THE HOLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH - WHAT IT MEANS
Dear Friends in Christ,
The church conjures up all kinds of images to different people. Some see a church as a building. Fondly, I remember that country church that sits on the top of a hill that can be seen easily at a distance. Next to it is the stately parsonage. I have some great memories of St. JohnLutheranChurch in rural Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Sunday School. VacationBibleSchool. Confirmation instruction. All the people who went there my age or otherwise. They were our neighbors. The kids in my Sunday School were the kids I went to the public school with. We played little league baseball with them. That’s my recollection!
Years ago when I served in Lawrenceville, we had a family that lived in Blairsville in the north GeorgiaMountains. I would serve them once a month. We tried to get a church started there. We put an ad in the newspaper to see if there would be a response. A lady came to our worship who grew up in the mountains of Georgia. She came because she wanted to see what a LutheranChurch was like. She talked about her life. She came from a poor family. They didn’t have any TV, but her family lived within walking distance of three churches – a Methodist church, a country Baptist church and a Church of God. When any of the three churches had their doors open, they were there. She said, “It was the only entertainment we had.”
It is interesting how people view “church” and what it means. These days some churches mean politics or social justice organizations or welfare sites. Some would say they are there to give you a better positive attitude on life. In the next few weeks we are going to study the Doctrine of the Church. Today we begin this series on “The Holy Christian Church – What Does that Mean?”
The first thing we see is that Jesus’ church is God’s family. Paul wrote the letter to the church at Ephesus when he was a prisoner in Rome. He had angered a few people because he told people about Jesus. In those days there were really only two kinds of people. You mean unbelievers and believers? That’s true too but it was more like Jews or Gentile. There were Jews and then everyone else – Gentiles. Membership at the church at Ephesus included both.
We, who live in 2014 and have been Christian all our lives, have difficulty understanding the turmoil that Jews went through looking forward to Messiah and then when he came. It is hard to have a feeling for the transition between the Old and New Testament.
From the time of Abraham God wanted to isolate his people. Some would prefer to say that he wanted to put a hedge around them. Why? So they would stay faithful to him! Unfortunately that didn’t work. It is sad to see that this nation of two million had only seven thousand faithful to the Lord in the time of Elijah.
But God also wanted the world to know that they were his special people, not because they were of better character or less sinful, but because the world’s Savior would come from them.
How did he put that hedge around them? I know a Dad who had a real problem telling his identical twins apart from each other. In fact, the twins loved to play tricks on him like go into the bathroom and change clothes and come out wearing the others clothes to confuse him. In fact, the mother painted a toenail on one of the girls so dad could tell the difference.
God put a mark on Israel. All men were marked with circumcision as part of God’s law to separate them from the world. There was more. At Sinai they could say they were the only nation on this earth to whom he gave his law on tablets of stone. There were the Ten Commandments for every nation to keep, but Israel had them written in stone. There were the ceremonial laws (the worship laws) and civil law meant only for Israel. There were clean and unclean animals, sacrifices to be performed in specific ways on specific occasions for specific purposes. There were special days in the church year. We can go on and on. The Jews were to be different from everyone else.
Here we are in 2014 a bit confused and bored because we never had to do that stuff. Neither did the Gentiles who joined the church in Ephesus. I would venture the guess that we are like the Gentiles then wondering what that is all about.
The reason to keep the Jews separate no longer existed with the birth of Jesus. The laws that formed that hedge that separated them from everyone else were no longer necessary. In fact, God wanted everyone to know Jesus came for everyone - Gentiles included. He made that clear when the star led the Wise Men, non-Jews, to Jesus with the miraculous star. On the day of Jesus circumcision God’s Spirit filled a man in the temple, Simeon, to declare, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” So there were the Gentiles who never lived under those Laws of worship and civil laws and there were the Jews who had been brought up that way and had a hard time giving them up. Many refused. In fact, it created tension between Jew and Gentile.
Let me give you an example. I admit I am trying to lighten all this up with a little humor. Almost every pastor in our synod graduates at least three times - Prep school, college and Seminary. When I was going to school that also meant three initiations - hazing. But even the WELS succumbed to political correctness. Initiation is no longer done. I, one of the old guys, feel this has contributed to wussification of all the younger pastors.
