Texts: Luke 4:14-21 & 1 Corinthians 15:17-28, 54b-58 (look them up here in my favorite translation)
It doesn’t take much of a foray into the Christian literature or talking points to become clear on one thing: Churches really want members. I know it’s trite to say, but it is even more pervasive if you ever look at books aimed at pastors. Denominations and famous Christians are seemingly always talking about church growth and gaining new members, or else bemoaning the decline in church membership and participation that has hit basically all denominations in the U.S. and other Western developed nations. It’s easy to get caught up in this quagmire of statistics, comparing numbers with other churches, holding tightly to those membership rolls, and constantly worrying about how much each member or visitor can contribute to the offering plate.
Now, I don’t want to diminish the importance of things like keeping a balanced budget or getting people involved in the church. Both of those tasks are necessary in allowing the church to function at is best and do God’s work in the world. However…
The problem with these concerns is that they can just get so all-consuming. Especially for those who, like me, have the tendency to obsess over things, or whose minds race endlessly in bed at night worrying about everything instead of letting them fall asleep. We have a right to care about these logistics, because they do matter, but the degree to which we allow our concern to dictate our actions and decisions is often far more than is needed. When we spend our time with our noses in a budget and our minds on crunching numbers alone, the fact is that we miss out on a lot. Beyond the simple everyday joys of sunshine, a friendly smile, or a funny moment shared with a loved one, we miss out on something even bigger. We miss out on our miraculous God.
You see, all of that obsession with membership, or focus on financial obligation, makes us forget! We forget that God does not live in a spreadsheet. Jesus Christ is not confined to our church building. The Holy Spirit cannot be adequately expressed by some numbers on a page. When we think like this, we are committing the most human of all sins: deluding ourselves into self-reliance. We are forgetting that we are not alone in this universe. And not only that, but the God who created us—who called us at our baptism—who breathes life and strength into us every morning—is a God who takes delight in overturning human expectations!
What this means is that while church growth is wonderful, it is not the goal. The Holy Spirit’s work in this world is constant, and as ever-changing as the wind. While God is certainly building up and growing churches both here in rural Minnesota and throughout the world, that is not the sum total of what God is doing. More than just building up the church, the Holy Spirit is building the world. As Paul says in Romans 8, the whole Creation is groaning as if in labor as this entire world is being transformed into freedom and new life. And this is where we start to see a hint of the Gospel, a hint of that Good News upon which the entire church was built.
When it comes to the future of the church, or the question of membership or financial resources, or any other logistics-based discussion we tend to have within any congregation or Christian group, we have to start with the Gospel. Always. Without a gospel, we have nothing. We have no good news, no reason to be doing any of this in the first place. As Paul states in our second reading today, 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless.” He did not say, “If your church has less than 30 members, then your faith is worthless.” Or “If your budget is in the red, then your faith is worthless.” Those things do not matter in a cosmic sense, whereas Christ’s resurrection does. And indeed, the Resurrection is central to the Good News that we proclaim as Christians and as United Methodists.
If you ask me, the big question is this: “Why Christianity? Why bother being a Christian at all? What’s the point?” Or, in other words, “What is the hope upon which you stake your life?” This is the key, and this is where the Gospel comes in. If you don’t have Good News, then where does your hope come from? If your faith has no purpose, then why do you have it?
But if you do have an answer to these questions, then use it! And, while plenty of other religions in this world have many great things to offer, there are certain things that set Christianity apart. We have absolutely amazing, astounding, life-changing Good News to share with the world, and we have a Holy Spirit who is already blowing all over this earth inspiring people and bringing life into places of death and despair. We don’t need to worry about logistics, because this ministry is bigger than anything we could every plan or organize ourselves anyway! But as soon as we open ourselves up to following the Spirit’s call and proclaiming the Good News that has already changed our lives, God’s work will be done in our midst. It just might not look like we thought.
So what is this Good News? It all starts with Jesus Christ. No other religion proclaims an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator God who willingly and purposefully gave up all Divine power and knowledge in order to live as a humble, dirty, ordinary human being. We believe in God who, out of infinite love for a sinful humanity, volunteered—unbidden—to endure the indignities of human life and pain (in a time and place without indoor plumbing or developed medicine, keep in mind!). Not only that, but our omnipotent God chose to be born as a helpless infant child, of a teenage unwed mother, from a poor working-class family, in a rural town, in a country under military occupation by an invading imperial army. Could God have chosen any lower status with which to enter into our human world?
The reason this matters is that in his very being, Jesus Christ demonstrates a constant preference to always be on the side of the underdog, the unexpected, the lowly, and the needy. And all of us, along with all other human beings, all-too-often find ourselves in helpless, needy, problematic situations due to the sinful world in which we live and participate. But we can never, ever fall so low as to be beyond the loving reach of Jesus Christ—who even experienced the depths of physical and emotional suffering as he died a tortuous death on the cross. No matter what we’ve done, no matter how hopeless we feel, Jesus knows our pain and cares about us. The love of God through Jesus Christ is more powerful than even death itself.
