to the basic parameters of the universe – be it the initial order and energy density of the universe, or the constants governing the strength of the fundamental forces, or the mass ratio of protons to neutrons, or the resonance level of carbon, or countless other basic facts beyond the control of any power in the universe – and you'll have a universe without atoms, or with only a few elements, or with no stars or planets. The tiniest changes to the universe, and you've got a universe where we can't be. Only a very distinctive kind of universe offers the possibility of our existence. The universe seems to be tailor-made to allow the presence of life that can stare back at it; and a tailor-made habitable home calls us to recognize and thank its Designer and Builder. Secular and naturalistic attempts to grapple with such a fine-tuned and tailor-made universe fit for life either feebly cut the thinking short or shrug and hope for a lucky roll of infinite dice. Those attempts pale next to the reasonableness of ascribing this tailor-made universe to the intent and will of God. And that's not even mentioning the intricacies of every living thing, filled with structure and order, crying out for a divine guiding hand on its development. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the meticulously designed details of this fine-tuned universe.12

What's more, our conscious minds testify to him. Many of our mental states have specific flavors, a way they feel – think of pain. Some of our mental states are about things, directed toward objects. Some of our mental states are irreducibly first-person or only offer private access. These mental states in our minds don't have a size or a place in the physical universe, yet our mental states and mental events are connected in specific ways to physical reality. These connections allow us to be conscious, letting us perceive and reflect on the world, and they are exceptionally mysterious on any secular or naturalistic attempt to account for it. This mental life cries out for an explanation that's difficult or impossible to supply unless you accept that there's a God. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the mental world of human consciousness.13

So too, the beauty of the world testifies to him. As we feed our imagination, we find that some things really are just beautiful, and some are more beautiful than others. Trees on rolling hills – beautiful. Burnt and deforested land – ugly. Even things we might recoil from as threats to our lives, like tigers, can dazzle us with our beauty – it isn't just a survival mechanism. Things in the world really do have aesthetic qualities, and they aren't merely projections from our own minds. It isn't solely in the eye of us beholders. In fact, many noted scientists have been driven in their work precisely by the pursuit of beauty, elegance, and other aesthetic virtues. This aesthetic scale suggests that at its summit is Something or Someone perfectly beautiful: a Divine Beauty at whom we're meant to gaze and in whom we're meant to delight, with all other beauty being reflection and imitation that highlights its Source. And the existence of beauty in the contingent universe – the colors of a sunset, the dots of the stars, the grandeur of the mountains overlooking the sea – calls for its recognition as art. And art, especially of this caliber, is the work of a Divine Artist, the very Source of beauty, justifying the old saying that “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13:5). Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the beautiful.14

And morality testifies to him, too. We know some actions are objectively good (like charity) and other actions are objectively evil (like child abuse) – a distinction which suggests some Standard against which value can be measured. We know that moral obligations, the 'thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots' we know we're under, feel like they carry an authority beyond the subjectivity of conscience. And authority is inherently interpersonal: it suggests that there is Someone who's been giving commands which bind the universe. We know also that our minds are somehow capable of achieving true moral knowledge in the world, of actually knowing right from wrong, which suggests that are minds are intended by Someone to achieve a goal beyond nature. We know that for people and societies to be morally transformed into perfection, into holiness, would require the intervention of a Holiness beyond creaturely ability to muster. But all secular and naturalistic attempts to account for these truths are partial at best, and often only failures: they yield moral anti-realism, moral skepticism, even moral despair. The best explanation of all these moral phenomena always require a God who is Goodness, a God who is Love. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the moral universe.15

