Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Congregation as locus or focus

We have rightfully made the congregation the primary locus of the Church -- the Church is where the means of grace are, where people are gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  In this respect any child knows where the Church is and can point to it (as Luther says).  In our search for God and His presence in this world, the congregation is the natural locus.  It is here that the water of Jesus calls, kills, and gives life by uniting the candidate to His death and resurrection and making that person radically new.  It is here that the Word of Christ speaks through the voice of the Pastor the absolution that removes the heavy burden of sin, guilt, distance, and death, and places the easy yoke of forgiveness, clear conscience, restoration, and life.  It is here that the Gospel is proclaimed and preached from pulpit to pew, a conversation that includes the discerning faith of the hearer and implementation of the Word by faith in life and practice.  It is here that the Table of the Lord is set, the unworthy moved from lower place to honored position, and the true and essential body and blood of Jesus given in is the mystery of bread and wine set apart by His Word and power.  It is here where office is not some article of faith or philosophical debate but the personal office of one man, set apart by Word and prayer, to be Christ in the midst of His people and those people Christ to their neighbors in the world.

The congregation is the locus of the Church, it is true.  For all our talk about the indivisible Church and its hidden-ness, this does not give us access to the grace in which we stand.  It is when we locate the visible Church that we have access to the means of grace that enable us to stand before the Lord within the world as His own children, by baptism and faith.  We are rightfully directed to the place where Christ has located Himself in our midst, in the assembly of those to whom He has given His name, His Word, His Spirit, and His Sacraments.  But the congregation is not our only focus.

Our focus is much larger than the congregation.  It is for this broader focus that Synod was begun and Church is not simply confined to one place and one people.  The focus of the Church rightfully includes our partnership with other congregations to do together what we cannot do alone, or what we cannot do effectively alone.  Our focus includes the work of preparing, certifying, and placing Pastors among us who are well equipped, examined, and capable of faithful preaching, teaching, liturgical presiding, and being the spiritual leaders of the people of God.  Our focus includes the preparation, publication, and distribution of faithful resources (print and other media) so that we can teach this Gospel, reach out to those around us with its truth and power, and send its voice into places where we as people cannot go.  Our focus includes the work of mission beyond the neighborhood, community, state, and even nation -- extending the work of the kingdom from the congregation and through this partnership to the world around us.  It is not that it is impossible for one congregation to do but it is certainly inefficient and ineffective when compared to the resources of many congregations working together.  Our focus includes responsibility to and accountability to others with whom we share this confession and faith.  The path of independence is in essence a selfish path that eschews this interconnection in which we aid our weaker partners and the correction and encouragement which we are to provide to those within our fellowship and relationship as congregations.

While I understand those who insist that congregation IS the Church -- and I agree -- I do not understand the way we tend to distance ourselves from Synod as Church as well.  It is Church in the sense that is the arena of our focus while not necessarily being the locus.  In other words, Synod is the extension of one congregation and the many congregations together -- not delegating responsibility or authority but applying it and acting upon it to accomplish the larger work that we cannot do as individual congregations.

When I sent my kids to school, I told them what my parents told me.  That teacher and principal are the extension of the parent in that place.  Don't expect me as parent to take your side against them.  If you get in trouble in school, you are in trouble at home.  If you are disciplined in school, you can expect discipline at home for the same infraction.  If you have assignments in school, you are responsible for doing them.  Of course there were times I disagreed with the teacher or felt that they had made a mistake.  I addressed this without drawing the child into the discussion and having the child see me take his or her side against the teacher.

That missionary on the field represents me as a Pastor and my parish as part of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  That professor at college or seminary of the LCMS represents me and my parish.  That relief worker and editor at CPH represent me and my parish.  They are extensions of me and my parish in places where we cannot go or doing work we cannot do here.  In this respect they are the Church.  For this reason I hold them accountable and they hold me accountable.  For this reason they are responsible for maintaining the confession and for practice consistent with that confession just as I am to them (and to the other congregations and Pastors of the Synod).

We have woven our parishes together in the fabric of Synod and this is a good and salutary thing.  For this reason we Pastors and parishes cannot think of ourselves as independent and isolated but connected and bound in this fellowship of faith, confession, practice, and work.  Yes, if you ask where the Church is, the place where font, pulpit and table are located and where people and Pastor gather around them is the locus of the Church but her focus is not simply congregational.  For this reason we as a church body share the wounds and the glory of unfaithfulness, failure, fidelity and success.  I believe this is what our new President was saying in his first remarks after being elected.  So for this reason we must be careful how we talk to one another -- we can neither afford the barbs of hate and bitterness anymore than we can afford the silence and indifference of those who would let anything go or who wish to be a part of nothing.  But talk we must.  Talk that is theological, confessional, corrective, and encouraging.  Talk that is born of a larger focus even within this congregational locus of the Church in one place.  So I would encourage my Synod, the Pastors and parishes who comprise this Church, and those who lead this Church, from the fields of the Dakotas to the urban arena of Manhattan to the California sun to the hills of Tennessee, to be engaged on every level in the work that we do together, in our common identity as Lutheran Christians, and to have a stake in both win and loss, triumph and defeat. 

1 comment:

ErnestO said...

The acceptance speech you mentioned by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison is a must see for all Lutherans -- it will be a blessing onto you - view it at: