“The Only True God”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is today’s Epistle Reading, in which the Apostle Paul stresses that there is only one true God.
Canada has a law outlawing what is considered to be “hate speech.” In one case, a church was severely fined and the pastor threatened with jail for publishing a newspaper advertisement that simply reproduced without commentary a number of Bible verses which say that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, such as, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It seems in Canada just quoting that Bible verse is now illegal “hate speech” against other religions.
A few years ago on the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” a member of the mythical Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church was upset because her daughter said she still believes in some kind of god, but not the Triune God, or that Jesus is divine, the Son of God. The fictional Pastor Inkvist made her feel better by assuring her that God is “too big to fit into any one religion. And at that point the live audience at “A Prairie Home Companion” burst out clapping and shouting approval. For, you see, that is the commonly held and popular viewpoint today, that all religions are just different paths to the same God.
That is the question Paul is addressing in today’s Epistle Reading: What is our attitude as Christians toward the claims, and prophets, and gods of other religions?
This was an especially important question in ancient Corinth. Corinth was one of the great cities and commercial centers of the Greek-Roman world. It was right at the crossroads of the major sea lanes and highways. People from all over the world flocked to Corinth to buy and sell goods brought there from around the world. And they also brought with them all the religions of the ancient world. Because of its trade and business, Corinth was an extremely wealthy city. A lot of that money was poured into huge temples for every god imaginable from all over the ancient world.
In the midst of these dozens of impressive temples dedicated to the pagan worship of hundreds of different deities, there was a small but growing Christian congregation. Paul writes to them what some these days might consider to be hate speech: “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world, and that there is no God but one.”
Martin Luther observes in the Large Catechism, “There has never been a people so wicked that it did not establish and maintain some sort of worship. Everyone has set up a god of his own, to which he looked for blessings, help, and comfort.” Luther is pointing out one of the great mysteries of social anthropology. Why is it that all human cultures around the world, throughout history, without exception, develop belief in and worship of a deity or deities? Paul explains this phenomenon in Romans: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” All those false deities worshipped at Corinth, all the false gods and false prophets throughout history and still in our world today, all have their origin in what we call the “natural knowledge” of God. Creation itself tells us that there is a Creator.
But, this natural knowledge of God only communicates to us the fact that there is a God, and the bad news that he is holy, and we are not, the bad news that we are sinners who haven’t measured up. That’s what behind all pagan acts of worship: the innate knowledge humans have that we are guilty before God, in need of redemption. All the idol worship and pagan sacrifices at Corinth and throughout history have been an attempt to earn forgiveness, to appease an angry God.
That’s what set the tiny Christian congregation at Corinth apart from the worship practiced and beliefs promoted in all those massive pagan temples that surrounded them. That’s still what sets apart Christianity today, from all other religions in the world. All other religions start with a big “IF,” and the best they have to offer is a “maybe”: IF you do this, if you do that, then MAYBE God will love you, maybe God will forgive you, maybe you will save yourself.
Christianity proclaims not an “if” or a “maybe” but the Good News of God’s GIFT of salvation, through the sacrifice of his own Son. Not, “If you do this, maybe God will love you,” but the Good News, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son”. Not, “If you do this, maybe God will forgive you,” but “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” Not, “If you do this, maybe you will save yourself,” but “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” Christianity proclaims not that your sins MIGHT be forgiven, but the Good News your sins ARE all forgiven, by the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ, your Savior. As the Apostle John says, “Your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.”
Christian worship is not to earn forgiveness, but receiving and celebrating the gift of forgiveness, freely granted to you on account of Christ. Christian worship receives and celebrates the gift of God’s grace. Pagan worship is always works-righteousness, a desperate attempt to earn God’s favor.
But, all those grand ancient temples at Corinth, all those sacrifices, all those pleas for forgiveness, it was all meaningless, for “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.” When you dial a wrong number a recording says “Your call cannot be completed as dialed.” Sacrifices, worship, and prayers directed to pagan false gods are like a phone call to a disconnected number. There really is no one, no being, no deity, NOTHING on the other end. For, “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet we have one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”
As Luther continues in the Large Catechism, “The trouble is that their trust is false and wrong, for it is not founded upon the one God, apart from whom there is truly no god in heaven or on earth. Accordingly the heathen actually fashion their fancies and dreams about God into an idol and entrust themselves to an empty nothing.”
What is our attitude as Christians toward the claims, and prophets, and gods of other religions? Paul says in Ephesians that we should “speak the truth in love.” There’s an example of “speaking the truth in love” in Acts. A young man named Apollos came to Ephesus, who knew some things about Christ, but also had some things wrong. A husband and wife couple, Aquila and Priscilla, were the leaders of the Christians there. Acts says, “Apollos began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” “Speaking the truth in love.”
We cannot ever compromise our Christian faith, either with those inside Christianity, who have false teachings that deviate from the Word of God; or those outside Christianity, who want us to reduce our Christian faith to just one among many religions, and reduce the Triune God and Jesus Christ to just one among many gods and many lords.
“For even if there are so-called gods . . . yet we have one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”Amen.