Among the many ways Scripture describes the relationship of believers to Jesus (nation, flock, building, etc.) perhaps the most helpful for us today is that of a human body. Jesus is the head and believers are the body, the church. (Colossians 1:18) This picture emphasizes how intimate and inseparable the bond is between Christ and the Church: you won’t ever find one without the other. And yet, Satan has made it his mission to do just that: separate the head from the body. That he has been successful is evident when people say: “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t believe in the Church.” “I’m spiritual, but not religious, so I don’t go to church.” “Why would I go to church, it’s full of hypocrites and sinners?” “I worship Jesus on the golf course, at the lake, in bed…that’s my church.” “I believe in my own way, I don’t need a church to tell me who and what and how to believe.” Can a person be a Christian without the church? Can a church be the church without Christ? Those are complicated questions, but we will find answers to them in asking more basic questions: what is the church? Who established it? Where is it? How does it survive and grow?
What is the church? Ask five people and you will probably get five different answers. We commonly speak of the church as a building. Sometimes we speak of a denomination as the church. Catholics, especially, like to consider their denomination the Church. Many today consider the church to be a community service group that primarily exists to make the world a better place. Finally, and frighteningly prevalent today are groups that calls themselves churches but are really cults – groups who follow a human leader instead of Christ. So what is the proper, Biblical definition of the Church? When Jesus said I will build my church, he used the Greek word ecclesia. Ecclesia means “called out.” The Church is the grand total of those who have been “called out” of this unbelieving world into God’s family. And so properly speaking, the Christian church is all people, everywhere and of all time, who confess and believe what Peter confessed in our text, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The answer to the next question, then, is pretty obvious, isn’t it? Who established the church? God’s only Son did, when he came into this world to live the perfect life we never could, died to pay for our sins against God’s holy law, and rose again victorious over sin, death, and the devil. Jesus Christ, then, is the one who established the Church by his life, death and resurrection. Jesus, who he is and what he’s done, is the rock on which the church is built. Paul emphasizes this in his letter to the Corinthians: no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11) And so, in contrast to the opinions of those who regard the Church as an man-made invention, a community service organization, or a dying relic of the past that we don’t really need in the 21st century – the Church is God’s institution, founded and established by Christ, built and formed when the Holy Spirit brings sinners like us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. So even though church buildings and denominations and pastors come and go, Christ’s Church will stand forever, and not even the gates of hell will overcome it because it is built on a foundation that cannot be changed, torn down or destroyed: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Because there is only one foundation, there is only one Church, undivided by time or testament, by distance or denomination. Jesus said on this rock I will build my church, not churches. Naturally, this raises some questions – and perhaps even doubts – in our minds. What about those believers who have died and gone to heaven? The Church transcends the boundaries between heaven and earth. We refer to the Church on earth as the Church Militant – because it is still engaged in spiritual warfare with the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh (Ephesians 6:10; 1 Peter 5:8-9); and the Church in heaven as the Church Triumphant – because it consists of those who have completed their warfare and are now resting in glory. (Revelation 2:10; 4:4; 7:9) But because both groups are bound by faith in Jesus – believers, living and dead, belong to one Church. What about Old Testament believers, those who died before Jesus’ birth? Weren’t they Jewish, not Christian? What about Abraham, Moses, David? It’s really simple when you think about it – what was the basis for their faith? God’s promise to send a Savior. (Romans 4:3; Hebrews 11:2) They too trusted the promised Savior’s work of redemption and so they too were and are members of the one Christian Church.
What about today, when there are more denominations (and non-denominations) than it’s possible to count? Remember, who belongs to the Holy Christian Church? All who believe in Jesus as their Savior. Are there true believers in Baptist, Catholic, Charismatic and non-denominational churches? Wherever the Gospel is preached and the sacraments administered, there will be believers. (Don’t you dare leave here saying that pastor said that only Lutherans will be in heaven!) But here we need to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church. The invisible (or hidden) church is the true Christian Church, consisting only of believers. All visible churches contain both believers and unbelievers (what we would call hypocrites). While they may belong to a local congregation, they don’t belong to the Holy Christian Church. In the Holy Christian Church there are no denominations, no divisions, no disunity – there are only those who belong to God through faith in Christ Jesus. The Apostle Paul explained the foundation of the church’s unity in greater detail in our second lesson: make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6)
It’s important to understand that unity is something Christ gives us through the Holy Spirit, not something we need to work for. Thus Paul’s encouragement to make every effort to keep that unity. We do truly desire that all who are already united by invisible faith in Christ would be united in external, visible fellowship. Ah, but someone will say (and you might be thinking) “but you Lutherans don’t allow other Christians to receive Communion, you don’t worship or pray with Baptists or Catholics, you don’t work together in community service or mission projects with community Bible churches – how can you claim to desire unity?” Well, believe it or not, the practice of closed communion and refusing to join in prayer, worship and other Gospel-related activities until doctrinal agreement has been established is, in fact, the only way to safeguard the unity that is ours in Christ. It’s the devil would like us to believe that the only thing that’s important is that we all appear to get along – and that doctrine and practice don’t really matter.
