Saturday, November 7, 2015
The Church does not become visible via institutions but via proclamation.
The Church is visible where the Word is proclaimed in all its truth and purity and where the Sacraments are administered according to the will and institution of Christ. This has always been the truth and it is the strength of the Church that who she is is intertwined in what she does. How easy it has been and still is to think of the Church as if it were something in theory that did not exist in practice! In reality it is just the opposite. The theory extrapolates from the practice, from the reality of the priest and people, gathered around the Word and Table, as the baptized whom God has made His own now receiving His gifts and rendering thankful praise in response.
Of course there are those who will remind me that the Church is also known through her acts of mercy. But these are not strictly the actions of the Church -- separate and distinct from the baptized living out their baptismal life in but not of the world. No, the Church's acts of mercy are first and foremost the acts of mercy done by the baptized and are called the Church's only because the baptized are that Church. Their royal priesthood is not liturgical in the modern sense of people dividing up the Divine Service so that everyone gets their part but liturgical in the Biblical sense of the work of the baptized fulfilling their calling in the world gives the Church her identity and presence on every street corner and neighborhood. We were not redeemed for self-centered purpose but to display the good works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light. Where the baptized live out their baptismal life in home, neighborhood, and community, there is the Church. Now surely the Church may organize and facilitate the cooperative work of the baptized so that we do not always or even usually act alone or as individuals but this is not the greater focus. That focus always lies in the baptized fulfilling their baptismal calling and life, individually and together.
I once had a member of our congregation complain that during a particularly hard time in life the Church was not there for them. I asked if people from the parish prayed for them, with them, sat in the home, visited the hospital, wrote cards and letters of encouragement, brought meals, etc... The answer was "well, of course but that is not the Church." What this person meant was that he received plenty of pastoral care but not from the pastor who was there at the time. This individual equated the Church with the pastor -- either acting individually or as the organizing agent of the care provided to the family in their trials. That is a typical yet false distinction. It happens not only on this level but when the Church is equated with constitutions, by-laws, standard operating procedure manuals, boards, commissions, etc... The Church is dynamic, the realm of the Spirit, and the Spirit works through the means of grace. Often we need to be reminded of this.
The weakness of the Church is revealed when we equate the institution with the fuller identity of the Church. Rome was accused of doing this by the Reformers. The Church was strictly seen as only the bishops and only the bishops in communion with the Pope; priests, deacons, and the religious by extension extended the bishop's presence and ministry. Vocation was the new old word of the Reformation. Baptismal vocation that posited the Church's identity and work not only in the Office of the Ministry but in the baptized and their call to live out the new life into which they were baptized and do the work of the Kingdom assigned to them within the realm of home, neighborhood, and community. In this way the artificial distinction between the religious and secular was bridged.
Funny how we continue to fall into the trap of equating structures with Church and institutional identity and shape with the Church. In this way ecumenism lives out the lie that the only or the true unity of the Church lies in a common mailing address for the headquarters instead of common confession, proclamation, liturgy, and baptismal vocation. One Lord, one faith, one baptism is not a command laid upon the churches rightly divided over the substance of creed, confession, and doctrine but the unity inherent among those who rightly confess and proclaim. Our security or confidence comes from the fact that we proclaim what we proclaim with accuracy and clarity, the Scriptural faith in accord with the catholic tradition, in both doctrine and practice.
We yearn for institutional unity, vitality, and authenticity but this cannot exist with the same flowing freely from and back again to the Divine Service, to the assembly of the baptized, around the Word and Table of the Lord. Where this is authentic to the Word of God and catholic in shape and practice, the unity of the assemblies will ensure the vibrancy of their structure and the faithfulness of their institutions.