Is this Anyway to Build a Church?
The church is in trouble; many are panicked. What are we going to do? How can we build the church? The world is against us; the devil is against us; our own flesh is against us! Why it's as bad as it has ever been. Not quite. Our text has Jesus and 12 disciples against these same 3 enemies, and when you read it, don't you think: is this anyway to build a church?
See who Jesus sends for the task. The text says Jesus sent the Twelve. Literally, He "commissioned" them. Remember who is among the Twelve? A tax collector, hated by the people. A zealot, a Tea Party type conservative. Four fishermen, always noted for their public speaking, right? O yeah, and Jesus commissioned the one who would betray Him.
But things are looking up now. Like a mighty army the church of Jesus is moving. Not hardly. All it says is He gave them was the "authority over evil spirits." Is that what you think 1st century Palestine needed? New atheists mock Jesus for not sending basic sanitation. Even us old Christians can think more food, less oppression, better living conditions, would have gathered more followers. A mother with no husband and 4 mouths to feed sure didn't feel that her need was to be delivered from evil spirits. A principle of building the church for over 30 years has been meet people's felt needs, and Jesus isn't doing that.
And we're repeating His "mistake." We're not sending what the world considers the best and the brightest. We're sending sinners, fallen, weak men. We're still sending men like the 12. It's a miracle. It's a work of God if anything at all comes of their labors. I listen to Joel Osteen today or even Billy Graham of old and I see why these guys succeed. They have the looks, the dress, the manner, the eloquence to charm the birds out of the trees.
Face it. Successful churches meet people's felt needs. They provide childcare for your kid; a leg up for him in the educational world; a busy social life. All I can do is give them the Holy Spirit in Baptism; all I can do is send the evil spirits of fear, sadness, sinfulness, and care away from them by absolution. And since I work by faith not by sight, a world that lives by what it sees and feels goes to where its bell is rung.
Okay so Jesus sends the wrong messengers with the wrong message; that wouldn't be so bad if He didn't hinder them as they go. Physical armies travel on their bellies. The Lord's army of pastors travels on the gifts of others. They could take a staff which aided in walking and was protection against wild animals. They could wear sandals but it was no extra tunic, no bread, no bag, no money. They were to be content with whoever would receive them and with whatever they would provide them.
Moreover, they were to expect to be rejected. You don't get that because the insert adds an "if" that isn't there. "And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you shake the dust off your feet when you leave." It really says, "And whatever place doesn't receive you nor hears you." Then what? They turn up the sells pitch? They argue them into the church? They use force to get them in? They call down the fires of judgment? Nope, they just shake the dust off their feet; they just leave DNA evidence that the Gospel had been there. The Gospel capable of driving out evil spirits, of healing sick sinners had been there, but they weren't interested.
Contrast how Jesus sent out the 12 with how an older pastor said I should go. When I got to Detroit, a pastor who had been a success there for almost 20 years, told me: "You get the biggest car you can afford; you have someone drive you around, and have good whiskey and cigars in the back. People respect power; they are drawn to success." They aren't drawn to needy people, are they? People in need say of food, of money, of shelter.
But how does a pastor come among you? He is dependent on you for every dime in his pocket. He isn't to get an outside job to supplement his income. There is no overtime for him. He can't make more by doing more preaching, teaching, or casting out devils. As long as he's among you, he and his family live from whatever you provide. Doesn't this just foster the idea that a pastor is an employee? He works for you. He does what you want him to do. The Scriptures don't say that, but I admit Jesus sending pastors out the way He does sure sets us up for that misunderstanding. So again I say is this anyway to build a church?
No, so those who grow them don't use these principles. In the successful ones, what the pastor is paid is lumped in to administrative expenses, so you can't know what he is actually making. The real successful ones know that in sales a salesman can't be content with "no." He can't walk away when he's not received or heard. He changes the pitch, tweaks the message. They're not buying deliverance from sin, death, and the devil, sell them deliverance from low self-esteem, fitness classes, and a devil may care attitude.
