The Role of the Church

Some denominations see God working “immediately,” that is directly and without anything intervening. Luther never argued God can’t work that way. God is the almighty Creator. He can do whatever He wants. However, Luther always focused on what God promised to do. This was where there was certainty. It was only in what God promised to do that we could be absolutely sure He was at work.

So, when asking the all-important question of how we come to know God and have faith, St. Paul answers very simply, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’  But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?;  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). How do people come to know God and have faith? By hearing. Hearing what? The Gospel, or “the word of Christ.” God can certainly announce Himself in a vision, as He did to Paul himself. But, He makes no such promise that He will work this way for everyone and may opt to never work this way again. That makes God’s Word the centerpiece to Christian life. Only here can you find knowledge of Christ. Only here can you find knowledge of salvation.

God promises to work through His Word. The Spirit is always active in the preaching of God’s Word. Aside from the extremely rare instances where God simply announces Himself, this is how all people come to faith. God must work through His Word, for He promised to. At the same time, God’s Word does not operate in a vacuum. He has built up a system around it to give it further connection to His people. His Word takes on form and substance in baptism and communion. We understand and receive His Word more fully because of how we encounter it in the sacraments. These help us to see what His Word does in us and through us. They are called the “means of grace” because of how they carry His Word of forgiveness to us and give us life.

The sacraments, however, are not found all on their own either. The sacraments are situated within the liturgy. The liturgy prepares us to receive them and helps to understand what they are doing. The liturgy gives the sacraments context and allows us to see them in action. Outside of the liturgy, the sacraments lose direction and application. A private baptism or communion is a sacrament without purpose or meaning. It is a sacrament that is cut off from its intended goal.

The liturgy is also not conducted just anywhere. It is the province of the Church, God’s people gathered in worship. Only the faithful can truly worship God and so they come together to do so. In this context, they continuously receive God’s Word and sacraments. God’s Word is embedded in the life of the church and forms its center. This is who the church is, the people who gather around God’s Word and sacrament.

The church is tasked with loving the Lord and loving its neighbor. The church takes what it receives from God and shares it with the world. Taken together, this means God acts through even-broadening layers to bring His grace into the world. His Word is enrichened by the sacraments and the sacraments are, in turn, further developed by the liturgy, and this all comes in the context of the church. That means the church occupies an irreplaceable position as the pivot point where what comes down from God is sent out to the world. This is what God’s people were always intended to do, from back in the days of the Israelites who were called to be a “royal priesthood and a holy nation,” to now. Without the work of the church in the world, God’s Word does not operate as it was designed to and the grace God desires to give to the world does not flow where He wishes. The church must be active in both worship and in the world so that God’s grace can reach those who need it. This becomes the central work of the church and everything God does for His people is designed to facilitate that work.

2 thoughts on “The Role of the Church”

  1. Pastor, isn’t it the Word that gives meaning to the sacraments, as opposed to their place in the liturgy? I know private sacraments shouldn’t be the norm, though for some, there’s no choice. Buy surely the sacraments aren’t empty of meaning in that case? If so, why are they offered? Curious to hear your thoughts. Laura

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    1. God’s Word does define the sacraments and enables them to do what He promises. That is always true. At the same time, the liturgy helps us to understand what that means. For instance, as my previous posts were discussing, Communion follows the offering. The offering isn’t just a thing we do in the service to honor God. It is intended to be a preparation for celebrating the sacrament. All of the theology of offering is meant to feed into Communion and help us see what both God and the church are doing when they come to the table. The same is true of the Nunc Dimittis. After having been at the table, it answers the question, “Now what?”

      God’s Word has wrapped Communion in the theology of offering, of apostleship, and several other themes. That will always be true. But we are not very good at seeing things even when they’re right in front of our noses. The liturgy helps us make sense of what God tells us. Truly private Communion (just one person) isn’t a thing. Baptism, even when done in a hospital or a home or whatever, is still brought to the congregation to acknowledge and celebrate. Any exceptions to the norm are exactly that, exceptions. They do not dictate how the sacrament is intended to be found in its fullness.

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