Disagreements (Galatians 2)
1. In our first reading this morning, we find the story of the first ecumenical council of the Church in Jerusalem. It took place because it was being taught, "Unless you are circumcised ... you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). Many teachers were saying that to become a Christian you first had to become a Jew. The Church was being infested with this horrible doctrine. The Apostles had to make a statement. The problem was that the opponents spun the council's statement to reinforce their position. This also created great problems among the Twelve Apostles.
2. Those problems came to a head not long after the council. At the council, as we have in our text this morning, "James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars ... gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and [Paul]" (v9). Immediately after the council, Paul started on his second missionary journey, during which he planted the Galatian churches. He had continued on to Antioch where Peter and Barnabas came to visit him. They were eating together at one of the congregation's potlucks. When Peter and Barnabas heard that "certain men came from James" (v12), the bishop of Jerusalem and the brother of our Lord, they put down their bratwursts (or whatever Gentile food they were eating) and slunk over to the "Jews-only" table. Paul couldn't believe it. Peter, one of our Lord's very first disciples, the one who made the wonderful confession we heard in our Gospel reading, lapsed into the sin of racism. With "certain men" in attendance, Peter and Barnabas wanted to be seen as on their side of the issue. Paul had spent so much time working among the Gentiles, showing that they could be Christians and Gentiles at the same time, that Paul was appalled. So he rebuked them in front of the entire gathering. There is no need for such racism. Paul put them in their place.
3. In the LC--MS today, we're frequently accused of "theological racism." We're considered "elitist", "unloving", "exclusionary" and "separatists". Why? Because we stand on our confessional roots. We actually believe that the sixteenth-century writings found in the Book of Concord are "a true exposition of the Word of God and a correct exhibition of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church" (Rite of Ordination). We believe that they say what the Bible says and teaches. Because of that, we are much more careful than some when talking with other church bodies. However, there is one question that keeps popping up: "Why can't some people commune at our altar? What makes them different?" To answer that question, I created the white insert in the bulletin. I ask you now to pull it out so we can look at it.
4. The major question, especially in this congregation, is "Why can't my children--who were baptized and confirmed here--commune with us as a family just because they're ELCA now?" Hopefully, this insert will answer your question. The insert lists the official position of the ELCA and every church body with whom they have either "full communion" or "communion partnership" agreements. Let me explain those terms quickly. "Full communion" agreements are agreements where there is full altar and pulpit fellowship between the church bodies. Pastors from either church may preside over services at any partner church. Members from either church can commune at any partner church's altar. The LC--MS is in "full communion" with only one church body in the U.S.--The American Association of Lutheran Churches. There are also twenty-seven other Lutheran churches throughout the world that we have similar agreements. "Full communion" indicates that there is agreement on all major points of doctrine. The "communion partnerships" are one-sided. The ELCA will allow these church bodies at their altar, but they haven't officially reciprocated. In the insert, I've simply taken the official position on the Lord's Supper, according to their official doctrinal statements and confessions, as simply one example of the disparity that exists between doctrine and practice.
5. The ELCA claims the position of the Lutheran Confessions just as we do. But can they reconcile that with their agreement with these other church bodies? Three deny the bodily presence of Jesus in favor of a spiritual presence. Jesus' body and blood are not present at the altar but, by faith, we can ascend into Heaven to be with them. Six deny any presence of Jesus in the Lord's Supper. Jesus commanded His disciples to perform the ritual meal so that we may prove our worthiness and help make ourselves righteous before God. Two church bodies don't even bother to take a stand one way or another about the Lord's Supper. Either the communicant or the congregation gets to decide what it is. How can all these different positions be reconciled with each other? There's only one way. Former LC--MS President A.L. Barry wrote, "In these documents [stating their fellowship agreement],it is admitted that 'important theological differences ... remain between our two church in such questions as the understanding of the Lord's Supper and Christology.' These differences are viewed 'not as disagreements that need to be overcome, but as diverse witnesses to the one Gospel that we confess in common'" ["What About the Difference Between the ELCA and the LCMS?"]. The disagreements do not need to be overcome because they constitute a part of the Bible that isn't truly God's Word. You see, the ELCA doesn't believe that the Bible IS the Word of God. They believe it merely CONTAINS the Word of God.
