Kristin Straeuli, FELSISA Stewardship Coordinator
Have you ever caught yourself justifying staying home from church on Sunday morning? Especially after this past year with regulations that for a time mandated just this, it is often too easy to still think, “I’ll just watch the live stream this week,” or, “I can read the sermon at the dam, so what is the difference?” But have you stopped lately to think about what “church” really embodies? More importantly, what is “the holy Christian Church,” which we confess we believe in each time we say the Apostles’ Creed, and why is it important that we know and remember this?
To know why something is important (i.e. being a part of a church and being in church), the first one has to know the meaning and significance of it. That is why, as members of the holy Christian Church, we must know what that actually is, then guard it, and in gratitude share it with others. God, the Giver of all things, has graciously put each one of us into a community of believers and given us the freedom to gather for worship. We must not forget that this is a gift or shrink from our responsibility to use it – both for our eternal blessing and for the encouragement and good of our neighbours!
This article, entitled “On ‘Being Lutheran’” was written by Rev. Dr Jon Bruss, from our sister Synod, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In it, he defines what the true Christian Church on earth is, and thereby, who a Lutheran is. By looking at the original Christians in Acts 2:42, who had just been called to faith by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we can know and then treasure our identity. Thanks be to God for this gift, and may we never neglect stewarding it, week in and week out!
On “Being Lutheran”
Lutheran identity is a huge question. If Lutheranism is important (and we certainly think it is), then what makes a Lutheran a Lutheran?
To answer that I usually like to go back to what I call “the money verse” on this question, Acts 2:42, which comes immediately after the calling of the nearly 3,000 to faith on the first Pentecost and the Baptism of them and their children. In other words, what’s described in Acts 2:42 is nothing other than the creation of the Holy Spirit. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Here, Luke, the author of Acts, gives a comprehensive thumbnail description of the holy Christian Church, one intended not only to describe the life of the early Christian Church, but the life of the Church throughout time. The church that fits the description is the holy Christian Church. The church does not fit the description, to the degree, it doesn’t, is to the same degree, not the holy Christian Church.
There are five criteria. The first was just mentioned: Baptism of adults and infants alike into the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38-39).
Second, devotion to the teaching of the apostles. This is simply a way of expressing devotion to the whole counsel of God given in the Scriptures. The preaching and teaching of the apostles is contained for us in written form in the Scriptures of the New Testament; and their teaching and preaching was based entirely on the fulfilment in Christ of the Old Testament Scriptures. And this is a repeated theme in the New Testament, not just here in Acts 2:42. Check out, for example, Paul’s reminder to the Ephesian elders that he hadn’t shrunken from teaching them “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and his talk of the “pattern of sound words” in 2 Tim 1:13. The latter passage reminds us that there is a pattern to biblical teaching, Law and Gospel rightly divided and applied, with the Gospel predominating, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 2:2: “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”
Third, believers gathered to and around this teaching and preaching are “fellows.” That’s a funny word, I know, and one not much used these days in the sense used in the Bible. The word in Greek for fellowship is κοινωνία (koinonia). It means “having [something] in common.” What the early Christians in Acts 2:42 had in common was Holy-Spirit-worked faith in and confession of the apostles’ teaching (and the other things that follow it in the list; see Eph 4:1ff). This is an important teaching: where there is an agreement in doctrine, there is fellowship. Where there is no agreement in doctrine, there cannot be fellowship, or at least fellowship in what makes the Church the Church, i.e., the apostles’ teaching.
The fourth mark of the Church is “the breaking of bread.” This expression was one of many used in Scripture for the Sacrament of the Altar, based on what we read in the evangelists about Christ’s institution of the Sacrament: “He broke it [the bread].” Put in other terms, wherever the Sacrament is administered according to Christ’s command and taught about according to apostolic teaching, there you find the one, true Church. And the teaching is rather straightforward: Christ says the bread is His Body, the wine is His Blood. And He tells us what it’s for: the forgiveness of sins. However, to deny either such teaching is to place oneself outside the holy Christian Church to the extent that this is denied. Paul even mentions that whoever takes the bread “without discerning the Body eats and drinks judgment unto himself” (1 Cor 11:29)—the judgment that stands over anyone who teaches, believes and lives contrary to God’s Word.
The fifth and final thing that makes the Church the Church is “the prayers.” Now, this is an important term. It’s the Jewish technical term for what we’d call “the formal worship.” You can see it used, for example, in Acts 16:13, where Paul goes to a “place of prayer”—the synagogue in Philippi. Early Christian worship continued with the same basic form and character of synagogue worship, which we see all over the book of Acts and elsewhere. There were prescribed readings for each Sabbath day, along with prescribed psalms and songs (sung), and a sermon. It was also formal. That’s why the rabbi Paul knows exactly what to do and when he can speak when he enters a synagogue to proclaim Christ on his missionary journeys (e.g., Acts 13:13-16). In other words, the early Christian Church was a liturgical church.
And so that must be what makes a Lutheran Church a Lutheran Church. To the extent that any of these are absent, the true Church and also true Lutheranism are absent. But where these are present, there is not only the Lutheran Church but the true visible Church on earth.
But don’t get puffed up about this. Instead, thank the Lord. For, Paul reminds us, “what do you have that you have not also received?” (1 Cor. 4:7)
And living in that gratitude, invite your neighbours and friends and family to your congregation — to this font and to this group of believers devoted “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Let them hear Christ proclaimed as crucified for their sins. Let them be baptized. Let them learn the apostles’ teaching. Let them become your fellows in the Faith. Let them, after they’ve been instructed, receive the Lord’s Body and Blood. And let them worship, with you, the Lord of their redemption.