If you put to most folks in the pew, you would be hard pressed to get a thoughtful answer to the question why are we here -- as Christians or as the Church. The great temptation is to take one aspect of the answer to that question and make it THE answer. I was hearted by the simple yet complete definition offered by President Harrison -- witness, mercy, life together.
Witness -- it is easy to make witness the only purpose for Christians and the Church and to make all secondary or even subservient to the task of witness. I have read defenses of witness that insist that everything the Church says and does must be evangelistic. It becomes the justification for everything from jettisoning the liturgy, hymns, church year, vestments, etc. in favor of worship that is "comfortable" to the average unchurched American. Sunday morning becomes a spectator event, centered on pleasure and entertainment, focused on positive themes, music that sounds like what people listen to on the radio, and gentle, upliftying generic stories of reaching your dreams, strength under duress, and happiness that endures. It also uses guilt to motivate people to work on their friends and neighbors and convert them to this happy path of self-fulfillment under the smiling gaze of God -- ala Joel Osteen. We come to God and we come to Church to find out how to have better jobs, better incomes, better spouses, better children, better sex, and better self-esteem.
It is easy to forget that witness points to Jesus Christ and Him crucified, to sin that required a Savior because sinners were captive to sin and its death and unable to free themselves, and to grace that bestows the unmerited favor of God upon an unworthy and undeserving world. It is easy to forget that faith is not knowledge, understanding and consent but simple trust in Christ alone, grace alone, revealed through Scripture alone by the work of the Spirit and now the power of human will and reason. It is easy to forget that the path of Christ is often against the ebb and flow of the world and its values and requires Christians to swim against the stream. It is easy to forget that worship is only for Christians who discern the Christs present in Word and Sacrament, who meet Him in the mystery of the means of grace, and who respond with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving in concert with those who have gone before.
Mercy -- it is easy to make mercy into kindness without Christ, Christian into do gooders, and the Church into a self-help or welfare center. We have ample witness to the excesses of liberation theology, to the churches that confuse social justice with the Gospel, to those who make the purpose of the kingdom the advocacy of all who are oppressed (except, of course, the unborn threatened by abortion), and by the churches who join the band wagon of every cutting edge social movement (from gay marriage to PETA to green revolution). It is easy for the congregation to become a center of self-help organizations in which the name of Christ is virtually absent from the vocabulary of pop psychology and alien values that are designed to help people repair their own lives and get what they want from life.
Mercy is about THE mercy seat spread with the blood of Christ and the Man of Mercy who offers not some band aid for life but the compassion and care of the present that is motivated and empowered by the life which is forever. The Church and Christians act as agents of Christ's mercy in places where the cause is not popular and the pictures not paraded by the media. In the quiet of one person reaching out to another, mercy's moment is the Good Samaritan (Jesus) acting out through the good samaritans of His own, baptized into His death and resurrection and set free by grace to extend this mercy to those near and far. Mercy is doing some of the same things as other agencies of care and compassion but for radically different reason and cause; it is also doing very different things as other agencies of care and compassion because of the radical nature of the Gospel.
Life Together -- it is easy to think of this koinonia as fellowship but, perhaps, this word no longer says much of anything. When fellowship becomes a space in a building or a cup of coffee in your hand or glad handing friends and neighbors with the latest humorous stories or jokes, then we need another word. By drawing on a word which is intimately connected with the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, life together is at one in the same time a reference to the historical nature of fellowship that flows from Christ to those who are in Christ and at the same time transcends the shallow definitions of what this life together means in a disconnected world. For churches this means we are not islands on our own but connected and what we do and how we do it impacts others as well as our own little corner of the world. For Pastors it means that we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and heave pot shots at the tempting targets of those with whom we disagree. For Christians it means that coffee is fine but life together means a concern for the person, their life in Christ, the wounds that they carry in life, the sorrows that make this life a struggle, and the temptations that lure them away from Christ and His Church.
To a church body bleeding 40-70,000 people a year we need to think about our life together and what is causing us to lose this many people off our membership rolls each year (not as a statistic but as people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ). We need to consider why it is that on any given Sunday morning less than 1 million of our 2.4 million members are there around the Word and Table of the Lord and what we can do to make it the expectation and goal of every Lutheran and every Lutheran congregation -- every member in worship and Bible study every week! We need to consider why it is that when we have fun activities we can get youth together but we have failed to convince them that their own growth in faith and life in Christ is as important as having a good time. We need to consider why congregations are more willing to spend Christ's money on themselves and local causes and why it is so easy for us to ignore the causes of world mission, education of Christians in secular vocations and church workers, and the development of worship and educational materials. We need to consider why it is that conflict is so rampant among the clergy, congregations, and Christians and why we do not meet together at the foot of the cross to find resolution for the disputes and hurts that keep us apart. This is the life together defined in Scripture and this is the life together that we need to pay attention to as a church body and individual members and parts of that church body.
Thus ends my little sermonic rant this morning...