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.

Face to Face with God

Deuteronomy 34:10 says, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face…” This detail is given to us to illustrate how different Moses was from everyone else. Everyone else sat at the foot of Mt. Sinai while God thundered from the peak in fire and smoke, but not Moses. Everyone else was restricted from the Tent of Meeting where God revealed Himself and made His will known, but not Moses. Moses spoke to God as one might speak to a friend or family member, a relationship few would ever be able to claim.

This sort of relationship was one people had with God once upon a time, back in the garden of Eden, but sin has made that a near impossibility. Sin is the opposite of God’s will, so to be a sinner means to be one who is opposed to God, who is an offense to everything God is. Sin is intolerable to God and so God destroys it, even if that means destroying the one who commits it.

To speak to God “face to face” then becomes quite the feat. It says that the sin in Moses has somehow been dealt with, which allowed Moses this rare privilege. God would continue to be present in the tabernacle and later in the temple and He would be present there in a special way. It was here, and only here, that God would be present in grace and mercy. God could be found anywhere in His creation, but it would only be here that you could speak to him face to face, like a member of the family.

Things continue like this for quite some time, with God only being found in His temple, the one place in the world where God’s mercy is conveyed. Things continue like this until God appears to His people in a new and different way. God becomes incarnate, “enfleshed.” John’s Gospel tells us God comes and dwells, or, more properly, “tabernacles,” among us. The place where God is present in mercy is no longer a tent. It is a person. God in the flesh.

Now many people can speak to God as one might speak to a family member. While it might have seemed commonplace to many who met Jesus, it was nevertheless a radical change from how God had operated in the past. With His divine glory hidden under the flesh of His humanity, sinners were able to interact with God in a way that was completely impossible before.

In his book, “On Liturgical Theology,” the Catholic theologian, Aiden Kavanagh, describes the difference between what he calls Primary and Secondary theology. Secondary theology is what I do here on this blog. I talk about the things of God. I discuss how God works and some of the things He has revealed to us. This sort of theology is vital and necessary to the work of the church, but it is not the same as primary theology.

Primary theology, by contrast, is not where we talk about God. It is where we meet God. Discussing the wonders of communion is very different than celebrating the meal itself. One can talk about God anywhere. But, it is only within the church, within the liturgy, that one can come face to face with God. Jesus is God in the flesh and His flesh is only found in one place: on the altar. It is around this altar the church gathers in worship because it is here, and only here, that God is present in grace and mercy.

There are many Christians who believe they can be faithful without ever setting foot in church and never participating in worship. This statement makes as much sense as claiming to be a part of a family you’ve never seen and never talked to. There’s a reason the church is defined by those who gathered together in worship. Without presence in grace and mercy you are left in your sin. If that is the case, you will still meet God someday, but the only presence you will find is that which brings judgment against your sin.

God gifts His church with something truly unique and special: the ability to speak to Him face to face without fear. This happens only where He chooses to reveal Himself and make His grace known to the world.

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