Not only that, but our experience testifies to God. Built into us, as a basic part of our mental furnishings and features, is a sense of the divine, an innate awareness of God as a properly basic truth, even though this sense frequently malfunctions due to sin and its corrosive effect on the powers of our mind. Yet as we go through life, especially the life of faith which we live, we're likely to have experiences that are best understood as arranged by God. We give away a desired object in his name, and we come home to find that one or two replacements have turned up. Coincidence... or God-incidence? We cry out for direction, and a message nudges our way. Coincidence... or God-incidence? Before our waiting eyes, the wheel of history seems steered by a gentle but purposeful hand, orchestrating the march of human affairs on the order of centuries or millennia. All things scream providence, so we realize we've caught a glimpse of the Divine Provider. Or in the depths of prayer and the midst of worship, sections of our brain light up, not at an artificial stimulus cooked up in a lab, but at the presence of the One we've sought. In the hidden depths of the human soul, we suddenly sense Another besides ourselves strolling through the garden of our inner life, breaking in like a sunbeam and a breeze from outside, coming to tend the candles ablaze in his sanctuary. Our faculties then are neither malfunctioning nor misled: we've had an encounter; and from that experience, we realize that God not only exists but has drawn near. And then our hearts are caught by the hands of this man named Jesus – a person about whom we'll hear more next week, but who is so immensely beautiful and good and true that we can be totally justified in believing that there's a God purely on his say-so alone; and for many who've confessed this Creed of ours before us, that's exactly where they found their warrant to do so. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for these experiences and this testimony.16

And lastly, only God can guarantee the victory our whole being craves. If atheism were true, then a life filled with tragedy and woe will ultimately go uncompensated. A person could spend his or her time on earth being treated horrifically and unjustly, and then be snuffed out of existence, and the world cannot be set right, nor can that victim's tormentors be guaranteed to face the bar of justice. The stain on the universe left by real evil could then never be washed away. Existence has been, and always will be, defiled. Evil can never, in the end, be defeated – if there is no God. Only if there is a God is there any hope of removing the moral stain of horrific tragedy and rank injustice from the universe. Nothing less than God could guarantee the rectification of life. And for exactly that reason, some philosophers have rightly suggested that even atheists have a moral duty, a responsibility, to wish that God exists, out of compassion for all who suffer. Our Creed, like no secular creed ever could be, is the answer to all those wishes and the promise to all those hopes.17

All of this is why we cannot go with the atheists, the agnostics, the secular humanists, the naturalists, or any of the others who live – in theory or in practice – as if there is no God. It is, in fact, why our scriptures identify that kind of God-obscuring life as leading to foolishness: defective thinking, defective feeling, defective living, both rationally and ethically (Psalm 14:1). Spurning the path toward foolishness, we set our lives apart from all atheistic, agnostic, secularist, and naturalistic approaches to the world by confessing boldly that there is a God. For as we read, “whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists” (Hebrews 11:6)! This God is eternal, transcendent, perfect. So what more do we confess about God?

The next words out of our mouth in this Creed are to say that God is 'Father.' And we'll come back to that, both today and next week. But first notice this: to say that God is 'Father' means, at the very least, that he is personal – not an abstraction or a vague force or a field of energy. Many alternative or eastern spiritualities would have it that way – but not us with our Creed. To say that God is 'Father' is to imply that he thinks, he wills, he acts, he relates. He acts with deliberation and intention. And then, to say that God is 'the Father Almighty' is to say that when he acts, he acts successfully. God is all-present. God is all-knowing. God is all-powerful. God is perfect in and by every conceivable measurement. He can do anything and everything that's consistent with his perfection of being and character: “Our God is in the heavens: he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). God is “the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8).

And then we confess that this “God the Father Almighty” is also Creator. God is not made, was never made, could never have been made; but everything that isn't God has been made, has been created, is his creation, and he its Creator. God has made everything that isn't God, and made it out of nothing.18 This raises the clearest and most impregnable distinction between God and everything else: there is God, Creator, and everything else, creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God lit the dawn of the day before which were no yesterdays; and all things, here or anywhere else, whether we can see them or not, we know one thing: he made them. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth: he does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28). He is “the God who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it” (Isaiah 42:5). “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Psalm 33:9). So we confess with the Apostle that “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or powers or principalities” (Colossians 1:16).

