By Paul Koch –
How do you describe the church? If someone were to ask you what church is or what does it mean to be part of a church, or what makes a church a church, how would you answer? There are, to be sure, a vast number of possibilities of how one might give a definition to the church. They might speak about a human organization with rules and traditions that govern direction and purpose. You might describe it as a spiritual thing, a gathering of the people of God, called by His Word. While the church exists in the world it is not necessarily of the world, that sort of thing. Then again, you might say that the church is a people bound together by a common teaching, a confession of faith. Or you might give a more technical definition and say that the church is where the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. You could even go with Luther who said, “A seven-year-old child knows what the church is, the sum total of the sheep who hear the shepherd’s voice.”
Yet there is another way of describing the church that I have grown fond of over the years. It’s not technical. It doesn’t contain some great theological insight, but it is a good description of what the church is. I like to think of the church as a family. I learned this at my first call into the ministry in Southeastern Georgia. The saints at Holy trinity Lutheran Church taught me a lot about what it means to be church. That town is a military town. A large submarine base is the lifeblood of that place. Most of my members were either in the military or retired from the military, working as contractors for the military. That congregation had people from all over this country. I’m sure we didn’t have more than a handful of people that were locals to the area, that grew up in Camden Country, Georgia. This reality along with the regular movement of men going off to sea meant that the church had a very specific role to play. A role that I learned to really love, though I’ve found it difficult to duplicate.
They became, almost by necessity, a family. Everyone was from somewhere else. They left behind family and friends that had provided a system of support and encouragement. So, they needed to find that somewhere else. And for those who gathered together around the gifts of Christ it seemed the most logical thing to find family there. When there was a baptism the whole church showed up and put on a big party afterwards. There would be a cake and food and sometimes a keg of beer. Every year they had a huge Super Bowl Party with a low country boil and a 4th of July celebration with a band. It was unique to be sure, but it was an incredible lesson in what church is. St. John puts it a little more eloquently when he says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” (1 John 5:1)
Those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, those who confess him as their Savior, why they have been born of God. To be born of God is to love your Father in Heaven. Love becomes the mark of God’s children: it is the mark of the church, as well. And not only love for the Father, not only love for the gifts of Christ, but love for the Father produces love for those who have been born of the Father. That is, if you love the Father then you will love one another. You will love your brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, I don’t know about you, but this is starting to sound a lot like a family. A family that calls upon the same Father, a family that is bound together by love. This family is no simple or weak thing, it is a triumphant and powerful reality. John says, “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” (5:4) Now that is a heck of a family to belong to. He doesn’t just throw that out there without some support. No, he offers witnesses to back him up. He calls upon the Spirit and the Water and the Blood.
Let us begin with the blood. The blood bears witness to the victory of the children of God. Not our blood, not the blood of sacrificial animals in the temple but the pure and holy blood of God’s only begotten Son. Christ’s own life and death bears witness to your victory and inclusion in the family of God. The blood represents the whole life of Christ, from that little town of Bethlehem to the cross of Calvary and the empty tomb. For there is no life, no hope, no assurance of salvation without the blood. The blood of a perfect life, the blood that repented for your sins is the blood poured out for you. It satisfies the justice of the Father and opens the gates to eternal life. Recall what happened upon the cross when St. John tells the story of our Lord’s passion and death. We are told that he cried out, “It is finished,” and he gave up his spirit and died. So, when they came to break the legs of the crucified to expedite their death and found that Jesus was already dead, they took a spear and pierced his side. Out came a rush of blood and water.
Yes, water. Water also bears witness to the victory we have in this family. As Jesus tells the inquisitive Nicodemus, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) To be born of God, is to be born of water. The water of your baptism is the visible testimony of your inclusion into this family. It is the means by which you are connected to the blood of Christ, the means by which his death becomes your death and his life your life. The Water comes from outside of you, outside of your worth or effort or work. It is something that is done to you. There is no more of a beautiful picture of the work of the Gospel than the baptism of a baby. That child has no idea what is happening, something is being done to them. They are dying and rising anew in Christ. Of course, it then becomes the duty of the family to protect and care for this new creation. For in that birth they become our brother or sister.
The testimony of the water is lasting and profound. If you were to go into my study, there on the book shelf in the midst of the volumes you would see a clear display of my baptismal certificate given to my parents many, many years ago. I keep it visible because it reminds me of something. It bears witness to what happened in the water. For that water bound me to the blood of my Lord, and all of that bound me to you. To my family, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Throughout all of this, through the blood and the water, through the constant and relentless gifts of the Gospel the Holy Spirit is, of course, at work. It is in these things that he has promised to be. For here he works the forgiveness of sins and promises life everlasting. The Spirit joins the blood and the water, for the Spirit cannot be separated from them. As John says, “There are three that testify: The Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” (1 John 5:7-8)
They testify to the one in which you believe, they testify to the work and victory of your Lord Jesus Christ. They testify that this family will overcome the world. John says, “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.” (1 John 5:4) The victory is found in your faith. Faith that is given by the Spirit and embraced in the water to deliver the blessings of the blood. Your faith changes this community. This is not just a human gathering. It isn’t merely a collection of faithful teachings or cultural commonalities. No, this is a family of those who are born of God, those who have faith that Jesus is the Christ.
By faith, then, we are the church. By faith we love not only our Father but on another. By faith you can care for each other, you can have compassion and show mercy. By faith you can forgive. For by faith you can love as you have been loved. These here today are worthy of your love. They are your brothers and sisters, and together we will be victorious. So says the Spirit and the water and the blood.