Tonight, as we continue to consider the mission of Living Water Lutheran Church, we turn to the second element of our “Reach up. Reach in. Reach out.” summary. We focus on reaching in.
Christ’s Church is meant to be more than a fellowship in which, responding to God’s grace in Christ, we reach up to God in worship, prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
And Christ’s Church is meant to be more than a fellowship from which God sends us to reach out with the good news of new and everlasting life by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Christ’s Church is also meant to be a fellowship in which we sinners who have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus, reach in to each other with encouragement, prayer, and an occasional fit word of correction or counsel.
Many people who call themselves Christians see the reach in element as an unnecessary add-on to their being faith life. They tire of the messiness involved when you bring together people who have different ideas, gifts, and personalities in a local congregation.
They recoil at the Biblical truth that we who have been made saints by grace through faith in Jesus are also still, and will be until our own deaths and resurrections, sinners. We drag our sinful selves with us right past the Baptismal font, which is why when we gather on Sunday mornings, we begin by, together, confessing our sins to God and receiving His Word of absolution, forgiveness.
Jesus tells us that there will always be counterfeit Christians within the Church–the weeds among the wheat–and that He will sort all that out on the day of His return. For some convinced of their righteous wheatiness though, this isn’t enough. They dismiss the Church as being filled “with a bunch of hypocrites” and are unconvinced when we invite them by saying, “And there’s always room for one more.”
For some, being a Christian is mere intellectual assent. “I believe Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead. So why do I need to go to church?” these people ask.
One woman went round and round with me recently on her insistence that because she believed in Jesus, she didn’t need a church. She told me, “Jesus never went to church.” But when I pointed out to her that Jesus regularly participated in the life of local synagogues, whether in his home village of Nazareth or in the towns to which she traveled, she said, “You see. He went to synagogues, not to a church.” I think she missed my point.
For Jesus, God the Son, Who bore the punishment for our sin on the cross and rose from the dead to bring the forgiveness of sin and everlasting life to all, to be received by faith in Him, His Church is no mere add-on to Christian discipleship. It is essential to Christian discipleship.
We read two lessons from the Gospels tonight.
In the first, from Matthew 16, Jesus has that famous conversation with Peter and the other disciples about Who Jesus is. When Simon Peter says that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus tells him, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)
This is one of the most misconstrued passages in Scripture. Jesus is not saying Peter is the rock on which He will build His Church. We know that Peter was not a rock that floated; he sank! Jesus is saying that the bedrock on which He builds His Church is the confession that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, God the Son, the King of kinds, is Lord.
We confess Jesus as Lord not because we’ve been intellectually convinced, although the life of faith isn’t opposed to the life of the mind.
We confess Jesus as Lord because, through the administration of Christ’s means of grace–the Word and the Sacraments–the Holy Spirit has given us faith in Christ.
It’s in the Church and in the Church alone that these means of grace are administered.
And that leads us to our second Gospel lesson for tonight, taken from John 13. There Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)
Now, we human beings are no good at keeping the first laws God gave to us, embodied in the Ten Commandments and summarized by Jesus in the great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’...and…Love your neighbor as yourself…” (Matthew 22:36-40) We’ve proven pretty lousy at doing that. So, what makes Jesus think that giving us an even more stringent commandment, that we love our fellow believers with the same passion He showed by dying on a cross for us, is going to work?
Well, remember, no law can save us. No matter how strenuously or devotedly we commit ourselves to loving our fellow Christians as Christ has loved us, we will always fall short.
Only the Gospel–the good news that we are justified in God’s eyes by the grace God gives to us in Jesus–can we be obedient to this command.
As we live in the fellowship of Christ’s Church, Christ living in us by our Baptism, His presence in us quickened within us as we hear His Word and receive Christ’s body and blood, the love of Christ will be manifest in us, often without our even knowing it.
Sometimes, the most important thing we have to offer one another is our availability. When we don’t know what to say, when we can’t figure things out either, but are there in the name of Jesus with a sister or brother in Christ to remind them that Christ died and rose for them and cares for them.
You, friends, are Christ’s chosen conduits of encouragement and counsel to your sisters and brothers in Christ, to the person sitting next to you tonight.
You are as essential to his or her walk with Jesus as the Bible or the Sacraments.
And your sisters and brothers in Christ are every bit as essential to your discipleship.
God has made us for fellowship with Him and with others in His Church.
How often I have dragged my sorry old self to worship on Sunday mornings, conscious of my sins and failings, not feeling like being in worship, not wanting to preach or teach or preside at the table, when you, my fellow recovering sinners, my fellow saints, have encouraged me, have helped me to see Jesus again, and my faith in Jesus is renewed.
In The Smalcald Articles, one of the basic confessional documents of Lutheranism, Martin Luther says that, “God is superabundantly generous in His grace.” He then enumerates five ways in which God delivers the grace and love of Jesus through the Church. The first four shouldn’t be too surprising to us.
First, there’s the Word by which the forgiveness of our sin is preached.
Third, Holy Communion, the Sacrament of the Altar.
Fourth, “through the power of the Keys,” the authorization Christ gives to His Church to withhold God’s forgiveness from the unrepentant and declare that forgiveness to those who turn from sin and turn to Christ.
And then, Luther mentions a fifth way that God delivers Christ and His Gospel to us in the Church: “...the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.”
Through Bible studies, small groups, visits with friends about to have surgery, cards sent to the grieving and the ill, time spent together in the hospitality room: These are ways in which we strengthen each other in our discipleship. Jesus promises, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)
We live in an era in which everybody’s sort of a free agent. Everybody seems wary of making commitments, whether it’s to churches, jobs, careers, marriages, families, children, and parents. We have an allergy to caring about each other because caring about each other can bring hassles.
But the Church is, if you will, Christ’s “hassle castle,” in which He invites us to participate so that in the messiness of life in this world, we encourage each other in the Gospel that God desperately loves us and gives us everlasting life through Christ! It’s something we need to be reminded of constantly. As you’ll remember Luther saying, “We need to hear the Gospel every day, because we forget it every day.” We become a means by which God delivers Christ’s Gospel to one another.
The fellowship of the Church or, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, “the communion of saints,” is one means God the Holy Spirit uses to encourage us to keep following Jesus.
The reach in element of our mission is essential to our lives as Jesus’ disciples.
It’s as we reach in to each other in this fellowship that we remind one another, “Through Jesus, you are a child of God forever.” Amen