Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (B)
June 14, 2009
Text: Mark 4:26-34

You can’t make the Church grow. You can’t make the Church grow any more than you can make the plants in your garden grow. When you plant a garden, you hope the seeds will grow into plants. You may water and feed and nurture the seeds, but in the end, you can’t make a garden grow. God has to make it grow. You cannot make the Church grow. God must do it. He must do it by His Holy Spirit working through the Word and the Sacraments. That is the only way. The Church is always tempted to acquiesce to the world, to compromise to the world, to let the world set the Church’s agenda, because, we think, if we just did and taught what the world wants us to do and teach, if we just worship in a worldly style, if we just back off of this idea that Christianity has a corner on truth, the Church will grow. We will save the institution, the Synod, the congregation. Offerings will be up. We might be able to undertake a building project. We’ll all feel like we’re part of something vibrant and exciting. And the congregation very much may grow if we compromise doctrine and practice. But at what price? The offerings and attendance may be up, but you haven’t grown the Kingdom, the holy Christian Church. Instead, you’ve become nothing more than another social club.

You can’t make the Church grow. Perhaps you think running the Church like a business will make it grow. Perhaps you think the next “movement” in a long line of Synodical programs will make the Church grow. Perhaps you think if we just replaced Diane with a praise band our congregation’s walls would be bursting at the seems. Perhaps you think if the pastor would just avoid controversial topics and be a little more politically correct, drop all this closed communion talk and not make mention of sin, then our guests won’t be offended and they’ll join our congregation because, after all, we’re known for our friendliness. Beloved, repent. You can’t grow the Church. I can’t grow it either. Only God can grow the Church. And here’s the good news: He promises to do so! He does so by His Word.

But wait a minute, Pastor! Our congregation is shrinking. Christianity is shrinking. What do you mean God promises to grow the Church? Beloved in the Lord, you have eyes, but do not see. Every baby who is baptized is an added member of the Church. Every sinner who repents and believes in Jesus Christ is an added member of the Church. And even death does not remove you from the membership roster of the Church. For the Christian, having died in Christ, continues to live in Christ, in heaven, awaiting the resurrection of the dead. There is no such thing as removal by death. There is only removal by unbelief. So you see, the Church is always growing. And God is doing the work! He’s the One who grows the Church. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how” (Mark 4:26-27; ESV [emphasis added]).

The joy for Christians is, we get to spread the seed. The seed is the Word. We spread it recklessly. You never know where God will make His Kingdom grow. We get to speak the Word in any and every context, in season and out of season, when it makes us popular and when it brings persecution. We get to confess Christ to our friends and family members and neighbors, all with whom we come into contact. We get to tell them about the forgiveness of sins that we have freely in Jesus Christ on account of His suffering, death, and resurrection. We get to come together as the Church of God to gather around God’s gifts in the preaching of the Word and the Sacrament of the Altar and build one another up through the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. We get to pray that God’s Kingdom would come and grow, pray for the lost, pray for our fellow Christians, pray for the work of the Church and for our pastor. We get to support the work of the Church and missions with our offerings and even with our own time and effort. We get to be a part of this, and yet we remember that God is the One growing His Church. He can do it without us. He can do it in spite of us. He promises, “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:10-11). He’s the One who causes the growth and He gives us the gift of being a part of it, sowing the seed.

Of course, you can, at least from a human perspective, hinder the work of God in this place. You should know that and always be on your guard against it. You can put needless barriers in the way of people coming to faith and joining our fellowship. You can be unfriendly and unwelcoming. You can insist on your own way. You can advocate false doctrine, unfaithful practices, be hypercritical of your fellow believers or your pastor, even live in manifest sin. These are things that tear down the Body of Christ. These are things that hinder people from coming to faith and joining our fellowship. Every one of us ought constantly to examine himself to see if he’s created a needless barrier, repent, and receive the forgiveness of our Lord. For of course there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ for all sin, and so also there is forgiveness among the members of Christ’s Body, the Church.

But it is nonetheless true that every one of the elect, every last person chosen by God from eternity to be saved, will come to faith in Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit and be saved, even in spite of you. That’s a warning and a comfort. It is a warning, because God will accomplish His saving purpose even if you oppose Him, but unless you repent, you will be lost. It is a comfort, because God will accomplish His saving purpose even in spite of hypocritical members of the visible Church institution, even in spite of hypocritical pastors, even in spite of sincere believing Christians who still struggle with the old sinful flesh and are sometimes unfaithful. God grows His Kingdom. He grows it and tends it and nourishes it until the time of harvest when our Lord Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead.

The thing about the Kingdom’s growth is that it is hidden and unexpected. Elijah thought he was the only faithful Israelite left on the face of the earth until God revealed to him that there were seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal or kissed him (1 Kings 19:9-18). Jesus compares the Kingdom to a grain of mustard seed. When you look at it, it is so small and insignificant that you think it will never amount to anything. It’s one of the smallest of all the seeds. But plant it in the ground and let God worry about the growth and what happens? “[I]t grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:32). That tiny little seed becomes almost tree-like. So big, birds make nests in it. What appeared so insignificant becomes the dominating plant in the garden. So also the Kingdom of God. The Church on earth always looks like it’s in its death throws. The Church on earth always appears to be shrinking and dying. It is always beset with controversy within and without, despised by the world, hated, persecuted. It appears weak and insignificant to the human eye. But by faith you can behold it the way it appears in all its heavenly splendor. It is the very ark of salvation. The people of the nations, whom the Holy Spirit has brought to repentance and faith, nest in the branches of the holy Church. There is no salvation outside the Church. For the Church is nothing less than the whole number of holy believers in Christ, both those on earth and those in heaven. The Church is the Body of Christ. It is the Kingdom of God.

The Church is born from the wounds of Christ. She receives her life from His precious blood and death. She lives by His gracious Word of forgiveness. She lives by the salvation He won in His death. She lives by the water and the blood poured out for her from His riven side. She lives by Baptism and the Supper of His true body and blood. Only Jesus can save His Church. Only Jesus can sustain and strengthen His Church. Only Jesus, only God, can make the Church grow.

So if you want more people in this congregation, I suggest you begin by asking Him. But recognize that things may still appear small and weak here in this place called Epiphany Lutheran Church. That doesn’t mean God isn’t growing His Church. Don’t forget that every Baptism is an answer to your prayer. And don’t forget your privilege of speaking the Word of Christ in your vocation to all with whom you come into contact. Invite people to church. Trust the Word. Trust God. The growth is up to Him. Give thanks to God that by His grace He has included you in the number of holy believers in Christ. You also live by the wounds. In Christ, all your sins are forgiven. You live by His gracious Word, by Baptism, by His Holy Supper. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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