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The Sermon on the Mount

An Indispensable Churches post

The Christian claim is that life is better lived in the church because the church, according to our story, just happens to be true.  The church is the only community formed around the truth, which is Jesus, Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.  Only on the basis of his story, which reveals to us who we are and what has happened in the world, is true community possible. (page 77)

In a world like ours, it is tempting to seek community, any community, as a good in itself.  . . .  (page 77)

The Sermon [on the Mount, Matthew 5-7] implies that it is as isolated individuals that we lack the ethical and theological resources to be faithful disciples.  The Christian ethical question is not the conventional Enlightenment question, How in the world can ordinary people like us live a heroic life like that?  The question is, What sort of community would be required to support an ethic of nonviolence, marital fidelity, forgiveness, and hope such as the one sketched by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?  (page 80)

– Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens(Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989)

Naether Memorial Chapel; Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu, India

We happened to be reading the “eye for an eye” part of the Sermon on the Mount last Sunday in Bible class, and commenting on how difficult it is for us to live the kind of life Jesus describes in those verses.  But we’re not alone – everyone struggles with the “love your enemies” words of Jesus.  We do the Christian quick-step around them with re-interpretations (“He didn’t really mean love in the same sense that you love . . . “).  We make exceptions (“I can love my enemies in general; but not that one in particular”).  We’re so hopelessly in love with the lex talionis because each of us has so idolized our individual selves that for Jesus to say things like “But I tell you . . . ” drives a knife right through the heart of our self-importance.  And yet we want to call ourselves Christians, too, and claim to follow Jesus.  The rock is firm, the hard place is hard, and we are caught firmly in the middle, unable to escape by ourselves.

Then come Hauerwas and Willimon (above), who tell us that it is precisely because I cannot escape by myself that I need the church, the community of believers, the communio sanctorum.  It is only in that context and in that community that I can be faithful to the words of Jesus.  It is only in the church, surrounded by other believers current and past, that I learn the truth about forgiveness, marital fidelity, and all the other things Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount.  We both know we won’t learn any of it in the world.  We both know that not just any community is up to the task, no matter how ethical it tries to be.  Only the church, the body of Christ, is uniquely designed by Jesus Himself to feed and nourish and nurture its members so that together we grow into the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells.

I need the church that is the body of Christ all over the world – in India, in the USA, in Europe, wherever there is another believer.  I need that believer.  I need the church that is the denomination I belong to, and the denominations I see around me.  I need the church that is the body of Christ assembled in the building in which I preach, as well as those assembled in other similar buildings in our community.  I need the church that is the huge one in the big city, and I need the church that is the tiny one on the ridge overlooking the village of used-to-be.  I need them all – and so do you – because each and every one of them teaches me how to live the “But I tell you . . . ”  I confess that I am a poor, miserable sinner.  I rejoice that Jesus has forgiven my sins!  But I need the Church Indispensable to teach me to be the disciple He calls me to be.

And I think you do to.

An Indispensable Church

An Indispensable Churches Post

The white frame church sits on a low ridge above the little village.  It’s been on that ridge for over 100 years, looking over the comings and goings of the village and its people.  And there have been plenty of comings and goings here in this pleasant village in southeastern Ohio.  At one time this was a busy place, the home of miners and farmers that would come to this church every Sunday by the hundreds.  Weddings and funerals, baptisms and celebrations and farewells were held here time and again as the people came and went from the area.

These days the strip mines are closed and farming is harder than ever.  The population in the area is way less than it used to be.  Even for the 100th anniversary of this congregation, hundreds of people did not show up, though the celebration was wonderful and fun.  They haven’t been able to afford a full-time pastor for a lot of years, so other congregations in their district have shared their pastors with them.  On Sunday mornings twice a month the congregation meets in the morning to worship, using sermons provided by one of those pastors.  On Sunday afternoons the other Sundays of the month one of those “shared” pastors makes the two-hour trip to worship with them, bring the Good News of Jesus to them, and celebrate Holy Communion in their worship service.   Sometimes he stays to have dinner at somebody’s home. Less than two dozen people come to these services, some of them struggling with the infirmities of age.  Hospitalized members are usually cared for by the pastor of a Lutheran church in the next county.

But babies are born and baptized here.  Young people are confirmed, then married.  Twice a month the saints of God in this place celebrate Holy Communion.  In the summertimes the congregation has opened its building to servant-event groups coming into southeastern Ohio to do mission / service projects in the Appalachian foothills.  Sister congregations have sent Vacation Bible School teams there as well as other service project teams.  (For all the financial people:  this congregation has a higher annual per capital giving amount than the majority of its sister congregations in the district, though it is one of the smallest.)

