Rev. Christopher Raffa
High school and college is an awkward time, even as it is joyously blissful. Largely, you live life in the moment, trying to put the past behind you and wonder about what the future holds. With the advent of social media, you are instantly intertwined with a host of relationships, yet you can often feel quite small and alone. There is so much to see and experience and so little time to ponder and digest it all.
The church often takes a backseat to your fast-paced life. Often what you want are soundbites, text messages that condense difficult and tough subjects into a small number of characters and expressive emojis. Conditioned by your culture you want to be entertained not taught, inspired not instructed, driven by the inward heart rather than the external Word of God. And you are sure of one thing: The church isn't perfect and she is full of a bunch of hypocrites. And you know what? Your right.
One of the most important things you need to know is that the church, the bride of Christ, is a sinner. She is not without immorality and error. She is not without hate and hardness of heart. She is not without deception and death. She appears before your eyes and the world as forsaken, small, afflicted with all sorts of divisions. In the words of Martin Luther, "there is no sinner as great as the Christian church." She is broken. And she doesn't hide this. She herself confesses her sinfulness before her bridegroom as she earnestly prays for the forgiveness of all her sins.
At the same time, you need to know that the bride of Christ in all her sins, warts and warfare, is forgiven in the Bridegroom's blood. In His Word, in His speaking to her, she is beautiful. She is holy when she abides in His Word. She is beautiful in Christ—not beautiful in the self-wrought works of her hands. Her holiness and beauty is a gift, wedded to her slain yet risen Bridegroom.
Sin doesn't define her in the same way as holiness defines her. For while sin wracks her, what truly defines her is not her own word, but the Word of her beloved Bridegroom. The world wants you to believe that the church's reality and life are defined by her works and deeds. But her reality and life are defined by the works and deeds of her Christ.
To believe this, you must accept that she is sinful yet holy is the struggle of faith, and that although there is a tension between what your eyes see and what your lips confess, holiness shall prevail for she is precisely beautiful in the Word of her bridegroom. Her holiness and beauty does not rest in herself or in her members, but solely in the holiness and righteousness of Christ. As Luther declared in his Galatians commentary, "If I look at my own person or at that of my neighbor, the church will never be holy. But if I look at Christ, who is the Propitiator and Cleanser of the church, then it is completely holy; for he bore the sins of the entire world."
Broken yet beautiful, that is the church. The beauty of the church rests in its willingness to confess its brokenness—to embrace sinners and to serve them with its blessings and gifts. The church, you should know, is at its best when it lives among sinners, for Christ only dwells in sinners. The church, you should know, is not a place of spiritual perfection but is an infirmary for the sinner who desires the forgiveness of sins.
The beauty of the bride of Christ must always be understood as a gift given to her and a promise spoken to her. It's never a matter of her doing, but always a matter of her receiving the gifts of her Bridegroom in penitential humility. You must also know that this beauty of the bride of Christ is always hidden in the world. It lies beneath and in the cross. You won't see it but you will confess it. "I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church."
Growing up is awkward, difficult and hard. And here is something you should never forget: The broken yet beautiful bride always beckons you to bring your habitat as young people to the table of Holy Scripture, to her Bridegroom's external Word of God. She wants you to bring your nerdy and explicit playlists of music, your sappy novels that induce all sorts of daydreaming, your fantasies of your future life and your regrets of your past life. She wants you to bring your flesh in all its quirkiness and shatteredness, and sit under the Word of her Bridegroom as you wrestle with questions of truth and faith, love and loss, identity and death, the world you live in and the eternal world that is yours by the gift of baptism and of holy supper.
As you grow up in this crazy and constantly moving world, you should know her doors are always open to you, and when you walk through them you will always find rest and peace for your body and soul. No matter how boring you think this churchly world is here, no matter how uncool or out of touch, it stands open with an ocean of forgiveness grace and mercy. Her hold on you as sons and daughters is not so much a matter of the Law as it is the gentle hand of the Gospel.
There is nothing more beautiful to the Bridegroom when His sons and daughters come broken, so that He can declare them as beautiful. The testament of Bridegroom's hold on you is that He has baptized you to be a beautiful bride, fed and nourished unto death and into the eternal light of His heavenly country. This what you should know, that the bride of Christ, stands here broken—holding the doors open to broken ones, only to be declared beautiful in the pew and at the altar rail.
Rev. Christopher Raffa is Associate Pastor of Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church in West Bend, Wisconsin. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Created: May 16th, 2016