If you were asked to, in your own words, describe what someone might find in the Church, what would you answer? Take a moment now and think about it.
We all confess together in the Nicene Creed that we believe in “one holy, Christian, and apostolic Church”, don’t we? Yet I imagine that different answers to the above question would be given, even amongst just a handful of believers.
How would you answer? Does your description include something about a group of people who hold something in common? Is the Church a building where people gather on Sunday? Is Church a group of people who get together for social reasons, or fellowship reasons, or to do something for God? Should there be found in the Church only people who have joy and are happy all the time? Is there a place for sadness or suffering in the Church? Are only people doing the right thing found there? Is there rooms for sinners? What do you think?
Let’s put the question to Martin Luther, shall we? In his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, which he wrote in 1528, Luther answered in this way:
“In this Christian Church, wherever it exists, is to be found the forgiveness of sins, i.e a kingdom of grace and of true pardon. For in it are found the gospel, baptism, and the sacrament of the altar, in which the forgiveness of sins is offered, obtained, and received. Moreover, Christ and his Spirit and God are there. Outside this Christian Church there is no salvation or forgiveness of sins, but everlasting death and damnation; even though there may be a magnificent appearance of holiness and many good works, it is all in vain.” (AE 37:368)
Now, let’s put the question to the Lutheran Confessions. In the Augsburg Confession, the Church is described in this way:
“Our churches teach that one holy Church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.” (Article VII, Concordia, p. 34)
Do you detect a pattern here? It seems that Luther and the Confessions both describe the Church in a very simple way. There are no frills, no extras, and no potlucks. What’s the common thread? It is the Gospel – Jesus and His forgiveness, and the means through which they’re given.
Finally, it seems right to query the Scriptures. How does the word of God describe the Church?
“[Jesus said,] ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.’” (Luke 24:46-49, ESV)
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, ESV)
Sometimes it’s good not to be caught up in all the “extras” that come with Church and the congregations that make it up. Instead, let us fix our eyes on “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2, ESV). Where Jesus and His gifts are proclaimed and distributed in Word and Sacrament, there is the Church!