This congregation is small, and getting smaller.  We don’t know how long it will last, or what it’s future will be.  The kids that grow up there, get married and move away, so it keeps getting smaller.  Is it dying?  Is it on the verge?  Shall we do something to encourage the few who are still “hanging on” there to follow others westward or southward 30-40 miles to the next nearest congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod?  Or shall we think again about whether this is one of those Indispensable Churches

It’s Indispensable because of its location – one of only two LCMS churches in an entire quadrant of the State of Ohio (almost 20 0f the 88).  It’s Indispensable because of the opportunities it offers others to be of service.  It’s Indispensable because it offers sister congregations opportunities to expand their ideas of ministry and fellowship beyond their own walls and embrace the saints of God in this little village.  It’s Indispensable because it offers those congregations opportunities to share their pastors with these saints, and it offers the pastors opportunities to see their own ministries as wider than the communities to which God has called them.  It’s Indispensable because the Word and the Sacrament are there, and so is Christ.  It’s Indispensable because the people of God gathered in this place are the temple of the Holy Spirit in this little village in the hills of southeastern Ohio.  If someone ever asks, “where might I go to find the Holy Spirit’s temple here in Pleasant City, Ohio?”  people could point to the white frame church up on the north ridge.  It’s Indispensable because it is named Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and together with St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church on the south ridge the saints of God in Pleasant City have these visible reminders that the Triune God who loves them, who redeemed them, who sanctifies them, and the angels that He assigns to protect them, are watching over them always.

Do churches “need” to die sometimes?

An Indispensable Churches post.

Here’s a blog I ran across the other day.  Please read it before you go on.

Sometimes, churches need to ‘die’ | AlanRudnick.org.

So let’s think about some of the things Rudnick says in this post:

(1)  Rudnick seems to say that two defining characteristics of a “dead” church seem to be that the building’s doors are closed and that the membership has been disbanded.  But just a few years ago the Cleveland (Ohio) Catholic Diocese closed several churches and told the congregation members that they would have to relocate to other churches.  Many of these members protested all the way to the Vatican, and this summer some of those churches are reopening with great joy and celebration by the returning members.  Of course, this may simply illustrate the possibility that a congregation isn’t really dead until its own members say it’s dead – despite the analysis and even decree of something like “the wider church.”

(2)  If a congregation completely disbands so that its members are assimilated into other congregations, and if the building is reopened by a new ministry, how can this be called a “restart” or a “resurrection”?  In a more extreme example, if the building is sold so that a completely different denomination can begin a ministry there, that may clearly not be a “restart.”  But if the original denomination continues to own the building and implants a new ministry there, do we do that ministry a disservice by calling it a “restart” or “resurrection” rather than something entirely new and different?  In calling it a “restart” do we (unintentionally) burden it with ghosts of the past that may end up hampering its efforts to be truly new?

(3)  Rudnick asserts “that living churches have a life-cycle, too.”  I’ve heard this before, frequently accompanied by the “observation” that the life-cycle of a congregation resembles the life-cycle of a person in terms of time as well as in terms of stages.  But I think this may be a particularly American attitude that fails to take at least two matters into account.  The first is that the church in Scripture is compared to the human body only metaphorically, but identified with the body of Christ.  Might we not then infer that since the resurrected body of Christ is characterized as immortal, perfected, glorified, and eternal, so also is the church – even when there aren’t enough “members” to pay the bills to keep the building open?  The second is the observation that some churches have existed and even thrived in Europe, portions of Asia, and even Africa for centuries, well beyond the life-cycle of the normal human life span.  Village churches that have been around for hundreds of years.  Cathedrals in which the faithful have gathered to worship for a thousand years.  Sanctuaries in Jerusalem and Rome and Damascus and other places where Christian congregations have been in continuous existence since perhaps the time of the disciples.

(4)  Rudnick suggests that some churches may need to “die a death of institutionalism in order that it be resurrected into a Christ-centered faith community with a new calling.”  To this I heartily agree!  Over time it seems that many congregations “lose their first love” and devolve into a bounded-set mentality, drawing boundary lines and defining who’s in and who’s not.  How much better would it be if they could forget about the boundaries, focus on Christ and center all their activity on Him – their worship, their spiritual growth, their ministries to others?

(5)  Rudnick asks “Why must we insist that churches cannot change or be reborn into new life?”  I ask “MUST they change or be reborn into new life?”  Are there sufficient and necessary reasons why churches in Europe have lasted for centuries?  Are there important reasons why a world in swirling confusion needs the consistency the church can provide?  Granted, stubbornness and reluctance are not sufficient reasons to avoid change; but the traditions of liturgy, Sacraments, prayer, spiritual direction, art and architecture, community and many other aspects of the church have been anchors to its people and its community through wars, plagues, destructions, turmoils, prosperity, health, and everything life brings.

Let me summarize:  There is more to the life of a church than a building and a membership roster.  There are also memories, traditions, and history.  Most importantly, each church is the body of Christ not only for the local communio sanctorum, but also in  the local community of believers and unbelievers, sinners and saints, redeemed and unsaved.  Do churches sometimes need to die?  Not without taking all these into consideration.

Cause and Effect

An Indispensable Churches Post

One of the public policy discussions in the education arena these days centers on the issue of teacher pay.  It seems as though some people are of the opinion that for too long teachers have been paid like other union members, with a pay scale based on seniority.  These people would have a teacher’s pay adjustments based rather on the test scores of their students.  The reasoning seems to be that this is the most accurate metric of the teacher’s effectiveness.  So the argument goes like this:  good test scores are the result of good teaching, poor test scores are the result of poor teaching.  Simple enough.  So if you have a whole class of students who score low on a standardized test relative to some other class, it’s obviously the fault of the teacher.  Never mind the possibility that a myriad of other factors (parental support, capabilities of the students, amount of funding, “test-anxiety,” etc.) can influence the test scores of students.  The rationale here is that if the students perform poorly the direct cause must be poor teaching.  So let’s blame it on the teacher and tell them they have to change or leave.

One of the gaping chasms in the way we deal with one another in love in the church is that pastors are often treated the same way as these teachers.  Whatever metric you may want to use, if the church doesn’t measure up to that metric it’s the pastor’s fault.  Low attendance?  The pastor’s fault.  Low giving?  The pastor’s fault.  Inactive youth group?  You guessed it.  And on and on.  And this isn’t always coming from disappointed members of the congregation (although occasionally it does).  Sometimes this comes from judicatories as they look at congregations that “need to be revitalized / transformed” and the consultants that they send in to help.  Why isn’t the congregation living up to the metric the judicatory likes to use?  Because the pastor is not conducting the ministry the right way.  Because he needs to improve his leadership skills.  Because he isn’t . . .  / because she doesn’t . . .  / because they won’t . . . .

But this reasoning assumes a direct link between the pastor’s ministry and the ability of the congregation to meet a metric imposed upon it from the outside.  This reasoning fails to take into account a myriad of other influences.  This reasoning grossly fails to take into account the degree of opposition to both the pastor and the congregation by the dread enemy of all God’s faithful people.  And this reasoning isn’t reasoning at all – it’s blaming, a sin started by Adam in the Garden of Eden and one that we have never been able to shake.

What blaming does not do is this:  effectively call a “sinful” person to repentance.  What blaming does instead is this:  effectively drive a wedge of suspicion, mistrust, and resentment where there should be love and peace and fellowship.  Jesus is the one who made the church perfect with His blood; we cannot make it perfect by blaming one another for ineffectiveness.  What we can do is love one another as Christ has commanded us to do, as He has done for us, and leave it at that.

Everything else is just spreadsheets.

 

Border Protection

An Indispensable Churches Post

Hermann Sasse, one of the great Lutheran theologians of the 20th Century, once wrote

A church that does not continually gather around the [Lord’s] Supper must undergo secularization.  It must irreversibly turn into a piece of the world, because the Supper establishes the boundary between church and world.  This conclusion is confirmed by the experience of church history and especially of the history of worship in the last few centuries.  The destruction of the Supper is followed by the disappearance of the living remembrance of Jesus from the hearts of Christians, especially of his suffering and death.

Thus, in the century of the Enlightenment, the fading away of the person of Jesus as the biblical Redeemer into an indeterminate universal teacher, who might just as well be called Moses or Socrates, was bound up with the decline of the Supper as the celebration of his inextinguishable remembrance.  . . .  Where Jesus Christ no longer himself speaks to us in the Holy Supper the Gospel “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” the message of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world necessarily fades away.

–  Hermann Sasse, “Church and Lord’s Supper” in The Lonely Way (St. Louis:  CPH, 2001), pages 420-421.

 “The Supper establishes the boundary between church and world.”  What do you think about that?  First of all, that there should be such a boundary, a place church and world may meet but not intersect.  A place where church and world may greet one another, may perhaps glare at one another, but not join with one another.  A place where church and world say to each other, “you stay on your side, and I’ll stay on mine.”   

But how fluid is this boundary?  Can we come and go with ease across it, moving from church to world and back again without impediment?  Should we come and go with ease across it?  Or should it be a firmer boundary, a border we cross with difficulty, a boundary we cross at our peril except at the approved Gate (John 10:7-10)?

And what if this boundary is removed?  If there is no boundary between church and world anymore, does the world become like the church or does the church become like the world?  Observation of recent history would suggest the latter.  And if the Lord’s Supper fades into unimportance in the life of the church, to be superseded by technology, prosperity, “growth,” or attendance as indicators of the health and well-being of the church, does the Gospel also necessarily fade into the background?  And when the Gospel fades into the background, shall not the church fade away into the background and then into oblivion as well?

 

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