Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 19:00 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In two days, it will have been seven years since I was installed as the pastor here. That seems about as good a time as any to revisit what a Christian congregation is about, and so what we’re about. I printed in the bulletin a sentence that I’ve been using for the Workshops in the Word (which we haven’t had for a long time, of course). It has basically two parts, the first about what a Christian congregation is, and the second about what the members of a Christian congregation do as they go out into the world. This isn’t anything that applies only to us, or only to Lutherans. This is simply the summary of what the Scriptures reveal to us of the Church that God has established on the rock and cornerstone of Jesus Christ, who makes and sustains His Church by the gifts and means He has chosen. This is who we are and this is what we do, whether we vote on it or not. Today we’re going to focus on the first part, who we are: a congregation of baptized believers gathered together by Christ around His life-giving Word and Sacraments.
In reality, of course, the Church isn’t separated into who we are and what we do. Just as you can’t separate Jesus into who He is and what He does, because He is what He does and He does who He is, so the Church—the Body of Christ—is what she does, and she does what she is. What the Church is determines how she acts in the world, and how she acts is simply the working out in the world of who she is. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and joined to Him, flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. His love and mercy are both for her, and they are the mercy and love she gives to others.
Obviously it’s true that members of the Church in this age and in this world do not always reflect who Jesus is and therefore what the Church is. Sin is always an action contrary to the way Jesus acted and still acts. So when members of the Church sin—as we will continue to do as long as we live in this sinful flesh—it does not change what the Church is, but it is contrary to both the Head and the Body. It proves that when we say we believe “one, holy, Christian/catholic, and apostolic Church,” we are confessing an article of faith, not evidence of something that we can see. The reality of sin and sinners—who remain sinners in themselves even within the Church—means that we have to continue to believe the promise of Christ for His Church. We cannot see it or prove it.
At the same time, we continue to confess, repent, and be gathered by Christ back to Himself in our baptismal identity as His beloved children. We know that we have not been joined to Christ because we are sinless and holy and good and right. He has joined us to Himself precisely because we are not and cannot be that in ourselves. It is only by being joined to Christ that our sinful flesh is put to death and will be brought to its final and complete end at the conclusion of our baptism in our death and resurrection.
Think of the images that are used in the Scriptures for the Church: a building, a body, the branches of a vine. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, whom God has given us (1 Corinthians 6:19). And we are individually living stones, chosen and precious to God (1 Peter 2:5), joined together in Christ and built by the Spirit into the temple of God (Ephesians 2:20-22). God gives us the Holy Spirit, whose temples we are, and we are built by that same Spirit into one temple of God. Apart from this Trinity, there is no Church. It is in the Name of this God that we are gathered together, from the beginning and as the ongoing reality of who we are. We are baptized into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. When you are put into that Name, you are forcibly removed from the old, deathly name of Adam that we all bear.
The Church is made up of those who are baptized into that Name. If God wants to save people outside of baptism, He can and will. God does what He wants. But He has not told us about any salvation that is not connected to the Jesus into whose death and resurrection our baptism puts us. Faith in Jesus saves us, but that Jesus has chosen to join us to Himself in baptism. To believe Jesus is to believe His promise in baptism, because Jesus gives us His promises in concrete, physical ways—things by which we are bound to Him and in which we cling to Him.
We are individually baptized, but we are not independent of all those who have been baptized into Christ. One stone is not another, but each stone is part of the building. One branch is not another, but each branch is joined to the vine. An arm is not a leg is not a nose is not an eye, but all are part of the same body. The baptized believers are gathered together to share what we have in common: not our preferences, or our politics, or our hobbies, or what we look like, but Christ. As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Individual members of the Church of God—specifically, the Church of God in this place—have a part with each other only because they share in Christ. It is the head that determines the body, the vine that determines the branches, the cornerstone that determines the building.
And so we gather not around each other, but around Christ, who has called us each to Himself. But if we gather around Christ, we gather with each other, and we become one with each other. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? When we drink from the cup, we share together in the blood of Christ. When we eat the bread, we share together in the body of Christ. There is only one Jesus, and so there can only be one body. Because there is one bread, Paul says, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
This is why we cannot eat our own suppers, or have our own baptism, or have church by ourselves: we do not belong to ourselves, nor do the gifts of Christ belong to individuals apart from Christ’s Church. And that means that the Church in this age and in this creation does not exist apart from the actual places where actual people are gathered. I don’t mean particular buildings or places in that sense, but people have to gather somewhere. The place and the building are simply the necessary reality because people take up space and they don’t float in the clouds. It’s like your life: your life doesn’t require that you live in that house, rather than another one, but you do need somewhere to live, even if it’s in a tent.
Because of that, the gracious promises of God attached to His Church sometimes look kind of dirty and messy and bad. The promises themselves remain, but when sinners get involved, things in this age will never be all the way what they should and will be. We get in the way of both ourselves and other people. We forget what we’re doing here. We try to fashion God’s Church after our own images, rather than in the ways that keep central things central. It’s easy to start well, to put everything in place, to have a clear focus. When you start a race (not that I’m doing any races; I just imagine this is how it is) you have a lot of energy, you feel strong, you have a clear sense of where you’re going. But the longer the race, the harder it is to keep a clear mind, clear eyes, a clear heart. Even more so when we’re dealing with things of God that we cannot see; when we’re dealing with the things of God in the midst of a world that doesn’t believe them.
We drift. We get distracted. We forget. We neglect. Our pride can grow. We become complacent. We become fearful. We become apathetic. We get lazy. We need continually to be called back to our first love, to Christ, and to all His words and all His gifts. There is no time in this life when we stop needing what Jesus promises and desires and chooses to give us. Our spiritual life is not really like filling up a gas tank, driving around, and then coming back when we’re on empty and the light comes on. It is much more like full life-support: someone outside of us causing our heart to beat, our lungs to inflate and deflate, our blood to move through our bodies. He is the Vine; we are the branches. When it comes to giving and sustaining faith and love, all the verbs belong to Jesus. When we, the Lord’s people, are gathered in the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day—the day of His resurrection—the primary action is His. It is Divine Service—God serving us with everything we need for our lives in this world.
This is who we are: God’s own people, whom He has chosen—quite apart from what we want or think we want—and He has gathered us here in this place, baptized into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. One Name, so one people, one Church. He gathers us here week after week around the One who died but who is alive forever. Here we are joined together not only with those on earth, but with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, in the eternal life that He gives us here, an eternal life that is even now going on, though we can’t see it yet: a throne, around which is gathered the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles, and thousands and thousands of angels. We sing with all of them: Worthy is the Lamb who was slain! By Your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth (Revelation 5:9-14). Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty! This is who we are, and who we will be, until the day we see the things we have believed, no longer separated by time and space from the rest of the Body, but one in the light and life of the Lamb.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/16/20