Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

I was on retreat a couple months ago with the Presbytery of Northern Waters’ Council. We were discerning how presbytery should function in an unfamiliar world where the church is marginalized, our communities are shrinking, and technology gives access to the entertainment and information the church used to provide. Social institutions everywhere are changing, and all their numbers (nickels and noses) are down. All this means that we can’t do business as usual. Current trends will make it too expensive to have a full-time executive, to meet just because our bylaws call for a given committee, and so on. Our institutional forms spent most of the last century hardening, and they will have to spend this new century reshaping – or going away if they’re not needed. All of which sounds familiar, right? Local congregations are in the same boat as the presbytery as a whole.

In one exercise, we tried to evaluate our institutional landscape, our needs, and our resources. On the subject of strengths, my group came up with things like a strong work ethic, community spirit, that sort of thing. The other group led their list with “a saving faith in Jesus Christ.” And we all said, “oh, right!” Not that living this faith is as simple as saying it, but the life of the church is as simple as trusting it, living faithfully as Christ’s people. Note that Christ leads us faithfully into death before new life. The church – or any of us – may be called to die, but we’re promised life beyond the power of death. Come back next week to hear more about death, but I do think our fear of following Jesus into death motivates most bad church problem-solving.

From a distance, we know the bad solutions this fear leads us to. We recognize when a church (or a Christian) tries to imitate someone else’s success. For instance, American churches spent much of the ‘90s trying to become Willow Creek Community Church, outside of Chicago, with pop-style worship on Sunday and the “real church service” on Wednesday evening. Then many have spent the last decade trying to be Saddleback Church, with a straight-shooting teaching pastor and small groups to do discipleship and mission. Both of these churches have given some great gifts to the wider church – programs for service, discipleship, and mission – and we’re richer for them. But often, what we really find ourselves admiring is the idea of getting 20,000 people at worship. “They must be doing something right,” we say, and think maybe we could do that here. In these cases, we’re missing the first step: move to a wealthy, growing suburb, where you can get lots of people and their resources, if you meet their perceived needs.

The trouble is that imitating someone else’s church usually means that we’re measuring ourselves by the world’s standard of success: attendance, budget performance, and book sales. This decade’s version of the church to copy will be smaller scale. It requires that the pastor preach while wearing logo t-shirts and carrying an iPhone. The new numbers will measure an effective ministry by how many followers it has on Twitter. This shift will give a great gift to the church, too, especially in bottom-up ways of being the church, but many congregations and pastors will get lost in trying to become “hipper than thou.”

Paul and Jesus lay out another vision of success: the church as a boldly transformed community. Jesus asks his disciples who others say he is, but then he narrows it down to who we say Jesus is. That’s the more important question. Other people’s ideas matter, of course. They’re a great reality-check, if nothing else. But ultimately discipleship is about who we know Christ to be. The church is built on that knowledge, the presence of God, not the latest (or oldest) good ideas. Tradition, tools, and networking are great, but ultimately the church’s foundation is a deep immersion in the life of God who comes to us in the flesh.

Paul writes to a somewhat later church, one that knows some pressures to become what religious institutions often are: supports in service of the worldly powers that be. Paul’s call is to be free from every slavery and conformity so we can present ourselves (body and soul) to God’s service. Don’t tiptoe around because people might talk, just be God’s people anyway. We may have our differences with Paul, but he knows that a Christian life should be unique, marked by freedom and grace. We’re the church, not just any old group of people.

But then Paul takes a surprising turn, from boldness to humility. In principle, Paul’s self-identity looks overly bold. He says “to heck with others, just be faithful.” On a practical level, however, that identity gets real, and we ask how we can best live with each other? Following Paul, suddenly we’re not pounding each other with our ideas. We’re embracing one another, celebrating how we work together, serving and sharing with each other. He gives us this brilliant image of the body. We can’t and shouldn’t all be arms, legs, or noses, and yet we’re tied to each other for lively service.

Listening and understanding may not be Paul’s interpersonal strong suits, but he knows they’re vital Christian traits. Faith includes the ability to imagine that God is working in someone else too. Then we’re ready boldly do our part to serve each other and do what God blesses. Paul says, don’t worry about others’ expectations, just be the teacher, servant, giver, or helper God invites you to be. Sing your song, write your book, feed your guest, heal your neighbor. Don’t try to become someone else or their church, but trust in God to knit our wildly divergent gifts and ideas into something wonderful.

We see this in action all around us. Think of a lakeshore in the forest. Right there, each animal and plant does precisely what it does, boldly and unapologetically. Most of them do this without much reference to any grand vision, they’re just being themselves. But step outside for a moment and see the system as a whole, and there’s a remarkable shift. We find that life is unified, not something measured in terms of any one species. The whole thing adapts and balances according to intricate feedback loops that call forth just enough of each creature, overall. There’s something of God in this pattern that tends toward the most possible abundance. Not that God makes too big a fuss over it, of course. The power of life is given to each created plant and animal, and they – and we – share life together.

Jesus gives the power of life to the church, too. He talks about a power to welcome and forgive so profound that even heaven seems to answer to our graciousness. That’s what that odd “key” language is about, by the way: our forgiveness (or lack thereof) has deep significance in our transformed life. God seems to give up control over just how everything works, but is gently and silently present, guiding all things to their greatest life. This happens not because we get it right, but because we seek to live from our deepest truth.

The church truly grows by uniting, not by dividing. That’s who we know Christ to be, even if bringing people together doesn’t sell well in worldly terms. Jesus frees us from worries about expectations and status so we can do our own real work, even if that doesn’t seem like exactly what the church “needs” right now. God is in control of what we truly need, and God will call forth gifts in us to meet those needs and the needs of our communities. What I want to say is that your gifts have God’s power within them, and your sharing them boldly and generously is what this world needs.

Know what we really need? We need exactly what you have to offer. We need your voice of truth, your willing hands to serve, your wisdom to teach, your encouraging word, your leadership, your giving. The church needs it, but the world really needs it. Everything the church truly needs, we need for the sake of the world, to share it with others. Where are you being nudged right now? How can we share and support you in that? That’s especially what I feel called to right now as your pastor. In all the ways we’re gifted, let us serve boldly, humbly, and joyfully, and may God be praised in our unity.

Amen.

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