The Season of Lent offers many possibilities for those who wish to delve a little more deeply into the life of faith. As I have said in other forums, in recent years the Church has endeavored to recover the season as a time of catechetical teaching. (As an aside, “catechetical” has its roots in verbal repetition, and through the centuries involved baptismal candidates repeating, or reciting what they had been told. With a paucity of written material and with limited reading and writing skills, most everything was learned by repeating what had been heard. When Luther developed his Small Catechism, he intentionally chose the word “Catechism” for this very reason.) In the early church, those preparing for baptism (there was no such thing as Confirmation) learned the basic teaching of the church from the elders, while engaging in both fasting and prayer throughout the season. At the end of the season, often times during the Easter Vigil Liturgy, they were baptized and brought forward as new members of the church, who could now participate fully in the church’s life, and most particularly, receive the Eucharist.
However, in our own time, in what is unarguably a more individualistic society, people ask why they should “join” a church, or what is the “value” of being a member. The use of the latter word by some is not surprising given our consumer culture which is always asking the question of value. We often hear from people who say that they can worship alone and don’t need a church community to do it. In some cases, they say that membership is nothing more than the church’s way of asking for a financial commitment…and of course some say that the church represents values that are either archaic or in some cases repugnant.
First, while one can certainly do many things at home, one cannot be “the church” alone. The very word church, from the Greek EKKLESIA means assembly. The church is the gathered people of God. Jesus made this abundantly clear when he said, “If two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be, in the midst of them.” The Lutheran reformers were very clear and succinct regarding this. In the Augsburg Confession, they stated that the church is where the people of God are gathered, the Gospel is rightly preached, and the Sacraments are administered.
Yet, the call to church membership is even more. People are invited to live in the covenant of baptism, to live among the people of faith, to hear the word and share in the supper, to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to serve all people and to strive for peace and justice (from the Affirmation of Baptism); and the promise to do these things is what membership is about. It is a promise to do all of these things even when you don’t feel like it, even when you disagree with something in your local congregation, it is a promise to do these things whether they are popular or unpopular, and the promise is to do them together, as the ecclesia, the community of Christ. The question of value, or “what is in it for me,” is answered in that all of these responsibilities are yours only as a matter of Christ’s grace, - you are already a member of the body of Christ, and part of the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no other promise, there is no greater promise.
Of course, there is a commitment, and part of it is financial. From the beginning those who had more, shared with those who had less, and continually aided the church’s mission. St. Paul writes of the patrons and patronesses of his missionary work, as well as those who supported the local community churches. Giving out of one’s abundance was the church’s answer to the paucity of the Roman system, and it remains the church’s counter cultural message. The Ten Commandments themselves, as interpreted by Luther are not moralistic rules, but are a statement of how to organize social power and social goods for the common benefit of the entire community. In the words of Jesus, they are “a new commandment” in stark contrast to the tenets of an individualistic capitalist society.
As for the those who claim the message of the church is repugnant to their values, I would ask “what church are you looking at?”. Somewhat facetiously, I would ask those who can discern the differences between the various lattes offered by Starbucks to spend some time discerning the differences between and among churches. Anything less is sheer spiritual laziness.
Indeed, there are churches that are o.k. with racism, sexism, and that preach a gospel of prosperity that is the worst sort of heresy (and I do not use the word lightly). There are also churches, and I believe the ELCA is one of them, that have a deep commitment to the Gospel out of which grows a commitment to environmental, social, and economic justice, as well as a devotion to finding peaceful solutions and helping our neighbors here and abroad who are in need.
Well, some of you may remember the old American Express marketing slogan, “Membership has its Privileges.” In the life of the church, membership also has its privileges, as well as some responsibilities, and becoming a member is a commitment, not taken lightly, that we will each do our best, given the gifts God has given us, to be a truly Holy people. We take on these responsibilities, because having received the gift of justification by grace through faith, we are free to help others, in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.