[This message was prepared to be shared during worship on Sunday, September 30, 2018, with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. I felt moved to share a different message. That other message will be shared too. But this scrapped sermon is the sixth installment of our series on the Biblical themes raised by the book, I Am a Church Member, by Thom Rainer.]
1 Corinthians 12:27
Lucy Van Pelt, the creepy little kid in the old Peanuts comic strip who always pulled the football away just as Charlie Brown was about to kick it, said, “I love humanity. It’s the people I can’t stand.”
Some people in the Church have an equivalent attitude about all local congregations. “I love Christ’s Church,” they seem to say, “It’s the people in individual congregations that I have no use for.”
But, as Thom Rainer rightly points out in the sixth and final chapter of his book, I Am a Church Member, people who try to make such distinctions aren’t really paying attention to the witness of the New Testament. Rainer writes that “...the universal church and the local church are not mutually exclusive...The Bible is clear that we are to be connected to a specific church in a specific context.”
This insight comes from reading Paul’s letters to New Testament congregations. Each letter was written to individual, local congregations, each committed to living out their faith in partnership with and accountability to one another.
Essential to being a member of Christ’s church universal or church catholic then, is to be a member of a local church. The holy catholic Church is in every local congregation where Christ’s gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments are rightly administered. And every member of every local congregation where those conditions are met is also part of the whole Church in heaven and on earth. We who make up local congregations like Living Water are part of Christ’s body, His eternal fellowship. This is why the apostle Paul says to we disciples of Jesus, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
But church life can be difficult. Like families or workplaces, we can disagree, argue, and not see eye to eye. Why then does God give us the gift of salvation only through the life, ministry, and proclamation of Christ’s Church? And why does He consider the Church such a gift for its members anyway?
Members of my extended biological family experienced a major blow-up with their local church and its pastor. They tell me that they now have “church” at home, inviting companionable friends over for Bible studies that they lead.
Now, I’m an advocate of small groups. They are essential for our growth as disciples. But the problem with these family members’ approach to church, of course, is that people who treat a small group as their “church” are more likely to take a wrong turn in their faith.
When you’re only around the companionable people with whom you feel comfortable, you’re ripe for heresy that can pull you far away from God and the truth of His Word. It’s only when “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17), when we’re in a church in which we can disagree with Christ’s love, that we grow, that we really learn what it means to love each other as Christ loves us. The approach taken by my family members also leaves them at risk of forgetting all about the entire mission of Christ’s Church, to make disciples, instead, being satisfied to just read Scripture and pray with people who will never challenge them for self-satisfaction or spiritual smugness.
So, one reason that God considers the Church His gift to us is that it helps keep us faithful. I mentioned Hebrews 10:25 in the first installment of this series a few weeks ago. There, we’re told not to give up “meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” So, as the day of Christ’s return grows ever closer, we need the people of our local churches even more. We need to gather around the Word and Sacrament, we need to be challenged and afflicted by God’s Word, as well as comforted and empowered by it. That’s part of what Christ’s Church, part of what this church, does!
Another reason God says we should regard the Church as His gift is that it shows contempt for God to see it in any other way. In Revelation, chapters 18 to 22, we find an idea developed that comes from Jesus: The Church is the bride of Christ. This is rooted in the very language that Jesus used about Himself during His earthly ministry. In John 3:29, Jesus says, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom [the best man, John the Baptist] waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.”
Jesus here speaks of His joy of being one with His bride, the Church. The marriage of Christ and His Church is consummated in Holy Baptism and strengthened in Holy Communion. And one day, the groom will come to take His bride into His home for all eternity.
John saw this in one of the visions he had while on the island of Patmos, where he records, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2)
The Church then, including Living Water Lutheran Church, is a big deal, an eternal fellowship. That’s why Rainer writes, “Church membership is a gift. A gift must be treasured. It should not be taken for granted or considered lightly. Because it is a gift, we must always be thankful for it. And when we are thankful for something, we have less time and energy to be negative.”
The Church ultimately is the fellowship of believers in Jesus in which we learn that Christian faith is not about me, it’s about us as a community of believers submissive to Christ whose only mission is to invite and welcome “outsiders” into that same community so that, believing in Jesus, they too will have life with God.
That’s a truth that we cannot and will not learn apart from the fellowship of the Church Jesus established through His apostles and their successors.
The crucified and risen Jesus tells His Church, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)
The Church then is a gift because through it, we learn and build our lives around the truth of the gospel that God gives new and everlasting life to all who daily turn from sin and daily follow Jesus...and then, by His Holy Spirit, empowers us to grow each day in the likeness of the Lord Who died and rose for sinners like us.
When you have the gift of Christ and the Church that can never be taken from those who believe, you then can keep giving those gifts away--Christ and the Church. And as that happens, not only will more people be given the chance to know Christ, follow Christ, and share Christ with others, those same people--new believers in Jesus--will join us in sharing our free gifts of life with Christ and His Church with others.
The apostle Peter was one of the first to be sent out to invite others to receive the gifts of Christ and Church. One day at the temple, Peter encountered a lame man begging for money and told the man, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6) Peter claimed that he could offer prayer and new life in Jesus’ name and Jesus underscored the validity of Peter’s words by also giving the man the ability to walk and jump once again. That was because Peter was part of Christ’s Church. And you can bet that that formerly lame man was anxious to hear all about Peter’s church after that.
Are we treasuring Christ’s Church enough to respect those with whom we disagree in our congregation?
Or, do we speak of them and treat them like the refuse that some politicians claim their opponents to be?
Are we Lucy Van Pelt Christians?
Or do we love our sisters and brothers in Christ in this church? Do we pray for them, speak well of them, encourage them?
Treasure your church; after all, if we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ, all of the people in every local church of which you may be a part, are people with whom you’re going to spend eternity! Better to learn to love them now than wait until Jesus returns.
And if we don’t learn to love them now, it may be too late to learn after Jesus comes back and time has run out for us to repent for our half-hearted discipleship. “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Let’s live out that truth with gratitude and love for one another. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]