A body of water with a mountain in the background

Following Jesus

ESPERANZA LUTHERAN CHURCH https://myesperanza.org

Pentecost 14A2023
Matthew 16:21-28

These days, we quite often ask the question: Why is the church rapidly declining as an institution? And maybe more importantly: What will bring new life to it? We might look to our neighbors who lead or belong to apparently thriving congregations and wonder: Can we do that? For we remember full churches, bursting Sunday school programs, and flush budgets. We understandably get caught up in nostalgia and view “back in the day” with fondness.

Me too. Growing up in small town Minnesota, a child of the 80s, my home congregation had two Sunday school classes for each grade level, 25 kids in my year’s confirmation class. We had Vacation Bible School programs with 200 kids, year-round children’s programming, and a vibrant, weekly high school Bible study. I taught Sunday school, accompanied the junior choir, led VBS music, and helped lead music at the Saturday night contemporary service. During Sunday morning worship, my family sat in the front, of course, but there were quite often so many people in church that they had to open the accordion door to the overflow area to make enough space to accommodate everyone. In many ways, my home congregation was incredibly successful. And while I don’t want to throw shade on that congregation, especially because my dad was the pastor and because the congregation includes many wonderful people, here’s the honest truth: I didn’t learn to follow Jesus through involvement in my home congregation. Nope. You may remember me sharing that I didn’t really care about God/faith/church until a life changing experience at age 16 outside of the church—when I sang in the Minnesota All-State Lutheran Choir. And even after that experience, my very favorite thing in the world had nothing to do with church at all. My very favorite thing in the world was National Honor Society led by my principal where we completed a multitude of service projects all year long.

Our questions about institutional church, its numerical decline and some churches’ apparent thriving, these questions are usually driven by our anxiety and fear. Which is understandable. Our culture is changing, and so is the church. It might be helpful to remember that the institutional church has changed many, many times throughout history. At its origin, the church was small, persecuted, and put its faith in motion like nobody’s business. Without church buildings or ordained pastors, people met in homes and practiced their faith by serving their neighbor, acts of great generosity, living in community, reading Paul’s letters, singing, and celebrating Holy Communion and Holy Baptism. The church thrived, spiritually, even though early Christians were stoned, crucified, and thrown to the lions. When Constantine became the emperor of the Roman Empire and made Christianity the religion of the state, the church expanded enormously, but the mark of faith was no longer how people lived in community with generosity and compassion but rather what they believed about God and their willingness to confess the creed. Fast forward to the Middle Ages and the time just prior to the Reformation: church attendance was perfunctory but essential to escape judgment. People did not even understand what was said in worship because it was in Latin. The Reformation let loose great diversity within the church, and the people of God began to be more involved in church leadership again. As Europeans settled the US, the people of God built churches, yes, but also universities and colleges, hospitals and nursing homes, and addressed poverty and disenfranchisement through social service organizations. Despite a lack of pastors and church infrastructure, the church thrived in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, following the industrial revolution, the birth of modern conveniences and suburbs, and especially the baby boom, the institutional church also boomed. Mainstream social norms led people back to church, all the way through the end of the 20th century. During this time, we built church buildings, tailored our church programs to meet the needs of church members, and flooded the church “market” with lots of products and programs with the help of well-staffed church bodies. This was the church of my childhood and the early years of Esperanza. Was the church successful? I don’t know, friends. History will show us more clearly, but I’m inclined to say no. At least not according to Jesus’ metric.

Today, Jesus tells his disciples he will go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day rise again. Horrified, Peter cries out, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But Jesus, surprisingly, does not agree. Jesus does not say: You know, you’re right. Dying is just not in my plans right now. Jesus does not revert course. Jesus does not stop doing the things that will get him killed. Instead, Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter is horrified by Jesus’ apparent failure as a messiah and, of course, his actual anticipated suffering and death. Jesus then adds insult to injury when he describes what it means to become his follower: that a person deny themself, take up their cross, follow Jesus, and lose their life for Jesus’ sake. To be a follower of Jesus is to do what Jesus does.

If the church measured its success according to Jesus’ metric—that it inspire and equip the people of God to do what Jesus does, we would have a church unafraid of death and failure, a church eager to serve and be generous, a church unwilling to leave anybody out, a church gracious and loving in real-time practice, and most of all, a church focused not on itself and its members but on the neighbor.

Ironically, now that the institutional church is close to death, I am deeply glad and profoundly hopeful. I pray our failure inspire us to follow Jesus. In following Jesus, I anticipate the route he’ll take us is not back to our glory days as those weren’t his glory days; they were just our glory days. Rather, I anticipate Jesus will lead us to look outward, to see our neighbors and their needs, to love God and one another as our highest priority. I anticipate following Jesus will involve the death of some things, maybe even things we hold dear, because they are getting in the way of Jesus’ call for us. But just as new life followed death for Jesus, so too he tells us today: Those who want to save their life—and their church—will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. When we give up our own life, we will find the life Jesus has for us. And we can trust it’s gonna be way better than anything we could have imagined for ourselves. For that, we can proclaim: Thanks be to God! Amen.