What is church Membership?
Dear fellow members of Christ’s one body,
This coming weekend (December 1-2) marks the beginning of our observation of the season of Advent. Advent is the anticipation of God coming into our world and dwelling, abiding, being present among us ... being with us and for us. To observe Advent is to both remember and to hope for Jesus’ coming for us, to reconcile our lives, this world and the whole creation to God’s will and good purposes, according to God’s ancient promises.
As God’s baptized people, we are a community that remembers what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and longs for the day when God’s purposes are fulfilled for all people and for all creation. As a member of St. Paul’s you are part of a particular, local community of people that God gathers to remember and to hope together. We also are assembled to embody God’s will and loving purpose for the whole creation as we love and serve each other.
This leads me to believe, however, that there’s so much more to church membership than we might have ever taken the time to realize. At the beginning of a new church year and in a season that is about anticipation, expectation and hope for God’s will to be done in our lives, it may be a good time to rediscover together what we mean when we talk about membership at St. Paul’s. Who knows, a better understanding of our own membership in this body may help us better invite others into the benefits we share as part of this community. So, what does it mean to you when you say you are a member of St. Paul’s?
When the Apostle Paul talks to the congregations in Rome about their purpose and mission as Jesus’ people in the world, he uses one of his favorite metaphors for the church. We are the body of Christ. He uses this metaphor, however, to explain how each member is important and vital to the wholeness of the church and at the same time not complete or whole without the other members. In fact, we find our wholeness as we live and participate as a member of the church. “... so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another” (Romans 12:5, You can read the whole section in Romans 12:3-13). Already, we can see that membership means so much more than attending once a year and making a gift of record. (That is, by the way, our constitutional definition of membership.) I think we already sense that membership is more than this minimum requirement, and it’s always easier to say what a thing isn’t than it is to say just what it is, but let’s try understand the deep joy and grace that comes from belonging to God and to one another as members of Christ’s one body.
For the last couple of years, we have run advertisements and passed out information in the neighborhood that boldly proclaims, “There’s a place for you here.” This proclamation is more than a marketing slogan, it is a confession of faith and a proclamation of the Gospel. You belong here in this fellowship of God’s people because God created you, together with all creatures; because God redeemed you from the powers of sin, death and everything that keeps us from God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and because God has called you to himself through the good news of this Gospel. In fellowship with God as a member of Christ’s church, you belong. You belong ... you are a member because God has made a place and home for you in Christ (see John 14:1-6).
In baptism, through water and the Word, we are born again as God’s child, a member of God’s household. At the end of our baptism liturgy, we welcome the newly baptism into the fellowship of this membership and into the ministry and mission we share as God’s people. This welcome is universal, a welcome into the one body of Christ. This welcome is also particular, a welcome into this particular household, St. Paul’s. Through this welcome, we bear witness to the simple fact that you belong here, alive in God’s promise and God’s potential for you. The welcome we extend to each other each week and to everyone who passes through the door of this ministry center and to all we encounter in the world bears witness to this good news: You belong. You are a member because God made you God’s own in Jesus Christ.
You are important
You are important to the life of this community and the life of this world in ways that you can scarcely ever guess or imagine. You are important and your presence matters. When St. Paul talks about membership in terms of being part of a body and members of one another, God is telling us that each of us is important to health and well being of the whole.
In Romans 12, we learn that every member has been given a measure of faith, and every member has been endowed with talents and abilities that are needed and important to to the well being of the people around us. A lot of time we talk about spiritual gifts in terms of how useful you might be to the overall ability of this organization to carry out its mission and ministry, but that is only part of it.
This congregation is people in relationship to God and each other and so we must acknowledge that our gifts, talents and abilities is not simply for an organization we know as St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, but for each other, the members of this congregation. I need you, and you need me. I need your gifts and talents and abilities and, most importantly, your presence in my life, just as you need me and my gifts and presence in your life. And so on throughout the entire Web of relationships. You are important to God, of course. Precious. You are important to every other member of this congregation.
When we realize how important we are and how God has saved us a called us for a purpose, we can even see how by belonging to this congregation, we are part of what God is doing in the world. When we understand this community as part of Christ’s body in the world, we can even believe that God has the power to redeem our conflicts, our disagreements and our differences for the sake of the Gospel. The healing we receive, we share. Our witness tells the world that we can find unity in difference because we find wholeness in Jesus Christ, together.
Each week when we gather for worship, we share the peace that we have received from Jesus with each other. It is a sign of God’s grace and love for us, and it is the ritual way we say to each other that we forgive each other. It is a way to reconcile with each other and then celebrate our unity and forgiveness in eating and drinking together at the Lord’s table. We announce peace, share peace and celebrate the gift of peace in Jesus Christ. What better way to heal old wounds and start anew, than by sharing peace and acknowledging Jesus Christ present for both of us. Our natural reaction is separate from each other and to isolate in pain or anger. Membership in this body provides a way to heal. That healing is a witness to this world that Jesus Christ heals and forgives.
You are not the center of the universe
You belong. You are important. You are not, however, the be all and end all of creation. This is good news because it frees us to be our, to admit our limitations and short comings, to confess our sins and to humbly acknowledge how much we need the other people of this community. This is a humility and vulnerability that also leads us to miss each other when we are absent from one another. If its all about me, I might be angry that you did not behave the way I wished you to behave, but life goes on without you. When I am aware of how much I need your presence, I feel your absence with a sense of loss and sadness. You may not realize this, but this sense of loss is one of the great pains of pastoral ministry.
I am a part of this ministry, and I depend on each of you to embody the wholeness of the Gospel, and when you are absent I feel it. At the same time, I also rejoice that God has led you away from this gathering to be present and share in the fellowship with friends, family and others who need your presence, your faith and the gifts you bring. In that way, we can all rejoice that God can multiply the power of the Gospel by sending us out from time to time away from this congregation and into the world. Yet, what a comfort it is to know that God made me uniquely gifted and important and at the same time in need of and dependent on others for my well being. As members of the body of Christ, we are whole and well when we are together. In that way, worship attendance is truly a measure of health, a vital sign of our life together.
The power of the enemies
In Advent, we will spend some time looking at what God is saying to us through the songs of the season. Each week we read a Psalm, a song or piece of scriptural poetry that expresses the depth of God’s love and our longing for God’s help and salvation.
In Advent, I will preach on these songs that so richly express God’s grace and love and our need for God’s help and salvation. In these songs, we will often run hear the poet talk about powerful enemies who seek to destroy the poet or to bring to tear down what God has established or to threaten the faith and confidence God’s people have in God’s power.
For us these enemies are those powers that we renounce at the beginning of our baptismal service, all that has the power to keep us from the full and abundant life that God has promised in Jesus Christ. These powers are not individual people, but the ways of the world that draw us away from God. Separated from God and one another, our faith is driven to despair and despondency. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks talked about how loneliness and isolation are killing us, driving us to hate. At the end of the article, Brooks asserts that it will take an act of will to develop connections to our neighbors and to our local neighborhood to fill the hole that our current lifestyle is making in our heart.
This community, this congregation, this interdependent membership of one to another is ours by God’s gift in baptism, and it is that gift that the enemies, the powers of this world are trying to destroy, driving us into isolation, loneliness and fear. Perhaps the greatest threat to our well being as Americans today is loneliness and isolation, the loss of genuine community, of belonging and importance and interdependence. How sad that this gift has already been given to us, but we in so many ways seem unable to make us of God’s means of grace that draw us out of these lives of quiet desperation to connect with Jesus the source of life and redeemer of human community.
In this season where we are called to anticipate the joy of Christ’s presence in our lives, I urge you to resist the deceptive lies that entices us away from your local household of faith. There is a time for silence and retreat, a time to be alone with God, but the truth is that God created and redeemed us to live and work in fellowship with one another. We are members of one another and members of Christ’s body. We do not worship the idea of a god, and we have not been summoned out of death to live for any movement, cause, idea, ideal or ideology. The God who created us, became a particular human in time and space, suffered and died for us under the powers of this world, and risen from the dead he is with us in a real, particular and tangible way.
It is in this Web of relationships between us and God, God and the community, and the community and us that discover the incarnation of God’s promise, the grace and the true content of righteousness and justice. In worship, fellowship and mutual care and service we support each other and remind each other that we belong to God. All powers of this world change and fade. God’s Word — God’s faithful promise to be our God is unshakeable. God’s love for his people is eternal. God’s love abides.
What to do?
The question of Advent might be, what then shall we do in faith, hope and love and in the light of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ? For us, for now the answer is to return daily to the promise of our baptism. There we renounce all the empty promises of the enemy and fall by faith into the arms of the God who loved us and gave his son for us and assembled this community for us. Here are some concrete ways to turn around and get back to the basics of membership in Christ’s body this season.
And since I am your pastor, I am here to talk and walk with you through this season and throughout your life. You see, even our relationship bears witness to God’s gift and God’s grace. We are never alone because we belong to each other, we are important to each other, and we need each other and Jesus Christ to know what God intends for our health and well being. Let’s set up a time to talk more deeply together as members of the body of Christ together.
Church membership is so much more than could imagine. It’s about belonging to God because God claimed us. It’s about being the people God created and saved us to be. It’s about living as both a sign and a foretaste of the new creation God is bringing about. It’s about living together in faith, in hope and love in way so that we can invite people out of the crushing despair of loneliness, isolation and shame and into the glorious light of God’s love, peace and mercy.
Pastor Jim Krombholz
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