In the last two newsletters, we have discussed the Church’s one Foundation, and how we become part of that Church. Even if the Church’s Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord, and even if we don’t make ourselves members of His Body, perhaps we must work to sustain the unity of the Church? How are divisions prevented and unity preserved?
No, just as we cannot make ourselves members of the one Body of Christ, neither can we preserve its unity. All human attempts at unity must fail, because they are based on visible, human ideas of what unity looks like. Some church bodies believe that unity must be preserved (by humans) at any price, even if that means allowing heresy to go unchallenged. Heresy is intentionally choosing to go against the teaching of Christ’s Church, that is, the teaching of the Scriptures, and refusing to repent of it. When heresy is allowed to remain within a visible church body, unity has already been broken and no human attempt at preserving it can succeed.
Nor will human attempts succeed to create unity where none exists. When the Word of God speaks, it is not good enough to “agree to disagree.” When the Word of God speaks, and church bodies hold two contradictory interpretations, unity is impossible. The way through the disunity is not to ignore the differences, but to talk together until the disagreement is resolved. But, until reconciliation is made, no one should pretend that unity is possible.
What is true of church bodies is also true of individual congregations. Unity must be preserved by the Head of the Body, who is Christ. His means of preserving unity in His Body are His means of grace. Grace for humans can never mean grace by and from humans. Grace comes from outside us. So Christ preserves the unity of the Body by means outside the Body.
Since disunity is very often the result of sin, only forgiveness can remove the obstacles in the way of unity. The only way that obstacles between two people can be removed is if mutual forgiveness is granted. And forgiveness comes from the Lord, who has first forgiven us. Absolution is the only solution to a sin problem. Thus, the Lord gives us His gifts: Baptism, by which unity is established, because it means union with Christ; Absolution, the means by which unity is restored, both between humans and God and between one human and another; and Holy Communion, by which unity is preserved and strengthened. Only union with the Head can create and preserve union in the Body.
The fact that Christ is the only one who can create and strengthen unity in the Church means that His invitation to Absolution and His Supper is an invitation to stronger unity among us who confess the same faith. But it also means that we may not attempt to create unity where He has not given it. The current state of affairs in the Church is a sad reminder that we are sinners and that divisions have already occurred in the one Body of Christ. Even so, we should not presume to take upon ourselves what only Christ can do. If there is not unity, we continue to pray and talk to each other. What we must not do is attempt to anticipate the Last Day and force unity where it does not exist. Our role is not to bring unity, but to rejoice in the unity that Christ brings. So we rejoice in the unity Christ has already granted in the Holy Spirit, and we pray for the day when divisions will cease. “O Comforter of priceless worth, Send peace and unity on earth” (“Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word,” LSB 655, st.3).
Passages of Scripture on the Church’s unity: Psalm 133; John 17; Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 10:17; 1 Corinthians 12; Galatians 2:11-22; Galatians 3:25-28; Ephesians 4; Colossians 3:1-17; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 John 1:7
*St. Augustine said, as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; but with you I am a Christian.”
October is a month of change. The fields are being harvested, the school year is in full swing, the days are getting shorter, and the weather is getting colder. What does not change is Christ for you. He brings His gifts of Word and Sacrament to you every Sunday. But His gift of forgiveness is available to you at other times as well. The restoration of these gifts in their purity is the lasting legacy of the Lutheran Reformation, which began on October 31, 1517.
I am available by appointment at any time for private confession and absolution, and specifically on Saturdays from 2-3 pm. This gift of Jesus to His Church is particularly for those times when you feel especially burdened by sin. But you need not have committed serious sin in order to confess before the altar of God. Christ desires to speak His word of holy absolution into your ears through my mouth. Sometimes during the corporate, general confession and absolution in the Sunday service, you may not feel like the confession or absolution is directly yours. Private absolution is an opportunity to hear the words of Christ’s forgiveness spoken directly to you so that you have no doubt that His forgiveness is for you. So come and try it sometime. Don’t worry about how to do it; there will be cards available with brief instructions on them. You can also read Luther’s instructions in the column to the right.
“Confession has not been abolished by the preachers on our side. For the custom has been retained among us of not administering the sacrament to those who have not previously been examined and absolved. At the same time, the people are diligently instructed how comforting the word of absolution is and how highly and dearly absolution is to be esteemed. For it is not the voice or word of the person speaking it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin. For it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command. … Nevertheless, the preachers on our side diligently teach that confession is to be retained because of absolution (which is confession’s principal and foremost part) for the comfort of terrified consciences and because of other reasons” (Augsburg Confession XXV, K/W 73-74)
Quote for the Month
“What does such baptizing with water signify? It signifies that the Old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
“Where is this written? St. Paul writes, Romans, chapter sixth: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Small Catechism, Baptism, part IV)
“What is Confession? Confession embraces two parts. One is that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
“What sins should we confess? Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even of those which we do not know, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer; but before the pastor we should confess those sins only which we know and feel in our hearts.
“Which are these? Here consider your station according to the Ten Commandments, whether you are a father, mother, son, daughter, master, mistress, servant; whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, slothful; whether you have grieved any person by word or deed; whether you have stolen, neglected, or wasted [anything], or done other injury.” (Small Catechism, Confession)
Pastor Timothy Winterstein