Why are you a member of this congregation officially called St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, Unaltered Augsburg Confession, Town of Sherman, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin? I was called by the Holy Spirit to be your pastor. My family came along with me. What about you?
Some of the members of this body are here for family. You can read their family names in the on the founding documents. Some joined through marriage, Lutheran and converts. Some found us when looking for a Christian school for their children. Other Lutherans moved to the area looking for a new church home and found us. And for some, we’re the closest Christian church.
Some drive from a distance, attracted to something we say or do, even driving by other churches on their way. Some prefer the smaller, rural character of the congregation. Others want a “churchy” looking building, with steeples, bells, stained glass, and ornate furniture and decoration. Some are looking for hymn singing, organ accompaniment, and liturgical worship. Others want Biblical preaching that teaches and proclaims.
But there are also those who are not part of your family. There are those who do not live next door. There are those without children. There are some who want a large congregation in which they can blend in and get lost in the crowd. Some prefer other kinds of music, different accompaniment, or less predictable and regular worship. And some desire preaching that is more about life lessons and self-help instruction.
Again, how do you respond when someone asks you why you’re a member of this congregation of saints? Do you give a list of things that we do, such as singing, praying, and worshiping? Do you speak of our vibrant ministry and mission work? Or maybe you talk of traditional worship, conservative doctrine, ancient hymns, the piety of bowing and kneeling, unaccompanied and organ-led singing? Perhaps you speak of Christian education, Sunday School, and Catechism instruction? Or maybe you talk of all the rich traditions of the Holy Days (i.e., holidays) and other church rituals?
All this talk is not enough. You might think these ideas a sufficient answer. They amount to surface level things, ideas, and practices. When challenged to make a case for your parish, you will struggle against the wealth of choices and options in the marketplace of Christendom. And when desperate, then, you will speak of the need to adapt and accommodate those who have different expectations. If you want to be “competitive,” you have to change, to bend over backward, to adjust, and to throw out the old for the sake of the new.
We think a lot about “what” we do as a congregation and even “how” the God would have us be the church. But stop and ask “why” do we have a congregation in Sherman Center in the first place. And also, ask “why” you are a part of this Christian church? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not any of the bells or traditions, nor is it even how we live together as a congregation. Hear the answer to the “why” question that the Augsburg Confession gives:
- Article IV: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4 [3:21–26; 4:5].”
- Article V: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20:22]. He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.”
- Article VI: “Our churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit [Galatians 5:22–23]. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God [Ephesians 2:10], because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith.”
- And finally, Article VII: “The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere. As Paul says, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5–6).”
That’s it. Why does the congregation at Sherman Center exist? So that faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins be received. Simple. And how is this faith given? It is given by the Holy Spirit working through the Word and Sacraments. And what are the Word and Sacraments? Namely, we preach Christ Jesus alone for forgiveness, life, and salvation. We declare absolution in Christ’s name for the justification of sinners. We baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity for forgiveness and new life with Christ. We deliver Christ’s body broken and the blood shed to forgive sins, strengthen faith, and increase love for neighbor.
Everything we say and do is for this purpose and this purpose alone, this why. It’s the reason why there is a congregation in Sherman Center. It’s the only reason that matters why you are a member of this house of the Spirit’s making. AND it’s the only reason why your family, your friends, your neighbors, and even your enemies must be a part of this congregation. Everything else is useful only if it is done that forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name be proclaimed, given, washed over, and put into the mouths of sinners. Nothing else will keep this congregation and her school unified or give her growth. May God grant us faithfulness and set our hearts upon Jesus for the forgiveness of sins alone.
+Pastor Christopher Gillespie