Way back in March we took up the nature and essence of The Church. We continue answering the important question posed then: “What do you mean by ‘the Church?’” This topic is important, especially in these days of isolation and the internet, when understandings of the Church’s nature are diverse and sometimes misguided. So we’ll stay here for a while. To remind you what Article VII says, here it is again:
Article VII: Of the Church.
Also they (our Churches) teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.
And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. (Eph. 4:5-6).
The two important questions that were raised in March were:
- If the pope is not the seat of authority, what is it?
- What constitutes the Gospel? Isn’t it just one thing?
And the “ticklers” that I gave you to get you started thinking about these were:
- This from the Formula of Concord Rule and Norm: “First then, we receive and embrace with our whole heart the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged.” (http://bookofconcord.org/sd-ruleandnorm.php) (FC SD SR&N 3)
- “The Gospel” takes on many different and divergent meanings in different religious organizations and movements – especially during and following the Enlightenment in the middle of the 18th Century. What the Gospel promises us can then be quite different, though the one term is used. We’ll look at some of the different views this month.
Last month we established that as Lutherans we confess authority of Scripture – that it “trumps” everything else, including the “new revelations” that are commended to us by those inside or outside the Church who actively distort or add to the Scriptures. In the short New Testament book of Jude there are admonitions against following false teachers – “who have crept in unnoticed, . . . who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Yet there is another danger before us that we should watch for and diligently avoid. For lack of a better term, I’ll call that danger a passive distortion of God’s Word.
This passive or internal distortion of the Scriptures is not intentional, and so may be not so easily seen. Such distortions come from our sinful natures that want to place ourselves in more control of a situation, or that prefer to have someone else be responsible for what goes on in our lives. And it comes to pass, not by intent, but by ignorance; by lack of diligence; maybe by “giving up” and taking the first answer that comes to mind rather than struggling with the Word when confronted with a tough problem.
One of my favorite internet diversions is a somewhat snarky website called The Babylon Bee. It uses the format of a newspaper to “gore the ox” of social, political, and often religious positions or figures. Its sarcasm works – as does all sarcasm – because there’s some truth in the claims that are made on a given topic. To the topic at hand, one recent post carried this headline: “Study: 92% Of Christians Get All Of Their Theology From Bumper Stickers.” There is obviously some danger here. To reduce God’s Word to something that we can say on a bumper sticker or a FaceBook meme and then to go no deeper in our understanding is to trivialize that Word, and to make each one of us a “little church.” A “more noble” approach was taken by the Jews in Berea where Paul and Silas preached. The people there “received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:10-11). Rather than taking the easy approach to our understanding, we deliberately place ourselves, along with the Church and the rest of our religious worlds, under the authority of the Word.
So the error of the month for April was to actively take up the authority to add something to Scriptures that is not found there. This month’s error is to passively assume that we already “get it;” and that there’s not much more to this relationship we have with God.
THIS, good saints and friends of Christ/Upper Fall River Lutheran Church, is why we’re studying the Augsburg Confession in these newsletters. Not because it was said by Martin Luther (actually a guy named Philip Melanchthon wrote it), but because it is taken from and conforms to God’s Word. All the details with Scripture references are in a later section of the Book of Concord (The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, also written by Melanchthon). THIS is why we assemble together to hear the whole Word read and preached each Sunday morning; why we get together in the middle of the week to study the Word. So that we (“the congregation of saints”) can be drawn by the Spirit under the authority of the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Working through God’s Word, the Holy Spirit makes us the Church. Not the building or having a name in the membership book. Not being tied to a larger church organization. But having been born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5), that Spirit brings us together and makes us the Church (Acts 2).