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What is Church?

Reformation Sunday

Grace to you and peace in God, who has saved us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Amen.

What is Church, anyway?

That was one of the first questions that we asked when Pastor Chris Bishopp from Faith Lutheran and I gathered with Lutheran pastors and deacons from across the world for the Lutheran World Federation’s Education Seminar this past March.

Now you might wonder why a bunch of Lutheran pastors and deacons even had to discuss such a simple question as “What is Church?” I mean, we’ve all been through seminary. We’ve all read our Bibles. We’ve all been working in churches and leading churches… so why would we even have to ask, “What is Church, anyway?”

But sometimes it’s important to go right back to the basics, to remind ourselves of what is important. And it may surprise you to know that these basic questions are the kinds of questions that pastors and theologians ask all the time: Who is God? Who is Jesus? Who is the Holy Spirit? What is sin? What is grace? What is Church? Even though we’ve been asking these questions for more than 2000 years, there always seems to be more to learn.

I think Martin Luther spent a lot of time thinking about the question, “What is Church?” He was probably thinking about it as he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. What is Church, if pastors and bishops are selling indulgences? What is Church, if the people in the pews can’t even understand the Mass, because it’s in Latin? What is Church, if the Pope excommunicates me for trying to reform it?

Perhaps that question has been on our minds lately as well. Over the last two years, many of the things that we thought were a part of the Church were put into question. What is Church when we couldn’t meet in person? What is Church when we couldn’t sing together, or share the peace, or gather for a meal? What is Church when our church building was empty on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday?

Many of us have been grateful to return to those practices that are familiar and life-giving for us. We can meet in person again, we can sing together, we can do some of these things. Church is starting to feel a little more “normal” again. And at the same time, the world has changed. Our communities look a bit different now. We’re asking questions about which things we might pick up again, and which things we might leave behind. Perhaps the root of these questions is that really basic question: “What is Church?”

The Augsburg Confession is one of the founding documents of the Lutheran Church. It was written by Martin Luther and Phillip Melanchthon in 1530, when the Emperor of Germany called on the Lutheran churches to defend what they believed. In the Augsburg Confession, Luther and Melanchthon gave a very simple definition of what the church is:

“The Church is the community of believers where the Gospel is correctly taught, and the Sacraments are correctly administered.”

Huh. Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?

“The Church is the community of believers where the Gospel is correctly taught, and the Sacraments are correctly administered.”

What I think Luther and Melanchthon were saying here is that there are three main ingredients in a recipe for Church: the Gospel. The Sacraments. And the community of believers.

Now the Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s God’s promise for us: God’s promise of grace, God’s promise of forgiveness, God’s promise of new life, and God’s promise of unconditional love. And we hear the Gospel in all sorts of ways when we worship: through Scripture, through the sermon, through our prayers, and even in the songs, we sing. Wherever we hear God’s life-giving promise for us, we’re hearing the Gospel.

The Sacraments are how we experience God’s grace in physical, tangible ways. We experience God’s grace in baptism when we feel the water on our heads, and we hear God’s promise: “You are my beloved child.” And we experience God’s grace in the Lord’s Supper when we taste the bread and the wine, and we hear Jesus’ promise: “This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sin.”

Now the Gospel and the Sacraments are wonderful things. But what if I came here every Sunday and preached the Gospel, and offered the Sacraments, and no one was here? What if I preached the Gospel and offered the Sacraments to an empty building? Would that be Church?

No! Because the third ingredient in the recipe is just as important as the other two: the community of believers. It’s when we gather as a community of believers around the Gospel and the Sacraments that we become Church. So these three ingredients all contribute to the recipe for the Church: the Gospel, the Sacraments, and the community of believers.

Now we’ve talked about what’s in the recipe for Church. But what isn’t in the recipe? (Building, budgets, what songs we sing, whether we use an organ or a guitar, what clothes we wear, when we worship, etc.)

And it’s not to say that these things aren’t important. I mean, when it’s the middle of January and it’s minus 30 outside, I’m sure most of us would say that’s it’s pretty important to have some sort of building to worship in. But the kind of building isn’t central to what makes Church. We could meet in a gym, or a living room, or a library, or a coffee shop, and as long as we were a community of believers gathering around the Gospel and the Sacraments, we’d still be Church! So having a place to worship might be important, but what kind of place isn’t central.

And in the same way, a budget is important. But it’s not central either. We could have a $100,000 budget, or a $500,000 budget, or a $10,000 budget, or a $10 budget. The size of the budget doesn’t really matter, as long as we are a community of believers who gather around the Gospel and the Sacraments.

So it’s these three things: the Gospel, the Sacraments, and the community of believers, that are central. These three things help us understand who we are. And when we gather as a community of believers around the Gospel and the Sacraments, then the conditions are right for the Holy Spirit to do her work, stirring up faith in our hearts, helping us to trust in God’s promise for us, and forming us into the body of Christ.


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