Consider just a few doctrines and how they all tie directly back to the basic confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Many churches no longer demand agreement that God created everything in six normal days using nothing but his Word. But if God is not our Creator, we are not accountable to him and there is no need for a Savior like Jesus. How could we pray or worship with people who deny the First Article? Others reject Jesus’ virgin birth, his miracles and his resurrection. But if Jesus was not sinless, all-powerful and victorious over death – how can he be anyone’s Savior? Many churches today teach that the bread and wine of Communion are only symbols of Jesus’ body and blood because that’s the only explanation that makes sense. But that denies Jesus’ clear and simple words: this is my body…this is my blood. (Matthew 26:26, 28) How can we claim unity with people who deny Jesus’ words? Every doctrine of Scripture is intimately connected to the confession that Christ is the Son of God. And so, preserving unity doesn’t mean ignoring doctrinal differences, it guarding the only unity that matters: unity based on the Word. (John 17:17) We mean it when we confess that all who believe in Jesus as Savior will be in heaven one day – whether they are Baptist, Catholic, non-denominational or Lutheran today. But we must recognize that it is not faithfulness to the Word that brings about division; it is false doctrine that brings about division. We will not join in fellowship with those who teach and preach falsely now – because doing so reveals a lack of love for Scripture, a lack of love for those who are erring, and, most importantly, a lack of love for Christ, who said: [teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:20) The Church is one. It is united in Christ – his Word and work. And that is a unity worth fighting for.
The final question is: how (or who) is responsible for gathering, growing, building the Church? While I would argue that this, too, should be obvious, there is much confusion regarding who is responsible for building the Church. Many, probably most American Christians, believe and teach that it is up to us to gather the Church. That if people are going to come to Jesus, believe, and be saved, we have to persuade (or trick) them to come in the door and then convince them to believe in this Jesus guy. This thinking does not come from Scripture, it comes from the world of business, where marketing gimmicks and emotional and psychological manipulation are the norm in persuading people to purchase products and services. Not only is it impossible for human beings to create faith (1 Corinthians 12:3 and here, where Jesus told Peter that this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven!); but Jesus says point blank I will build my church. The Church is not our church. It’s not our job to establish it, grow it or build it. The Church belongs to Christ, her head. He establishes it. He unites it. He grows it. He says that no one comes to him unless the Father draws him. (John 6:44) He sends out apostles and prophets and pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13), he sends the Holy Spirit to create and sustain faith (John 14:15-21), he has given no other tools but the Word and Sacraments to grow and sustain his Church.
Now someone might say, “but those marketing gimmicks work, just look at the biggest mega-churches in our country!” And we don’t deny that human methods are effective in getting people in the door of visible churches. But our purpose is not to bring people into the visible church, it is to make disciples of Jesus, members of his Church. (Matthew 28:19) The only way to enter Christ’s Church is through conversion – the total 180 degree change of heart and life. Only the Holy Spirit can bring this conversion about. And the Holy Spirit only works through the means of grace: the Law and Gospel. Only the law of God is sharp enough to pierce the hard hearts of people to bring about repentance. (Hebrews 4:12) And only the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16) Wherever and whenever these tools are put to work, they get results – God promises it! (Isaiah 55:10-11) The Christian Church can never fail, but visible churches can fail, in fact, visible churches will fail if they try to substitute these divinely appointed means for principles taken from the world of business, for their own clever ideas, their own methods and means. Christ will build his church. Our job is simply to BE the church, be the body of Christ: pastors should preach, teachers should teach, parents should raise their children to fear and love the Lord, husbands and wives should love each other, whatever God has given us each to do tomorrow morning, we should do to his glory and we should all hear the Word diligently and receive the Sacrament regularly. Because that is what it means to be a member of the Christian Church. (1 Corinthians 12) Let us be busy carrying out the tasks our Lord has given us as his body. Let him worry about growing the Church he established and united with his blood.
When Peter confessed his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus replied I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. We believe in the Holy Christian Church. Satan works tirelessly to separate Christ from the church and the church from Christ. He knows that cut off from the head, the body will die. But Jesus has promised that Satan will never succeed. And that’s because the Church is not a human invention, based and gathered around human opinion, and grown by human innovation. The Church is established by Christ, united in Christ, and built by Christ. You want to find the Church? Don’t look at the building, the people, the pastor, the snacks….Look for Christ. Look for his Word and Sacrament and there you will find the Church – and, more importantly, there you will find forgiveness for your sins, protection from the devil, and salvation for your soul. May Christ keep us safe in the ark of his Church militant until he takes us home to join the Church triumphant. Amen.