Encouragement to Endurance in the Midst of Congregational Trials

GRACE – MERCY – AND PEACE are Yours this day from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN.

If’ there’s one question I find myself asking on a regular basis, it’s “What on earth is God doing?” And as I look around and listen to others, I find them asking the same question. “What on earth is God doing?”

We look around and see death and destruction in the world. And even within our congregation, that place we think should be an oasis from the trials and struggles of life, we see trouble, strife, difficulty. Sometimes we just want to cry out, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”

We have a deep seated desire to live in that time talked about in our text from Revelation. We long for the coming day when we will experience and see that the dwelling place of God is with man, when He will dwell with us and we will be His people, and He is with us as our God.

But here and now, we experience life as one stress, one trial, one struggle after another.

We want our time at church to be a refuge – far away from the struggles and trials of this world. Here we want to feel safe and secure – to feel loved by our brothers and sisters. We want it to be a place where we come and are refreshed and at least for a time, made to forget the troubles and trials of life – or given the ability to cope.

Instead, we look around and life within these walls doesn’t necessarily look much different than the life outside. We see politics – the ugly side of people – backstabbing, gossip, slander, and we are tempted to judgmentally ask, “Is this really the church?” “Are these really God’s people?” – as if we’re really any better than anyone else here.

If we give wrong answers to these questions, we will be among those who transfer our membership, or worse, having already bounced from congregation to congregation and seeing strife and trouble at every turn, we will abandon the organized church and deceive ourselves into believing that we can separate ourselves from the vine.

If we look back at the beginning of the book of Revelation – where Christ Jesus Himself dictated letters to the seven churches – nowhere, do we hear the Lord Jesus commanding the members to flee. Rather, we hear admonitions to “hold fast to what you have,” to “strengthen what remains and is about to die,” and encouragement to patient endurance with the words, “hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”

Truth – be – told, we should not be surprised that many in the church, are blinded and confused by worldly thinking. We shouldn’t be shocked when worldly methodologies and worldly tactics infiltrate the congregations of the Church of God. After all, what it a Christian congregation, really, except a hospital for sinners.

When we consider our need for Jesus, we often point immediately to our need for a savior from sin. We have sinned, we have done what God forbids, we have not done what He commands. And, therefore, we stand guilty before Him – we owe Him a debt that we cannot repay. And so we need the “Jesus Card”.

But if we simply think Jesus died so we can swipe the FORGIVENESS card and go on our merry way – living to please ourselves and gratify our desires – continuing to love ourselves and deal wickedly with our neighbors and those around us, we deny Christ’s mission and purpose in the world.

The fact that we are all sinners doesn’t excuse our behavior. Misery loves company – and we’re often quick to say, “We’re all sinners…” “We all need Jesus….”. It is certainly good to recognize this reality. After all, God reveals to us that it’s true, we are all sinners – we do all need Jesus.

But Jesus came to accomplish much more than simply giving us a pass for our sinful behaviors and actions. He came not only to win forgiveness. He came to give us true life. He came not only to save us from everlasting death and eternity in the lake of fire, but He came to make us new creatures able to love and serve Him in this world even as we await the world to come.

“Behold, I make all things new” says the one seated on the throne. And that is what God is doing in the world. In this little while between Christ’s ascension and His return in glory, God is busy and active. He is working to make all things, including us, new.

Christ did not come to simply to pay our debts and wipe the slate clean. His life, death and resurrection was the means of implementing God’s full plan to make new all of creation including us. Not abandoning us to sin and its effects. Rather, God sent Christ as the means by which He would restore the world to the perfection that was before Adam plunged the entire cosmos into darkness, despair, and on a road to self-destruction.

Though the whole heavens and the whole earth will pass away – destroyed because of the corruption of sin in the world, God’s desire is to protect and preserve not just “humanity” in general – but people – all people – including you and me.

In our reading from Acts we see the surprise of Peter and the early church in His day that “also to the Gentiles, God has granted repentance.” And not merely repentance and forgiveness, but repentance “that leads to life.”

Jesus was sent into this world so that, ultimately, we would be restored to the perfection of Eden. He came so that we would be made worthy to inherit the new heavens and the new earth and the dwelling place of God would be among His people. So that He may walk among us just as He did with Adam and Eve in the garden. So that He can be with us and be our God. Christ Jesus did not simply die to save us FROM sin, but He came, suffered, died, was buried, rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven and He sends His Holy Spirit to make us new.

In order that He may be our God and we may be His people – He must make us new – He must regenerate us – make us different than we are. And that process is not without struggle and pain.

The struggle, strife and trouble we experience – especially the trial and strife we experience within the congregation is what happens when we and fellow sinners are being being made new. It is part of the outworking of His plan to REDEEM those who gather here. It is the inevitable conflict between the worldly passions and desires of the Old Adam within each of us and the new life that God gives, nurtures and strengthens within us through Word and Sacrament.

As God puts the Old Adam to death, he lashes out, he rebels.

The Old Adam – the inborn sinful nature that still exists within each us – does not want to drown and die in our baptismal waters – He wants to live! He still desires to rise up and take over the world in opposition to God.

