Then the same day at evening,
being the first day of the week,
when the doors were shut
where the disciples were assembled
for fear of the Jews,
came Jesus and stood in the midst,
and saith unto them,
Peace be unto you.
And when he had so said,
he shewed unto them his hands and his side.
Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.
Then said Jesus to them again,
Peace be unto you:
as my Father hath sent me,
even so send I you.
And when he had said this,
he breathed on them,
and saith unto them,
Receive ye the Holy Ghost:
Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them;
and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.
I think it is easy in our day for churches to forget why they are sent, and what they are sent to do. To step back for a moment and examine the churches around us in our communities, nation, and world, is to see a profusion of mission statements, doctrinal convictions, political posturing, and merchandizing. Some fellowships sell their members books and services, including coffee, pastries, and trinkets in the fellowship hall, or perhaps online through a virtual marketplace. Some offer child care and youth programs for every age and every persuasion, while others might offer a dizzying array of adult programs that focus on whatever categories appeal to various ages and professions of adults. Some organize marches for social justice, and recently have lent their hands and defense to violent mobs who burned down cities. Some feed into specific political parties to see their doctrinal ambitions turned into law, and reflexively turn political policy into their doctrine preached from their pulpits. Some are primarily focused on feeding the poor in Haiti or Ghana or another far flung place, while some are focused on the homeless and hungry on their own city streets. Some hock get-rich quick schemes (just send the leader a dollar and God will send you two…) which only seem to enrich the people at the top of the pyramid, while the poor keep piously shouting out bumper sticker theology slogans and shelling out their regular contributions. If these fellowships are even remotely Christian beyond some historical or linguistic tie to Christians who formed them generations ago, they must retain some element of Biblical fidelity and the Gospel of Jesus. However, many of these fellowships are little more than social clubs of various sizes and demographics, and Scripture takes a distant back seat to any other mission focus that happens to capture the current leadership’s attention.
Is it any wonder so many people in our time and place have grown dismissive of the “institutional church”? When so many church fellowships have adopted mission statements that make them pale shadows of other worldly associations, what interest is that to any thinking person? If you really want to influence politics, you can join a political group; if you want wealth and prosperity, you can learn a trade, work hard, build a business, and join the chamber of commerce or the Rotary Club; if you want to feed the hungry, you can send your money to a host of charities or government institutions who do that for a living; if you want child care and programs and hobby groups, you can buy them or join them at will. Civic institutions and associations which gather for all kinds of reasons, some better than others, tend to be a lot better at doing their mission, because they know what their primary mission is. Your local Elks Club, or biker club, or Good Will, or Habitat for Humanity, or American Legion, or thousands of other variants do their thing, and do it pretty well. If the Church is trying to compete at being a better civic or social club than what’s out there, it’s going to lose… and in point of fact, fellowships that are trying to do so, have been losing members and general respect of the population for decades. The brass tacks of the analysis that our generation has awoken to, is that if churches are no more than weak echoes of these secular clubs and associations, they are not worth anyone’s time, effort, or money.
Fortunately, Jesus didn’t establish His Church to be a vapid, distracted, self-righteous, ridiculous caricature of worldly associations. Rather, Jesus sent His disciples just as the Father had sent Him. That’s a point that needs to sink into our modern church fellowships, and sink in deep. Jesus didn’t build a single house or sign a single political petition to house and feed the poor… and when He did miraculously feed the poor after preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins to them, often the people forgot the message and just clamored for more food, until Jesus had to leave them behind. Jesus spent no time trying to influence the political structure of Jerusalem, Israel, or Rome. Jesus didn’t sell a single trinket or bauble, nor build any pyramid schemes to dupe people out of their money. Jesus didn’t create an international supply chain to send food and medicine to distant lands, nor promise that if people just gave their money to Him and His ministry, God would bless them in return with more material wealth through some cosmic money printing service. What He did do, however, is something no earthly association could accomplish: He sacrificed Himself for the sins of the world, rose again from the dead, and gave to His Church a mission to preach the Gospel, make disciples of Jesus by teaching and baptizing, and declare the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to all who would repent and believe in Him. The converse was also true, that the Church would proclaim the Law of condemnation which threatened the eternal destiny of all people apart from faith and repentance in Christ. These are the Keys of the Kingdom Jesus referred to in Matthew’s Gospel, and which John describes Jesus clearly giving to His disciples on that first Easter Sunday after He won them through His Cross.
What the Church has been given, is something that no other human institution on earth can do: preach with power and authority the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation from sin, death, hell, and the power of the devil, all by grace through faith in Jesus. Sin and death are plainly written in the faces, hearts, and minds of all people, and so all people need this Gospel of grace—all people need Jesus. All people need to hear the Word of the Lord which endures forever, which tells them where they came from, where they are going, and what God has done for them. All people need to be born again from above by Water and Spirit, that they might walk in a new life that never ends, and which persists forever beyond the shadows of an earthly grave, destined to rise again in glory on the Last Day, just as Jesus rose again that first Easter.
When the church tries to be a day care, a civic club, a public charity, or a political action committee, it trades eternal blessings for worldly vanities, rightly inheriting world derision. The power and perseverance of the Church resides not in her good works, but in the Word and Spirit which gives her life and mission, which reaches into the darkest recesses of the human soul with the light of God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy, all given freely through Jesus. There is no parallel to this in all the world, or across all human history, because mankind cannot save itself, no matter how hard it works in delusions of grandeur toward such aims. Only the love and mercy of God tames human passions twisted toward the destruction of self and neighbor, and empowers those who are born again to love others as they have been loved by Jesus. And only the Church has been given this awesome power, to proclaim freedom to the captives who sit in darkness, and to speak the saving Word of Jesus to all who will repent and believe in Him.
This Easter, may the Christian fellowships gathered everywhere remember the power of what they are given, and the mission they are sent to accomplish. There is no other effort, regardless of how noble or useful it may seem, which rises to the majesty and imperative of preaching Christ Crucified for the sins of the world, of declaring the forgiveness of sins to all who turn and believe, and warning all of the eternal Judgment which awaits those who refuse God’s grace. This is a mission cast in Word and Sacrament, where the power comes not from the works of men, but from the Spirit of the Living God who established such means in our world for the salvation of sinners, reconciled to the Father by the Blood of the Son. Let the Church of Jesus Christ shed her soiled and sodden linens of worldly manufacture, and return to the robes of righteousness and grace which only Jesus can provide. For as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus has sent us—and there is no power in heaven, or earth, or under the earth, which can stand against the Word and Spirit of God. Amen.