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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  And if the Lord’s Supper fades into unimportance in the life of the church, to be superseded by technology, prosperity, “growth,” or attendance as indicators of the health and well-being of the church, does the Gospel also necessarily fade into the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?

 

Sacramental Realism and the Church

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.

churches / churches / church – Clarification and Confusion?

A post from Indispensable Churches

 

I’m thinking that it might be best to get this out of the way to begin with, to avoid or maybe compound potential confusion in the future.

In our English language we tend to use the word “church” in a number of different senses.  One is to refer to a building or facility in which a particular community of believers gathers for worship services.  I won’t be using the word “church” in this sense at all in these posts, unless I indicate otherwise.

Another use of the word “church” is to refer to a local congregation of believers (as in “Christ the King Lutheran Church of Lodi, Ohio”).  Still another refers to a number of these congregations gathered together into a denomination (as in “The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod”).  Yet another way we use the word “church” is in a fairly broad catch-all way (as in “The Eastern Church” or “The Church of the Middle Ages”).  We also use “church” to speak broadly of all believers in Christ on earth at any present time (“the Invisible Church on earth” or “the Church Militant”), of all adherents of every congregation or denomination on earth at any present time (whether believers or not – “the Visible Church on earth”); of people who had been believers in Christ when they were alive and are now living with Him eternally, according to His promise (“the Church Triumphant”); and to speak of all people who, living or dead, ever believed in Christ (“the Universal Church”).

In these posts it’s quite possible that neither you nor I will be able to tell which definition of “church” I’ll be using at any given time.  There are times when I may use “congregation” or “denomination” to be specific, but most of the time I’ll just be using “church” and “churches” in several of these above senses at the same time.  I know that seems vague and potentially confusing, but that’s what we have to live with in “the church.”  Just remember – in any given post from Indispensable Churches, I might be asking you to think about several different levels of “church” at the same time.  Sounds like fun, yes?

Vigor

An “Indispensable Churches” Post

 

At our recent District Convention I proposed a resolution that suggested we (the church at large) need more vigorous definitions of the descriptors we use of local congregations.

We seem to want to determine whether a congregation is “growing”, and the only criteria we use for that is to compare worship attendance numbers from year to year.  We haven’t made up our minds whether “growing” is a good thing (like an economy) or a bad thing (like a malignant tumor).  To compound the problem, we have tended to label churches that are not “growing” (their worship attendance is not increasing from year to year) as either “plateaued” (their worship attendance is the same as last year’s) or “declining” (their worship attendance is less than last year’s).  Finally, we use these three words as sort of diagnoses when we talk about congregations – this one is “growing”; that one is “plateaued”; the one over there is “declining” – so let’s figure out a way to turn it around!

I see several problems with this methodology:

  1. The diagnoses are each based on only one criterion – weekend worship attendance.  Nothing else in the life of the congregation is taken into account – mission consciousness, outreach, care for one another, Word-based preaching, frequency of Sacraments, or others.  The result is that based on this one criterion we presume to tell a congregation whether it’s healthy or dying.
  2. We assume that congregations that are “growing” are healthy, while those that are “plateaued” or “declining” are dying.  Since our set of diagnostic criteria is so flimsy, we really have no way of telling why and how a “growing” congregation is growing, or whether that growth is healthy or malignant.  We also have no way of telling by these criteria alone whether a “declining” congregation is declining because of its own ill health or for some other reason.
  3. Denominations and judicatories put such an emphasis on “growth” that when they see a congregation that is not “growing” they are quick to inject consultants, district executives, or other elixirs without thoroughly understanding the congregation and its situation.  Many times these individuals come in with the equivalent of patent medicines to “fix the problems” without taking the time to listen to the congregation and the people in the first place.  The result is that so often congregations say “we paid all this money for a consultant and not much has changed.”

There are other problems with this methodology; let these suffice for the time being.  By the way, the resolution did not pass, but was referred back to the District Board of Directors for further study and definition before sending it to our Missouri Synod.  But I was content with that decision.  What I was asking for was the beginning of a discussion of these issues and questions that might result in more vigorous definitions of these diagnostic criteria and, who knows, maybe a whole different and more workable set of criteria than these.

Formational Prayer and the Holy Spirit

Dear friends in Christ,

 

I rejoice with our gracious God that you all made it to Ashland for the Summer Intensive and the Formational Prayer Seminar this week!  I know that some of you had some struggles to get here, and some issues that caused you to wonder about the wisdom of leaving home for a week.  So did I!  But look how wonderfully gracious our heavenly Father has been to us already!  

