The following sermon was preached by Dr John Stephenson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in commemoration of St James  of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr, Friday, 23 October 2020.

Acts 15:12-22a

Because dogmatics has practical implications, some of its components are hot potatoes, and none of these has been hotter in North American Lutheranism than the topic of Church and Ministry. If I were to teach on Church and Ministry, I might well structure the whole course around the Apostolic Council of the year 49 that is recorded in Acts 15. When you come to think of it, Constantine’s famous gathering at Nicea in 325 was actually the second oecumenical council of the Church. The 318 bishops gathered at Nicea represented the Church of the whole empire, which regarded itself as the entire civilised world. A decade and a half after Pentecost the worldwide Church extended over a far smaller geographical area, its two great centres located in Jerusalem and Antioch. But James the Just, a man who prayed so much that he was remembered as having knees like a camel, did preside over a representative assembly of the whole Church of his day; what that council decreed had the force of law for more than a century, and the bottom line of its decisions determines the doctrine and ethos of Holy Christendom to this day.

I’ve a soft spot for David Hollaz, who died in 1713 as a dry-as-dust dogmatician of late Lutheran Orthodoxy. His teaching on what the Church is and how the Church does business is summed up in two Latin expressions that some might dismiss as outmoded formulations that belong tucked away in a neglected corner of the Rare Books Room … except for the fact that the teaching they encapsulate is 100% biblical and hence acutely relevant till the Lord returns in glory.

What is the Church? She is the coming together of the holy people, the laity, with the clergy, and of the clergy with the people, and never of one without the other; she is the composite Church, the ecclesia synthetica. A schism was threatening over the status of the law of Moses in the Church of Christ, so the brethren at Antioch sent a delegation to Jerusalem, “and they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the presbyters.” Of course, numerically speaking, the Church consists preponderantly of the laity, but the apostles and the presbyters who grew out of the apostolate were a distinct group within the Church, which is why when Paul wrote his letter to the first Church in Europe, he greeted “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” Ecclesia synthetica; as she was then, so she is now.

Hollaz wasn’t pulling ideas out of a hat when he went on to teach that the whole Church needs to be distilled into a manageable body for the purpose of determining issues and deciding controversies; there must be an ecclesia representativa, a representative Church. Transplant Lutheran Christendom from European to North American soil, hearken to the patriarch Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, fast forward to C. F. W. Walther in Perry County, and the ecclesia representativa gets divided 50-50 into conventions made up half of laity and half of clergy. But Hollaz was a figure of the old world, and so his ecclesia representativa would raise eyebrows over here because it consisted to a very great degree of the clergy alone. But even if the clergy alone make up the entire ecclesia representativa, as they did when James the Just took the chair at Jerusalem, they have to represent not a faction but the Church as a whole, which was precisely what the apostles and presbyters did when they nipped schism in the bud and unfurled their great charter of mission.

Luke wasn’t joking when he described his first volume as the record of what Jesus began to do and to teach. Acts tells the story of what Jesus went on to teach and to do. The long book of church history of which Acts is the first instalment includes much more that Jesus has done and taught, which encompasses the creed of Nicea and the confession of Augsburg and much, much more. So powerful were Peter’s keynote speech and the testimony of Paul and Barnabas that James could present his assembly’s decision with the startling words, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” The Holy Spirit allowed this formulation to enter the canon of inspired Scripture, and on their second missionary journey Paul and Silas set forth these decisions, these δόγματα if you please, as decrees binding the consciences and behaviour of Christian people everywhere.

The Apostolic Council of Jerusalem could never have taken place if the synthetic and the representative Church had only been able to assemble online as a virtual gathering; the Church of the Son of God who took up permanent residence in flesh and blood has to be a flesh and blood Church. The Holy Spirit can’t iron out differences between people who are kept apart and hence deprived of a big component of what it is to be human.

The historic Church of Jerusalem believed James the Just to be the eldest son of St Joseph by his first marriage, and the liturgy named in James’s honour is a four-hour performance that only the fittest and most athletic can stand through; which is why, after the Cappadocian Father St Basil experienced this liturgy, he went home and abbreviated this worship marathon into a more tolerable two and a half hour liturgy that bears his name.

Who could be more Jewish than James, this proud prince of the house of David, who could be more Jewish than James who earned such respect among his fellow Jews that many of them mourned when he was martyred by being thrown off the pinnacle of the Temple in the year 62, in an atrocity that was among the factors that led to the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Temple?

But as the risen Lord opened James’s heart to Himself in a special resurrection appearance, so James’s heart was opened wide to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God, so that he rejoiced in the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas and accepted in the depths of his being the truth that our hearts are cleansed by faith, by the trust in Christ that necessarily issues in faithfulness. And although he remained deeply attached to the customs of historic Israel, James is himself a witness to the truth that all who are saved, whether Jew or Gentile, are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus. The only blessed way to receive Holy Communion on this or any other day is with hearts cleansed by faith and in the conviction that we can be saved only by the grace of the Lord Jesus. And may God do the same for us as he did for James the Just by opening our hearts to people of different background and culture whom He may send our way as He is pleased to use us also as instruments in the Church’s mission.

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