July 25, 2021
Grace, mercy and peace be yours in abundance. Amen.
The sermon for your consideration today is another topical sermon, discussing the doctrine of Church and Ministry, and is derived from the teachings set forth in the Holy Scriptures.
Dear brothers and sisters, fellow servants of Christ’s Church. What do we need to make a church? What do you expect to find when you go looking for one? Four walls, sure; a roof, maybe a steeple, a cross, some bells, especially in older churches. We expect all of these things, plus Bibles, candles, banners, hymnals and so on. Then there are people: elders, pastors, ushers, Sunday School teachers, etc. Many expect some programs: Bible studies, Sunday school, other children’s programs, support groups, food pantries and more. All these things make a church, right? Wrong. Jesus said “wherever two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” That’s a church, my friends: a group of believers coming together to worship God and to serve in his name. It occurred to me that when a congregation is awaiting the departure of a called worker, and thinking about its future and how it defines itself and its ministry, it is a good time for us to review what the Scriptures teach about Church and Ministry.
There is only one Church, capital "C," consisting of every believer who has ever lived or will live; people from every race, gender and nation, all of them “sons (or daughters) of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” And because faith is a matter of the heart, we call it the Invisible Church of All Believers.
Now, there are members of those human organizations we call “churches” who are actually hypocrites—and for simplicity we'll use the Christian theological definition of that word: those who say they believe in Jesus Christ but actually do not. Such people are not members of the invisible Church. Since such hypocrisy is a matter of the heart, and not specific to church membership, we do not identify it in connection with any one specific church body. Rather, we reject any claims that a particular church or church body is the one and only holy Christian Church on Earth, for all believers, regardless of denomination, are members of that Church.
In Matthew's gospel, Jesus said he would found his church on “this rock.” He was not speaking of the building stone which is Peter, or Petros, but about the bedrock which was Peter’s testimony. It is that testimony, that faith, that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Anointed One or Messiah, and in fact the Son of God Himself, that makes each of us members of this invisible Church. We are each of us stones, but the foundation is one and the same for all Christians – faith in Jesus the Savior.
Now, while it is true that this Church is invisible, its presence can, nevertheless, be recognized. Wherever the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered, there is the holy Christian church. Why? Because the gospel in Word and sacrament is the means of grace, by which the Spirit creates faith. Therefore, if you find the means of grace there, then you will also find faith there.
We gather in such places, around the means of grace, because we believe it is God’s will that members of this church meet regularly. We build these physical edifices called churches for that purpose, but they are only called churches because there are believers present within.
Furthermore, like-minded believers join with each other in organizations called churches or church bodies, such as our Wisconsin Synod. By our membership in that church body, the Wisconsin Synod, we admit oneness of faith with those who profess and submit to the teachings of Scripture and the exposition of Scripture contained in the Lutheran Confessions. This is what our “church” teaches, and membership in a church and a church body is a commitment to the doctrine and practice of that church.
But there are some church bodies, most, in fact, that do not require such a commitment, or who require agreement only on what they consider “fundamental” doctrines. But claiming unity where the members do not share the same confession of faith presumes to look into people’s hearts – and only God can do that. So we will never enter into an empty “union” with those who do not share our confession. Should a confessional Lutheran attend the Lord’s Table with those who think it’s not important whether the Lord is present in the Sacrament or not? …whether or not he was really born of a virgin? …or even if Jesus is really God or not?
Now, if we find ourselves to be united in doctrine, we can and do practice various forms of fellowship. Christians who agree ought to pray together, worship together, and break bread at the Lord’s Table together.
But, friends, we do not practice fellowship with those who persist and insist on teaching what is false. Any practice of fellowship where doctrinal unity does not exist is a direct violation of Christ’s command that we separate ourselves from those who teach falsely.
Yet we refuse in love, dear friends, for even this practice of separation from false teachers is carried out in love for those who are lost or who are being led astray…
…because the ministry of the gospel is a ministry of love.
All Christians are priests. Priests, because we all have direct access to the throne of God. In Old Testament times, believers made their offerings and petitions through their priests, because they were the intermediaries between God and men – they made the sacrifices, they offered the people’s prayers to God. But in the New Testament we are told that Christ our great High Priest has made the one sacrifice that stands for all human beings for all time, and so through him we may approach our God directly, as his priests.
And as priests, we have a ministry – “to declare the praises of him who called them out of darkness into his wonderful light.” In this sense all Christians are ministers (which means servants) of the gospel. We serve God when we preach the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus.
In order to help his Church carry out its mission, God has established a public ministry of the Word, and gave the authority to the church, that is, to believers, to call qualified people into the public ministry. These men and women are called by the church to minister publicly in its behalf, and we believe that God is the one calling, through the church.
The Church calls according to its need, in order to carry out some aspect of its mission, to serve the people of God with Word and Sacraments. The most common venue for this service is the local congregation, and the most comprehensive form of the public ministry is the pastoral office. But it is not the only form, and many men and women who are not pastors are nonetheless called public ministers of the gospel.
But God does set guidelines and list qualifications for who may serve, and sometimes such service is restricted according to gender. As the Spirit has proscribed through the letters of Paul, we believe that women may participate in any of the offices and activities of the public ministry except where such work involves authority over men. Thus, women may not serve as pastors or vote in a body that exercises spiritual authority over men, not because of some spiritual or intellectual deficiency, but because that is the order our God has imposed on the universe and on his Church.
But let me remind you that we are all priests – we all have a direct line to our God, and we all have a ministry to carry out in his name.
You’ll recall that Jesus said the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church and its testimony. Gates are a physical thing: yes, they open and close but they do not move or attack…we, the Church, are on the attack. We are Christian soldiers marching to war against Satan and the very gates of Hell. Our weapon is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, and wherever it is preached, there is the Church, there people come to faith and are freed from the power of Satan and Hell, there…here…is hope and the promise of eternal life. This is the Church and its Ministry.
May the Lord of Peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. Amen.
The Holy Bible, Evangelical Heritage VersionTM (EHVTM) copyright © 2016 The Wartburg Project. All rights reserved.
Lectionary listings from Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal © 1993 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.