Sunday, February 04, 2018

Epiphany 5 - Growing the Church is Not Our Work

Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

So, I don’t think Jesus ever attended any workshops or seminars on church growth. Here he is, in the city of Capernaum, a major economic focus for the Sea of Galilee area, and everyone is coming to see him, “the whole city,” as the Gospel says. He’s healing people, he’s getting his message out, he’s drawing in the crowds, and they’re telling their friends, but the next morning, when Simon Peter comes to get him, to return to the city and continue the excitement of the night before, Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns.” Essentially, “Let’s get out of here, and go somewhere smaller, where there are fewer people, who don’t know me.” With all due respect to Jesus, I’m pretty sure that’s is not the way to build a movement. When you’ve got all of Calgary at your doorstep, you don’t leave for Vulcan. Jesus wants to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, and he told Simon Peter and Andrew that he was going to make them fish for people, but I have to wonder about his methods. I’m not sure he gets this whole growth thing.

Simon Peter and Andrew, on the other hand, do. Their response to his middle-of-the-night absence is to say to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” I can just imagine it, the whole city of people, searching down every alley and in every house, not even waiting for the sun to come up to be with him again. Now that’s popularity! From Simon’s perspective, that’s like the fish jumping right into the boat! When everyone is actually looking for Jesus, growing the kingdom of God is like shooting fish in a barrel. No work necessary! If you’re looking to turn all of Israel back to God––which is what “repent” means––then it makes total sense for Jesus to go back to the people of Capernaum. Simon Peter seems to get this whole church growth thing. He knows the mission, he’s following the program––get more people in, proclaim the message, grow the kingdom.

So why doesn’t Jesus get with the program? Why does he keep heading away from the crowds and into the places with fewer people? Is he an introvert? Does he have social anxiety? As someone who is both an introvert and gets social anxiety sometimes, I totally get that. But this is Jesus. There must be something else going on.

There are a few particular verses in our readings for today that may offer us some insight. The first comes from our psalm. The Lord’s “delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner.” And the second comes from the first letter to the Corinthians, when Paul says that his reward is to proclaim “the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” The first verse tells us that God doesn’t care about strength or speed as much as we do; God is not interested in the same markers of success that we are. The second verse tells us that Paul does not proclaim the Gospel for personal gain or success. 

Taken together, these verses tell us that God doesn’t see growing the kingdom the same way we do. We tend to focus on numbers. We celebrate that a church has reached its 50th anniversary, or its 100th, or that a denomination has reached 500 years. We celebrate when church attendance has reached two hundred, or wonder, with envy, about those congregations that have a thousand members. We send people off to church-growth seminars, and follow the latest trend in “programs that reach people,” or set up ministries with the hope that they’ll bring people into the pews. We’re ashamed when attendance drops or a church closes. 
But God seems profoundly uninterested in these things. God doesn’t care about strength or speed, and God doesn’t seem to care about numbers or being popular. God doesn’t care whether the proclamation of the Gospel, the sharing of the Good News, the testimony of God’s love for the world brings in the crowds. God doesn’t care whether Jesus is proclaiming to the biggest crowds, or whether churches are growing in attendance. The numbers we value are of no significance to God.

What God does care about is that people know how much God loves them. Our reading from Isaiah tells us that God, who is so vast that we are grasshoppers in comparison, who is so powerful that princes and rulers wither like grass in a drought, who is everlasting and infinite, pays attention to those who are weak, and tired, and powerless. This God notices when we are struggling and gives us strength to carry on. This God sees you when your heart is broken and sends you healing. This God lifts up the downtrodden, and takes care of the animals and the birds. God cares about those who are most in need, and God moves to help them. 

God is the one who grows the kingdom, through healing and love; not us, through our programs or metrics. It’s really that simple. It is God who gives us wings to fly, God who brings the crowds to seek Jesus, and God who makes Simon Peter and Andrew fish for people. It is God, through Jesus Christ, who makes Paul’s proclamation successful, which is why he claims no reward of his own for it. 

God does it by endowing proclamations of love with the power of the Holy Spirit. Remember, Luther’s Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength, I cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as she calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian Church.” We might as well say, “I believe that by our own programs or efforts, we cannot grow the Kingdom of God, but instead the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and enlightens people to hear the Good News.” You, yourself, are here this morning because the Holy Spirit has brought you so that you might hear words of God’s love for you. God doesn’t require big cities, or large crowds, or popular, charismatic preachers in order to be effective in reaching people, nor are those things evidence of God’s work in the world.

The growth of the kingdom of God is not about measurable gains or successes, but about people experiencing God’s care for them. And that means that when people are touched by God’s words of love, it has very little to do with our efforts to be successful; when people are drawn to seek Jesus, it’s not because he provides good child-care, or has a family-friendly program, but because God sees that they need healing and draws them in. The growth of Christians under Paul’s guidance had nothing to do with having contemporary music or a traditional liturgy, or keeping the youth involved, or starting small groups, but with God using Paul to proclaim that Christ brings new life. Not that these programs are bad things, but they will never replace the healing power of God’s love for us.

The success of God’s kingdom is not up to us, and it is not due to us. Our task is not to make it grow, which, frankly, is a burden that none of us are strong enough to bear, nor do we even know what “success” looks like. Instead, our task, if we can even call it that, is to hear God’s love for us and to live in that love. To trust in that love. Our psalm says, “the Lord takes pleasure ... in those who trust in God’s steadfast love.” That’s all we do. And if, out of love, we are moved to praise the Lord and to proclaim to others the miraculous, wonderful gift of love that we’ve received, so that others might also experience this healing love, great! Share the good news! Not as a burden, though, nor with any self-assigned expectation of success; none of us are the Holy Spirit. That power rests with God alone, and so we are free to let go of our own efforts at success and trust that God will handle the growth business as God sees fit, just as God always has. “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power,” the One who brings about all good things. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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