The last couple of months I have focused on some theological topics that were season appropriate. The Trinity came up with trinity Sunday coming and the Holy Spirit had come up as we looked forward to Pentecost. The long season of Trinity - or the Sundays after Trinity - don't naturally suggest a theological topic, but the progression of the last couple of months do. Once you have talked about the Persons of the Godhead, and examined the doctrine of the Trinity, the next logical place to go (at least in this pastor's mind) is to the doctrine of the Church.
The Church is not something difficult to understand. Luther said it in the Smalcald Articles, "Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd. So children pray, "I believe in one holy Christian church." Its holiness does not consist of surplices, tonsures, albs, or other ceremonies of theirs which they have invented over and above the Holy Scriptures, but it consists of the Word of God and true faith."
I know I do not surprise anyone who would read these words when I say that the Church is not the building. Our congregation has discovered how useful that building can be, both as a place to worship and as a visible presence in a community for the purposes of attracting visitors and possibly new members, but the building is not the Church. It is merely a tool for the use of the church. The Church is the people. More precisely, the Church is the assembly of (or the group containing) the believers. The group that calls itself "congregation" may well also contain unbelievers and hypocrites, some of whom may be deliberately deceiving their fellow-congregants, and some of whom may actually believe everyone else is just like them, pretending to believe something that they do not. Not every congregation contains such people, but I would estimate that the number of those that do not is much smaller than we like to imagine.
The problem with hypocrites is that they often believe that what they have is true faith, even though they know that they do not believe what the preacher teaches or what others confess to believe. They think that they are right and the others are wrong, or that the differences of which they are quite conscious are insignificant and meaningless. The one thing that seems to change their opinion in this matter is when they discover a group of like-minded individuals in the congregation. At that point, their "insignificant" and "meaningless" differences of "opinion" suddenly become important and demand either to be heard and accepted as equals to the faith confessed, or seek to dominate and drive out those - particularly pastors - that do not share their confession. The usual gambit is to insist that their differences are not doctrinal. The turmoil and destruction that follows in their wake is the penalty for tolerating open hypocrisy and unbelief in the assembly of believers.
The Church (with a capital "C") contains no hypocrites or unbelievers. That is because membership in the Church is by means of faith, true faith. Because we cannot always tell who is a true believer and who is just putting up a good front, we sometimes refer to the Church as "invisible". Weak faith is sometimes difficult to identify as real faith, except by God who sees the truth in all things, but a good pretender can deceive most everyone by looking for all the world like a holy person and ardent believer. So, we can be confused by weakness and deceit. God can't, which is our comfort, but we can, and so the Church often tolerates unbelief and hypocrisy unknowingly. When we become aware of it (unbelief or hypocrisy in the congregation), we should not tolerate it, but mark it as such and avoid it. Paul speaks about this in terms of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians, and John writes about how when we share a greeting with such a person (in Church), we participate with them in their "evil deeds".
Since membership in the Church is by means and on account of faith, it stands to reason that membership in the Church is bestowed by the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God. That membership is not, therefore, restricted to congregation membership, or limited by denominational identification either! Every Christian is a brother to every other Christian on earth, and we all belong to the same Church. The Church doesn't have the sorts of distinctions that we recognize so easily among men and women on earth. For example, there are, technically, no 'sisters' in Christ, as in "brothers and sisters in Christ". We are all brothers - whether male or female. There is no distinction among us that would allow us to mark anyone as second-class. In terms of this world, of course, we notice those distinctions. We have separate toilet facilities, and we show the uncommon "common courtesies" toward the women, but they are equal to men in the grace of God, and saved by Christ without reference to their gender.
That fact has been used by those who argue for the ordination of women into the holy office. It is a powerful argument, too, except that it overlooks the realities of this world by reference to something other and greater. But as long as Christians continue to wear their gender distinctives in this world, and they come built-in on our bodies, and clearly distinguishing in our cultures (whether rightly or wrongly), we Christians must acknowledge them in accord with the Word of God as our confession that we belong in God's good order where He has placed us, and that we humbly accept our place as we also glory in the high position His grace gives us in forgiveness, life, and salvation. The order of creation - and the differences God has established by creating us as we are - still mean something while we walk this earth in this life. That is particularly true in regards to those distinctions God has established in His Word.
Other distinctions still have their place in the Church even though they have no bearing on eternal life and salvation. Some are called to preach and teach while others are not. Being a pastor does not make one a better person or a holier Christian, it simply makes one a pastor. Once we make it to heaven, that distinction will have no meaning, at least not as far as I can tell. The only difference it rightly makes in church now is where we are during worship, and what our responsibilities are at that time. The pastor preaches, the people hear. The pastor has the holy privilege of distributing the gifts of God in the form of the elements of the Sacrament, the people have the joy and privilege of receiving the gifts of God. We each take our turn speaking and singing in the liturgy - and much of that is the Word of God. And we share in some speaking and singing. We each have our duties, but we share alike in the blessings and the gifts of God.
