Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
The Nativity of John the Baptist
June 24, 2012
There’s a question that keeps coming up that could be described as a nagging question. Not that that it’s necessarily annoying or even negative. Simply a question that keeps coming up, or hangs around there in the back of the mind. I’ve heard many people ask it over the years and have myself asked the question often over the years. It can be asked in various way but it’s along these lines: how do you grow the Church?
At the risk of being flippant, I would like to offer an equally simple answer: just add water. This answer may not be flippant at all. Oftentimes, the question that is asked is just as important as the reason for asking the question. When we want to know how to grow the church we so often look to things we can do. We look for ways we can change things in the church or add things or take away things. We look at what other churches are doing and wonder if we should imitate them. We think about how wonderful it would be to have more people and naturally we think about what we can do to make that happen.
We ask the question with good intent, but too often, out of context. When we’re asking how the Church grows we need to ask within the context of what the Church is and how it actually grows. The Gospel reading today is at the end of chapter 4 in Mark. The entire rest of the chapter is Jesus proclaiming parables of the Kingdom of God and the growth of the Kingdom, the Christian Church. Jesus is showing us that God grows His Church. It’s not what we need to do in order for the Church to grow. That’s a pretty big difference between the question of, how does God grow His Church, and the nagging question we so often ask of, how do we grow the Church?
God grows the Church. The point is not that we don’t do anything, though. The point is that when it comes to the Church growing, God grows His Church, it doesn’t grow by us changing things or adding things or removing things. Jesus’ parables of how the Church grows proclaim to us that there is a power that provides growth. There are no programs or activities we can do to make the Church grow. The power that provides growth in the Church is the Gospel. The Holy Spirit brings growth about in people through the Gospel.
When the Holy Spirit does this, guess what happens? The people of God serve and accomplish good works. While people do not become Christians through how nice we are to them, or by the amazing programs our congregation offers, or how friendly we are to them, or how much we help them in their needs, or any number of good and wonderful and godly things we do, these things certainly make an impact on people and are used by God in service of the proclamation of the Gospel. All of these things are wonderful and we should be doing them. When we think of how the Church grows, we think of things like this where we can make an impact on people. That’s why God has given us the ability to think and use reason and use common sense. People will more likely be open to us if we are considerate and kind to them.
As we do these things we shouldn’t do them to the exclusion of relying on the Gospel. Without the Gospel they are just a bunch of wonderful things we do that will serve to make people feel good without ever receiving what they ultimately need, which is forgiveness and life and salvation. We are truly loving others and truly helping them when we give them the Gospel. This is why Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the whole world, because He loves everyone. The way He truly loves us is by saving us from our sin. His salvation of the world has been accomplished, it is available to everyone. Before Jesus accomplished that salvation on the cross He spoke words of what being in that salvation is made of. When one has salvation he has life in which he grows.
When Jesus told all His parables of the Kingdom of God and the growth it has He then continued on with His ministry. On this particular occasion He got with His disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps in a way similar to the man He had told about in the parable of scattering the seed and then getting a good night of sleep each night while the seed did its work of growing in the earth, Jesus Himself had sown the seed of His Gospel by preaching and then Himself laid down in the boat and slept away. The Gospel was doing its work, growing in the hearts and minds of the people He had taught, even as He slept away, even as a storm was brewing out on the lake. The winds blew so heavily the water began crashing onto the boat, filling it up.
The response of the disciples may be a good picture of how we are when we wonder if we should do things differently in order to grow the Church. They woke Jesus up and said to Him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He must have been a heavy sleeper to sleep through the fierce storm. Or perhaps He was practicing what He had been preaching: getting the Gospel out and then relying on it to do its work. To them it just looked like He didn’t care whether they all drowned or not. In their question to Him there was a plea for help but it was couched in an accusation. Jesus, You have the power to save us from this, so why aren’t You? When it appears to us that the Church is not growing we have our own plea to God that He would help us grow, but with our question of how we grow the Church it’s couched in an accusation that it’s God’s fault that we’re not growing.
Jesus got up and spoke to the wind and the sea. He called out for peace. He commanded the wind and the sea to be still. On the one hand you have Jesus perfectly content sleeping through a storm that is about to take them all down. On the other hand you have Jesus standing before the forces of nature and speaking to them as if they are His children. In each case His word has done its work. Where He had proclaimed the Gospel through teaching parables He knew He could safely take a nap because that Gospel would do its work and cause growth in those who heard it. Now, where there were forces in nature that had no ears or minds or capacity for reason and ethics, He spoke His word again. There is immediate result, the wind and the waves stop. It is just as God spoke of it in the Old Testament reading for today: “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its waddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”
What does this tell us about God? It tells us He is the Creator. He brought into existence the wind and the sea. How He did it was by speaking these things into existence. His word is that powerful. It brings into being things that are not in existence. When God creates He also sustains. What He has created He has caused to grow. Even as He brought into existence things like the wind and the sea, He commands them at will, simply by speaking His word to them. They are His creation, they submit to Him and His word. So if they rise up in a furious storm that will overtake a boat carrying even Jesus Himself, they do so with the perfect knowledge of God Himself and by His allowing them to do so.
And maybe that was the point the disciples needed to get. They were in the boat, with Jesus. When the wind rose up and the waves rolled into the boat, instead of seeking deliverance from them, they simply should have realized they were in the boat with Jesus. If we think the Church isn’t growing, maybe instead we would realize that we’re in the boat with Jesus. Everything is going to be all right. Things are not nearly as bad as they seem. Whatever we think may be wrong with the Church, God is in perfect oversight over His creation and over His Kingdom., the Christian Church.
Perhaps the disciples even needed this Baptism of this furious storm. It served a similar purpose to a Baptism of fire. Just as fire purifies, water cleanses. If the disciples thought they were going to perish from the water overtaking them and that Jesus was going to be idly by sleeping, maybe they were right. That’s what happens in Baptism, after all. You perish. Your sinful flesh is drowned. If you don’t want that to happen, well, it’s pretty natural, isn’t it? It’s just as we confess our sins: we are by nature sinful and unclean. Kind of like the disciples in the boat about to drown, they were deathly afraid of that; in the same way your sinful flesh doesn’t want to be drowned in those waters of Baptism. They going to overtake you just as the waters flooding into that boat.
Jesus’ words struck home: Do you still have no faith? It’s true, we’re just like the disciples. Without Christ, without those cleansing waters of Baptism, of our own will and power, our sinful flesh, we have not faith. And we perish eternally because of it. That’s what we need to be saved from. And that’s why Jesus just adds water. He brings that torrent of water upon you so that your sinful flesh doesn’t stand a chance. Your sinful flesh will fight against it but Christ’s word is the last word. If He can tell the waters to be still, He can tell them to flood into your life through Baptism and cleanse you from your sin. It’s His Word that’s operative here. Just as He had been preaching in those parables of the Kingdom. If the disciples had been taking it to heart, they would have gone to Jesus in humility and trust rather than questioning and accusation.
Will we take the Gospel to heart? Will we trust that God is going to grow His Church according to His word and according to His ways? How much more of a blessing to rejoice in being in the boat. Let the waters come, when Christ’s word is behind it, there is only blessing, only growth. Amen.