As we move towards the Synod Assembly, I will be reflecting on the 4 emphases that Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has asked the ELCA to embrace. The first is “We are church.” At first blush that may seem too obvious even to comment upon. But let’s take a closer look. Because it is always risky to make assumptions.
Our Constitution’s statement of purpose says:
“The Church is a people created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world.” So when we say, “We are church,” that is what we are claiming. Let’s look at the parts of that statement.
First, “a people created by God in Christ.” The church is “a people.” Not a building. Not an individual. A people. Plural. “created by God in Christ.” We affirm that we are not self-made, we are not the product of random forces of the universe. We are a created by God in Christ. We assert this about ourselves. And we claim it for everyone. When we acknowledge that God has created us, we implicitly acknowledge that God has created everything. And God loves all that God has created. So when we describe ourselves as “a people created by God in Christ,” we are placing ourselves in context. Our context is the created world, beloved by God, redeemed by Christ.
Next,“empowered by the Holy Spirit.” Our self-understanding as church is that the Holy Spirit empowers us. This coming Sunday is Pentecost, perhaps the most powerful biblical story about the Holy Spirit. We are Pentecost people, transformed by the Holy Spirit to do things we didn’t know we knew how to do. We don’t do these things on our own. We do them as a people. And we do them because the Holy Spirit fills us, sweeps us along, enters our lives and amazes us.
Then, “called and sent to bear witness” Being church is not static and it is far from passive. We are both “called and sent.” Calling is not just for pastors, not just for church professionals. In baptism we are all called to be servants and disciples. And the calling is not just to speak to ourselves. Following Christ is contagious. So, in being “called,” we are “sent.” We are sent “to bear witness.” That means telling our story. Telling the story of God’s love in Christ. Telling our own story. That’s what “called and sent to bear witness” means.
Finally “bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming and sanctifying activity in the world.” The story that we tell is the story of what God is up to in the world. God is creating. God is redeeming. God is sanctifying. God makes something out of nothing. God transforms darkness into light, death into life. God makes the ordinary holy, and the holy ordinary.
“The Church is a people created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world.”
When we say "We are church," that is what we are claiming.
Thanks be to God.
Jessica Crist, Bishop