In fact, at the Seminary we were considered Kinder (that’s the German word for child) until we went through initiation. After initiation then we were men. Even in my own family in my eyes my own son, Pastor Ben, is still a Kinder and not a Mensch. Understand all that I said, while true, is said in fun. Even though as I look back on all that, it is fun memory that no one has anymore.
In terms of an analogy this could compare to the Jew/Gentile relationship. The Jews had a hard time giving up the law. Many, even a majority didn’t. But the law that separated the Jews as a special nation was no longer needed at the coming of Christ. Because of Christ who accepts all people, we accept each other with no strings attached. We accept each other, not because of the blood that we have running through our veins but because of the blood Jesus shed for us. We don’t let customs or traditions or skin color or what we wear separate us but know we are one because we have been clothed in Christ’s righteousness and the garments of salvation. That’s all that matters. We are one – whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. Faith in Jesus unites us. We are family – God’s family.
We are also family with a foundation “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” Paul changes a picture for us. We are a family, but he also likens that family to a building with the apostles and prophets as the foundation and Jesus as the Cornerstone.
Buildings need a good foundation or there will be trouble. The “Leaning Tower of Pisa” is most famous for its bad foundation. From the moment it was constructed in the 1300’s the tower began to lean. Engineers said continued to lean at a rate of 1/20th of an inch a year. Engineers once calculated that it was supposed to tip in the year 2007. In the late 20th century the tower was stabilized. It is now 17 feet out of plumb. It is called the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Pisa means marsh. No wonder is leans; it was built in a marsh.
God’s church has the best of all foundations – the apostles and prophets and Jesus is the Cornerstone. A thought jump out here. One of the reasons we believe that the Bible is the Word of God is because the Bible claims it is God’s Word. 2000 times!
The other noteworthy thought is that both the Old and New Testament are the foundation of our lives. To a Jew, the Old Testament, the Word of the prophets is considered the Word of God. But Paul doesn’t stop there. He says the word of the apostles is also on par with the prophets. In other words both Old and New are God’s Word and foundational for our lives.
Can you imagine looking on the internet for a plumber who says their repairs are successful 75 % of the time? The Bible is God’s Word all the time and in every instance. This is really one of those references.
It is more than great literature. It’s more than just the most popular book ever written. It’s more than a history book or a book of laws. It is more than a book that ought to govern behavior. It is God’s Word that forms the foundation of God’s family.
With Jesus is the cornerstone of the book and our lives. Dr. Karl Barth, whom some considered the greatest theologian of the 20th century although I have many reservations about that, was once asked what was the greatest thought he ever had. After a moment of reflection he said simply, “The most profound thought I have ever known is the simple truth, Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Dr. Barth went head to head with Adolph Hitler and opposed the Nazi party and warned people about it. Yet, he said Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so.”
It is so simple that even a child can understand and yet many who have all kinds of degrees call it “foolishness.” Most of those who embrace this thought are not socially elite. I wonder how many in Washington understand or even care. Yet, a bunch of fishermen whom Jesus called to follow carried it to the world. It is foundational for God’s family.
God’s family has a purpose. “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” When Judy and I moved to Atlanta in 1977, the biggest and tallest building was the Peachtree Westin Hotel. It is still is impressive but a lot of other impressive buildings have been added to the skyline. Every time I go downtown I gawk at the skyline and he buildings.
While Paul says God’s people are family he also uses and analogy of the family being a building. The apostles and prophets are foundational and Christ the Cornerstone. That building called the Church is to be seen and heard and even felt.
Yet the Church is not really a building or even a denomination. It is not even an institution. The Church is a spiritual house of living stones, invisible to the naked eye, but clearly seen and known by what we do. It is not really an organization but an organism. Who are its members? Those who have faith in Jesus as Savior of the world! Where are these members to be found? They are scattered in all directions and even throughout time – in heaven above and the earth below. The church is here and there because the members know Jesus made a difference and now we know we are here to make a difference.
As we look at this building, we call it a church too, don’t we? But one day it will be destroyed. Look around now at each other. We will endure. Why? Because Christ is our Savior! A message so clear from the apostles and prophets!