A Social Club with a 'T' on Top
Businesses and institutions, if they are to survive and flourish, need to have some clear purpose and reason to exist. They need to have something to offer. They need to meet a need not currently met, or to meet it better than others are. When they have no clear purpose, no reason to exist, they fret, flounder, and fidget, grasp for and guess at a quick fix or silver bullet. There is no quick fix, though. There’s no silver bullet. Like individuals, businesses and institutions need to be about something, to have something to impel and enliven them.
The church has little to offer that the world doesn’t. There are businesses and institutions to meet almost every human desire or need, at least to some extent, if even only superficially (which, to be fair, is often enough for people). People can find good music elsewhere. There are plenty of therapists. AA can help with alcoholism (with just as good coffee in many instances). There are courses and books on parenting elsewhere. There’s no lack of motivational speakers. There are other charities for which to volunteer.
What sets the church apart? What is its purpose, its reason for existence? What alone can impel and enliven it? What need has it been called to meet that others can’t? And what has it forgotten when it starts to fret, flounder, and fidget, grasp and guess? No matter how many meetings it offers, how many clubs it starts, however much it serves in the community for charitable purposes (and that is a good thing, don’t get me wrong), whatever music it practices (and it does have some good music from its long history), no matter how much it counsels or tries to help the beleaguered break their addiction, at the end of the day, it has one thing, and only one thing, that no one else can offer—no business, institution, or individual. And this one thing is a powerful thing, whether the narthex is big or the pastor is smooth or the church’s location is prime. And this one thing isn’t for sale—it’s all gift.
The Church's Hope and Reason for Existence
So, this one thing, what is it? Hopefully you’ve guessed by now, but if you haven’t, it’s probably not your fault, as the church is sometimes woefully derelict in making it plain, what with all the fretting and floundering and fidgeting. This one thing is Christ Jesus, crucified for sinners, raised for our justification, present with us in the preached Word and Sacraments. This is the foundation on which the Church is built. This is the heart of the Church’s confession. This is the Church’s hope and reason for existence, it’s life and vigor and power. This is also what moves us to sing, to reach out to the lost with charitable help, to sit with the broken and pray and help them get back on their feet or off the bottle or whatever has ensnared them, to brew some coffee and buy some land and build some narthexes.
We live at a time when many in Christianity feel threatened by social and cultural changes. Many Christians are unsure of their place in the culture and society anymore. The language seems to be changing at a rapid pace. What was censored before is now approved by many. What was promoted or supported before now seems dismissed as tired, old, close-minded, and even offensive. And fear makes strange bedfellows. The fearful huddle together across confessional divides they never would have breached before and plot political solutions, become moral ecumenicists, pat each other on the back for grand gestures to stem the real or purported tide of cultural decline, pronounce their own confessions, stir up angst, or merely commiserate. The Gospel isn’t necessarily forgotten, but it’s certainly no longer the driving force. The law is surely preached, but to win a culture war as much as or more than to bring individual sinners to repentance. That, of course, would involve meaningful engagement with individual sinners, personal involvement rather than ideological withdrawal, seeing our neighbors as sinners for whom Christ died, as more than people with whom we disagree, whose views or votes potentially threaten our institutions or political positions.
From its beginnings, Christianity has been salt and light, and it has rubbed off on those around it, even when it didn’t convert them, through its witness. But that was a lived witness. It went out, it sought the lost, it reached for the hurting, it loved its enemies, it worked against injustice by putting its victims on equal standing with every other member of the flock, even ordaining them. When its witness was best, it was born, not of fear, but of faithfulness, of Christ, crucified for sinners, raised for their justification, the object of its faith. In other words, it wasn’t a social club with a ‘T’ on top, just another advocacy group or gathering of likeminded people. It was the body of Christ, Whose own body bore the marks of its salvation—of our salvation.
Have you been fretting, floundering, fidgeting, grasping and guessing? Do you remember the refrain after Jesus rose from the dead? Don’t be afraid, friends. Live free. Remember who you are. Remember you aren’t without a purpose. Let your Baptism impel you as you walk in newness of life, not under the burden of the law or the yoke of some expectation that Christ has called us to redeem a culture or anything at all, for that matter.
No, Christ is pretty ok doing all the redeeming that needs doing Himself—and He has redeemed you, and redeemed me. And that’s our life and vigor and power. And that’s why we can go and seek and help and converse and, yes, join public discourse even on cultural and societal issues, because we are the most free of all to do so, with the confidence of sins forgiven, with the hope of a heaven in heaven, which need not be manufactured here, because we have a need we can meet, not of ourselves, but with the Spirit’s power, and a need that has been met for us.
Dr. Wade Johnston has degrees from Martin Luther College, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Central Michigan University, and Erasmus University Rotterdam. He serves as assistant professor of theology at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and served for ten years in parish ministry in Saginaw, Michigan.
Mark doesn’t waste words in his Gospel. His Jesus, the Jesus, is a man on a mission, determined, racing. Mark doesn’t waste words, but his words pack a punch and his brief descriptions beg for deep reflection. Like a passenger in a car driving quickly, we can easily miss the details of the landscape if we don’t pay careful attention. Mark sets us on a race, but it’s important to stop along the way.