In the creation, God has made many things we can see. He made trees and rocks, rivers and mountains, oceans and continents. He made deer and doves and dinosaurs, sparrows and squirrels and sharks, pigs and piranha and parakeets, crabgrass and cats and caribou, mangoes and monkeys and mushrooms, bats and bacteria and beluga whales. He made planets and moons, comets and stars, black holes and asteroids, pulsars and quasars. God has also made plenty of things we can't ordinarily see. Some are just very small, like electrons; some are very close and very big, like the Milky Way; some are very far away, like the furthest galaxies. Others are supramundane, like the invisible heavenly creations. Christian tradition actually acknowledges nine orders of invisible heavenly creations – the seraphim, the cherubim, the thrones, the dominations, the virtues, the powers, the principalities, the archangels, and the angels.19  God made all of these, ranking them in their place and commissioning them for their purpose, as he did all the rest of his creations, visible and invisible, terrestrial and celestial.  Marvelous and praiseworthy are all his works!

Rewinding the Creed thus far, now that we've confessed that God is Creator, we appreciate more and more what it meant to call him 'Almighty.' It means that, unlike those who've thought of him as a deadbeat dad to the world, or a watchmaker who winds up the machine and leaves it unattended, God keeps creation on a short leash. He's engaged and active. God cannot be confined by this creation, or kept at bay by this creation. He is infinitely bigger than its boundaries. And he is the most perfectly capable governor and provider of the world and all that's in it, arranging all the rhythms we see in nature, remaining in ultimate control of each situation. And therefore, one early Christian, a man who knew Peter and Paul, invites us:

Let us look steadfastly toward the Father and Creator of the whole world, and hold fast to his magnificent and surpassing gifts of peace and kindness to us. … Let us realize how peacefully he acts toward his whole creation. The heavens move at his direction and are subject to him in tranquility. Day and night complete the course he assigns them without hindering each other. Sun and moon and the choir of stars revolve in harmony according to his command in the orbits assigned to them, without swerving in the slightest. The earth, flowering at his bidding in due season, brings forth abundant food for humans and animals and all the living beings on its surface, without reluctance and without altering any of his arrangements. … The very smallest of the animals come together in harmony and peace. The great Creator and Lord of the universe commanded all these things to be at peace and in harmony.20

See, is that not precisely what we need right now?  God's administration of the world he's created is all-embracing, maintaining a baseline level of order in spite of the creation's persistent insurrection against his reign. And most remarkable, as we return to that earlier title of 'Father,' we see it in a fresh way. This Creator, this Almighty God whose brushstrokes are galaxies and who raises up mountains and casts down valleys – he takes an active interest in us, not merely providentially, but relationally, in a family-style way. He hasn't been content to simply produce us as art or as tools or as furnishings, nor is he content to just rule over us from a distance as subjects. This God whom we confess, this God in whom we say we believe, has taken the initiative to establish family relationships with us. This is, in fact, the story told in our scriptures. God claims Adam for a son and Eve for a daughter; later, as the world goes awry, he gets involved in the life of Abraham, multiplies him to a nation called Israel, then saves them: “Out of Egypt,” God says, “I have called my son,” Israel (Hosea 11:1). “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18). And so we answer back together, in the words of this Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth!”

That's what we believe. So what difference does it make? Well, for one, it justifies a positive outlook toward the world around us. Wherever we look, we're seeing God's world, the Father's world. It may be a mess, it may be in shambles, it may be the scene of strife and madness, but the world itself is good, whatever we touch is good. “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). In a culture that treats many things as disposable (as ours does, including people), we need to renew our positive vision of what God has made. As created, it's all good, and to be cherished and valued.

Even so, these truths also call us to mentally transcend the world around us, even as we affirm it. Our minds and hearts must not be left at the level of the art, but must venture to the Artist; not fixated on the creation, but peering through it to the Creator, whose majesty is more magnificent by far than the sum total of all he's made: “Turn from these... things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15). “Set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). As appreciative as we are for his creation, the Creator by himself is infinitely more desirable than any and all created things – and our minds and hearts, our thoughts and desires, should turn again and again to him.  In times like ours, the news of the hour presses upon us, demanding our attention, begging us to fixate on the latest scandal or tragedy.  These are created things rising up and lashing out.  But the Creator is far worthier of our fixation, our attention, our everlasting contemplation.

Third, to confess this Creed should lead to gratitude becoming our default attitude. If it's true that heaven and earth and all their contents, visible and invisible, are the creations of a God who is our Almighty Father, then everything that crosses our path or comes into our care is fundamentally a gift. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). “He did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).  We receive them indeed with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4)!

