17th Sunday after Trinity (First Sunday of Fall Series)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 18, 2016
“What the Spirit Says to the Churches about the Lord of the Church”
How do you know if a church is living and healthy? If you did a survey asking that question, I imagine that there would be a lot more agreement among Christians and non-Christians than you might expect. People would probably say—a healthy church is friendly. Many would say that a healthy church has a strong youth program, because a church not reaching the next generation is a dying church. Many people would say that a strong church is successfully reaching out and bringing in new members. Many would say a growing attendance is a sign that a church is healthy.
But none of those things are signs of a healthy church. A church could easily have all those things and be a spiritual corpse, or be sick unto death.
When evaluating whether a church is healthy, most people overlook the one thing needful—the doctrine of Jesus. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them”—teaching them what, Lord? “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) But can’t a church be healthy even if it doesn’t teach all that Jesus has commanded? Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, says the Lord. Even earthly bosses and rulers don’t put up with those who are under them listening to only some of their commands. The Church of Christ has one Lord—Jesus. No pastor is a co-Lord with Jesus with the right to add or subtract from His teaching. Jesus doesn’t share the throne at the Father’s right hand with individual Christians either, so that they are free to veto the parts of His teaching that seem offensive to them. The Church is the body of Christ, but Christ is the head. There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism. A church that does not hold the one faith of Jesus, but departs from it in any article, cannot be a healthy church. Jesus promised to be with His disciples when they baptized and taught all that He commanded, not when they departed from Him and taught what seemed good to them.
Yet a church is not healthy simply because it formally acknowledges the pure doctrine of Jesus. Having a confession of the true faith in the church’s constitution or having the true doctrine preached from the pulpit by itself is not a sign of a healthy church. A healthy church not only hears Christ’s word and formally acknowledges it; a church is healthy to the degree that its members believe Christ’s Word and grow in their faith in it. A church that formally acknowledges Christ’s Word while most of its members are no longer growing in faith—or even where faith in Christ’s Word has become a dead knowledge in many of its members, rather than a living trust of the heart—is not a healthy church, despite having the pure word of Christ. It is a church that is sick.
But how can you tell whether faith in the word of Christ is growing in the people of a given church? Nobody can look into people’s hearts and see whether they believe or whether that faith is growing stronger or weaker.
That’s true, and it’s a reason why we shouldn’t be quick to judge a church—someone else’s, or our own. What we see doesn’t always tell us the whole story. Faith is God’s work. He does it in secret. And like a seed that has been alive and growing for some time before you see the first little green stem poking out of the dirt, so it is with faith in God’s Word—it grows, but we often don’t notice its growth. And it takes time before the little seedling becomes a fruit-bearing plant or tree.
Yet a growing faith in the word of Christ is not without visible signs. It is known by what it does.
Faith in Christ doesn’t deny Jesus’ teaching willingly. When it does so, it does so in ignorance. But true faith in Christ gives itself away in that it never wants to depart from Christ’s word and teaching. As a result, a true Christian wants to study the Word of God and be taught it; and when a Christian is shown from the Bible that he is in error in something he believes, he is troubled by it. He doesn’t look at it just as being a matter of different interpretations. He wants to be sure that he doesn’t contradict or deny the teaching of His Lord.
Faith in Christ also makes itself known by eagerness to receive God’s gifts in the Divine Service and by its faithfulness in prayer. It is faithful in giving because it realizes how much the Lord has given to us. It moves a person to serve others—at home, work, and at church—because a Christian believes that the Lord served him by dying on the cross, and still serves him His body and blood. And faith in Christ witnesses to others about Jesus, both out of joy in what it has received and out of the conviction that there is no salvation apart from faith in Jesus.
Six things—Divine Service. Scripture. Prayer. Giving. Serving. Witnessing. A person who is growing in faith in Christ through His pure Word also grows in these six things. That’s why for the last nine years I’ve taught about those six things every fall, and urged you to work to grow in them.
And so we can easily evaluate right here this morning, in the quiet of our hearts, whether we can say of ourselves that we have grown in these six things in the past nine years. Whether we have made a serious effort to do so. Not in order to make ourselves feel guilty—or proud—but realizing that whether or not I am growing in faith is a serious thing for which I will one day give an account to God; realizing that our growth or decline in faith and its fruits has consequences not only for ourselves, but for this congregation’s health.
Those six things—attending Divine Service, reading Scripture, praying, giving, serving, witnessing—are all gifts from God. And yet a person could easily look at them and think that they are all things that we have to do.
But there is one other thing in the fall series that is not something we do in any respect. It is something we can only receive from God. And without it our efforts to grow in the other six will be in vain. We can only rightly do and grow in them if we first receive this first thing.
That thing is Christ.
That is so basic that it may seem insulting for me to mention Him. Of course we’ve received Christ! We’ve been coming to church for decades!