Ministers of the Gospel leave when they aren't received or heard. Luther said the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins was like a summer shower; once it passed over a place it didn't return. The prophet Amos predicted that in our day there would be a famine, not for food, but for the Word of God. You might not notice it because successful pastors talk about the Word, but they don't preach the Gospel. They tell you how to be a good steward, how to raise well adjusted kids, how to be happy in marriage, how to live the Christian life. They won't tell you that you are an ungodly sinner, and so they don't tell you Jesus came into the world to save the ungodly.
It's not necessarily that successful pastors don't know the Gospel; it's that they assume everyone does and it's a one and done thing. Got it; Jesus kept God's holy Law in my place and died on the cross for my not keeping it. Then the Father raised Him on the third day to show the world He accepted Jesus' holy life and guilty death as a substitute and atonement for them. That's the Gospel all right. They're not wrong about that. They're wrong in thinking it resides in the fallen heart.
Nope, as Paul says, "No good thing dwells within me." As Jeremiah says, "The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked." Unless the Gospel is regularly preached into our ears, it's not in us at all. And we will be content with that until the Law reawakens the need we have for the Gospel. But you don't get the Law from the worldly successful pastor; you get a doable law. You get instructions you think you can keep if you just try harder.
But what they do works. Jesus' way is no way to build a church. He sends the wrong people with the wrong message and hinders them as they go. Or did He? Read Luke 22:35: "Then Jesus asked them, When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?' Nothing,' they answered." After over 30 years as a sent pastor, I can say that too, and I can see what the 12 did.
Notice the text says they "drove out many demons" and healed people. The anointing with oil was medicinal not spiritual. The texts says that they were successful in doing two things driving out demons and healing sick people. These are works of God's power. This is God in His majesty. Demons can't stand in the presence of Deity. Sickness can't exist in the presence of the essence of health. See how differently the text speaks of their preaching.
"They went out and preached that people should repent." Where's the notice that 3,000 believed and were baptized? Where's the report that thousand or even hundreds or even dozens or even one repented? There is something of shock and awe in demons being cast out and the sick being healed, but there's neither in the ministry of the Word. There is no report that it was successful. When God commands a demon to go, it goes. When God commands sickness to go, it goes. When God commands sinners to repent and believe the Gospel, to come out from Satan's dungeon where their sins are keeping them, He can be rejected.
Notice how quickly the Church stopped recording the number who joined the church. It does it twice in Acts and then not again till Revelation where the Church is represented by 12 x 12 x 1,000, and the New Testament ministry is represented by just 2 who are killed and made fun of. Counting seemed like a good idea when the numbers were big, but then you get to Corinth or Galatia where the apostolic ministry was under attack and when it comes to numbers you hear crickets. Paul can't even remember in Corinth how many he baptized. All John says about numbers is that many false teachers have gone out from their churches.
The preaching of the Good News that Jesus has overcome the devils of unbelief, misbelief, and other great shame and vice can be rejected. So that's why successful growing churches don't lead with that. There are much more popular things to lead with and numerically growing churches do that. The best of them intend to get back to the Gospel of forgiveness for Jesus' sake, but a second place Gospel really isn't the "one thing needful," is it?
Preaching that people should repent is no way to grow a church. That's not what anyone, including myself, wants to hear. We want to hear "I'm okay; you're okay." We want to hear "God doesn't make junk." We want to hear we can have purpose driven lives. We want to hear we can make a difference in this world and the next. And we want to see the demons cast out and the sick healed.
But we only have the building tools our Lord left us. The 3 things He commanded His Church of every time and age to do: Baptize, Absolve, Commune. These don't build the church, small c, an institution, a building, something you can be proud of. They do build the Church, big C, the Body of Christ, but as you know the Body of Christ was rejected and crucified by this fallen world. It still is. Amen! That is yes, yes, it shall be so. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (20150719); Mark 6: 7-13