Psalm 149:1 (NIV)
1 Praise the Lord.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
His praise in the assembly of His faithful people.
The Church is the assembly of the Godly! A community of faith, hope and love with a life giving message for the world – The Gospel – the good news of God’s favour and blessing in and through His Son Jesus Christ.
Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, which describes the Church, has been called the “…evangelical Magna Carta of the Lutheran Church”.
The reason for this is that it cuts through the adiaphora – all the unnecessary and frivolous clutter of manmade ceremonies and traditions to focus on what is really important which defines the Church. In this article we have a straight forward explanation of what God’s Church really is.
To cut to the chase, Article VII reminds us that any unity we have in the church is “…shaped, defined, and normed by Biblical truth”. That is, the Biblical teaching of the Church determines what is Church and what it is not.
As the editors of the Augsburg Confession in their introduction in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions – A Readers Edition of the Book of Concord say in their introduction to Article VII:
“Church fellowship is common participation in the saving treasures of the Church: Christ’s gifts, His Gospel, and His Sacraments. Not any Gospel will do but only that Gospel which is purely taught alongside correctly administered Sacraments.”
So, the Word we preach and teach must be true to the revealed Word of God as given to us in the Holy Bible – the Old and New Testaments.
The Church must focus on what God gives in and through His Word and Sacraments not on what we do, so that our participation in the Word and Sacraments does not become a good work by which we attempt to gain favour with God for our salvation – He’s already given us His favour.
We, that is, the Church are to concentrate on what God gives us in and through His Word and Sacraments.
Article VII refers us to Psalm 149:1 where we are called the assembly of His faithful people.
The Article itself reads:
“Our Churches teach that one holy Church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the Doctrine of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, that is rites or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere. As Paul says, One Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.”
Article VIII of the Augsburg Confession expands on Article VII by making it clear that the Church is made up only of believers in Christ who are made holy – that is set apart – by God’s mercy to us when He sent Jesus to die on the cross for us.
Those who claim to be members of the Church but who do not have faith in Jesus and His benefits are hypocrites and “…not in any sense part of the Church.” As in the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43 the weeds are the hypocrits who exist within the visible Church but whom God will “…throw into the blazing furnace…” when true believers will “…shine like the Sun.”
We can describe the Church in the broad sense as those who “…assemble around the Word and Sacrament.” In the narrow sense the Church encompasses only those who truly believe (only God knows who they are).
Although there are many denominations there is only one Church here on earth – that which is hidden as Colossians 3:3 says, “…your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
We can see the hidden Church within the visible Church where Christ’s Gospel and Sacraments are “…purely preached and administered.”
“Strictly speaking” says Article VIII on “What the Church Is” we read “the Church is the congregation of saints and true believers.” The fact is, as our confession says, “…because many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled with them (the true believers) in this life, it is lawful to use the Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the sayings of Christ.”
In Matthew 23:2 Jesus says, “…the teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses seat.”
Because of Christ’s institution of both Word and Sacraments they are effective - effective because of Jesus command and institution. Even if the Word is proclaimed in all its truth, and the Sacraments administered by an unbeliever and/or a blatant sinner.
So, if I were an unbelieving pastor (which I am not) to have administered Baptism the Baptism is just as valid as when a believing Pastor administered the Baptism. As Article VIII of the Augsburg Confession says: “Both the Sacraments and the Word are effective because of Christ’s command, even if they are administered by evil men.”
In other words George Forell tells us: “The validity of the Gospel does not depend on the sincerity or moral purity of those who transmit it to us. The Gospel is true because it is God’s message, not because the minister or Sunday School teacher happens to be a good person.”
It is desirable that those who preach, teach and represent Christ in the community, represent Him well even though the message does depend on the integrity or competence of the messenger. I find this particularly encouraging as I don’t always feel up to the task of proclaiming the Gospel.
It’s an awesome thing to do and we all have a role in sharing it.
In the Church God demonstrates His power in that His Word is performative – that is He does what He says when His Word is spoken and it is received in faith.
The most persistent and oldest attack on the Church is that it is full of hypocrites with many people who claim to be Christians who don’t look, talk or act in a Christian manner. As Dwight L. Moody, an American evangelist of the 18th Century, was reported to have said when challenged with the Church being full of hypocrites: “Don’t let that bother you, there is always room for one more.”
Forell commentating on Article VIII says: “The only thing that is even more hypocritical than hypocrites in the Church is people who stay away from churches because they claim they are so much better.”
We as the Church are a hospital for sinners where spiritually sick people can he supported, restored by Word and Sacrament and encouraged to live God pleasing lives. We are not a holy club for the pure and sinless. Our confession encourages us to take chances on people and see them as Jesus sees them: sick, hungry and lost children of God.
This is why the Church is always in reformation mode because we slip into bad habits and make ourselves exclusive rather than inclusive. Because the members of the church are forgiven sinners the Church visible will always develop sinful tendencies which have to be repaired.
God gives us the tools of confession and absolution (the keys from today’s Gospel reading), His Word – Jesus on the cross and the sacraments to restore and encourage us.
As we carry out the ongoing process of reformation here at St Matthew we invited Dorothy Oliver to come and help us. Yesterday she helped 12 of us see how we at St Matthew are going. We have some things to work on and we have some things in good order so we’ll keep working on them.
Martin Luther asked what interfered with the proclamation of the Gospel of God’s gracious forgiveness of sins in the 16th Century Europe. We need to ask the same question today – what interferes with the proclamation of the Gospel of God’s gracious forgiveness of sins in Hamilton?
We also need to seek God’s wisdom through His Word and prayer on what we personally as individuals can be doing to help God’s Church. God will build His Church with or without our help but His will for us is that He wants us all involved and committed.
It’s good to be belong and be involved. I love Jesus’ one true Christians Church – I love St Matthew Congregation as part of it and I pray you do too.