What is the church?

What is the church? Perhaps you think of the old rhyme:

Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people!

If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that the church isn’t the steeple, doors, or building– the church is the people, called by the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ. And yet, it’s so easy to wonder: are we really being church right now? Is it enough? Without the regular ways of worshiping, learning, and serving, does it count? Are we still church? Doubt creeps in.

Nearly 500 years ago, the church was arguing about how to define “church,” though for different reasons, as Martin Luther and other reformers distanced themselves from the Pope and his supporters.

In the Augsburg Confession, one of the foundational statements of the reforming church, they declared, “The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly… It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere.” (Article VII, Latin text)

Did you catch that? The church is the assembly (community) of saints (forgiven sinners) among whom the gospel (good news about Jesus Christ) is proclaimed and the sacraments (baptism and communion) are given. When those characteristics are present, so is the church– with or without particular liturgies, worship styles, music, or prayers.

The reformers felt so strongly that human traditions couldn’t be required for the church that they went on to defend their statement: “Human traditions, whether universal or particular, contribute nothing to this giving of life. Nor are they caused by the Holy Spirit, as are chastity, patience, the fear of God, love of one’s neighbor, and works of love.” (Apology to Augsburg Confession, Articles VII & VIII, 31) The Holy Spirit causes love, patience, and other good things among the church (remember, that’s still the people, not the building), no matter how worship happens. The church is still the church, even when it looks different: “But just as the different lengths of day and night do not undermine the unity of the church, so we maintain that different rites instituted by human beings do not undermine the true unity of the church…”’ (Apology to Augsburg Confession, Art. VII & VIII, 33)

Many congregations have worshiped exclusively or primarily online for the past four months. Others have gathered in parking lots or spread out in lawn chairs. Were they still connected? Was the gospel proclaimed? Was the faith that brings forgiveness active? Were baptism and the Lord’s Supper being made available to people who need them? Yes? Then the church was church-ing!

Several years later, Martin Luther felt it was necessary to expand the definition of the church slightly. In an essay called On the Councils and the Church, he identified seven marks of the church: 1) the Word of God shared and proclaimed; 2) Holy Baptism given for the forgiveness of sin; 3) Holy Communion given for the faithful in accordance with Christ’s command; 4) the “Keys,” by which he meant that Christians both confess and forgive sin, publicly and privately, 5) that the church raise up and recognize ministers to lead it; 6) prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God, in other words, that worship occur both individually and collectively; and 7) “the holy possession of the sacred cross,” by which he meant that the church would endure suffering for the sake of the gospel.

When I look around at congregations facing up to this pandemic, I see all those marks. Are we finding new, creative, faith-filled ways to share God’s word? Yes! Are we continuing to baptize and commune in safe ways so that grace may abound? Yes! Are we forgiving each other, confessing our sins publicly and privately when we have done wrong? Yes! Are leaders being raised up for the sake of the church? Yes! Are we worshiping, in our living rooms and our lawns and our pick-ups? Yes! Are we suffering and struggling, yet never losing sight of the cross of Jesus Christ? Yes!

Even four months deep into a pandemic, we are figuring out that we have been the church all along,. That didn’t change when we left the building. Building or not, programs or not, you, dear people of God, are the church.

God, we thank you for making us the church in a way that does not depend on where we are or we do, but instead depends on your grace abounding for us. Banish our doubt and give to your whole church the faith we need to face the future with hope and trust. Amen.

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