The 14th Sunday After Pentecost September 10, 2006

INI

Congregation in Covenant

Acts 2:38-39; Acts 20:28

Scripture Readings

Ephesians 2:1-10,19-22
John 15:9-17

Hymns

11, 374, 464, 46

Editor’s Note: This week’s sermon is the first in a series that explores what God’s Word teaches concerning membership in a Christian Congregation.

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Dear Fellow Redeemed in Christ Jesus, the Good Shepherd:

There used to be an advertisement that promoted a credit card by announcing: “membership has its privileges.” The ad tried to play on our sense of being superior and a little more special than the “average Joe.” It was a bit laughable when we consider how, in reality, credit card companies will do just about anything to lead you to accept their card and go merrily spending on your way.

When we talk about membership in a Christian congregation we realize that there are several different aspects to it. Membership has privileges, benefits, and it also has obligations. In the next several weeks we will explore this part of our church life as we ask: “What does our membership mean?”

I.

A typical constitution of a Christian Congregation speaks of baptized membership, as well as communicant membership. Our membership as baptized souls means we have undergone God’s gracious work of redemption. He has gathered us into His family without any merit or effort on our part. “He is God who sets the solitary in families. The God of Israel is He who gives strength and power to His people(Psalm 68:5-6). Being a soul under the care of a Christian congregation is a testimony that this is true. Membership in a Christian congregation is a statement that we have entered God’s covenant of grace.

Remember the time Jesus stood on a hillside and watched the crowds of people flocking to hear Him speak. He ached for these people who, in the Lord’s view, were like “sheep without a shepherd(Mark 6:34). Sheep without a shepherd are likely to wander into every kind of trouble and danger. They are alone and scattered, vulnerable to predators and likely to graze in noxious weeds.

Jesus knew the state of mankind on this earth: fallen in sin, brought by Satan’s deceit under the terrible wrath of God, living under the guilt of sin, and because of sin having the certain judgment of eternal death. He knew how miserable it is for people like us to be lost sheep, having no God to tap into for peace and spiritual life.

But God, in His grace, sets the solitary in families. He does this by sending messengers with his Covenant of Grace. They proclaim life and salvation in the name of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ for everyone to believe. Jesus prepared His apostles to go out and gather in such lost souls. After Jesus rose from the dead He sent His disciples out on their own and told them what they were to do: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you(Matthew 28:19).

This is how we have been gathered together as a congregation—an assembly of believers. By the Gospel word in Baptism, we have been gathered into the family of God. Your membership is based on that Baptism and says that you have received a covenant from God. This covenant is not a two-sided deal in which different parties agree to certain terms. It is, rather, a divine, one-sided covenant in which God reaches out to us and promises to carry out for each of us exactly what His word says He will do. In His covenant God promises to forgive our sins, to wash us from all unrighteousness, and to receive us as saints and true children.

We have been gathered into the Church at different times under different circumstances. So it was with the apostles. Peter spoke in Jerusalem to died-in-the-wool Jews who had only recently demanded the execution of Jesus. After Peter’s sermon they were “cut to the heart and asked, ‘men and brethren, what shall we do?’(Acts 2:38). The apostle Paul wrote to Gentile converts in Ephesus who had previously not known the true God: “…you were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air…and were by nature children of wrath…(Ephesians 2:2-3)

No matter where we come from, what family we were raised in, or when we were called to faith, we all have the same problem: sin. By God’s grace, we have been delivered from sin and brought into the family of God. Peter’s answer to the guilty Jews still stands for us today: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call(Acts 2:38-39).

Your membership in a Christian congregation is a witness that God in His mercy has separated you from a dying world, brought you under the care of the Good Shepherd, and counted you as saints and heirs of eternal life in Jesus’ name. Through Baptism we were buried with Christ, have died to sin, are raised with Christ, and called to live in the certain hope of eternal glory.

II.

Because we live in a world filled with temptation and deception, because the Devil still lurks around with constant efforts to derail the good work of God in each of us, and because we still have a sinful rebellious nature, membership in a Christian congregation also implies a collective concern for each other and the state of our souls.

Jesus’ apostles were not just traveling missionaries who focused on planting and enlarging churches while notching their belts with ‘saved’ souls. When you read their letters to churches, you realize that these men were deeply concerned about the churches themselves and the souls of the people who populated them. They realized the importance of helping people fight the good fight and remain true to the Gospel they had believed. Peter, for instance, begins his second letter by reminding his readers that the knowledge of Christ has “given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness(2 Peter 1:3). Having reminded them of what they received as members of Christ’s church, Peter reveals his continuing concern for them: “…I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know them, and are established in the present truth(2 Peter 1:12). Peter knew that he was going to die soon and was concerned that he leave the Christians some sound counsel and encouragement to “stir them up” in their spiritual vigor.

We are here to “stir people up” in their spiritual vigor. That is what spiritual care is all about. When Paul was coming near Ephesus on what he knew would be his last contact with the Ephesian congregation, he called the elders of the church together and reminded them of their sober and important task: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood(Acts 20:28).

The words that hit hardest are: “…shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” The blood of Christ, our holy Savior, is the true value of every soul among us. That is why we exist—to care for precious souls. This means that our primary, compelling interest in a Christian congregation is not to make our church numerically larger. It means that we do want all the souls among us to reach heaven. It means that our primary objective is not to gain the respect and admiration of the community in whatever way possible, but to reflect the soul-loving concern of our Lord for those around us. Who else is going to show that kind of interest?

Proper care for souls does not mean that we seek to make a better life for our members in terms of material wealth, mental health, or social standing—as much as we’d like to see all of us excel in all those areas. Care for souls is a matter of leading people, young and old, to renounce sin, to believe in Jesus, to grow in the understanding of the Scriptures, and to live in conformity with the will of God.

Proper soul-care includes the effort of outfitting our young with the armor provided by the Word of God and equipping one another with the wisdom and desire to devote our lives to the service of our Lord.

Proper soul-care is often exemplified by the shepherd who notes the sheep that is missing—the member who has been caught up in some kind of sin—and spares no effort in restoring that person to the flock of repentant and believing members in the Church of Christ.

It is true that the leadership in these matters falls on the shoulders of the pastor, elders, teachers, and other called servants in a congregation. But it is important for all of us to remember that membership in a Christian congregation means that we, as a congregation, take on the responsibility to care for every soul that the Lord of the Church has brought into our midst. May the Lord grant that such an interest for precious souls flourish among us. Amen

—Pastor Peter E. Reim


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