 

How He has sent the Holy Spirit among us already yesterday and today!  The Holy Spirit has called us together and gathered us in this place.  You and I made some decisions to be here, and some plans about how to get here, but it was the Spirit who called us to be here.  He gathered us by road and air, by car and airplane.  He stood in the way of our obstacles, and perhaps for some of us He even pushed us through those obstacles.  He has been building us into His community of healers on the healing journey, and we are eager to be present with Him this week as He works on some wondrous healings that we know He has in store for many of our participants.

 

And I think He has already begun some of the healing that you may have needed as you came.  Perhaps it hasn’t been a spectacular healing; perhaps it’s only been little by comparison even with some healings you’ve experienced in the past.  But I believe that He has already touched your life and your heart and your spirit in ways that you have needed, whether you knew it or not.  And I pray that throughout this week He will remind you again and again how precious you are to Him, how wonderful you are in His sight, and how much He yearns for your complete healing and total joy in His presence.

 

May you feel some of that joy this week!

 

Chris Cahill

Ascension

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.  (Ephesians 1:18-23)

As Paul prayed this for the Christians in Ephesus, I have the same prayer for you on this 40th day after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus:

That He would bring the light of the Gospel of salvation further into your heart than you’ve ever seen it before, to lighted with His grace corners long hidden in darkness.

That His light would show you ever more clearly the hope you have in Jesus and His love.

That His light will show you ever more brilliantly that your inheritance of His glory is right now, among His people.

That His light will show you that there is no power greater than His, for those who believe in Him.

I pray that you will know that the power He gives you is the same power He used to raise Jesus from the dead, to bring Him up into heaven, to seat Him at the Right Hand of God; the power to give Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth not only now but forever and ever.

I pray that you will know that Jesus is the head over all things, and all things are under Him, not for the sake of Jesus but for the sake of His body the church, of which you are a beloved member.

Jesus has been raised from death and has ascended into heaven for you.  He rules over all things for you.  And He will bring you to heaven to complete the church and rejoice in the fullness of His bride as we worship Him and live in His love forever.

No matter what else happens to us in this life, this is what we have to look forward to – this is the promise of the Day of Ascension.

God bless us everyone!

1 John 1:1-4

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete. (NIV)

If we try to define the Trinity from a structural point of view, we end up describing a skeleton without any of the vitality, breath, or even life.  That’s why the Athanasian Creed is so hard, sometimes, for us to grasp – it seems to present us with a structural God rather than a living God.  Not that structure is bad – as vertebrates we like that internal skeleton – but the structure does not tell the whole story.  The better term to describe the relationship between Father and Son and Holy Spirit is fellowship.  That’s going beyond structure to relationship, to friendship, to heart and hand and eye and ear and even love; to dancing together and working together and laughing and crying together; to enjoying one another’s company around a table long after the meal has ended.

And that’s what Jesus invites us into when He calls us to faith as people in His church – to fellowship, not just to membership.  “Membership” places us in a ledger; fellowship places us at the Table.  “Membership” proposes obligations; fellowship proposes offerings.  “Membership” defines roles; fellowship describes relationships.  Whether it’s “membership” in a Synod, a congregation, or a Circuit Pastors’ Conference, the purpose is administrative.  But “fellowship” is completely different – whether in a congregation, a Conference, or a Synod.  The fellowship that we have with one another is an icon of the fellowship within the Trinity.  Do you want to know what the interior life of the Trinity looks like?  Look at the fellowship to which Christ calls His believers.

The Church is not the structure, and we are not members of the Church.  The Church, the body of Christ and His Bride, is the icon of the Trinity and both are described best by the word “fellowship.”  And the way we relate to one another is best described by the word “fellowship.”  And even though that fellowship sometimes looks thin and sometimes looks strained and sometimes looks weakened, it is still what holds us together; it is still worth hanging on to; it is still worth fighting for.

I go an extra mile for someone who compels me because that’s what Christ commanded me to do; but for the one with whom I am in fellowship I don’t bother to measure the mile.  I lend my coat and my cloak to someone in need because that is the compassionate thing to do; but for the one with whom I am in fellowship there is no IOU, no due date, and no limit to what I will give him.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let the fellowship we have with one another (not in general only, but you, the reader, in the fellowship you have with me personally) clearly and brightly reflect for each of us and for those around us the fellowship of the Trinity, so that both of us and everyone else may see the love of Jesus for us and for them.

God bless us everyone!

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