Beckett: Sermon – Success in the Church

Date: July 2, 2022
Festival: 4th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 10:1-20
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Appointed Scriptures: Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18; Luke 10:1-20
Sermon Hymn: LSB #521 Christ, the Lord of Hosts, Unshaken

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Sending of the 72

After warning His disciples about the cost of following Him, our Lord sends out 72 of them to reap the harvest of God’s kingdom by proclaiming that it is near, by healing people, and driving out demons in His name. When He called His first disciples, He promised He would make them “catchers of men” [5:10]. Now He is sending them out to do just that. He sends Simon and his fishing partners to reap the harvest—to catch people by proclaiming the kingdom of God. Eventually, He would commission His disciples to go to all nations to continue His missionary agenda [Matthew 28:18-20].

Back in Luke 4[:16-30], when Jesus visited His hometown Nazareth, He read from the scroll of Isaiah 61[:1-2] that prophesied of the Christ who would proclaim Good News to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captives, and recover the sight of the blind. Jesus’ ministry of healing—and the healing and exorcisms He is now sending out His disciples to do—stand as evidence that He is the promised Christ whom the Prophets foretold up to the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptiser. As Jesus said to the people of Capernaum, “I must preach the Good News of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” [4:43], and He now commissions His disciples to go into the harvest.

And the harvest is ripe for reaping, but the labourers are few. Seventy-two is a pretty big number, but still, it is too few. “Therefore, “Jesus tells them, “pray earnestly for the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into the harvest” [10:2]. Thus, He gives them instructions on how to engage with those welcoming them and those who would reject them, and by extension of this, welcoming or rejecting Jesus. They would continue this ministry after Christ’s ascension, and come the Day of Pentecost, they would baptise 3,000 new members into Christ’s church. Three thousand is no small feat for one day, but still, the harvest is plentiful. There are more souls ripe for harvesting.

The Sending of Our Pastors & Church Workers

Some 2,000 years since then, the harvest is still plentiful, and the labourers are still few. This past April, we just celebrated 175 years of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, although Lutherans have been in America for much longer than that. As our Bishop Matthew Harrison recently reported in this past April’s issue of The Lutheran Witness, we have just under 6,000 congregations with about 5,700 pastors. As you can see, we need a few hundred more pastors, but we also need other church workers such as deaconesses, Directors of Christian Education, Lutheran teachers, parish music directors, and other positions to keep our Lutheran schools running and assist in the function of these congregations. The demand is high, but the supply is low. The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.

That the harvest is plentiful with so few labourers raises the question, “How do we send out more labourers?” Well, the first thing you do, as Jesus says, is praying earnestly for the Lord to send His labourers into His harvest [v. 2]. In your prayers, recognise that though we may labour in the harvest of His kingdom, it is nevertheless the Lord’s work; He is in control. The second thing you do is rather simple: Catechise your children; raise them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, just as the Apostle Paul commands fathers to do as the head of the house hold [Ephesians 6:4]. The third thing you do is encourage youth and college students to think about going into church work. For those who manifest the aptitude and character for it, you encourage young men to think about becoming a pastor. You also encourage both young men and women to consider other church work. Simply visit any of the websites in our Concordia University System.

And fourth, there is you. The work of the kingdom is not only left to our ordained pastors and commissioned church workers; you also have roles to play as lay people. Consider what we do here at Zion and the chapel. Is there a way for you to help with the preschool? Can you use your skills and talents to serve on any one of our boards? Is there a youth you can mentor? Can you volunteer your time at VBS next week, even if it’s just for one or two days? Maybe think about being an usher to welcome new visitors and assist our regularly attending members. Think about visiting our shut-in members and volunteering to drive them to church whenever they’re able.

Talk to Deaconess Anne about how you might be able to help the international student ministry, like being a conversation partner, or sitting with them during worship and helping them go through the order of our service. Consider also how you might be able to serve our college students at the chapel. Think about providing for our Monday lunches. Have lunch with them and get to know them and see if they need help with anything. Come to our chapel events. Offer any resources you might have to assist our student ministry. The list is virtually endless where you can assist your pastors and commissioned workers in reaping the harvest of the kingdom.

And as we consider and do these things, we tend to formulate our own ideas of what successful ministry looks like. Remember that ultimately, this is Christ’s church; this is Christ’s kingdom. When the 72 disciples returned with joy in their ministries, note that Jesus exhorts them not to rejoice in the authority He gave them to tread on serpents and scorpions, that is demons, and the success this gave them in their ministries, but to rejoice that their names are written in Heaven. Christ may send out His labourers to do work in the field, but it is His work, and the goal is that He saves souls, not how affluent our ministries are.

So, here’s an encouraging statistic where the Holy Spirit has worked: in 2020 it was reported that we currently have over 1.8 million baptised members in our church body. That’s a lot of people! And that’s presumably 1.8 million names written in the Book of Life! And there is substantially more than that when we consider the entire history of the church! But of that 1.8 million, we only have just over 669,000 in average worship attendance, which is less than half a percent of our baptised members (about 0.36% if you want the number). These declining numbers put many small congregations into a survivalist mentality and talk of this decline scares us, so the rest of us form an “IfWeCanJust” mentality [see Fisk in bibliography, pp. 147-184]. “If we can just do this programme or this worship style, then we will finally see our membership increase, or have more youth in the church,” or whatever it is.