And I’m certainly not disputing that you have received Christ. I’m a Lutheran pastor, not a Baptist. So I preach and believe that when you as a little baby were baptized you received Christ—or He received you.
Yet many people receive Christ and then lose Him again. It’s easy for the real Christ to be replaced by a false Christ in the preaching of the Church and even in the hearts of Christians. Again, if I was a Baptist or a Calvinist pastor I would deny that it’s possible for a true Christian to ever lose Christ. If you lost Him, they say, you never really had Him to begin with. But Scripture teaches: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for awhile, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21)
Christians are led away to false Christs. In the Catholic Church the Jesus who atoned for our sins with His death and gives us the forgiveness of sins freely, only through faith, is replaced with a Jesus who came to give us a new law to fulfill. But for many Christians the false Jesus that replaces the true one is a “tame” Jesus. It is a Jesus who is gracious and forgives us and may even help us when we die. He makes few demands on us and He is kind. He makes us feel comfortable and peaceful when we are able to get away from all the irritations and stresses we have to deal with in this life. He certainly doesn’t do anything that scares us or terrifies us or causes conflict. And people usually divorce this Jesus from the suffering in our lives. He doesn’t have anything to do with that, because He loves us and doesn’t want us to feel pain.
The problem with this false Jesus is that He is impotent. He comforts you when you die and any time you happen to really feel guilty about your sins. But since He has nothing to do with pain and suffering, when we experience pain and suffering we are, in essence, dealing with something beyond Jesus’ control. He doesn’t want us to suffer, and yet we do—all of us—and some of us a lot. He never does anything that makes us uncomfortable or afraid, and so—in spite of ourselves—we sometimes get bored with Jesus. We know what He’s going to say before we walk in the doors of the church.
This may be a little bit of a caricature, but isn’t it at least a partially accurate description of the way people think about Jesus?
That is the problem with idols, though—they are often boring. They’re boring because we have them under control. They can’t hurt us or scare us. But they can’t help us either. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear…feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:4-8) Idols are perfectly safe—but boring. And if we worship an idol we will probably be boring also.
However the safe, tame picture of Jesus that interferes with faith in the real Jesus and that sometimes replaces it is not the Jesus who stands before us in the reading from Revelation. Spiritual health begins with receiving Jesus—the true Jesus. Not just one facet of His character or person isolated from the rest of Him. If we want Jesus, we have to receive also the beautiful yet terrible Christ who appeared to St. John. But this Christ many of us have forgotten. He is not merely the friend of the church, but the church’s Lord.
In the reading, St. John is on Patmos, a small island off the coast of modern-day Turkey. He has been imprisoned there for preaching the word of God, bearing witness that Jesus is Lord. And one “Lord’s Day”, one Sunday, the Holy Spirit comes upon him, and he has a vision. He hears a voice behind him that sounds like a trumpet blast, telling him to write down what he sees in a book and to send it to seven churches on the mainland of modern-day Turkey.
Imagine if someone came up behind you and blew a trumpet, how startling that would be! So when John turns around to “see the voice”, he suddenly sees seven golden lampstands, “and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man (Rev. 1:13).” And this person who is “like a son of man” has hair as white as snow, eyes like a flame of fire, feet that gleam like burnished bronze. His voice is like the roar of many waters. He holds seven stars in His right hand. Out of His mouth comes a sharp two-edged sword, and his face is like staring into the sun.
The phrase “son of man” we recognize, because it’s what Jesus always called Himself. But the rest is alien to us. We’re used to thinking of Jesus’ voice as a comforting sound, like the sound of a shepherd’s voice is to a sheep—but here it sounds like the roar of an ocean; and the word that comes out of His mouth is not a collection of comforting truths but a weapon of war. His eyes are a flame—suggesting zeal and passion or jealousy and anger. The light that shines from His face is like the sun shining in full strength, threatening to burn our eyes.
We know that people outside the church today have false ideas about who Jesus is. Some people claim that He is a myth, a person who never existed. Others say that He was simply a man who thought He was the Messiah and was proved not to be when He died on a cross. Many others think Jesus was a prophet, a great religious teacher who taught the same thing as all the other so-called great teachers, like Buddha or Muhammad.
But what about us? Haven’t we forgotten this side of Jesus? That in Him all the fullness of God dwells bodily (Col. 2)? That He is the first and the last (Rev. 1:17), the Creator of the World, and also the one who will end it—its judge? Have we forgotten the flame of His eyes, His jealousy that hates sin with a passion more hot than any human love? Have we forgotten the power of His voice, roaring like the ocean, that swept the world into being in the beginning and will sweep it away in the end? That His Word, His doctrine, is not a safe, tame philosophy that we can master in a few months or years, but a divine weapon that maims those who handle it clumsily, and that He uses to kill His enemies?
