Friday, June 10, 2011
Church.... Visible and Invisible
It is disappointing that so many Lutherans choose to focus more on that which we cannot see -- the invisible Church -- than we we do see -- the Church brought into being by and nurtured by the means of grace. Those who have no means of grace are left to find the Church in other places (Protestants and Evangelicals). Without a means of grace, apart from an efficacious Word, they are left only with an unseen Church that is known only by faith -- as an article of faith. Lutherans are different and we need to talk and act differently.
We see the Church. We hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling. We feel the splash of living water upon our dying flesh. We taste the bread and wine. The first thought and image of the Church for us is not that invisible part we cannot see but the visible community of faith called and gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.
Where Christ is, there is the Church. Where is Christ but where His name is. Where is His name but among the two, three, a hundred or thousands He calls and gathers through the means of grace. Where is His name but where that Word is read, spoken, and preached; where baptismal water washes us clean; where bread and wine are set apart to be His body and blood. While we may not say "where the Bishop is, there is the Church" we do not argue with the fact that the means of grace imply and assume that the Pastoral Office is there as Christ has established, a gift to His people to provide His gifts to them.
The catholic Church encompasses all people. This is why national flags to not belong in the chancel or by the altar. The catholic Church possesses the truth in all its fullness -- not bits and pieces of it. The catholic Church is the mother of all the faithful and their home (race and ethnicity are fully overcome by this unity). The catholic Church is exclusively God's and no other place offers hope of redemption and yet she is inclusive -- calling all sinners into life with Christ without regard to race, color, national identity or economic status. The catholic Church is the domain of the Spirit who transcends for us every earthly barrier that we may be made one in Christ. The catholic Church exists in time but spans the ages -- neither expanding God's revelation nor growing in understanding but holding up and holding forth the Word that is yesterday, today, and forever. The catholic Church learns from her past and lives in a constant state of renewal or reform in order to remain ever faithful and yet she does not seek or return to some pristine moment or attempt to repristinate any one time or place.
In the local congregation this catholic Church is locally represented with the riches of Christ's grace in the promise and life of the Word, water, and meal. Though this local congregation is but a fragment of its totality, in the smallest expression as in the grandest, the fullness of the catholic Church is there. Neither the individual congregation nor the individual Christian is alone or apart or solitary but lives in vital fellowship with the whole of this Church because of Christ and because we are in Christ.
Those who feel no urgency about the Divine Service on Sunday morning or who have separated themselves from the Church for whatever reason have a false sense of security when they cling to the invisible Church. This is not some consolation prize when we find ourselves alone or separate ourselves from the gathered community. It is only through our life within the visible Church that we know of and appreciate the indivisible Church. Some have gotten it backwards. They know the invisible Church and at times are consoled by or encouraged by visible expressions of this invisible Church but they find such visible expressions optional and not essential. This is not Lutheran thinking or confession.
The invisible Church is known most fully in the visible community of faith, where the saints of old join with the angels and archangels and the people gathered now to sing "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Sabaoth." Instead of this perspective, too many Lutherans think of the invisible Church as real and the visible Church as less than real. So it is easy for us to miss the Divine Service, to not belong to a local congregation at all, or to sit at home alone and think we have not missed anything. If we could counter this fallacy, we just might see the pews begin to fill up with those whose names are on rolls but whose bodies are absent on Sunday morning...