6. Now the response comes: "But that's just what the church body believes. That doesn't mean that I or my children believe it!" My question is, "Why not?" When you become a member of a congregation, you are bonded to the church body and the confession to which they've attached themselves. When someone joins a church, they promise to uphold the teachings of the church body and agree to everything that the church body believes, teaches and confesses. As we've had the opportunity three times in the last year to welcome new members into the congregation, each member has had to assent to the following question: "Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?" Most every other church has a similar procedure and question. After all, what's the point of belonging to an organization if you don't believe what they're teaching and doing? But, as for the individual's perspective and faith, "the Lord's Supper is always a personal matter, it is NEVER a private matter.... Those who commune at the same altar are thereby declaring publically that they are united in the doctrine of the Apostles (Acts 2:42). Therefore, fellowship in the Supper is church fellowship. That is what is taught by Holy Scripture in 1 Cor[inthians] 10 and 11" [A.L. Barry, "What About Fellowship in the Lord's Supper"]. That leads us to the quote in our bulletin this morning where C.F.W. Walther, the first president of the LC--MS, says: "Even one who confesses the Real Presence cannot ordinarily, except in the case of death, be admitted if he is and want to remain, not a member of our orthodox church, but rather a Roman Catholic, Reformed, so-called Evangelical or Unionist, Methodist, Baptist, in short, a member of an erring fellowship. For the Sacrament, as it is a seal of the faith, is also the banner of the fellowship in which it is administered" [Pastoral Theology, 149].
7. "The practice of Close Communion is prompted by love and is born of the heartfelt conviction, on the basis of Scripture alone, that we must follow Christ's command. This means refusing the Lord's Supper to those whose belief is not known to us. It is not showing love to allow a person to do something harmful, even though he may think it is for his own good" [Donald Deffner, "Why Close Communion?", 14]. The LC--MS is not the only church body that practices Close Communion. In fact, it is the communion practice for the majority of Christendom. The Roman Catholic church, Eastern Orthodox, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and others also practice this responsibility given to them by our Lord Jesus Christ. "The Office of the Keys is less than faithfully exercised when admission to the Sacrament is granted to all who come to the altar regardless of their faith and congregational and/or denominational affiliation. The practice of open Communion renders it difficult, if not impossible, for church discipline to be exercised in a way that honors the ministrations being carried out by those to whom the responsibility of spiritual care for a member of God's flock as been entrusted (Heb. 13:17; cf. John 20:22-23; Acts 20:27-28; 1 Cor. 4:1-2)" [CTCR, "Theology and Practice of the Lord's Supper", 23]. And unfortunately, the practice of Close Communion will continue to separate us from other Christians until there is true unity in faith and reconciliation.
8. We pray for the day that we will be reconciled one day with all our Christian brothers and sisters in the one true faith in Jesus Christ just as Paul was reconciled with Peter and Barnabas. It will take a great deal of work. It won't happen by overlooking differences or ignoring clear but inconvenient Scriptural truths and doctrines. It will happen by sticking to those clear Scriptural doctrines of the Christian faith. That is the only way to achieve true reconciliation. Following Jesus and His words, we will, once again, achieve a true fellowship with all Christendom. It should be our hope and our prayer that God will bring about that fellowship here in time as it will be in eternity. Until then, we must stick to our Scriptural and Confessional basis as we have learned them. How does that affect us and our families now? One of two things: we either understand and respect that there are differences or we work to remove those differences. I will be here to help with either solution. May God bless you as you wade through this situation. Amen.