Saturday, January 12, 2008

Christ Present in the Church

A number of years ago I was at a men's retreat and the Saturday evening schedule featured a presentation on the Four Spiritual Laws by a man affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ. This being a retreat sponsored by a Lutheran church, I was aghast. (If this story sounds familiar, it's because I've blogged about it before.)

After the presentation, I went up to the man (who happens to be a graduate of a theological school in Germany) and said, "That doesn't sound very Lutheran." He responded, "No, it isn't, is it?" He went on to explain how the Lutheran "strategy" for evangelism revolves around the sacraments. We faithfully offer the sacaraments in church, and baptize anyone who happens to wander in. But what about the people who don't wander in? How do we reach them?

This event has really stuck with me, but the importance of the gentleman's question didn't really sink in with me until today. This morning I was reading chapter 3 of The Evangelizing Church wherein Richard Bliese talks about the Babylonian captivity of Word and Sacrament. Bliese highlights the Lutheran tendency to use the slogan "word and sacrament ministry" as a way to avoid the work of being an evangelizing church. If sermons are being preached in our communities and we're baptizing our children, then we're being faithful, right? But we've forgotten (or, could it be, not noticed) that the gift of salvation is also a call (the point of Kelly Fryer's chapter 2 of the book).

So what do we do? Do we simply turn to the Four Spiritual Laws as the man from CCC suggested? Or can we actually stick to our guns regarding word and sacrament while still becoming an evangelizing church? Those who know how I feel about the Four Spiritual Laws can guess my answer.

The key to retaining what is of value in our Lutheran heritage while still reaching out to a lost world lies in recognizes the truth that is at the heart of our theological position on Word and Sacrament. In the preaching of the Word and the practice of the Sacraments, Christ comes to us.

We've all heard this before, but I wonder if the depth of it sinks in. I've even said it before. In a post titled What if the Gospel? I wrote two years ago I said, "To me, the Gospel is that in the person of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has begun to break into this world. In Christ Jesus, God has begun to fulfill his promise of new heavens and a new earth." And yet, when I read last night the definition of the gospel offered in The Evangelizing Church it struck me like lightning from heaven, as if it were something I'd never heard before. Never mind that I had read these very words several times before. Listen:
The heart of evangelical theology and preaching is that Christ is present among us--concretely and unmistakably. Jesus' word and presence are real, direct, graspable, and available for us--today! If faith means anything, it means grasping hold of a sermon or a forgiving word from a friend and declaring, "Amen, I believe these are Jesus' words for me." Clarity on this point is vital for evangelizing. We do not act as if Jesus Christ were present in the Christian community. The gospel message is that Jesus, actually, is alive and is really present with us in Christian community as he promised. That's the good news. It's the great gift of salvation.
Did you notice the emphasis here on "Christian community"? If you look at the history of the Christian church at nearly any time and place there will be a whole lot of very visible public figures acting as if the gospel is something different than this entirely, but the gospel of Jesus' presence survives -- not because of a core group of people preserving this as a minority position, but because it's true. Because Jesus really is present in the Christian community the Church lives on and accomplishes its work.

But here's a last thought. By our actions, by the way we organize and conduct ourselves we can either tap into the power of Jesus' presence or be an obstacle to be overcome. Bliese writes, "The church needs to be evangelized in order to evangelize the world." If we want to bring Christ to the world, we must begin by bringing Christ to each other.

The Silence of the Blogs

I read an article a few months ago about how there are nearly twice as many abandoned blogs on the web as active blogs. Apparently most blogs have a very short lifespan. I have had a dead blog for some time (besides this one), though I mean to get back to it some day. This one hasn't actually been dead. It's just been very ill. That is, I haven't had anything to say. (My own health has been good, BTW.)

My last post was an introduction to a series of post about Old Testament quotations in the gospel of Matthew. It was part of my preparation for a class on that topic. As it turned out, I put off the blogging too long, and the momentum of the work for the class overtook me. The class went really well, but I didn't have time to blog it. If anyone really wants to see what I was going to say, let me know and I'll try to pick it back up sometime. In the meantime, I made the foolish move of committing to teach back-to-back classes, and I'm now in the midst of leading a class based on the book The Evangelizing Church, which I'm currently reading for, I think, the fourth time. More to come on that, unless I get distracted in the next few minutes.