A certain individual recently experienced a challenging period of health problems with multiple trips to the emergency room and repeated hospitalizations. This person, who had been spoiled by a lifetime of mostly good health, was laid low, both physically and emotionally by what seemed to be an endless progression of problems, each one worse than the one before. Yet, in the midst of this misery he found himself spiritually uplifted by the support of fellow Christians – members of the hospital staff, relatives, friends, and professional associates, but especially by the outpouring of love and concern of his local congregation.
Now this is an individual who has spent his entire life within the embrace of congregational life and who is thoroughly familiar with its practices for caring for those ailing or otherwise in need: corporate prayers during the worship services, the ‘prayer chain’ of members who individually pray for those who request it, special care ministries such as the group of women in his church who crochet/knit ‘prayer shawls’ for those needing comfort. Indeed, this individual had himself on countless occasions said “I’ll be praying for you” to others and then tried to be faithful in discharging that commitment. Yet, truth be told, this had probably been viewed more as an abstract ‘nice thing to do’ in order to show love and support for others than as the concrete blessing that he experienced when he found himself the recipient. It’s not that he doubted that such prayer was heard and answered, but it seemed to be a more-or-less private transaction between the one praying and the Lord. However, what he experienced during his ordeal was a very real sense of being enfolded by the love and care of Christ through the many voices raised on his behalf.
When discussing the unexpected richness of this blessing with his pastor, it was pointed out that what he had experienced seemed to be what Martin Luther was speaking of in the Smalcald Articles when he wrote about the “mutual conversation and consolation of brethren”. Now, even among Lutherans, this is a concept that is not widely discussed. In fact, it warrants only a single sentence within the Smalcald Articles, itself one of the less familiar documents of the Lutheran Book of Concord. Yet it expresses an important truth about our life in the ‘community of saints’ – that is, about being part of all those living and dead who are members of the ‘body of Christ.’
According to Luther, the Gospel is not simply the spoken/written message of salvation in Christ, but consists in all of the ways in which God’s “superabundant grace” is poured out to the Church. These ways include not only God’s Word and the Sacraments (Baptism and Communion), but also “the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren” whereby we in the Church build each other up in faith through our words and deeds of love and encouragement. The heart of this concept is rooted in the words of Jesus when He promised: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20). That is, our community of believers is not just a collection of individuals who gather to worship and be fed, but like the cells of a living organism, our interactions are intertwined with the life giving force which sustains and animates the whole body. By ‘being there’ for each other, we bring Christ! St. Paul was speaking of this form of ‘preaching the Gospel’ when he wrote to the church in Rome: “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (Romans 1:11-12)
We thank God for all the ways in which the ‘good news of salvation’ comes to us – God is truly lavish in the generosity of His gifts! And among these gifts we really need to attach a very high value to the ways in which we mutually build each other up in faith as we witness it to each other through our interactions. Our participation in our congregational fellowship is, of course, filled with blessings for ourselves. But equally important, it is a powerful way in which we preach the Gospel to our brothers and sisters “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”