This is a transcript of Pastor Natsis’ sermon from Sunday, May 16th, 2021. To watch the video recording of the sermon, follow this link and jump to 32:45 in the video.
What does the future hold for the Christian church? We can’t really know, but it sure seems like a lot of people think they do. People are very worried about the future of the Church right now, and that worry might have found its way to you. Maybe you look around at society and see moral things that used to be universally understood as wrong now being touted as acceptable and right. Maybe you see the way people on the internet talk about Christians and even Christ and feel hurt. Maybe you look at statistics and read numbers that come out of polls or even from studies in our own little Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and you don’t come away from the data particularly encouraged. You may be aware of the high pastoral and teacher vacancy rate we’re experiencing across our own churches nationwide and wonder why the numbers of pastors and teachers seem to be so dire. When we look at what the future may hold for the Christian church, or the future of WELS, or maybe even the future of our own Rock of Ages, we may feel frightened or worried. There seems to be so much uncertainty. There certainly are a lot of Christians shouting from the rooftops about how this is the end, and a godless society is going to cause the Church to fall.
I’m not going to stand here and pretend that the statistics and the numbers and the studies and the cautions aren’t warranted. We definitely ought to be aware of the trends in the world right now when it comes to the Christian Church and our society. We definitely ought to do our own due diligence of studies and statistics for our own ministry here in Madison. What I want to make sure of, though, is that we put those trends and numbers and statistics and studies in their proper context. Let’s look at the context of God’s promises. Let’s look at the context of our God-given mission. Let’s look at the context of the greater history of the Christian Church. When we do that, when we properly contextualize the numbers and data across time and across the world, we see certain things that are constant and consistent: the grace of God, and the work of the Church.
To really get the full historical picture, we should go all the way back to the start of the Church as we know it. This is the final week of our series walking through the book of Acts, and we’re actually going to end at the beginning. Our gospel for today was the end of Luke’s gospel, when Jesus ascends into heaven and leaves the work of the Church to the members of the body. The book of Acts is also written by Luke, and it’s essentially a sequel to his gospel—in fact, the beginning of Acts is the same as the end of Luke. Acts 1:1-11 is the story of Christ’s ascension.
We may worry about what the future holds for the Christian Church now. For a moment, though, consider what kinds of worries the disciples might have had at the beginning of the book of Acts. The numbers, data, and statistics were probably looking pretty dire. Number of pastors? Twelve. Public scandals? Well, two of Jesus’ closest friends betrayed him in the span of just a few hours—one of them committed suicide, and the other is now one of the Church’s twelve pastors. Yikes. Trend of Church membership? Well, not too long ago, a majority of people in the city loudly shouted that the Church’s leader should be crucified, and the twelve pastors were meeting in locked rooms for fear of the Church’s enemies so…the trends maybe not encouraging. What about the iconic, charismatic leader and founder of the Church—who also happened to be the Son of God and Savior of the world? Well, he just ascended into heaven. He may have promised to be with the Church, but he’s not visible anymore. If you want to talk about people who were probably worried about the future and what was in store for the Christian Church…the disciples of Acts chapter 1 are a great case study.
But ultimately, that has always been a question. What does the future hold for the Church? In the entire history of the Church this has been something that could cause all sorts of worry. It’s not just in Acts chapter 1, but throughout the whole book of Acts, which represents a period of about 30 years, the Church had a number of struggles and seemed on several occasions like it might fold as quickly as it began. The Church was rocked by heresies and false teachings in the second, third, and fourth centuries that put it on what seemed to be a brink of extinction. Division rocked the church in an event known as the Great Schism, which is so important and so impactful on the Church that my high school history teacher made sure that it was one of the dates we had to know in order to pass the class, and as such I’ve never forgotten the year 1054. By the middle of the Millennium, the Western Church was so corrupt and so broken that the leaders of the Church were peddling forgiveness for money. We recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but there were many times when the Reformation was almost snuffed out like a candle before it could set anything ablaze—in fact, there were several attempted reforms before Luther’s that never got off the ground, and you don’t hear about them nearly as much because they weren’t successful. Even jumping into the 20th Century, and narrowing the scope to our own little corner of the Lutheran Church, 60 years ago people thought that the little Wisconsin Synod would die out and would never survive after a split with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
I hope this history lesson has been helpful to see that the question “What does the future hold for the Church?” is not a new thing we are asking. It’s an ever-present question. The trends and numbers and statistics and studies don’t look particularly encouraging right now, but…when have they ever?
You could look at the situation in the world today and you could become crippled with fear and worry. That is one response to what is out there. You could look into your own lives and question whether or not your witness has been worth it. You try inviting people to church and they just don’t come. The pastor is up here always telling you to bring people, and you’ve tried, but it just never seems to work, so now not only are you feeling discouraged by people not coming, but you’re feeling guilt-tripped by the pastor. All of these things could make you wonder “What does the future hold?” For Rock of Ages? For the WELS? For Lutheranism? For the Christian Church? That worry can beat us down.
When you feel that worry and anxiety about the Church at large and the church in your back yard, I want you to take a deep breath and do what Christians do: turn to God and see what he has to say. Listen to him speak to you through his Word. There, you’ll see stories like the one before us today, in which the Church is backed into a corner…and turns to God. When we turn to Acts chapter 1 and see the dovetailed re-telling of Ascension account, Jesus gives his disciples the mission, which becomes the theme of the entire book: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Christ may have visibly ascended into heaven, but when he left, he gave the Church workers. And he gave the Church work. He gave every single member of his body, the Church, each individually different work to be done according to their gifts. He calls workers for his Church. He calls the church to work. It’s not work to earn salvation or earn anything at all—it’s work to give other people the saving message of the truth, the truth of Jesus Christ that changed our lives and set us free. You and I have been bought by the blood of Jesus, the Son of God, and we have life in his name. Now that same Jesus, who made us his own, has made us his workers with a purpose and with a mission. Our purpose is to worship him in everything we do. Our mission is to spread the gospel individually and collectively. And all of it is because of what Jesus has done for us—and it’s possible because Jesus remains with us always, to the very end of the age.
What did the Church of Acts 1 do? When hope seemed lost and the trends looked dire? Motivated by Jesus’ love for them, they got to work. They set out to replace Judas’ leadership position. They prayed to God. They relied on his mercy and guidance. They followed his instruction—first waiting in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and then being the witnesses for Jesus in Jerusalem, and then Judea and Samaria, and then even to the ends of the earth. They called workers for the Church. And they, as the Church, got to work. Up to this point, Jesus had done all the calling. Now, Jesus has given the Church the authority to call, and the motivation to work.
Brothers and sisters, you are the Church. You are Rock of Ages. I’m your called worker, and all of us are called to work. I’ve done a lot of talking about how “the Church works,” and “the Church” does this and “the Church” does that. But I want you to train your brain—when you hear “the Church,” I want you to make sure that you understand that the Church is You. Rock of Ages is not a building—it is you. Rock of Ages is not an organization—it’s you. WELS is not a faceless corporation. It’s you. Christianity is not a nebulous concept. It’s you. Christ gave himself for his body, the Church—and that’s you. The Church has a purpose and a mission. That means you have a mission and a purpose. If you ever catch yourself thinking. “Well, Church usually does this,” or “Why hasn’t Church done that?” Ask yourself…who is “Church”? It’s you!
What are the requirements that the disciples put in place for the replacement of Judas? They weren’t looking for someone sinless, or someone perfect, or even someone with exact skillset of X and Y. The replacement Apostle had to have two things: to have been with Jesus from the start of his ministry, and he had to have seen the risen Christ. In other words, the two most important criteria for workers in the Church—which is everyone in the Church—is that they know Jesus and know what Jesus has done. When we know Jesus and know what he has done, we want to get to work. We want what has impacted us to impact others.
What does the future hold for the Church? We can’t answer that question exactly, but we know a few things. First of all, we know that God will continue to send workers into his field. Yesterday was Call Day at Martin Luther College, where a whole cohort of graduates were assigned to serve and teach in churches and schools across the country. This coming week is Call Day at the Seminary, where a cohort of graduates will be sent to pastor congregations who need them. Pray for your these new, young called workers; pray for this called worker; pray for all called workers. The second thing we know about the future of the Church is that Jesus is with us always, to the very end of the age. No matter how dire things are, Jesus is in control. No matter what the trends look like, he is behind us. No matter what the situation is, he still gives us purpose, and he still gives us a mission. What does the future hold for the Church—for us? As always, and right up to heaven, we know that what we have in store is the grace of God from age to age and from generation to generation until he returns to take us to be with him in heaven forever. That much is certain. So let’s get to work.