by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison
So, what is this “life together” in the Church? What does it mean that we in the Missouri Synod are “in this together”? And what finally holds us together anyway?
The answer to these questions would appear to be quite simple. We are like-minded religiously or at least enough to participate in a local congregation. We are comfortable together in this or that congregation. We are free to associate as we wish in this country and have freely decided to join our local LCMS church. Though we have many differences across the Synod, we share certain goals, and as free individuals and congregations, we freely decide to associate for worthy religious and charitable ends.
As much truth as there is in these answers, they certainly don’t get at what the Bible says holds us together as Christian and truly Lutheran.
In the new three-fold emphasis—WITNESS, MERCY, LIFE TOGETHER—this third aspect of LIFE TOGETHER is how we’ve rendered the New Testament word koinonia. The word means “participation,” “having something in common,” or “a sharing in something.” Quite often in the writings of St. Paul, when he mentions this sharing, he also notes what is shared. Thus, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship [koinonia] of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). In other words, those “called into fellowship” share Jesus.
Now note who the actor is: “God is faithful.” He’s the One acting. He’s doing the primary sharing too! What Jesus says to His apostles applies also to us: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). “You were called [passive] into the fellowship of His Son.” Because of God’s action, God’s doing, God’s calling, we have been brought into a “fellowship,” a “communion,” a “sharing.” As Paul notes, we share in “His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This life in Christ—the vertical koinonia or sharing in Christ, created by Him—also creates a “life together” with others in Christ—the horizontal koinonia. Even with Christians with whom we do not share official church fellowship, we believe koinonia exists, though hidden. For we believe, with our Lutheran Confessions, that wherever Jesus is with His Word and Sacrament, there are believers (Preface to the Book of Concord), also far and wide outside the orthodox Lutheran Church, if only the Gospel is not totally eclipsed.
The great importance of koinonia as LIFE TOGETHER is marvelously displayed by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10–12, his great teaching chapters on the Lord’s Supper and the Church. Paul writes, “The bread that we break, is it not a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ?” In the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we share Christ’s body and blood, so Paul continues: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). From our sharing in Christ’s body come very deep ethical ramifications. Because we are one body in Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26; cf. Acts 2:42, 45; 4:32).
Luther wrote a splendid tract on this topic. In one of my favorite passages, he stated,
This fellowship consists in this, that all the spiritual possession of Christ and his saints [i.e., believers] are shared with and become the common property of him who receives this sacrament. Again all sufferings and sins also become common property; and thus love engenders love in return and [mutual love] unites (LW 35:51).
What do we share? What finally brings us together and holds us together? Jesus. And so we have a LIFE TOGETHER that includes a great array of important aspects and tasks (circuits, pastor and teacher conferences, Concordia Plan Services, seminaries and universities, reconciliation, CTCR, and many others).
Our life together is a gift (“spiritual possession of Christ”) and a gift to be tended (“love engenders love . . . and unites”).