Bishop Mark Hanson: Christ's Church, Not Ours

Being welcomed needs to be lived out in relationships

At the close of the day, I often say a prayer attributed to Pope John XXIII: "Lord, this is your church, not mine. I am tired. Good night."

With these words he would turn off the light.

What a clear yet powerful reminder that this is Christ's church, not ours.

We care deeply about the church, we serve it faithfully and generously, we are troubled when we believe it has erred, and we delight when the light of Christ shines bright. Therefore, it is understandable that almost unknowingly we begin to think and act as if the church is ours.

We are a church that belongs to Christ, and we believe God calls each of us by name. Those clear affirmations were themes sounded at the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, and they resound throughout Scripture and history.

The letter to the Ephesians is clear that this is Christ's church. "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:19-20).

There is much we can and should do to communicate to others that "there is a place for you in Christ's church."

Even though my mother had belonged to the same congregation for more than 50 years, on Sunday she would always try to meet someone new before greeting her friends. If those she met were visiting the congregation, she would often bake bread and bring it to their home during the week, extending a welcome to come back to worship.

Saying "there is a place for you here" needs to be lived out in our relationships with one another.

It is always good to find ways to check out whether our perception that we are a welcoming church is what others experience. This is especially true when we describe our local congregation as being "just like a family." Sometimes one of the most challenging experiences we have is to feel welcomed, especially as someone new, when coming into an already tight-knit family.

In the early church, the confession "Jesus is Lord" was a way of saying this is Christ's church. It is not the possession of those who are interpreters of the law, guardians of the tradition or establishers of who is acceptable and who is not. This is Christ's church. There is a place for you here.

It is understandable, though, how hearing Jesus is Lord might not convey the sentiment that this is a place for you. "Lord" was a title that "bristles with authority," according to New Testament scholar David Fredrickson.

However, Fredrickson reminds us that the apostle Paul transformed the meaning of "Lord" from the master who regarded the slave as a living tool, an extension of his own body, to "the slavish phrase, 'He did not please himself.' Christ's lordship cannot be distinguished from the burden of slavery. Jesus the bearer of our shame is Lord."

When we say, "This is Christ's church. There is a place for you here," we are saying that in this faith community the one who is Lord, the Christ whose church this is, is the same one who gave his life entirely for you - rescuing you from the power of sin, death and evil; claiming you for a place among God's liberated people; naming you as an inheritor of all God's promises in Jesus Christ; and sending you into your daily callings with the Spirit's power and gifts.

This is Christ's church. This is a place for you. What a powerful witness. In Christ's church there is a place for every sinner, everyone who is overlooked, pushed aside or forgotten, all who are exploited, impoverished or defeated, for every "you" that these words find.

This is Christ's church. This is a place for you.

[Taken with permission from The Lutheran magazine, November issue.]