Fourth, these truths invite us then to live compassionately – to imitate God the Father's paternal care under his very own paternal supervision. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors [his Maker]” (Proverbs 14:31). “Put on then... compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).  For in providence, the Almighty has compassion towards his creatures, all creatures; and he offers this example for our imitation.

And last of all, this swings wide the door to reliance. “God my Maker... gives songs in the night..., teaches us more than the beasts of the earth, and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens” (Job 35:10-11). When we say 'I believe,' it means, of course, that we believe that there is a God. But it means more than that. It's an act of faith, a disposition of trust and reliance: it means we put stock in him, place our faith in him, hang our trust on him, precisely the way he's here described: we trust him as Almighty, we trust him as Creator, we trust him as Father. That's the relational response we're saying we'll make. So as the Apostle wrote, let us “entrust [our] souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19) in a world so ill at ease for nowbut still and ever our Father's world! Amen.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

1 Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 56.4, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 109:219

2 Augustine of Hippo, On the Creed 1, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 27:289

3 Rufinus of Aquileia, Commentary on the Apostles Creed 2, in Ancient Christian Writers 20:29-30; see also a later anonymous sermon on the creed, section 2, Latin text in Liuwe H. Westra, The Apostles' Creed: Origin, History, and Some Early Commentaries (Brepols, 2002), 522-523.

4 The EC Link: A Reference Manual for Understanding the Evangelical Congregational Church (n.p., n.d.), 37

5 Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies 1.10.1, in Ancient Christian Writers 55:49.

6 The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, an expansion by the Council of Constantinople (in the year 381) of an earlier creed promulgated by the Council of Nicaea (in the year 325).

7 Pew Research Center, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” report released 17 October 2019, page 4. <https://www.pewforum.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2019/10/Trends-in-Religious-Identity-and-Attendance-FOR-WEB-1.pdf>.

8 Pew Research Center, “U.S. Teens Take After Their Parents Religiously...,” report released 10 September 2020, page 41. <https://www.pewforum.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2020/09/PF_20.09.10_teens.religion.full_.report.pdf>.

9 Pew Research Center, “When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean?”, report released 25 April 2018, page 4. <https://www.pewforum.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2018/04/Beliefs-about-God-FOR-WEB-FULL-REPORT.pdf>.

10 Pew Research Center, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” report released 17 October 2019, page 3. <https://www.pewforum.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2019/10/Trends-in-Religious-Identity-and-Attendance-FOR-WEB-1.pdf>.

11 For more, see William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Macmillan Press, 1979); Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 133-152; Garrett J. DeWeese and Joshua Rasmussen, “Hume and the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in James F. Sennett and Douglas Groothuis, In Defense of Natural Theology: A Post-Humean Assessment (InterVarsity Press, 2005), 123-149; Mark D. Nowacki, The Kalam Cosmological Argument for God (Prometheus Books, 2007); Alexander R. Pruss, “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 24-100; William Lane Craig and James D. Sinclair, “The Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 101-201; Alexander R. Pruss, Infinity, Causation, and Paradox (Oxford University Press, 2018); Jacobus Erasmus, The Kalam Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment (Springer, 2018); and Robert C. Koons, “The Grim Reaper Kalam Argument: From Temporal and Causal Finitism to God,” in Paul Copan with William Lane Craig, eds., The Kalam Cosmological Argument: Philosophical Arguments for the Finitude of the Past (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 273-284.

12 For more, see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 153-191; Rodney D. Holder, God, the Multiverse, and Everything: Modern Cosmology and the Argument from Design (Ashgate, 2004); Robin Collins, “The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 202-281; C. Stephen Evans, “The Naive Teleological Argument: An Argument from Design for Ordinary People,” in Jerry Walls and Trent Dougherty, eds., Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project (Oxford University Press, 2018), 108-122.

13 For more, see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 192-212; and J. P. Moreland, Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument (Routledge, 2008).

14 For more, see Charles Taliaferro and Jil Evans, The Image in Mind: Theism, Naturalism, and the Imagination (Continuum, 2011); Philip Tallon, “The Mozart Argument and the Argument from Play and Enjoyment: The Theistic Argument from Beauty and Play,” in Jerry Walls and Trent Dougherty, eds., Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project (Oxford University Press, 2018), 321-340.

