THE TRUE GLORY OF THE CHURCH
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one. John 17:22
One thing we humans cannot afford is to be proud. Our Lord Jesus warns us again and again to beware the false glory of the world, the deceptive vanities all around us, and that prejudice in favor of ourselves that pervades all of our thinking. The psychologists on the talk-shows tell us to love ourselves, that it is unhealthy to hate yourself, that your self-love should increase and seek greater satisfaction. They want to condition us to what they call "self-esteem," which they claim is a cure for crime, a rule for learning, and a motive for achievement. God's Word disagrees.
In Eden, Adam and his wife could love God, themselves, and God in themselves, because their wills were perfectly disposed to obey Him. Their entire motivation was to please Him. They pleased themselves when they pleased Him. We can't do that. Our motives have been corrupted since before we were born. We cannot love God. When we love ourselves, we love twisted, hideous rebels against the heavenly throne.
Yet, miracle of miracles, God loves those very twisted, hideous rebels. We cannot know why, but we can see how, because we have been looking at the events of Lent and Easter. We join in confessing that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. As God gave His Son for us, He became the Fountain of Life, a fountain outside of ourselves. Our text is from the High-priestly Prayer of Jesus, as He was about to walk to Gethsemane. The glory He is praying about is the cross, which is God's gift to us, but an expensive price for Him. We would never choose the cross for ourselves. It is alien to our whole way of thinking. We naturally sow to the flesh, naturally love money and pleasure, naturally seek worldly pomp and power. There is nothing natural about the cross. It is only by the Holy Spirit that it draws us from the vanities. Yet by the cross God loves us, affirms us, assures us, and establishes us. Jesus calls this the glory You gave me. He is praying to God the Father, thanking Him for the privilege of being ordained to die for us, the Incarnate Word Himself embracing the cross to condemn sin and comfort sinners.
Technology does not make you a better person, only a more sophisticated sinner. Behavior modification may change what you do about your self-love, but it cannot take away the self-love. Education can make you a more efficient child of the world, but it cannot create faith. Such things can treat the symptoms, but not the disease. There is no human answer to original sin. We will always seek glory for ourselves, and reject the cross until the Holy Spirit conquers us through the Gospel, and replaces our pride with faith. Whether an infant or a senior citizen, we all need to be born again into the kingdom of Christ. The only other kingdom is Satan's. We must be in one or the other.
If the Word of God kills our self-love, that is nothing to cry about. The Word gives us something far better. Jesus asks the Father to give us the glory which the Father gave Him, glory which is by no means diminished in the sharing, glory which is not just like the glory of Christ, but that very glory itself, cross, resurrection and all. To us it seems impossible. There's no way we could love people like that. Jesus says, I have loved you, therefore you can love one another. How much better His esteem is than self-esteem! The Holy Spirit has created something new in each of us, re-created a new self in Christ, a self with genuine value. It is not enough to say that we have permission to love this self. We can actually love God in this new self, and in the new selves of our fellow Christians. Such love makes the Church one. Regardless of what we might see with our eyes, there is an invisible Church which is always one in Christ.
Notice the Lord's language here: that Christians be as unified as the Father and the Son. Many historical contingencies have produced a divided visible Church. These divisions will not go away. Truth, like any other good gift, cannot be possessed. It can be understood, appreciated, and obeyed, but not possessed. We must always bear witness to the truth, even when it brings the visible divisions into sharper contrast. You cannot bring unity to the Church by denying the truth. You will not make the Church one by denying the Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the Sacraments.
Could we be one if we all believed the Bible? Look and learn. For four hundred years Lutherans and Baptists have been reading the same Bible, with the same commitment, with equal linguistic skill, yet coming up with contradictory - not just differing but contradictory - teachings concerning regeneration. Both are moved by love of the same Christ, both confess the free gift of forgiveness. Does it matter? Understand this: saying the right theology is no better than any other human work. It is often mixed with sin, and can harbor pride, but teaching incorrect theology is a sin. Refusing to hear the Word and be corrected by it is stubbornness. In the face of men, stubbornness can be a virtue, but not in the face of God's Word. It is forgivable, that is certain, but it is difficult to confess because one must be faithful to Christ, which is difficult to separate from being faithful to one's particular division of the Church. Only the Holy Spirit can overcome stubbornness. Only forgiveness can reconcile.
The invisible Church, on the other hand, is always one. Under the constant love of God, the true Church is not divided by historical events. It is one because its glory is the cross. This Church is the Bride of Christ. Throughout time and space, from the creation to the consummation of all things, this Church is one as the Father and the Son are one. We can have no better esteem than to belong to this Church, for the forgiveness poured upon us by the blood of Jesus makes us worthy to be His own. As the moon reflects the glory of the sun, so we reflect the glory of Jesus, which is the cross. Through the cross we are reconciled to God, and to the community He has assembled here, and in heaven. To be glad that we belong is not pride; it is faith. AMEN.
~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross