From now through Palm Sunday, we're going to be asking (and answering) a potentially uncomfortable question for the Church: namely, what is the Church? What makes us the Church? Or, as frankly as possible, what are we doing here?
This interests me because it's not always obvious to me what churches think they are doing here. We--and here I mean leaders, especially clergy but also lay professionals and highly involved volunteers--fret about who comes to church, and why, and what serves to engage people or keep them from being engaged. We think about the culture becoming more secular or less interested in church, and we worry--not wrongly--that church may not be a real presence in the lives of our children or grandchildren. And all this worry can lead us to making some unwise choices. If we're worried that people don't want church, maybe we can give them something else.
This topic interests me enough that I wrote a book about it (you can, but certainly don't have to, buy it here if you're interested). I looked at Luther's answer to the question--what is the church doing here?--in a treatise called On the Councils and the Church. It's not a page-turner by modern standards but it includes a section where Luther felt obligated to answer a question his critics asked him: How do you know a church is really the church? How do you know you're in the real Church of Jesus Christ?
To answer, Luther made an argument that was pretty strange for his age: he gave a list. If you see these "holy possessions," Luther said, you can be assured that you're in God's true and holy church:
This week we're starting with that first possession, the Word of God. And we get an interesting passage to reflect on it, for this Sunday's celebration of the Transfiguration of Our Lord:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Very often in churches (especially Protestant churches), when we hear the phrase "the Word of God" we picture the Bible, and the obvious and ideal way to interact with it is by reading. But in the history of Christianity, the Word is a term with layers of meaning. At bottom it refers, as in the first chapter of John's Gospel, to Jesus Christ himself, the Word of God and the Second Person of the Trinity. In human history it can refer to an utterance or a vision that comes from God to a prophet, and through the prophet to the people: "The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem."
For Luther, the "Word of God" in the church was a spoken, oral proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and the kingdom of God. Only as the age of the apostles was ending was it necessary to write this Gospel down so that future generations would have a stable source for it. So the Bible is the "Word of God" only in a derivative way. The real action is not in reading a book but in listening.
This is why it's important that we read the lessons out loud in worship, and it's why we take some special care and reverence when we are reading and hearing the Gospel--we acclaim it with singing and we stand up to acknowledge the presence of Christ among us through the stories of the people who walked with him. The moment of listening is different than the moment of reading or studying. Consider the difference between having a face-to-face conversation with a friend or spouse or parent and reading their text messages.
So the voice from heaven tells the three disciples that the transfigured, shining Jesus is the Beloved Son, pleasing to God, and moreover that they should listen to him. The voice doesn't say "worship" or "study" or even "believe" him, though all of those things are good things to do! The voice from heaven emphasizes listening, even as Jesus is flanked by the appearance of two of the great voices of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah.
And I think that's because they are going to hear some things they don't want to hear from Jesus. They are going to be tested in various ways. They already love Jesus--they wouldn't be there on the mountaintop, asking to build a tent for their master if they didn't--but they will have to learn to heed him as well. That will mean going with him to the cross, and it will mean believing the word of his resurrection. It will mean obeying his command to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to teach all nations and baptize them.
So we still try (and don't always succeed!) to listen. And even though I'm typically the one proclaiming the Gospel and opening it up with the sermon, I'm in the position of having to listen, too. The Word of God is not a text to puzzle out with our own learning or insight, and it's not something I craft with whatever skill I bring as a preacher. It's God's living speech to us, that we are always asked to receive as if it comes from one right before us.
God's Work. Our hands.