An Indispensable Churches Post

One of the problems we seem to have in discussing “the church” in contemporary America is that we come at it from an institutional direction.  We discuss “The Church,” whether congregation or denomination (or almost any other understanding – see a previous Indispensable Churches post), in terms of its statistics, its demographics, its numerical growth or non-growth; it’s budget or outreach; it’s programs or architecture.  This is especially true when we’re getting ready to plant a mission church.  We want to know whether all the work will pay off; whether the money we pour into it will be worthwhile; whether it will grow and multiply and even be a “contributing member” of the sponsoring judicatory.  And we say that we’re just being “realistic” when we come at it from this direction.  We should rather say we’re being “merely realistic” in these discussions, because The Church is much more than statistics, numbers and growth.

Biblically / Theologically / Confessionally, The Church is the mystical Body of Christ.  Lutherans say that the Body and Blood of Christ are present “in, with and under” the bread and wine of the Eucharist in a “Sacramental Union” – we can bring any kind of scientific investigation to bear on the bread and wine of the Eucharist and still only discover the elements of bread and wine.  But because of the Word and promise of our Lord Jesus Christ we believe that the Body and the Blood are also present when we eat and drink this Sacrament.  Thus, there is a reality to the Sacrament that exists “in, with, and under” as well as above and beyond the physical reality that we can detect with our senses – a divine reality which, when added to the physical reality, gives the Eucharist a Sacramental Reality: our physical eating and drinking of the Sacrament means that, according to the promises of our Lord Jesus, our sins are completely forgiven and we have the promise of eternal life.

Saint Paul would write that all of us who participate in the one loaf all participate in the one body of Christ.  In his first letter to the Corinthians he seems to have a pretty fuzzy application of the term “body of Christ,” so that we’re never 100 percent certain whether he’s talking about a house church, the organization of house churches in Corinth, all the churches in all the world taken together at any given time.  We’re forced to conclude that he simply wants to say that because the believers all eat of the one bread and drink of the one cup, we all participate in the one body which is Christ.  So wherever the Church is eating this Eucharist, Christ is there.

Ignatius of Antioch wrote “ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia” (“where Christ is, there is the church”), following Jesus’ declaration that “where two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am in the midst of them.”  When the pastor meets the shut-in to share the Eucharist, Jesus is there and so is the Church.  When 20 believers agree to gather regularly to share the Eucharist, Jesus is there and so is the Church.  When 20,000 believers agree to gather on a single occasion to share the Eucharist, Jesus is there and so is the Church.

Martin Luther wrote that it is in the Christian Church that the Holy Spirit “daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers.”  What else is a Sacrament than the place where the soul in need of forgiveness can find it mercifully, richly and daily given?  So the Church itself participates in this same Sacramental Realism that characterizes the Eucharist.  This Sacramental Realism means that wherever there is the Church the statistics, the numbers, the growth and non-growth are like the bread and the wine – merely the outward forms which contain the true treasures of the Church:  the work of the Holy Spirit in the forgiveness of sins according to the promise of Jesus Christ our Lord.