Halfway through my internship year in New Jersey I was invited to attend the annual “ministerium day” – a day of continuing education and fellowship for clergy in the New Jersey synod put on by the bishop and his staff. In his opening remarks to the assembly, Bishop Roy Riley described the church as the sails of a massive sea vessel, raised to catch the winds of the Holy Spirit wherever they might blow. It was an evocative image, and a metaphor for the relationship of the church to God’s healing intention for all of creation. It was an image that pointed to both the church’s power and its limitations.
The sails, he explained, must be raised and lowered, trimmed and turned, as the wind shifts and moves. Therefore, the sails must be mobile, and the sailors quick to respond. The bishop was trying to get us thinking about the current structures of the church, and to regard them as secondary instead of primary to our faith.
The fancy word for the study of the theological understanding of the church is ecclesiology, from the Greek ekklesia – meaning “church” or “congregation.” Ecclesiology addresses questions like “what is the church? What does it do? How do we recognize it? Where does it get its authority? And so on. You can imagine how different faith groups might answer those questions differently. People who belong to well-established communities are often drawn to identify what the church is and what the church does with who they are and what they do. New communities are often led to describe the church as the place where something new is happening in the world. Communities characterized by lots of hierarchy tend to spend lots of time discussing the source of the church’s authority. Grassroots communities tend to emphasize the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. In short, our ecclesiology – our discussion of what constitutes a church – often reflects our own structures and needs.
As Lutherans we have a couple strands of conversation in our history that inform how we think about the church – what it is and what it does. We say the church is that place, is any place, where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. You would think that would make it easy to identify a church. Look for a place with doors and a steeple. Open the doors, look for a pulpit, a baptismal font and a communion rail. If there are people there sharing those means of grace, you’ve got a church. But it’s not as simple as that.
What does it mean to preach the gospel? How many ways can you imagine to share good news? Does it always involve a pulpit? Does it always involve a sermon, or even words? When is a sacrament rightly administered? What is baptism, except the ordinary element of water combined with Jesus’ promise that in the reign of God there is unconditional welcome? What is the Lord’s supper, except the ordinary elements of staple food and festive drink, bread and wine, pizza and beer, and Jesus’ promise that in God’s reign there is enough for everyone? Where do these things take place? Where can they take place? Is there anywhere that they cannot take place? When you begin to think about it, the church might just show up anywhere. How would we recognize it?
In addition to the formula I’ve just discussed, the place where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered, Lutherans sometimes also talk about the “marks of the church” which has a fancy theological name as well, the notae ecclesiae. It’s a list of seven, three of which we’ve already heard: the word of God, baptism and the Lord’s supper. The remaining four are confession and absolution (or reconciliation), worship, ministry and suffering. Taken together we have a picture of the church as the community within which God’s living word of reconciliation is proclaimed in word and sacrament in ways that lead to worship and sacrificial service to others.
Of course Luther, who – despite being a theologian – was also a master of the memorable quote, had a far simpler way of putting it. He said,
“a seven year-old child knows what the church is; namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.”
These questions, what it means to recognize the living presence of God in the world after the resurrection – and what it means to follow the one who reveals God to us, are the essence of the scriptures we heard read this morning. In the gospel, the disciples are gathered together inside locked doors (an awful image for the church, even if it’s too often true) when Jesus appears among them. He begins by saying, “Peace be with you.” A word of reconciliation spoken to the very people who must have been wrestling with their own sense of guilt and shame, their sin, at having denied and abandoned their teacher, their shepherd, at the moment of his greatest suffering. A word of forgiveness and reconciliation. Then he shows them his hands and his side, his wounds. The marks of his suffering as a sign of God’s solidarity with all who had suffering the shame of the cross, God’s promised presence with all who suffer because of the misuse of power and authority. Then Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The church, perhaps the first church, is given its markings. Not a building, not a steeple or a set of carillons, but a mission to go out into the world, a ministry of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of sacrificial service to others.
It is a mission and ministry that took hold of the early church, such that in the book of the Acts of the Apostles we hear that in the early days of the church – back when we were still meeting in people’s living rooms and in caves and undercrofts – those who believed were of one heart and soul. There was not a needy person among them, because they took care of one another’s needs out of their own abundances. They shared what they had with each other. Sacrificial service to the neighbor, a mark of the church. Ministry, a mark of the church.
St. Luke’s is a community I believe to be living with the marks of the church. Yes, we are a place where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered – but not only from this pulpit, font and rail. We are a community that lives God’s good news of healing and reconciliation through our ministry in the world. We are an instance, an embodiment, an incarnation, of God’s saving presence in the world. We saw this in our Easter Vigil worship where representatives of the many groups and programs that make their home here retold stories from God’s salvation history in ways that revealed God working through them here and now. God’s good news is being preached in this pulpit, and God’s good news is being preached when artists find ways in drama and song to remember and represent the truth of God’s presence with all people in all places throughout all of time. God’s sacrament of baptism is rightly administered at this font, and its meaning is made clear each time an addict tells her story to a community of acceptance and support who welcome her unconditionally into the fold. The Lord’s supper takes place at this rail, and its meaning is made clear each time a hungry family returns to Elijah’s Pantry to find the assistance they need to feed their children and discover that the church is t
he place where there is enough to go around.
“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Another way this phrase has been translated is, “There was not a needy person among them, for from time to time lands or houses were sold and the proceeds were laid at the apostles’ feet…” The point being that in times of need, the church was a community that took care of the neighbor, and understood the neighbor – as in the parable of the Good Samaritan – to be anyone in need.
This is a moment of need in the life of our community. St. Luke’s ministers to people with significant needs, and therefore we have significant needs. St. Luke’s is a church. We are not the whole church, no one worshipping community is the whole church. We are a church not because we have doors and a steeple, but because of what happens inside these doors and under our steeple. People who come here encounter the living word of God in word and wine and bread; in song and story and living sacrament; in acts of creation and artistry, healing touch and bodily restoration, and the fellowship of people with a common struggle striving for forgiveness and reconciliation for themselves from those they love. We are a church. We carry the marks.
And we have needs. Our membership continues to grow, and so does our ministry to those who gather here and those who live in our community. Still, at this point our ministry is not being funded in a sustainable way. We collect offerings from those who use our space: the theater company, the yoga studio, the weight watchers group, the narcotics anonymous community, the early childhood music program, and on and on. We collect an offering here, from our worshipping community. Then, each month, we take what we need to cover the remainder out of our reserves. Our reserves have held out longer than we thought they would. If you’d done the math, you’d have expected them to run out sometime this year, but thanks be to God for miracles of plenty. We now see those funds holding us into 2011 or 2012. Or longer, if people continue to share what is needed with those in need.
You will hear from members of this congregation over the next few weeks about an upcoming set of small group meetings taking place, the purpose of which is to educate our members about the scope of the ministry that we support as a community. We want you to know, to understand, the ways that God is working through us. We are going to ask you to renew your commitment to this community. It is not a membership due, it is an opportunity for you to engage in this ministry on a deeper level. The dates and times are listed in your bulletins, and you’ll get more details during the announcements about where the meetings will take place. Please come. Please take this opportunity seriously and joyfully.
On this Second Sunday of Eastertide, when we are proclaiming a risen Christ – God living and active in the world – people are still full of doubts. Where is this Christ? What does God’s presence look like in the world? How will I recognize it? How can I touch it, become a part of it? How does it touch me, heal me, matter to me? We are an instance, a manifestation, of the living Christ appearing among God’s needy people.
“Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.”