St. Peter welcomes Protestant and Catholic souls into heaven. As Peter shows them around, he points out the mansions where they’ll spend eternity. Approaching one, Peter puts a finger to his mouth, goes, “Shhhhh!” and tiptoes past. Later, someone asks Peter, “Why did we do that?” Peter replies, “Wisconsin Synod Lutherans live there. They think they’re the only ones here.”
People make this joke because we practice close communion, because we refuse to work with churches without total agreement in doctrine, and because we confess only one path to heaven, the narrow path of Jesus Christ living, dying, and rising for me, for my sins, in my place.
If those were the only reasons that joke was told about us, it would be a badge of honor. We could consider it a form of persecution for holding to the truth. But is there truth to the claim that we think we’re the only ones going to heaven? Do we occasionally think that the message of God is just for me, just for my family, just for my Synod, just for Lutherans, our little club?
The Jewish nation felt that way. God chose them to be his special people. He set them apart at Mt. Sinai. “You will be for me a kingdom of priests.” Everyone else was “unclean.” And, in typical sinful fashion, pride developed. Read the Gospels and see how many Jews responded to Jesus’ ministry. “Look at him, eating with sinners. He talks to women. He talks to Samaritans. Thank God we’re not sinners like that. We’re Abraham’s sons. We’re clean. We’re pure. We’re God’s chosen people. We’re saved.”
But today God reminds us that it’s not being WELS or Jewish that makes us chosen people. It’s not about saying certain prayers, singing certain hymns, or looking a certain way, that saves people. God’s grace and mercy save people, a grace and mercy that God extends to all nations. Nothing we are or do makes us God’s people. It’s only what Jesus did. Jesus makes us equal.
Isaiah records the LORD’s saving plan for all nations: “I…am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory. I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations…that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory.”
Does God exclude anyone from His saving work: certain races, classes, or kinds of sinners? No. God shows His glory to the people of Africa, Arabia, Asia, Greece, and points beyond. God proclaimed His message of a Savior through His inspired writings which have circled and continue to circle the globe, opening the narrow door of heaven to people of every type. God only excludes those who rebel, who abuse His Word, who ignore His Word, who try to enter by any door other than Christ. That’s who God condemns. They will die, yet never die. They will writhe and burn in fire, yet never be consumed. God punishes rebellion with eternal death in hell. God excludes those who exclude themselves – whether Jews or members of the WELS.
And except for God’s undeserved love, God would number us among the worm-eaten and hellfire-burned. For no doubt about it, we’ve rebelled. Every time we sin we break all of God’s law, the worst rebellion. But God set His Sign among us: Christ. God displayed Him for all to see. Shepherds and Magi saw Mary’s Child and told everyone, “He’s here! He’s here!” Aged Simeon sang for joy, “My eyes have seen His salvation!” Crowds saw Him all over Palestine – Jews, Samaritans, Romans, Syrians, and more! They saw Him. They heard Him. We hear Him. We hear Him in His Word. We see Him in His Washing and His Supper, displaying Himself publicly for us to see and believe. God set a Sign for the world to see, and by that Sign, He raises up believer after believer through His powerful message: “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God!”
All nations saw Him. All nations heard His message. And people from all nations receive the benefit of His saving work. On the cross, God raised up His suffering Servant, sacrificed for all to see, sacrificed for the sins of all, and people from all nations rally to Him. Even on the cross, Jesus gathers the nations. He called the thief from His life of unbelief. Seeing Him, the Roman centurion proclaimed, “He was the Son of God!” And God saved them, not because of anything in them, but because “whoever believes…will be saved!”
And the Sign continued to shine. Three days later, He walked forth, alive, a sign for all to see, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, “He will see the light of life!” Jesus came forth, alive, to declare, “Peace be with you,” peace through Jesus, peace for you, peace for all nations. And that peace goes out to all nations, because now God calls forth the survivors of sin, God’s children, to go forth as His priests.
In the Old Testament only people from the tribe of Levi could be priests. They were uniquely chosen, set aside by God, just as God set aside Israel through the covenant made at Sinai. God set them aside to point to His promises, to preserve His plan of salvation. But, in the New Testament God ended the time of Israel’s unique chosenness. Christ came! Christ fulfilled the law! Christ was the perfect High Priest. Christ offered the sacrifice for sins and served as the sacrifice once for all! Christ made a new covenant with all nations, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”
Now there is no unique Levitical priesthood, but a universal priesthood. You. Me. All Christians. Peter said it, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” God calls us to be His priests to declare with our words the work of Christ to all nations, excluding no one.
That’s what God said to Isaiah. “I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites.” The point? There’s no more Jew and Gentile. There’s no more clean and unclean. We’re not saved because we belong to the Wisconsin Synod. We’re saved because of God’s grace, through faith in Jesus, the one and only way to heaven. Which means we’re priests declaring God’s praises. Through us, God draws nations of sinners to His holy mountain.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t need pastors and teachers. Scripture tells us that all Christians are priests, each one going to God without any other Mediator than Jesus Christ, each one witnessing to the world. Scripture also tells us that Jesus appoints shepherds – pastors, teachers, evangelists, professors, missionaries – to train those priests for works of service. We have both. Called public ministers aren’t some special priesthood set aside as the only proclaimers of God’s universal saving love. Nor do universal priests usurp and take over the role of God’s set-aside shepherds, or sit, quietly saying and doing nothing. Both work together to proclaim God’s saving truth, that because of Jesus, the suffering Servant, stricken, smitten, and afflicted for you, we have no reason to fear hell, no reason to fear that we will be the ones the worms don’t eat and the fire doesn’t destroy. Faith in Jesus saves you from that.
That is, all Christians will endure eternally. The prophet’s pen lifts our eyes to heaven to give us peace on earth. “’As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,’ declares the LORD, ‘so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me.’” The new heavens and new earth refer to God’s eternal kingdom of heaven, which He described earlier in Isaiah: “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.”
God reserves heaven for all who believe in Jesus, whether baptized just after birth or baptized just before death. This is the Kingdom for believers of all nations. And God compares the eternity of heaven to our eternal election as His priests. Just as heaven is an unending eternity of bliss and joy, so too He promises that the Church on earth shall endure – forever and always! From month to month, from season to season, Christmas and Easter will come again and again. The gates of hell shall not overcome God’s rock, God’s fortress, even if the Wisconsin Synod is overcome! The Church endures, until Christ comes again.
And when Christ comes we have every assurance. God won’t revise His thinking. He won’t suddenly say, “I’ve decided that only believers who did this, said that, or look like this can enter.” He won’t say, “There’s no more room. We’re making cuts.” Jesus lived and died for everyone. Everyone who believes in Him – all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages, across centuries and millenniums – will be saved! We will all endure eternally. God said so. When you doubt, cling to God’s promise: “He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” Amen.