We might call these things fellowship, or discipleship, small groups, or strategic planning, but really it is just worship of covetousness. It stops being about what Christ is doing and becomes what we must do to survive, or be relevant, because we want to be popular more than we want to be faithful. But we don’t need to fight to survive because the church is the Bride of Christ depicted in Revelation who celebrates at the marriage feast of the Lamb [Revelation 19:6-9]! So, guess what? We survive to the end! because Christ gives us the victory.

And we don’t need to fight to stay relevant because the Gospel of Christ that offers repentance for the forgiveness of sins is always relevant in a culture rampant in sin. This is Christ’s church, and He is always in control even when the rest of the world around us is losing it. The foundation of the Prophets and the Apostles is built on Christ the cornerstone [Ephesians 2:20], and He cannot be broken, no matter how much the world rages against His church and vandalises church properties in their temper tantrums—because He is God; not even Death could defeat Him, so what can mere mortal men do? He is the God who is the cornerstone of our church here in Mt. Pleasant.

The Gospel

Here at Zion, we have the best preschool in the world, we have a great college and international ministry that are just ripe for preaching the Gospel, and we are currently endeavouring to hire or call a full-time parish music director. Consider how you can aid in these things. Yet as great as these things are in advancing the kingdom of God, our success is not in these auxiliary ministries, and it is certainly not in the numbers. Our success is in Christ, who has written your name in the Book of Life. The success of a church is not that its people and its buildings exist into perpetuity; the success of the church is that the names of her people are written in Heaven, which remains unchanged even should a church find that its doors become permanently closed.

When the leaders in our synod talk about the statistics of our membership, they often focus only on that declining number of average worship attendance in our parishes as well as those permanently closing their doors. There is a place for lament, of course, but Christ’s church is a kingdom, not a business. Businesses sell things for a profit; kingdoms conquer. And it is Christ’s kingdom, not ours. His kingdom has conquered, sin, death, and hell for you. The church always succeeds because Christ’s success is in His resurrection, which He shares with you in your Baptism where you were brought into His kingdom—His kingdom where your enemies sin, death, and the devil lay dead in the battlefield.

So, if we keep trying to build our own little kingdoms with our “IfWeCanJust” mentalities, then we will find that our ministries won’t succeed because the kingdoms we build with our egos as its foundation are fragile and transient. But God’s kingdom, which is built on Christ the Word made flesh, is eternal—or as we conclude in the Lord’s Prayer, His power and glory. His Word is efficacious, meaning it never fails to produce the desired effect that God speaks. God used words to create everything! Seriously think about that! By simply speaking, everything that exists—even you—came from nothing! So, when you hear Christ’s words that your sins are forgiven—that you are a saved and redeemed child of God—it happens in your hearing it!

This is why Jesus says to His disciples, “The one who hears you hears Me, the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” [v. 16], meaning God the Father. Christ’s disciples, pastors, and church workers may be the ones speaking Christ’s Word, but it does what His Word says it does because it is Christ’s Word, not ours.

Our Lord Christ has called me and Pastor Bakker to be the harvesters of this field in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. When you hear us speak to you in the Word and Sacraments, you are hearing Christ, and you are hearing the Word of God the Father because they are His words and sacraments. Earlier in the service, you heard the words of Absolution. After you confessed your sins, one of your pastors said to you, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you your sins” [LSB p. 167]. This forgiveness you heard and received was not his, but Christ’s. Just as Christ sent His disciples to proclaim the kingdom and heal many by His authority, so Christ has sent you two pastors to forgive you your sins by His authority.

Similarly, to reiterate, you have been baptised. And as the words of our Small Catechism say, it is “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water [that] does these things…” Christ has given your pastors authority to wash away your sins and receive the inheritance of eternal life as sons of God, but it was not your pastor who made you a child of God but God the Father who adopted you as His sons and daughters [Galatians 4:4-7].

And Christ has also given your pastors authority to feed you bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper that are not simply bread and wine but, again from our Small Catechism, “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine” for the “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.” It is “not just eating and drinking [that] do these things, but the words [of Christ] written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.'” Your pastor speaks the Words of Institution, which are the words of Christ Himself, and the Lord does His mysterious and unfathomable work of making simple bread and wine His body and blood as the antidote to all your sins. These means of grace are the work of His kingdom to set the captive free from their sins.

Rejoice, therefore, that your names have been written in Heaven! For Christ, the Author of your salvation, has written your name in the Book of Life Himself, which shall be published at the inauguration of His kingdom when He returns in glory.

Until our Lord comes and reads your names from the Book of Life, may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Bibliography

Fisk, Jonathan, Broken: 7 “Christian” Rules That Every Christian Ought to Break as Often as Possible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012.

Harrison, Matthew C. “Only Jesus.” The Lutheran Witness 141, no 4 (April 2022): 4-5.

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