15 For more, see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 212-218; Mark D. Linville, “The Moral Argument,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 391-448; David Baggett and Jerry Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (Oxford University Press, 2016).

16 For more, see William P. Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Cambridge University Press, 1991); Jerome I. Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Cambridge University Press, 1997); R. Douglas Geivett, “The Evidential Value of Religious Experience,” in Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser, eds., The Rationality of Theism (Routledge, 2003), 175-203; Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 219-235, 293-327; Kai-Man Kwan, “The Argument from Religious Experience,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 498-552.

17 Richard E. Creel, Divine Impassibility: An Essay in Philosophical Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 147-149; and David Baggett and Jerry Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (Oxford University Press, 2016), 302.

18 For more, see Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration (Baker Academic, 2004).

19 On the orders of angels, see Ambrose of Milan, Defense of the Prophet David 5 §20, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 140:115; Ps.-Dionysius, On the Celestial Hierarchy 6.2, in Pseudo-Dionysius: the Complete Works (Paulist Press, 1987), 160-161; Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 7.5.4, in Stephen A. Barney, et al., trans., The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 160; and John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 2.3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 37:208.

20 Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 19.2—20.11, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 1:26-27.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Mending and Rending: Eucharistic Homily on the Unity of the Church

Five hundred orbits around the sun. That's how many circuits the earth has traveled since that day. It was five centuries ago, the third day of January in the year of our Lord 1521, and in Rome, the most honorable bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ looked over a painful document. It awaited only his seal. Leo was forty-five years old – pudgy, stubbly, and spendthrift. Surrounded by gloriously fine art and equally striking piles of mounting debt. But today, the day when we find Leo, neither the art nor the debt caught his eye nearly so much as the ink on this page. The ink represented what he hoped would be the conclusion of the troubling activity of one monk – a 37-year-old incorrigible loudmouth of a monk, Leo might well have believed.

Three years ago, Leo first caught wind about a monk stirring up trouble. Reopening all the questions long ago settled, throwing people into confusion, picking fights and arguments all over town. And the monk's writings were spreading, printed to a gluttonous popular demand. Leo had ordered the monk's order to get the monk back in order – to get him under control and to keep him quiet instead of a scandal. But the monk was radicalized. In spite of having made solemn vows to God that he'd obey his order, obey Leo, he now refused to uphold those vows and listen. This monk had a boiling temper and a razor-sharp tongue, and the more people he cut, the more people he found to blame for what his tongue and pen did. Every man in Europe seemed more to blame for the monk's words than the monk himself, to hear the monk tell it. It became clear early on that this monk “fears the authority or rebuke of no one.” Oh, occasionally the monk swore to listen and be quiet, but it seemed like he talked out of both sides of his mouth. One moment, the monk would bow and say that Leo's voice was the very voice of Christ to him. But the second Leo had any word to say that the monk didn't like, the monk would start denouncing Leo as Antichrist!

It was exhausting. It was churning society into a fervor. Over and over, Leo tried – as he saw it – to lovingly correct this younger monk. Leo sent a variety of different messengers, once and again. Leo took time out of his busy schedule to write personal letters. Leo offered even to pay for the monk's travel expenses so that the monk could come visit Leo and talk through the issues face-to-face. But it seemed like the monk was insistent on disturbing the peace, breaking the unity, and denying the truth of God's Church.

Of course, the monk certainly didn't see it that way. When he looked around at the Christian world, he feared that almost all Christian teaching was a racket, a way to choke and distract people from a simple and sincere faith, which is all he thought really mattered. When he went into churches, he doubted that even a tenth of a percent of Christian worship was actually real. He censured it as faithless and empty. He suggested the whole church had been corrupted, falsified by lies. He said he was rebelling, not against legitimate authority, but against “the kingdom of Babylon and the tyranny of Nimrod the mighty hunter.” He said he aimed to shelter all his brothers and sisters from “the plagues of Rome.” In this monk's mind, the church had been infected with a hell-born plague, a contagious disease, and he was called by God to bleed it out with fire and fury.