But that’s not all! In his ministry, Jesus traveled the countryside proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. His very existence as God-made-flesh demonstrates God’s love beyond all bounds, but his preaching shows us something else just as powerful. Have you ever stopped to think about what the kingdom of God is? In my experience, at least, it’s one of those church-y phrases that we hear so often that it loses all meaning. We know that we talk about it, but what is it really? Listen to Jesus’ words once again from our Gospel reading today, the words with which he began his public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Because of the time and place in which Jesus chose to read these words, they should be seen as a sort of thesis statement of his entire ministry: the main point he wants everyone to understand as they witness everything else he says and does along the way.
And what is this main point? The Good News that Jesus describes here is truly a message of hope, especially for those for whom the world can feel most hopeless. God’s favor or grace is being showered on all people with abandon, but especially those whose situations are most dire: releasing prisoners from their bondage, healing those with ailments, reaching out to the poor, and bringing liberation to those who are oppressed. This is not the kind of message you can fit inside a box, and neither is it the kind of message that is confined to just to our hearts or spiritual lives. This message is real, it’s powerful, and it has legs. Jesus is telling us here that God has been watching out for us, and God is watching out for any and all who are downtrodden. And that those problems that we face in this world will not destroy us, for the Holy Spirit is already on the way to bring healing and liberation to all.
The rest of Jesus’ ministry is full of him modeling this kingdom life for all to see. He heals the sick, touches the untouchable, honors the lowly, shares bread with sinners, converses with children, and raises the dead. All the while, he speaks of loving our neighbors, of giving generously, of using our gifts to honor God. He preaches of the kingdom of God as a tiny seed that grows and grows far beyond what we could ever plan or imagine. He models a faith in God so deep that there is no occasion to worry about what to wear or even where to sleep at night. And then he walks willingly into the hands of the Roman soldiers who nail him to the cross for having dared to show allegiance to God over any human ruler. He is not concerned with practicality or risk management; he is concerned with following the Holy Spirit even into the unknown.
One might argue that in his life of teaching and preaching, Jesus isn’t all that special. After all, Christians do not have a monopoly on good deeds—far from it. He may be a great teacher and all, but some people don’t see the need to go all the way into the faith side of things. That is a valid point, and I, for one, am grateful for the multitudes of good people, dedicated charities, and passionate advocacy groups that minister to the needy and are not affiliated with Christianity. But, we must never forget that Jesus Christ is more than a great teacher. His greatest power, in fact, is not his teachings at all—great though they are. The power of Jesus Christ is his love—the very love of our all-powerful God. This love brought God into human form, and this love motivated Jesus to preach and live out the life-giving Good News of the kingdom of God. This love died on the cross for us and all people, and this love is with us in the deepest and darkest of moments of human misery. Others may try to change the world for humanitarian reasons, but they do not have what we have: an undying, unwavering hope in a God who will never leave our side and who will always come out on the side of life.
We know this because even after dying on the cross, Jesus is raised to new life! The Resurrection is the culmination of God’s constantly-present transformative power to bring life where there was none. Death itself has been defeated, and nothing can stand in the way of this transformation. We have already received this foretaste of the New Creation in which all wars will cease, there will be no more tears, and we all will stand at the banks of the river of the water of life. And now, with Christ ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit is upon the Church as the body of Christ here on earth to bring abundant life to the poor, to bring unfettered life to the captives, to bring technicolor life to the blind, and to bring peaceful life to the oppressed. It is not up to us—by God’s grace—but we have the astonishing privilege of not only receiving this promise for ourselves but also being a part of God’s ministry to all the world. As we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit’s mysterious presence, we will find that the fruits of new life we will witness are far beyond whatever we are able to actually sow. And there’s no need to try to keep a tally sheet; the fruit is rich and abundant!
Jesus Christ has changed my life. I’m not one of those people who hears God’s voice audibly speaking to them, but I am utterly convinced that God is here. I have seen the power with which Christ has transformed people’s lives, I have felt the mystery of having said things that didn’t seem to come from me, and I have witnessed—time and time again—the ways in which God has guided me through life on paths I never would have predicted or chosen for myself but that yield amazing things I could never even dream of.
For me, this is the Good News. When I think about the future of the church, this is what I think of. I think about how much I have personally felt and witnessed to the power of God’s transformation in my life, and I wait with bated breath to see how the Holy Spirit will move the church to bring that life-giving transformation to more and more people. It’s not about a church roster or budget or building or name. It’s not even about denominational loyalty (I have numerous close friends who are passionate clergy in several different denominations, including my husband!). But what really matters, what draws us all together as Christians, is that we follow Jesus Christ. We follow our ineffable, almighty God in feeble human flesh who brought us the greatest Good News of all: a love that is more powerful than death, that brings a peace that passes all understanding. Love wins, and in the end, no matter the journey, it ends with life. Amen.