What makes the church a living church? This was the question posed by Rev Peter Walker on the first day of the Living Church Synod 2019.
In the first of three daily devotionals focusing on Matt 28: 1-20, Rev Walker said the theme of ‘The Living Church” was bulging with profound questions: “Questions for this Synod, for the Uniting Church in Australia, and for mainline Christian denominations across the West.”
In this first study, titled ‘The Purpose of the Living Church’, Rev Walker argued there were many vital things that the church did.
“Fostering community? Absolutely. That is a core activity of the living church. Our calling to be koinonia: a fellowship of many parts in the one body.
“Agents of justice and mercy? Undoubtedly. This is the church as the diakonia: ministers of reconciliation, and servants of the world. This, too, sounds very much like a living church.
“A people who worship? Always. Yes. We gather to praise and pray, to listen for God’s Word in community, and to share bread and cup in remembrance of Christ’s suffering and to participate in the new creation.”
Yet Rev Walker asked: Are these what make the church the living church? Community and fellowship; justice and reconciliation; worship – yes, these are all activities of the church, yet they alone are not our purpose.
“What the church is asked to be, and more than that, what the church is called to be, is a witness. To bear witness to the living Lord is what constitutes the living church,” he said.
Quoting the Basis of Union, he said “Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command people’s attention and awaken faith’. It is Christ who reaches out; Christ who commands attention; Christ who awakens faith. Yet in one of God’s most inexplicable manoeuvres, it is people like you and me who bear witness to these actions of the living Lord. And those people, those witnesses, are the living church.”
“We cannot lose the language of the gospel, for that language is our witness. And that gospel is shared in words and action.”
The purpose, which constitutes the church, is the maintenance of a message. The church’s mission is to understand that message, to live by that message, and to witness to that message, Rev Walker said.
“Some will share with words, and others will share with action for mercy and justice. Whichever is the case, there is a message which informs all that we are, and all that we do. We have heard it this morning from Matthew 28. We call that message the Gospel,” he said.
Rev Walker said it was a message that began with those first astonished and courageous witnesses, and which we too are now called to share.
And Jesus came and said to them:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with your always, even unto the end of the age’. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Rev Walker concluded: “Whenever the church’s focus becomes self-concern – How can we make ourselves a living church? – we have lost the way. Whenever the church’s focus becomes the living God, and bearing witness to gospel of Jesus Christ, we become the living church once more.”
Questions for Reflection
Read Matthew 28:1-20 after watching the study “The Purpose of the Living Church”
- Without feeling there are right or wrong answers, how would you reply if asked ‘What is your definition of the church?’
- And how might you reply if asked, ‘What does the church offer that I cannot find elsewhere?’
- What was your response to the statement, “The living church is always and only ever identified by the presence of the living Lord”?
- What are the signs of the presence of the living Lord in your church community?
- The Basis of Union speaks of the importance of the church’s role to bear “human witness in word and action” to the Christ who reaches out through our human witness to awaken faith and call people to discipleship. Are you a ‘word’ person, an ‘action’ person, or both? What might help you to feel better resourced and supported in your calling to be a witness to the living Lord? Who could you ask for those resources and support?
- Read the section under the sub-heading ‘The Purpose of the Church’. Is this a helpful summary of the purpose of the church? What might be added or removed? Which phrases or insights stood out for you?
Rev. Peter Walker with additional reporting by Martin Thomas