Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 John 3:16-4:4
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lutherans, and Lutheranism, don’t make the news too frequently, so for me anyway it’s pretty memorable when they do.
You may remember that back in 2011, a Minnesota politician named Michele Bachmann was running for president, and a scandal broke out. What was the scandal about? Well, those were quainter times, and the scandal had to do with the fact that Ms. Bachmann was a member of a strange sect that believes that the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church is the Antichrist.
Ms. Bachmann was, until around the time she ran for president, a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a national church body despite its name, boasting several hundred thousand members; the most conservative of the major Lutheran groups in this country. And the confessional documents that the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod subscribes to do indeed condemn the pope as the Antichrist. Ms. Bachmann disavowed this particular teaching, and I think she had already withdrawn her membership from the denomination when the scandal broke. In any case, whether due in part to this scandal or for other reasons, her campaign fizzled.
I think at this point that I should inform you that this congregation, and I as a pastor, also belong to a church body whose confessional documents proclaim that the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church is the Antichrist.
I will read to you now from the Smalcald Articles, part of the so-called “Book of Concord,” the collection of writings summing up the beliefs of the Lutheran Church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which this congregation is a part, describes this book as a faithful witness to and interpretation of Scripture. At my ordination, I promised to preach and teach in accordance with this book.
This teaching shows forcefully that the Pope is the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ because he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power, which, nevertheless, is nothing, and is neither ordained nor commanded by God. This is, properly speaking to exalt himself above all that is called God as Paul says, 2 Thess. 2:4. Even the Turks or the Tartars, great enemies of Christians as they are, do not do this, but they allow whoever wishes to believe in Christ, and take bodily tribute and obedience from Christians.
The Pope, however, prohibits this faith, saying that to be saved a person must obey him. This we are unwilling to do, even though on this account we must die in God’s name. This all proceeds from the fact that the Pope has wished to be called the supreme head of the Christian Church by divine right. Accordingly he had to make himself equal and superior to Christ, and had to cause himself to be proclaimed the head and then the lord of the Church, and finally of the whole world, and simply God on earth, until he has dared to issue commands even to the angels in heaven.
Now, as much as I wanted to get your attention with that, I don’t want to leave you with a false impression. Most Lutheran pastors and scholars–liberal or conservative–do not think that Pope Francis is personally the Antichrist. I don’t think that myself. A more conservative Lutheran might talk about how the office of the Papacy is Antichrist, even to this day, without personally condemning the man who occupies it. A more liberal Lutheran might view the words I’ve just read to you as a historical judgment, true in Luther’s day and worth understanding for the sake of historical knowledge, but not really applicable to the modern papacy.
Luther and his companions saw the Pope and the Church of their day arrogating to themselves things that belonged only to Christ. The picture on the bulletin cover is an example of that, taken from a pamphlet contrasting the way the Pope acted with the way Christ acted. We see Christ stooping to wash the disciples’ feet, while the Pope forces his followers to stoop and kiss his feet. (Kissing the pope’s feet was something that Roman Catholics used to do; I don’t know the full history of the practice, but Paul VI, who was pope in the 1960’s and 70’s, eliminated it altogether, and I imagine it had already grown fairly rare by his day.) Since the Pope claimed for himself the power of salvation and the servitude of Christians, which belong to Christ alone, Luther called him Antichrist.
The word “Antichrist” only appears a few times in the Bible, in the books we call First John and Second John. Let’s look again at the passage we read a few minutes ago:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.
Note those words: “In the flesh.” They get to the heart of what the First Epistle of John is about, the conflict that it was written to address.
The early Christians argued about who exactly Jesus was and how exactly to describe Jesus. Some early Christ-followers claimed that Christ did not have an actual, fleshly, human body; he only seemed to have a body. And this was a dangerous belief–so dangerous as to be anti-Christian; so wicked as to be Antichrist.
If Jesus was a purely spiritual being, who only seemed to have taken on flesh, then following Jesus would seem to be a matter of separating oneself from the world and the flesh. If Jesus didn’t have a real body, and we wanted to be like Jesus, then it would hardly be necessary to care for our own bodies–to say nothing of our neighbors’ bodies. If Jesus existed as a spiritual being on a spiritual plane rather than as a flesh-and-blood human being in our physical world, then we should shun the physical world and our flesh-and-blood neighbors and strive to become somehow more “spiritual,” whatever that might mean.
But in fact, Jesus lived as a flesh-and-blood human being, just like each one of us. Jesus pulled the dusty air of Palestine into his lungs until the hour he breathed his last on a cross. His heart pumped blood through his veins until a soldier speared him in the side and he bled out. On the night before his execution, he knelt down before each of his disciples, took their feet in his hands, and washed them, as grossly physical an action as you can imagine. Jesus laid down his life for his friends–his physical life. And then God raised Jesus from the dead, still with a physical body, with marks and holes in the hands and feet and sides from the death he had undergone.
Jesus loved his friends and others around him, tended to their physical needs, and then gave his life for them, a freely made offering for the benefit of all of us flesh-and-blood human beings. In doing so, he gave us an example of how we are to love one another: Jesus laid down his life for us, and so we ought to lay down our lives for one another. But, more importantly I think, Jesus’ physical life and death show us God’s love for us and closeness to us. It is not for us to somehow go up to God, to transcend our physical reality and enter a spiritual realm. God comes down to us, shares our world, shares our existence, shares our bodily nature, and at last will raise all our bodies anew, to share a new life together.
Thanks be to God! Amen.