“Christ’s Gifts to His Church”
Sermon Series for Lent 2013
Based upon Martin Luther’s “Marks of the Church” – 1539
“Thank God, a seven year old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and the sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd” M. Luther
The above quote from Martin Luther contains a bit of humor and also a little irony as his description of the Church – here so simple, insightful and understandable – was followed years later with one of his most extensive treatises, “On the Councils and the Church” … over 150 pages. What once deserved only this one sentence of definition, 10 years later demanded a large tome of description, definition, and sometimes diatribe.
Ready for a little quick history?
Luther’s description and understanding of the Church did not change but the explosive events of the Reformation created dramatic movements and counter-movements that called into question what exactly constituted the authentic Church of Jesus Christ.
Roman Catholicism answered the question by insisting that “The Church is where the Bishop is” and by extension the Church exists through the power and primacy of the papacy which ordains both priest and bishop.
The more radical protestant expressions of the Reformation insisted that the Church is where the Spirit is and where the presence of the Spirit is evidenced in experiential, emotional and readily observable manifestations there is Church. The theological conclusions of these movements were simple, “No experience – No Spirit – No Church”.
The varieties of religious expressions, leaders and “churches” that emerged during this often chaotic period(s) of history (1450 – 1600 ca.) forced Western Christianity to confront the painful but fundamental, question, “What are the absolutely necessary, critical marks of Christ’s Church?” Put more simply, “How do I recognize the Church Jesus is building?”
Luther’s earthy definition of Church which any “seven year old knows” never changed and was incorporated into the first public Confession of the protestant movement, The Augsburg Confession, 1530. Here Luther’s definition of Church is expressed in the words, the Church is “the assembly of God’s people among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy Sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” However almost a decade later Luther, for the sake of a more expansive and deeper definition, drilled down into a definition of Church that is still both simple and expansive. This definition which concludes his long dissertation ,”On the Councils and the Church” is known simply as “The Seven Marks of the Church” and can be as helpful and inspiring today as it was almost 500 years ago.
And how do we know Christ’s Church today … by a congregation’s or denomination’s size? …by its symbols of success – numbers and income? … by its proclamation of “health and wealth”? … by its insistence upon a prayer practice of “name it and claim it”? … by the charisma of its leaders? … by the form and style of its worship … by its profile in the community? … by its public and political pronouncements … by its conservative position on the Bible and social issues? By its relevancy to contemporary life? What are the “Marks of the Church” consistent with Christ’s Vision, God’s Mission, and the Spirit’s power? The questions are no less demanding and certainly no less important today than 500 years past.
Case in point? Current sociologists of the American religious scene have identified a relatively new and important religious subset called simply the “Nones”; as in “None of the Above”. This cohort is made up of persons 21 – 30(5) who have become everything from disillusioned to cynical about the contemporary church and make up 30% of this age group; this may be the single largest percentage of religiously disconnected persons in our nation’s history. Some of the “marks of the church” identified as unacceptable and irreligious by this cohort – the “Nones” – are that the religious institutions in the U.S. are racist, exclusive, judgmental, political, unscientific, thoughtless. … This segment of our population is one of many challenges to both our understanding of Church and the ways we daily live out Jesus Christ’s meaning and message as a denomination, as a congregation, and as His disciple/apostle.
The Seven Marks of the Church – The Seven Gifts of Christ to His Church
The season of Lent has been traditionally sanctified as a time for self examination, self sacrifice, and special prayer as in spirit we follow our Lord on the “Way of Sorrows” to the forgiveness of the Cross and ultimately to the hope of the Resurrection. This Lent – God willing – we will in Service and Sermon focus on the Catechism’s embrace of the Seven Marks or Seven Gifts of Christ to His Church: These Marks identified by Luther are:
The Holy Word of God – Holy Baptism – Holy Communion – The Holy Absolution – The Holy Ministry – Holy Prayer (Worship) – The Holy Cross
Each Sunday beginning with the first Sunday in Lent, February 17, through Easter one of these Gifts will challenge and encourage us to both be the Church in Word, Worship, and Sacrament and see the Church as our Lord Jesus creates and recreates His Church in our time.
“Jesus asked His disciples who do the people think I am? …. And Peter confessed, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!’ Jesus said blessed are you … flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven … I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not be able to stand against it.”
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