The visible church

The visible church

At church we find believers because the Holy Spirit works through the gospel, but we also find hypocrites.

It’s Sunday morning at Midtown Evangelical Lutheran Church. The late service begins in ten minutes.

Larry is at the door. Larry is in his mid-60s, recently retired. He’s on the usher crew today. Larry has been an usher at Midtown since he was 14. In fact, over the years, Larry has served on almost every board and committee and action group that Midtown has had.

At the moment, Larry is in a pleasant conversation with a couple of visitors. When he learns that they attend a sister congregation a few states over, Larry throws out a few names they might know. They do. They smile and nod. “Small synod!” Larry says. Then they all laugh together.

And no one knows that Larry’s soul is in grave danger. Not even Larry.

What a church is

Time to take in the bigger picture. Leave Larry at the door, walk outside, and look up. This spot is a perfect place to stand and discuss what theologians call “the visible church.” Before you is a beautiful, old church building. It’s been part of the community for generations. Now look to the front. There’s a sign that says, “Midtown Evangelical Lutheran Church.” But there’s a wrinkle. The sign does not intend to be deceptive, and yet it is. The sign encourages you to presume that Midtown Lutheran is the building. But it isn’t. And it never was.

Like every other example of the visible church, Midtown Lutheran is people. When the apostle Paul, for instance, wrote letters to churches, he did not write to buildings or addresses. He wrote to people (Romans 1:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1,2).

This next thought is crucial, however. Even a gathering of people calling itself Midtown Lutheran does not make it an example of the visible church. What marks Midtown Lutheran as a visible gathering of Christians comes down to what God the Holy Spirit uses to create and strengthen Christians. The tools that the Holy Spirit uses to create and strengthen faith in Christ are what we call the means of grace, the gospel in Word and sacraments (Romans 1:16). Where there is faithful proclamation and administration of the means of grace, there are Christians. We know this because the Lord has promised that his gospel does not return empty (Isaiah 55:10-13).

Big difference

But now for a distinction. There’s a big difference between what the Apostles’ Creed describes as “the holy Christian church” and an example of the visible church, like Midtown Lutheran. The holy Christian church contains only those souls who belong to God’s family through faith in Jesus. And because only the Lord can look in someone’s heart (1 Samuel 16:7), only the Lord knows who all the believers are. For this reason, the holy Christian church sometimes goes by the name “the invisible church.”

On the other hand, Midtown Lutheran is a congregation of people gathered around the means of grace. While there certainly are Christians present, we always have to grant the possibility that some congregational members are not Christians. The Lord knows, of course, because he can look in each heart. We cannot.

This reality is what Jesus describes when he tells the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30,36-43). An owner of a wheat field discovers that an enemy has sown weeds among the wheat. It’s likely that the weed Jesus mentions is a variety called “bearded darnel.” Bearded darnel looks very similar to wheat and is difficult to distinguish from wheat while it’s growing in the field. For this reason, the owner allows the wheat and the weeds to live side by side with each other. When the harvest arrives, however, everything changes. The harvesters separate the wheat from the weeds. They gather the wheat into the barn. The weeds go into the fire. And so will it be when Jesus returns.

A telling word

The word hypocrite is a word that goes back to the ancient days of Greek theater. At that time, if you were walking home from enjoying a good play, you might say to a family member, “The man in the lead role was magnificent. What a superb hypocrite he is!” The word, of course, means “actor.” In the New Testament and today, the word retains much of its original flavor, but with a twist. In a visible Christian church, the word describes someone who, for whatever reason, is caught up in acting the part of a Christian. In the heart of that person, however, there is no faith in Jesus at all.

Which brings us back to Larry, lifelong member of Midtown Evangelical Lutheran Church. His soul is in grave danger. His soul is in grave danger not because he has been a lifelong member and not because he has been so active—these things can be beautiful fruits of genuine faith in Christ. The perilous problem is that slowly, gradually, Larry has been displacing faith in Jesus with faith in his church and his activity in it. No one sees it. Not even Larry. Nevertheless, the devil, patient master of deception, has been at work.

There’s a warning here for each of us. I can look at my family tree and conclude I come from good Christian stock. I can savor warm childhood memories from Sunday school and the children’s Christmas Eve service. I can name-drop the names of pastors and teachers and synod officials with the best of them. I can swap war stories and tales of high comedy with other members about all the church work I helped carry forward over the years. But if that is what fills my heart instead of faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior from sin, I am a weed. I am an actor.

Always, mercies new

But here’s the beauty. Every Sunday at Midtown Lutheran, everyone present has another appointment with Jesus Christ. Every Sunday, he proclaims his good news that, through faith in his perfect life and death and resurrection, forgiveness is ours, full and free. The waters of Holy Baptism are there to bring another soul into the kingdom. In Holy Communion, the body and blood are there as Jesus tells each communicant soul, “You are loved. You are forgiven. You are mine.”

There is profound power in all of this. Profound power the Holy Spirit uses to refresh, recreate, restore. It’s true for Larry. It’s true for you and me.

And so, where do you find yourself at this moment in your life? Have you been going through the motions for far too long? Have you been away from gathering with your congregational family for far too long? Perhaps you’ve not had much opportunity to learn much about Jesus at all, ever.

It comes down to this. Jesus has an appointment with you. It’s where you will find his gospel. And in his gospel, he has something wonderful for you.

Author: Peter Unnasch
Volume 107, Number 08
Issue: August 2020

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