The assigned sermon hymn in the one year series for Lutherans using Lutheran Service Book for this past Sunday was a beloved modern American piece entitled “The Church’s One Foundation.”
Written in 1866 AD, this hymn proclaims the mysteries of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. In the first stanza alone, the author 1) proclaims the centrality and the divinity of the divine person of Jesus Christ to the Church – linking the theological disciplines of christology and ecclesiology, 2) joins together eschatology (“new creation”) and sacramentology in a biblical baptismal reference (“by water and the Word”), 3) invokes the incarnation, the monergism of grace, and the mystery of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and 4) introduces the sacrificial theme of the atonement.
And that’s just stanza one.
The third stanza, however, is painfully poignant today. The author speaks of the Church “oppressed.” Surprisingly, the author is not speaking of external persecution in the worldly sense (e.g. the Roman arena and cross, Communism, Islam), but rather “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.”
For this is how the Church is truly oppressed, internally, by her most vicious enemy: the devil.
. . .
Luther considered the “cross” – that is persecution, to be a “mark of the Church.” If Satan is not working night and day to destoy you, you have become uninteresting to him. Only one who is hopelessly lost has that kind of “luxury.” As long as the Bride of Christ endures in the fallen world (and our Lord promises that not even the gates of hell will prevail against her) the true Church will suffer the assaults of schism and heresy bubbling up from within.
Some see our church body “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies oppressed” and conclude that this cannot be the Church. For certainly, the Church, the true Church, would not be rent and distressed. For such people, the cross is not a mark of the Church, but rather a mark of not being Church.
. . .
These are the kinds of things that converts, and those seeking converts, are not eager to discuss – any more than we Lutherans are too keen on talking about the blasphemous abominations that occur in places bearing the name “Lutheran”. These things are painful and grievous, but the Church, East and West, has always been “rent asunder” and “distressed” by both internal “schisms” and even by “heresies” emerging from within.
But these things in no way negate the faithful remnants within Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Protestantism as being constituent parts of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. In fact, the East’s long history of struggles – theological and political – only serve to confirm that she, like the rest of the Church Catholic, is an enemy of the devil – because she is most certainly a part of the Bride of Christ.
While there is a place for theological debate, and even at times, polemics – we Christians would do well not to lose sight of who our real enemy is, as well as who our faithful Husband shall always be.
All Christians can indeed sing together stanza five of “The Church’s One Foundation”:
Yet she on earth has union
With God, the Three in One.
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won.
O blessed heav’nly chorus!
Lord, save us by Your grace
That we, like saints before us,
May see you face to face.
I think “Father Hollywood” has it spot on. Disagree?