Leo couldn't stand this cynicism, this misanthropy, this blasphemy. Last June, he decided to offer the monk one final chance. Leo sent out an official decree, calling on God to rise up and listing exactly, point-by-point, where the monk had gone so dangerously wrong. The decree gave the monk sixty days after hearing it to make up his mind, and the way back would be easy and gentle. It took a couple months, until September, to get the decree to the monk and his neighbors. But it only seemed to make the monk more ferocious and unruly. The monk doubled down. Now that Leo had decided against his ideas and behavior, the monk cursed Leo's decree as the very voice of Satan. When this past December ran down the clock on the monk's time, he tossed the decree into a fire in public and declared that he had the authority to kick Leo himself out of Jesus Christ's Church!

When Leo heard that, what real choice was left? This was out of hand! Both could no longer stand. This monk was rending and ripping the Redeemer's seamless robe. Leo looked at this monk as basically Patient Zero of an outbreak, as a theological and ecclesiological superspreader, the Typhoid Mary of the Church. This monk had “what amounts to a contagious disease,” Leo wrote. For the good of the rest of the flock, he'd have to be quarantined, along with those he had already infected, lest the greater crowds be contaminated unawares. Leo therefore ordered faithful Christians to avoid this stubbornly divisive monk and his supporters as heretics – to welcome them nowhere, to be as socially distant from them as could be. And in all of that, Leo professed to only be following what the Apostle Paul had commanded: “As for a heretical man: after warning him once and then twice, avoid him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful – he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).

So five hundred years ago today, in that room in Rome, Pope Leo X sadly stamped a lead seal on that decree: his name was on one side, a picture of the Apostles Peter and Paul on the other. And so an aggrieved Leo cast that contagious monk out of the Church. That's how Leo saw it. That monk's name was Martin. Last name: Luther. We know his side of the story well enough. But in one way or the other, the break-up of the Western Christian world can be traced to that day, that decree: Decet Romanum Pontificem. Today is the five hundredth anniversary.

In retrospect, as most everyone now agrees, people on both sides carried blame in some form or fashion – but the issues remain hot and live. Our denomination would dispute many details of Leo's diagnosis and treatment, pleading that Luther “revitalized biblical concepts that had been losing ground.” Our denomination would echo at least some of Luther's furious diagnosis of the church, and since before our birth we've been either waiting for the larger church to take its medicine or else we've been giving them up for dead. Leo's heirs today, for their part, would naturally stand by his professional diagnosis of the protesters and would warn us that we're yet unwell, that the quarantine can't be lifted until we get serious about health and return for our medicine.

But we aren't here this morning to take sides. We're here to look at the consequence of the contagion. And that consequence has been division: the further rending of the Church. It used to be that Christians gathered always around one altar, one table. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, because we all share the one bread. … Aren't those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?” (1 Corinthians 10:17-18). Paul, after all, talked about maintaining “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) with “one faith” and “one hope” (Ephesians 4:4-5). But on that day five centuries ago, here in the West, this all ceased to be. Those who stand with Leo would say that those quarantined were cut off from the true altar, and that what stands here before us this morning is at best a reminder of where the Lord's Table could be. And Luther and his partisans, for their part, shouted that Leo's altar was a scene of sacrilege, a table of demons they were glad to leave behind – and we, historically, have followed them.

One thing has to be agreed: It's been five centuries since Christians in the West (let alone from the East) have been generally able to unite in one Body to feed on one Body. Separation prevents it. Now many altars are raised up, many tables built, many suppers spread. And we've adjusted to the fact of multiplicity. We accept it now as normal, matter-of-fact. That's just the way it is. We see it and shrug. We whistle and go our merry way.

But then we have to deal with Jesus. Because on the night when he first ordained what we aim soon to do, he prayed a grand prayer to God his Father. And in that prayer, Jesus emphatically sets the Church apart as his, and in being his, the Church is God's (John 17:5-10). And for this Church, one of Jesus' most burning expressed desires is simply this: “that they may be one, as we” – he and God his Father – “are one” (John 17:11). Not content with that, Jesus goes on to pray “that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). One measure of our attitude toward Jesus is how seriously we love what he loves, and he loves for his whole Church to be one Body in the truth of the faith.

And should it surprise us to hear Jesus praying so passionately for the unsullied unity of his Church? After all, long before Jesus gathered his disciples in the upper room, and even long before Joseph and Mary drew close to Bethlehem, Jesus – the eternal Word even before he became flesh – was God. Jesus was the God who chose twelve tribes and called them one nation. Jesus was the God who marked them with one sign of circumcision, who gave them one law and one sacrificial system and one priesthood, who appointed one central altar for the sacrifices of the whole people, and who commanded them to preserve that unity. And does Jesus expect any less of us under the new covenant than he did under the old? In fact, he calls us to more unity, not less; to better health, not worse. Disunity is a graver offense to the new sacrifice than to any of the old ones that blazed and smoldered before the tabernacle in the desert or in the temple courts of earthly Jerusalem.

The painful truth is that in the past five hundred years, we've all been so sinfully proud of our respective roles in the rending that we've been pitifully neglectful of the mending – that is, we've failed to be diligent about coming to agreement on the diagnosis, about treating the condition more effectively, about striving to achieve the conditions for full unity again, mending a common faith so we can return to the same altar together to feast on the same salvation for (and with) body and soul. This isn't merely a nice wish, a dream for sensitive hearts. It's an obligation. It's a commandment of Christ. We are told to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13), and until we're fully united back together as one Body, we are – to that extent of disunity – too immature to follow Christ in the way he means it.

Some day, it will not be so. Some day, we will all grow up. Some day, we will all reach the full measure of Christ. In that day, you will search far and wide for a sign picking out the Lutheran church, and you will not find it. There will be no such thing as a Lutheran church. Or a Baptist church. Or a Methodist church. Or a Mennonite church. Or an Amish church. Or an Evangelical Congregational church. Or a 'non-denominational' church (but I think I already mentioned the Baptists). These denominations, these associations, these independencies are fated to either escape the gravity of grace altogether or else be pulled back into unity to journey as one body – a body pierced and bloodied, but with bones unbroken. In God's time, we know for certain that, unless we dare despair that the Father plans to forever deny his own Son's urgent prayer, all these old things must at last pass away into the fleshed-out unity into which one Lord calls us in one Spirit.

If Jesus prayed that we be one to show the world that he and his Father are one, that we be perfectly united so that the love of the Father and the mission of the Son and the embrace of the Spirit are evident to a waiting world, then our division – including the division cemented five centuries ago today – is a scandal that scars our witness and sickens all creation. Isn't five hundred years long enough to be resigned to the status quo? Isn't five hundred years long enough to treat Jesus' vision as expendable? Isn't five centuries long enough to agree to let contagion fester? Isn't five centuries long enough to waste around different altars?

We need to do our part to reach out in love across these divides, be they the divides of yesterday or the divides of five centuries past, and run our diagnostic tests again. We need to do our part to remember the faith we're meant to share, in all its purity – which is why next week, we'll begin a sermon series returning us to the Apostles' Creed, the faith once delivered to all, the bedrock we all must confess and cherish. We need to do our part to pray in hope, all together and across the divides, for the cause of Christian unity, until earth and heaven shake, until the obstacles give way, until at last the altar is one and the table is one. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is fast approaching this month. But this deserves more than a week. It's the passionate yearning of our Lord. We need only to catch flame with the Lord's love for unity.

As we gather at this table this morning, I hope we leave hungrier than we came – hungrier, because a longing has been awakened in us: a longing for more of Jesus, for all of Jesus: the God and the man, the body and the soul, the flesh and the blood. And this we'll taste all the more on the day when, in common, a cured Church can finally feast healthily and heartily on the completeness of Christ. But I hope we can taste this morning that life tastes a little funny. For many centuries, there has been a blight, a disease, a quarantine; and Jesus is calling us today, here on earth, to rebuild, to heal, to make right. That will take work. That will take relationships. That will take prayer. But even now, amidst the broken pieces of five centuries of fallout, the grace of Jesus abundantly drenches us in our separated places. He was crucified for us. He is risen from the dead. He will come again and gather all things together beautifully in himself. And as we wait, were the torn church to ask the Lord for just four words to carry with us to the table, he might well say this: “Get well. Get one.” Amen.