But the eucharistic meal, and the gospel that it proclaims in tangible signs of earthly reality taken up into God's own life, is exactly that. And so one joy of the foundational marks of the church -- what we call the satis est in view of the Latin text of the Augsburg Confession -- is that they teach us who we are in the most elementary sense in our baptism into Christ and community. From AC 7:
It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.Who are we as church? We are the adopted community in Christ, Christus als Gemeinde as Bonhoeffer describes the communion of saints, the community that exists in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ, who is the Kollektivperson, the total embodiment of the spirit, mind, and life of the community of those who trust in God in him. But we are not purely this, while we live. We are this in trust and hope, and we are this by the unfailing fidelity of God shaping our reality toward just creaturely life -- which means that we are this also by the administration of the given means of grace, and our faithful reception of them.
For this is enough for the true unity of the Christian church that there the gospel is preached harmoniously according to a pure understanding and the sacraments are administered in conformity with the divine Word.
You see, word and sacrament are not a preserve of the clergy, not a means by which we emphasize the human order of the church. We cannot help but derive either some false contempt for them, or some false reverence for them, if we think they come from the pastoral office -- usually a mixture of both! These means of grace do not, in fact, belong to the church. The church belongs to them. It is constituted anew, moment by moment, wherever they are given -- no matter how fallible the creature who delivers them -- because it is God who gives them, and in them we receive God. They are (to lean on Barth in ways that might violate his own sacramentology) the self-revelation of God, just as all revelation of God is self-revelation by God. The real, educative presence of God with us in creation. And in that revelation we learn, moment by moment, who we truly are.
And so they are rightly a pedagogy of "church," a means by which God forms the community assembled in Christ's name into the image of Christ. As Jason put it,
... the Church’s gospel-shaped practices are, I suggest, the means by which the Head (i.e., Jesus) immerses his Body (i.e., the Church) in the way of ordinary gospel-posture. Specifically, they are means by which Christ trains us. This is true whether we are talking about something like the Church’s calendar, its fasting, or its weekly praying of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is particularly true when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. Every time we come to the Table, which is where the entire Church’s story is enacted in concentrated form, we are offered training in how to live sacramentally in the world, to unearth its idolatries, and to expose what William Stringfellow calls the ‘transience of death’s power in the world’.We are frequently tempted to use these marks as means of recognition, among various Christian communities, of who "really has it" -- which communities truly are church. Who truly and purely and rightly does God's will -- and who does not. But the truth of word and sacrament is that they are not things that we have or have not. They are not means given for judgment of obedience. They are given, surely, but they always remain given and not possessed. They are given to the dead. They are, in fact, the means by which God has us, by which God makes us alive in every moment. We are bound as paidiskoi under God's own agoge, children under rigorous training, bound not by law but by gospel as the instructive means of our formation. Bound by external reliance, by trust in God because of Jesus Christ, and therefore bound every day to learn what that means because we do not know it ourselves. Knowing it, we do not do it ourselves. Doing it, we do not understand it ourselves. And seeking to understand it, we return to the place where we do not yet know what it means.
And this is why word and sacrament, and all the practices of Christian life, must be and remain gospel. Becoming law, they become a code that we establish over ourselves, a culture that we possess, a means of the judgment of obedience and the condemnation of disobedience. They become idols that distract us from God. Things that we have as people who teach one another, who say to each other "know the Lord!" As though I did, and you did not, and I could teach you. This is a false law, because it does not derive from who we are -- only from who we pretend to be, from who we are in actual failure: peccatores in re.
And yet, when I say that God governs our pedagogy of the Christian life with gospel alone, that does not mean that gospel becomes a second law. Law relates deeds, what we must or must not do; gospel relates who we are. Law speaks to Historie, the objectively passed remains of present moments; gospel speaks Geschichte, the history that constitutes who we are in every present moment. And there is certainly a gap! Gospel speaks of a justice to which we are being shaped without our will or act, a justice to which we attain only in trust and hope -- because we can see our objective history, and it is worthy of despair. At its best, that history can only asymptotically approach justice.
Most of the time, however, our histories approach justice with a parabolic trajectory. A long energetic rise and an equally long energetic fall, with no more than a tangential moment of achievement of the goal -- if that. And this is the path of law taken as a thing in itself. This is what happens when we attempt to use law as a means of achieving justice. This is what happens when we teach ourselves: we fail to spend our time walking a just path, and instead we spend time we cannot afford and energy that we do not have in order to leap clean through our idealized goal and buy an equivalent amount of regret on the other side. But this is not what law is. This is not what it is for.
Law is a signpost marking the gap between our path and God's justice. It does precisely what Melanchthon said it does: lex semper accusat. Law always finds fault. In every place in scripture where human communities seek to rule out injustice, it does this. In every place in scripture where God speaks prophetically, it does this. And in each and every place where this happens, it happens with respect to a relevant objective history of the people to whom the legislator speaks. It points to an actual gap, a specific real gap in each instance, and asks that the people be just because they are God's people, and God makes them just. And therefore it always inevitably points outside of itself, to God. Law is not a pedagogy of justice -- it is a pedagogy of injustice, a method of training using bad examples. It belongs to the history of who we have been, training us at best to recognize and avoid specific historically conditioned failures. And in this retrospective role it is a useful tool.
But the gospel lifts us out of that objective history of failures! The gospel does not seek to train our deeds, but rather to teach us who we are because of Christ. The gospel teaches us who God has made us, who God continues to make us with every providential means. It is the gospel that makes us community in Christ, and it is the gospel that we receive eucharistically in the means of grace. And as we learn who we are, we are freed from our failures so that we might act like who we are. The gospel does not lead to law, though it does open out onto a kind of obligation. We have been transformed by grace, and we are being transformed by grace, and our gospel awareness of this leads to an existential conflict. We are obliged to be what we are -- and the gospel teaches us what we truly are. Because of sin, we are capable of denying this and pretending to be something else. We are capable of bad faith. We are capable, as scripture shows in every exemplar of faith, of dissonant actions, actions that attempt to deny and negate what we are because of God's actions for us. Such actions of ours are never stronger than God's, but they do harm. "Saul, why do you hunt me? It hurts you to kick against the goads!" (A sentiment masterfully set by Schütz!)
But this obligation is not the same as obedience to the command of God. The gospel teaches you what you truly are, and by word and sacrament and every practice that justly belongs to the Christian life, God relaxes you gradually into being what you are because of Christ. The gospel is a word of freedom, and every gospel means enables you to become more comfortably what you are in Christ: a responsible creature, one that hears and responds to God. You are freed into a life of prayer in the world, the reception of the word of God and the responsive consideration of what it means in your world today. And that is the obedience that the gospel frees you for -- not an obedience of law, though law may be used alongside prayer as a means of contemplation, but instead an obedience of the self-revealed word that is God.
And so this is rightly the nature of the church, constituted by word and sacrament as a communion in Christ: a place where creatures being made right by the Creator are healed and comforted and freed. Its mission corresponds to its nature: prayerful and reflective response to God in the world in which it lives. It is therefore the body of Christ, its head, and God treats the church accordingly, exercising it into gospel postures. It is a being-towards-life, an organic existence structured by the life of the Living God.