The Fourth Sunday in Lent

When you hear the phrase “this isn’t your grandfather’s church” you know you are in the environment of stability and change, public doctrine and pious opinion, questions about tradition and decisions about specific circumstances. I hear it among many churches particularly those with a long history and I see it in the ongoing creation of new church groups – most of them independent – which suggests that the local churches in the area weren’t ‘suitable’ hence the need to begin a new group. When something changes in the Church, it can raise questions about what went before. People then affirm or reaffirm what is ‘core’ or ‘essential’ – the essence – which determines what happens next.

The Christian Church has always declared itself to be ‘one’ as revealed in Scripture (there is one Body of Christ cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4-28, Ephesians 4:4-6) and declared in the Creeds. Both the oneness and the unity are hidden in Christ because he has created it. What we see, however, may suggest plurality – even with the fact that the letters of the New Testament are written to different groups of people – geographically (but not spiritually). An overview of church history provides us more examples of how the Church ‘stayed together’ and ‘was different’ and the defining church criteria evolved to the things we can see and do – administrative structures, orders of ministries, language, church rites, many religious practices. By the time of the Lutheran Reformation these outer or visible matters defined the Church but the Reformers were declaring that the core or the essence – Jesus (not church hierarchy) was Lord of the Church – and the declaration of justification, the bestowal of forgiveness, the new life in Christ, ie. the Gospel had been muffled, changed, and forgotten. This forced the Lutheran Reformers to think back and think through what then is the Church and if it is a hidden reality where and how does one find it? Hence the Lutheran Reformers bring about a ‘doctrine’ of the Church – that ‘the one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church’ is the creation of God through Jesus Christ of people who receive the forgiveness of their sins, are new creations in Christ (a truth and reality which is also hidden in that we are still sinners who will die) who gather where Jesus is located – in the Word and the Sacraments. Jesus also established a ‘delivery system’ for the Word and Sacraments which we call the Office of the Ministry. What emerged here was a declaration that truth and faithfulness to God’s Word made flesh (ie. Jesus) and to God’s Word written down (Bible) mattered. The Church did know this in the past when it declared some teachings to be false or heretical but it is often simpler to treat difference on the visible and external things and so the litmus test of truth of Jesus was less important.

However in the 16th century and beyond the Church fragmented visibly because of the different teachings of and about Jesus and salvation and how Christianity ‘works’. The question to ask about which church should I attend is ‘What do they teach? How is God’s Word performative?’ is a confessional question and undergirds everything else about the church music, the architecture, the congregation, the pastor, the congregational life, or anything else. Today it is still easy to be bound up with externals – even with our grandmother’s church – but Lutherans are always negotiating faithfulness to the Gospel, congregational and synodical harmony, and responding to the circumstances of the day (eg. think of what happened with C-19). After all, we want ourselves – and everyone else – to always encounter and meet Jesus when we come to church!