And in times of weakness or confusion, we cast aside the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the new life He creates – and instead – we give into those sinful desires to lash out – to confront and combat those good things things God has graciously given. Instead of humbly submitting to the revealed will of God, we seek to usurp His rule and authority.

This is why we need to be made new – restored. Because left to ourselves, we would continue to walk that path of destruction.

“He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be His God and he will be my Son,” said God as He is seated upon the throne. This also points to the fact that as we live here and now, it is a struggle – both inside and outside the church.

It points to a reality that the church throughout the ages has known and lived in – we are the Church militant. We are in a battle – a conflict. And while that battle and conflict is more evident sometimes than it is at others, the church will never be free from conflict and strife until Christ returns.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we seek conflict or seek trouble. We needn’t seek it out, if we are faithful to the tasks God has given to us, it will find us. It was Jesus who said, “In this world you will have trouble, but behold, I have overcome the world.”

“In this world you WILL have trouble,” said our Lord. It wasn’t “might” it wasn’t “could” or “may”. It is an emphatic statement. You will have trouble.

Because a congregation exists in the world – even though it is not supposed to be of the world – this statement of Jesus applies to our life here and now as well.

Remember, the church is a hospital for sinners. A place for sinners to gather and receive from God mercy, grace, forgiveness and restoration. And anyplace that sinners gather, they are going to do what sinners do. They will sin.

This isn’t an excuse. In fact, it is something we must guard against. And, to be sure, a congregation that has more strife and struggle is not somehow a better congregation than one that has less.

But the fact is, if there is NO struggle and trial, if a congregation seems to be all peace and love – if there is not some measure of conflict – something is wrong. After all, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” And, St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.”

But a congregation that does not have some measure of conflict may be in more trouble than it realizes.

If you look at the congregations to which John writes, we see that strife and troubles are nothing new. The Lord commands St. John to write and warn them, He calls them to repent of their sins and not only receive from Him the forgiveness He freely bestows, but also to be made new – to live and walk in the ways that He has established for them – not according to their own whims and desires, but in a manner worthy of the calling with which they were called — to live as His disciples and followers in order that as individuals they may endure and as congregations, they may not die.

For, you see, the death of a congregation is not measured by a lack of membership or a lack of attendance. Those are worldly measures of health. But the health of a congregation is measured spiritually. And there are certain things that point to a congregation that languishes and struggles to stay alive.

If members don’t recognize their poverty of righteousness and don’t know and sense their great need – and if those that come through the doors of the church are not coming seeking and desiring to receive the forgiveness won by Christ and have it applied to their own sins, the congregation is in danger.

If there is no desire to hear Christ’s forgiveness, spoken by the one He sent and to have that forgiveness applied to you personally as He declares, I forgive you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, then the congregation is in danger.

Likewise, If there is a minimizing of the power of God’s Word to accomplish what He sends it to do and instead a reliance upon humanly devised techniques, a trust in sociology or psychology, or if there is more talk of what makes for good “style” and little or no talk about what the substance is and should be, then the church is in danger.

Or, If there is greater consideration given to the personal preferences of the congregation and its members in the rites and ceremonies of the church than is given to how best express unity and solidarity with millions of fellow believers throughout the world – showing forth in the outward forms of our worship that we share a common faith with the church of all time, then the church is in danger.

And if there is a move to scratch itching ears with self-help and pop-psychology in order to fill the pews instead of clearly preaching Christ and Him Crucified for the forgiveness of the real sins of the real sinners who enter the sanctuary, then the church is in grave danger.

So where do we go to receive strength and have our confusion and misunderstanding of God and His will dispelled? How do we conquer and overcome so that we may not be overtaken by the sinful nature and reject the Holy Spirit? How do we nourish and feed the new life that was bestowed upon us in our baptism so that we may inherit the eternal life promised in our text?

Our text in Acts says that “As Peter began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon” Cornelius and His family. God has connected His Spirit to His Word – specifically the Word of the Gospel that speaks of salvation and redemption in Christ. This is the word of repentance that leads to a new life given both to Jews and Gentiles.

It is that word that He attaches that word to Water and we have Baptism. Through that water, connected with the Word, He sends us the Holy Spirit and gives us a new birth. There, He makes us a new creation.

He attaches the Word to the bread and wine and through this He gives us His body and blood to eat and to drink – filling us with Himself to renew, refresh and restore us.

These are the means He uses to recreate His image within us – that image that was lost when Adam ate the forbidden fruit and made all His children enemies of God from their birth – until God acts to snatch us from death and hell.

And when he does act to rescue us – we aren’t taken immediately from this world. We are left in this world to be His instruments – through which He continues to work in this “in between” time – speaking His word and loving even those who have set themselves as our enemies and even enemies of Christ and His cross – so that God can work in and through us to make them new as we speak His Word and declare His mercy – as we bless those who curse us and love those that persecute us.

That is the path to overcoming and receiving the inheritance being prepared for us.

It was for this reason that Christ sent the Holy Spirit – to bring us into knowledge and truth – to transform our hearts and renew our minds to be like His – so that we stand up for the truth of God delivered once for all to the saints and live in this world, patiently enduring the trials and troubles we experience as we show forth His love and remain faithful to His Word by which He makes all things new,

And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and keep your Minds in Christ Jesus – and make you new – and bring you to inherit everlasting life through Him. AMEN.

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