So, I was thinking that it is time for me to take a stab at furthering the conversation about the cultural trend to “love Jesus and hate the Church.” But, I am also thinking (and feeling very deeply in my bones) that this has been a week that has been about more important things than cultural trends. On Monday, we laid to rest a blessed saint after a long battle with cancer. Today, the congregation will host a visitation for a member, not long into his forties, who died from the same hated enemy, cancer. Today, I learned that my seminary advisor, friend, mentor and teacher, Paul Fransen, died. Death is around every corner, it seems. It leaves a wake of grief and tears, pain and anguish. And I realized as I looked at what death had brought to the table this week, there in the midst of it all was the Church.
In the wake of death, the Church gathered on Monday to sing, pray, serve some food and offer a presence in the midst of the grief and death. Today, members of the Church will stand with a family as they weep and remember providing presence, food, a prayer and a kind word. In the next week or so, the Church will gather in Columbus, Ohio to do the same thing to say good-bye to a third saint. People, people of Christ, will do whatever they can to confront death with acts of kindness and hope. I have witnessed this “non-violent protest” of death countless times in my ministry — every pastor does. This is the communion of saints, the body of Christ, the Church being Jesus to those who wrestle with death. So, with all its warts and foibles, I find it hard to hate the Church because no matter what you think, the Church and Jesus are inextricably bound together. It would be no surprise to say that Jesus was “somehow” present in all these confrontations with death. But it is the Church of Christ that puts His flesh and bones in the room, at the graveside, among the tears and pain.
Now, you know I am not being naive. My last post on this subject owns the failures of the Church. The problem is, if we take Jesus seriously we have to take Jesus’ followers seriously. If scripture is to play a role in defining who Jesus is (and there is really not much in the way of alternative sources that are authoritative) one has to acknowledge that Jesus and the Church are deeply connected. The Church is the “temple,” (2 Cor. 6:16); the “bride of Christ” (Rev. 21:2) and the “body of Christ” (Romans 12:5). Now, temples can surely decay, Hosea’s bride was a harlot, and the body is at least physically capable of showing the marks of sin and death. But this does not negate the relationship between Christ and His Church. Jesus gathered flawed disciples around him – church. In Matthew 6, Jesus said “wherever two or more gather in my name, I am with them.” — two or more, gathered = church. In fact – and this is perhaps the biggest challenge – Jesus’ promise to be present with us comes in Word proclaimed and sacraments celebrated — acts of the church.
Perhaps the confusion rests in the definition of the Church. If you define the church as a human institution or organization with budgets, administrative structures, policies and procedures, then we are no doubt quite far from what Jesus was talking about. If however, you define the Church as that place, that moment, where God in Christ and the people of God come together, something much more dynamic is at work. As Lutherans, we define the Church as follows: “(We) teach that one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of the saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere. As Paul says [Eph. 4:5,6]: “One faith, one baptism, on God and Father of us all…” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII)
This understanding of Church is not an effort to define structures or systems. There is no mention of keeping the membership roles of an organization, nor is there concern for buildings or bureaucracy. Contrary to what most of the culture thinks about the church, the church is not a thing; it is the encounter of God and people as they gather around the means of grace – the gifts of God. Church is an event. This definition guards against two things. First, it doesn’t reduce the church to a repository of dead propositions about God. All too often the church is portrayed or presented as an dispenser or protector of some version of truth. Second, this view of the church mitigates an idea that the church (or its leaders) stand in the place of God. This dynamic treatment of the Church also asserts that the Church matters because it is the place of encounter between God and people.
The encounter between God and people that is the Church drives God’s people out into the world where we we live out the Word and become a sacramental presence. Church keeps happening in every move we make. Certainly, it might be countered that while the event called church can at times change the world as it moves into the street, it is also true that this event called church can also all too easily end at the door of the building where the gathering happened having no impact at all on the world. This is not a sign that Church does not happen, but rather is a testimony to the provisional character of the church – it is flawed, broken, simultaneously sinner and saint. So, let’s not throw the saint out with the baptismal water.
What does this all look like? Well, right now it looks like people who encountered Jesus in Word and sacrament in the sanctuary are at this moment in the kitchen arranging food for a grieving family – the encounter with God will continue. Right now, it looks like death’s best effort to be the last word will meet resistance as people gather to pray and proclaim God has the last word. Right now, it looks like the Church is being the people of Jesus. You can’t have the savior without the saved; the redeemer without the redeemed; the Jesus without his Church.
Pax Christi, Pastor Tim