We Are Church Together…

By Bishop Brian Maas

…in fact, I’m not sure we can “be church” at all if we’re not.
 “We Are Church Together” describes who we are as the ELCA—and in its ideal, the whole of the Church.
The concept of a solitary Christian is foreign to the New Testament; Acts, the Epistles, even Revelation all presume community—even as they acknowledge disagreement and division. There is no not being the church together. Even Jesus spoke of “two or three” gathered as the setting for his presence. Community, if not always unity, is not just something nice to shoot for—it’s the essence of church.
Likewise, we Lutheran Christians define the church as “the gathering of saints” among whom the Gospel is preached and the sacraments celebrated. As church, we exist when we’re together.
This has been a tough sell in the U.S. since at least the early 18th century, when the Great Awakening and the revivals that followed stirred in people a great concern—rooted primarily in fear of damnation. A concern for being “saved” individually. It was a short leap from individual salvation to individualized religion. Consumerist Christianity became part of the American religious landscape.
Claiming our identity as Church Together is about renewing the convictions of the early church and the Lutheran Confessions, that we find Christ in the community that is his Body on earth.
We are now experiencing new levels of division within our culture. Not only have common civic institutions—and churches—seen their influence wane; even the foundational glue that once grounded us all—truth, facts, rationality, objective reality—have now become relative and personalized. The truth is what I determine it to be, and I believe you to the degree to which you agree with me. I am the standard by which the world is judged.
But it’s foolish to think this is in any way new. Luther, following Augustine’s lead, spoke of original sin as being incurvatus in se, or “being turned in on oneself.” This is the human condition. Right now, it seems a little more public, a little more visible, maybe even a little (or a lot?) more acceptable. But it’s always been a problem; a problem to which the only solution is the Gospel—the Good News of Jesus’ invitation to die to self and selfishness in order to rise to life, life in community even with those with whom we disagree.
This life is God’s gift to us—not because it’s easy but because it’s powerful. Being Church Together is about being truly alive. Where the spirit of community is strong in a congregation, there is life, and where there is life, people feel drawn.
Just as important, when we’re Church Together, things happen. Individuals together as a congregation, congregations together as a synod, synods together as the whole of the ELCA—together, we are being used by God to change the world. Feeding children through backpack programs, raising up new leaders for the church, responding to disasters, defeating malaria; in so many, many ways we experience the privilege of being the church. Together, we get to be the way in which God spreads hope, lessens suffering, overcomes division, and transforms lives and communities.
We are church; always, only, powerfully and beautifully, church together.