Tuesday, September 02, 2014

(Not) Building the Church

(Not) Building the Church
Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8[1]  
When most people think of “church” these days, I would venture to say that many of them have some not so positive thoughts. Some people have been burned by a church, and will never return. Others have simply lost interest, and have decided to spend their time doing something more “useful.” Those who are still active in church tend to look church in one of two ways. Some see the way things are done these days and bemoan the loss of the “good old days.” Others see the church as a community that is losing its influence in our culture, and want to change things to stave off the threat of becoming a “relic” of bygone days.
It seems that there are a lot of people out there who have the “answer” about what the church needs to survive and to thrive in the 21st Century world. Some think it depends on having the right kind of music in worship. Others think it’s a matter of keeping up with the latest technology. Others insist that we need to implement the right evangelism program. Others find the answer in a thriving education program. And a whole lot of people think that if they can just find the right pastor who can wave his magic wand things will turn around. All of these ideas are good--well all except the last one. There is no magic wand that I or any other pastor can use to revitalize a church. But many of the ideas people are promoting in order to help build up the church these days are helpful. And yet at the end of the day they leave out what I think are the most important dimensions of what it takes to help churches thrive in our day.
I think we find one of them in our Gospel lesson. The centuries-long debate between the Catholic and Protestant branches of the church about whether Peter is the foundation of the church has missed the point. Regardless of whether you define the “rock” upon which the church is built as Peter, or Peter’s confession of faith, or something else altogether, it seems more important to me that Jesus said “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).[2] The bottom line here is that Jesus is the one who builds the church, not me, or you, or anybody else. If that is the case, then “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).
That reminds me of something St. Paul said about his ministry. The church at Corinth had become divided by their loyalties to different teachers. But Paul says that all those teachers were just workers in God’s field. One plants, another waters, and another one reaps the harvest. But the vital perspective on whether or not there is a harvest at all is that God is the one who “gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). We can discuss strategies and programs all day long until we’re blue in the face, but unless we look to God to give the growth, I daresay we’re just spinning our wheels.
So how do we do that? How do we promote the well-being and growth of this congregation by looking to Jesus to build his church? I think this introduces the second important dimension to what it takes to help churches thrive in our day and time. At its core, this kind of work is spiritual work. It’s not organizational, it’s not programmatic, it’s not marketing. It’s spiritual work. It’s true that organizational health, robust programming, and even good marketing are important. But at the end of the day, building the church requires that we do everything we do in the recognition that God is the one who gives the growth, and so we have to seek to align our hearts and minds and lives with God.
I think that’s something of what St. Paul was talking about in our New Testament lesson for today. He urged the church at Rome to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). He called them to be “transformed” in their minds and hearts so that their lives might reflect “the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).[3] This is at heart a spiritual endeavor, one that we can undertake only by spiritual means.[4] When we incorporate prayer, worship, scripture, service, and witness into our daily lives, then we will experience the transforming work of God that can renew our congregation.[5]
This work is not the calling of just one person--the pastor--or even a few--the elders and deacons. This is the work of the whole body. And so St. Paul urges the congregation at Rome to exercise their unique and varied gifts “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom. 12:3) and “according to the grace given to us” (12:6). Building the church in our day and time is something that takes all the talents and abilities that each of us has to offer. That’s what it takes for us to be the body of Christ, to be a community defined by faith, hope, love, and witness.[6]
In a very real sense, building the church isn’t something we do at all, it’s something that God does through us. But I don’t think God builds congregations regardless of whether they take their role as the body of Christ seriously. Our practice of spiritual disciplines is empowered by our faith, our hope, and most importantly, the mutual love which transforms our hearts and minds so that God can create growth through us. The Gospels tell us that Jesus recognized his need for a spiritual practice in his life in order to carry out his mission. How much more do we need to look to God to transform our lives and empower our work. How much more do we need to look to God to give the growth. How much more do we need to seek the presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ to build his church.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/24/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. M. Jack Suggs, “Matthew 16:13-20,” Interpretation 39 (July 1985):294, “In spite of weaknesses and failures of faith, Peter is the Rock—heroic, but flawed. Perhaps it is only with blemishes that he can be the prototypical disciple, the reminder that there is recovery beyond failure, even the reminder that the final guarantee of the church's life is not the foundation at all but the One who says, ‘I will build my church.’” Cf. similarly, M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:345.
 [3] Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 194: “Grace brings with itself specific structures. It brings with itself the power to reshape and restructure our lives in a way appropriate for life under the lordship of God.”
[4] Cf. The Book of Order 2011-2013, F-1.304, p. 5, which summarizes the calling of the church in “The Great Ends of the Church,” which was adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1910: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 306-7, where identifies the “essentials” as kerygma [proclaiming the gospel], koinonia [fellowship], and diakonia [service].
[6] Cf. The Book of Order 2011-2013, F-1.030, p. 2: “The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world (1 Cor. 12:27–28):
The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.
The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.”

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