“The church is the assembly of all believers (Psalm 149:1) among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII)
We often like to say “out with the old and in with the new!” when describing changes in our lives. All across nature right now we are seeing the old and bleak landscape of winter giving way to the new and bright blossoming of the grasses, flowers and trees of spring. What a refreshing sight that is!
When Jesus came to us from the Father, He was bringing something new too. He was bringing the world the unconditional grace and love of God. Jesus preached a good news message: “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near!” (Matthew 3:2)
Jesus, obedient to the will of His Father, went around and proclaimed God’s grace and forgave sins to all those who had ears. Truly, He was bringing in God’s Kingdom of Grace and a new age. Sadly, sinners just like us could not stand this. If our eternal future was being decided upon solely by God, what room would that leave us for making ourselves equal to God through our own piety and self-made religion?
So sinners like us crucified Him so we did not have hear the dreadful news that our sins were forgiven. But much to our surprise, God the Father vindicated Jesus and His preaching of grace by raising Him from the dead. Jesus was correct and we sinners were wrong. So God resurrected Him from the dead to live forever and die no more. He is now seated at the right hand of the Father in the position of supreme power and authority to advocate for us, His chosen sinners, for our salvation and for all things. Jesus is now the “bridge” between heaven & earth and God & man. He has promised to be with us always until the end of the age.
So how is Jesus always present with us yet still in heaven at the right hand of the Father? He is present through the Holy Spirit in the preaching (speaking) of the Gospel through His Word and Sacrament. Jesus said “Whenever two or three of you gather in my name, there I am.” (Matt. 18:20) and “This is my body…..this is my blood.” (Matt. 26:26-28)
The church is that assembly of “two or three” in which the proclamation (speaking) of the Gospel occurs in Word and Sacrament. It is this Gospel proclamation alone that calls the Christian Church into being. Upon hearing and receiving Christ in the Gospel promise, the believers are given the Holy Spirit who moves them to undertake to speak again what they have heard, to give again to others the grace and forgiveness of God that they have received. Upon hearing and receiving the Church makes the needed preparations to do so again; it endeavors to speak God’s Words of Forgiveness and grace again.
In other words, the Church is not just any assembly that happens to call itself by the name of Jesus or God for whatever pious or religious reason intended. Also it must be stated, to counter a popular modern heresy, the church is not just “people”. This assertion (that is church is constituted by “people”) may rightly refute the idea that the Church is merely a building or an institution (like the government) but it too easily forgets that the Church is called and shaped by the Gospel of its Lord Jesus Christ. Something very specific needs to be happening for the Church of Christ to be assembled: the Gospel of God’s Grace and Forgiveness of Sins must be preached and proclaimed in Word and Sacrament. Where this activity does not occur there is no such thing as a Christian Church in existence.
The Christian Church is therefore an entirely unique and new body in this old world. It is the place where the “speaking in tongues” of an absolutely strange and unheard of kind of language called Gospel speak – the speaking of God’s Word of unconditional grace, forgiveness and love for the sake of Jesus Christ – takes place. By speaking this Gospel language, the Church is on the cutting edge, the forefront of the dawning of God’s new age of Grace. The Church is the in-breaking of the New World into the Old. It is the “fortress” of the new age, the Kingdom of God, that invades this old space and by the power of the Word creates righteousness out of sin, new saints from old sinners, and call forth life out of the midst of death. In the Church God brings and gives all of His miraculous gifts of grace to lost and condemned creatures like you and me simply by speaking, washing, and eating.
The Church is where we know that it is “most certainly true” (as Luther put it) that we will have a gracious encounter with Our Lord Jesus Christ because He has given us His promise. It is in the Church where Jesus is really present to speak His promise of Forgiven of Sins to us – to you. Amen!