We also distinguish between those who confess with us and those who confess against us, even when we claim the same Lord and Savior. Part of this distinguishing is called "Closed Communion". When we withhold the Lord's Supper from someone from another confession (usually another church body), we are not judging their faith or Christianity. We are taking note of their confession. Their membership in another denomination is a confession of different doctrine even when they don't understand it. Being Presbyterian, for example, says that Lutherans have it all wrong, and that there is no reality to the body and blood of the Lord in the elements of the Sacrament (for just one doctrinal point). I know Presbyterians who don't agree with that, but their membership in a congregation of that denomination is a silent confession to that effect, nonetheless. Can a real Christian call Jesus a liar and reject what He clearly says in His institution of the Sacrament? Some say yes, and I am not God to judge their faith or salvation. But I confess that making that confession is not right by practicing closed communion. It is a distinction worth marking and commenting upon.
Other doctrinal differences exist which I find troubling, but which others who appear to clearly trust in the Lord cling to. While I am certain that they are wrong and I am right, they seem certain that I am wrong and they are right. If we pretend that the differences make no difference, we can never find a good reason to endure the disquiet that honestly talking about them often occasions. But if we confess with all our might that we think that they are on the wrong track, perhaps they will stop and ask why and allow us to discuss what divides us and - GASP! - perhaps find why the difference exists and even discover which of us is in error and come to understand the Word of God more clearly and believe it more faithfully. Since the issue is the Word of God, it seems that it might be worth the risk of being uncomfortable in a conversation. Since the consequence could be significant in the salvation of one or the other of us, it seems to me to be worth the time and effort, and the social disapprobation of taking the stand and risking offending someone.
The Church is family. It is our true family, in fact. We have been adopted by God. Jesus did all that He did and endured the horrors that He endured to buy us out of sin and death, and in our Baptisms we were each chosen by God and adopted into His family, and made members of the household of God. Now, that could be just picture language to describe something, but I don't believe it is. By birth, we are sons of Adam, born into sin, and slaves of death and corruption. By Baptism, we are sons of God (girls too), born again into a new and everlasting life, cleansed of sin and raised with Christ from death to life eternal. Our family of the flesh is still our family in terms of this world and this life, but our family membership in the family of Christ is much more significant and accomplishes great things for us. It is a family we should consciously recognize and deliberately engage ourselves in.
God is our Father; by reason of creation, of course, but more significantly, by reason of His gracious choice of us, and adopting us into His heavenly and eternal family. Jesus is our Brother. He is Lord and God as well, but He chose to become one of us, take our side, and claimed us as his brothers. In the face of these truths, we cannot do anything but regard each other as brothers - as those deliberately chosen by God to be connected to one another. The congregation in which God has placed you is not an accident of geography or of personal choice. God placed you there to be family with those others who were also members of the congregation. Just as one might not always appreciate every member of his or her birth family, we might find members of our adopted family challenging to bear with at times. Jesus gave us the command to love one another. He did not say that we had to like each other, although the two often go together. The love part is the greater and more urgent; that we love one another means that we look out for one another, and care about the welfare of the other.
Because God chose us to be part of His family, it is His will that we take part. The Scriptures teach us that the Holy Spirit draws us to the Word and worship. He draws us together around His Word. He tells us that we are not to forsake our own assembling together, as was already at the time of the writing of Hebrews "the habit of some". He has placed us in groups so that we might encourage one another in the face of the challenges of life as the Child of God in a world sold into sin and hating Christ and every reminder of Him. He gave His gifts to each grouping so that they would have what they need to stand together, faithful and firm until we have accomplished whatever it is that He has planned for us to do and He calls us home to Himself - or returns to gather us together and bring us home with Him.
The Church is visible. You can see it. You can watch her come together for worship at which God serves us and blesses us, rather than the other way around. The Church is a "she" even though every Christian is a son, because she is the bride of Christ. You can see that bride gather to eat the family meal together. She is invisible in that there are many pretenders out there - lots of gatherings that have no relation to God or Christ or Church, and the meal they may eat is nothing of the Holy Supper we feast on each Lord's day, and many who pretend to be God's people when they know they serve the other side. Like so many things of God, both are true, even though it sounds contradictory.
God is like that. He can do and think in ways we may be able to describe, but not to understand or actually accomplish ourselves. He is Trinity - Three and yet One. Jesus is both God and man, fully God and fully man, and yet just one Person. In God's declared judgment, we are simul justus et peccator, at the very same time holy and still sinners. So, the Church, which is His invention and creation, is both son and bride, visible and yet not visible, in time and in eternity, our mother, and yet she is nothing else than us holy believers and sheep who hear the Shepherds voice. This is what the Church means by a mystery - something beyond our reasoning out, which God has revealed to us so that we may know it!
So, when you go to church, be the Church (like you could help it), but be deliberately what God has called you to be!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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