When we are dealing with Jesus, we are dealing with the eternal God in human flesh, to whom all glory belongs, who is coming to judge the living and the dead. He is not a god that we have made and that we can control. He startles John in this reading and causes him to fall down at His feet as though dead. Jesus is the Lord of the world and most especially the Lord of the Church. He doesn’t exist to fit into our lives the way that we think He should. The church answers to Him. We exist for Him.
And we have forgotten where the Lord Jesus is. We would expect that when John sees this vision of Jesus’ glory that he had been transported to heaven. But Jesus is in the midst of the lampstands (Rev. 1:13). Jesus is in the midst of the churches. He is not somewhere else, far away, in His power and glory. He is here, in the midst of the congregation of people who bear His name.
Which means that His omnipotent power is in the midst of us. Yet so often Christians behave and talk as if Jesus has left us to build the church and govern the church. And when a church becomes weak or is dying we say, “What can we do when the society we live in no longer is interested in church, and nobody wants to come to the neighborhood we’re in, and we don’t offer the types of programs that attract new people to the church?” The creator of the world stands in the midst of the churches with omnipotent power, and we say, “Yeah, that’s nice, but without a better zip code, how can we make it?”
We have forgotten what our Lord has. He says, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive for eternity of eternities, and I have the keys of Death and hell. (Rev. 1:18) He has all of history under His control—He is the first and last. He was there before we existed and He knows how all things will end—for you individually, for this church, for the whole world. For him it is not a question waiting to be answered; it is done, and He knows the ending. He has everlasting life, into endless eternities. Death and destruction have no power over Him. And He also holds the keys to death and hell. He has the power to unlock its prisoners, and the power to keep them bound.
To receive Christ means first of all to receive the Lord of all the earth. But our flesh cannot bear to face Him in His glory. When we see Him, we see the God we have rejected and despised since our childhood. Every time we inwardly groaned at the thought of listening to a sermon or going to Sunday School we were despising Him. Every time we declined to serve in the church or put less than our best into serving the church, we turned our back on the one who spoke to John. Whenever we have neglected to learn and continue to grow in His Word we pushed the Lord of the Church into the background, tried to steal His church and remake it according to human wisdom, as though it was ours.
The first part of receiving Christ is receiving Him as our judge. And to do that is to die, like John fell at his feet as though dead. (Rev. 1: 17)
Only then do we receive Christ as our Savior. Because He comes to those who are dead and lays His right hand on them, the hand of His power, and says, “Do not be afraid.” That’s what He says to all of us this morning who realize that we have not borne the fruit of those whose faith in Him is growing and increasing. The voice like the roar of many waters tells you not to fear Him; and His right hand of power raises you up to live not by your own strength, but His.
He is the first and the last. Long before you were created He knew you and He knew this church. And He is the One who will bring about the end of your story. The end of our story is in front of His eyes of flame as though it has already happened. Yet He says, Do not be afraid.
It is not the ending we fear or that we deserve; our ending is tied to the end of His story. I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold, I am alive for eternity of eternities, and I have the keys of Death and hell. He is the living One. He is the life, and endless life was in Him before the world began. Yet the living One died. He entered our flesh, our nature. He suffered the curse that had come upon us. The living one died, bearing the penalty of sin; He was forsaken by God. The mighty judge was judged as having committed Adam’s sin and all its offspring—all the sins that flowered in His children. Yet behold, He lives for endless eternities; He was stronger than sin and death. He passed through them like a spider’s web. And the end that He sees for you, terrified sinner is life to eternity of eternities in Him.
And He doesn’t have life merely for Himself. When He died He took the keys to Death and hell. And now the Lord who is in the midst of the lampstands is here to use those keys. He does what no human power could dream of doing. He unlocks the door of Death and hell and lets its prisoners out.
That is what is happening when He sends His messenger, His angel, to say, “I forgive you all your sins in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.” Death and hell is opened, no matter how many times you seem to have gone back to your cell.
It’s what happens when the word of Christ is proclaimed. It’s not merely that a man is talking. The key of death and hell in the Lord Christ’s hand is inserted into the lock of your cell, and the lock clicks open, that you may enter into endless life and freedom—that you may enter into Jesus by faith.
Only when this happens do the other six things—divine service, scripture, prayer, giving, serving, witnessing—become possible. Until then they are just ways that we are trying to escape from the prison of death and hell. But for one set free they are the new life of freedom, an endless life.
Write therefore Jesus tells John. Because I have raised you by my power and freed you from death and hell, bear witness to me. Not to by your own power, to build your own church, bearing witness to me, the Lord of the Church. I build it. I wish to speak to the Church and to the world that I purchased with my blood. Your calling is merely to testify to me with your words and your life.
Soli Deo Gloria
Authored By De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine