Monday, September 28, 2009
On Separating Jesus and the Kingdom of God from the Church
After about the hundredth time I heard someone say the Church is not the same as God's Kingdom or we should be more concerned about bringing people to Christ than bringing them to the Church, I decided to ramble a bit on this subject...
It has become fashionable to distinguish the Kingdom of God from the Church gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord, to separate bringing people to Christ from bringing them to the Church. While I understand the reasoning behind this, it makes me very uncomfortable. This distinction ultimately leads us to where I don't think any of us wants to go -- with a private Christianity in which the Church is reduced to me and the faith is only as big as me. And that is a problem.
We can and do speak of the invisible Church -- realizing that the fullness of the Church is never visible to us. It bridges time and space and at any given moment we only glimpse a portion of the Church. Another portion of the Church is never visible to us until we become part of it in heaven. We can and do speak of the Kingdom of God in a way that transcends any one local gathering of God's people around His Word and Table or any one denomination. That is all well and good but the Kingdom of God is most visible to us and accessible to us in the gathered community of faith we call the Church. We can and do speak of bringing Christ to people (to the nations) -- but unless we bring them to the Church, we have not given them all Christ intends for them and we may leave them dangerously vulnerable and adrift from the very moorings to which Christ has attached Himself.
It seems that Lutherans have become fairly adept at this separation -- as if making Lutherans were somehow antagonistic to making them Christians or the Lutheran congregation is something less than the Church of Jesus Christ or the Kingdom of God is a separate and distinct group apart from the Church. When I read Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, I do not see such comfort with these distinctions -- at least not in the way they are used today.
What is the Church? Is it not the community of the baptized gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord? What relationship does this gathered community have against the Kingdom of God? Is not the Kingdom of God visible and the Church present where Christ has placed His name and two or three are gathered (which, by the way, means specifically the Word and Sacraments which are where Christ has placed His name, His power, and access to His grace).
We as Lutherans should be pretty clear on this matter. Yet sometimes we denigrate and even show disdain for the Church as if the Church were optional at best or a distraction from Christ and His kingdom at worst. What kind of foolishness is this? Yes, the Church on earth includes manifest sinners and those outside the Kingdom (until the Lord separates the sheep and the goats) but it is not as if we have taken Jesus gift of the Church, established by His blood, and made it into something sectarian and awful. It is and was God's intention that on earth the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest when He will separate them. Jesus' caution about taking it upon ourselves to separate the two is well taken. I say this not to be content by this but to be content that God and His grace are still at work in the Church of Jesus Christ despite this apparent weakness and failing.
The visible Church, the community gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord, is where God means us to be as Christian people. We are too seek out that gathered community whose confession is faithful and true. We are to place ourselves in partnership with the others of this community in service to the Lord and His Kingdom. We bring forth our tithes and offerings within this gathered community and offer them to the Lord by offering them to His Church.
Perhaps if we spoke more highly about the Church, if we made sure that we did not just share the faith but connected these people to the gathered community, and if we raised up the Church as we do the Kingdom of God, they would look more similar to us and to the world around us...
Faith is not a private matter between me and the Lord. Faith is very public and we wear our faith on the outside as well as on the inside. Christians cannot be content with a me and Jesus approach to life. We need to be connected to the Church, to the gathered community, because that is where Christ is in His Word and Sacraments. It is from this Church that we bring Christ home to our houses and neighborhoods and with us into our work places and schools.