Christ for His Growing Church
Since Trinity is hosting this ACELC conference, I, as Trinity's pastor, selected the themes for the services, recruited the preachers, and gave them their choice of theme. Being host I took the remaining one. None of the brothers took "Christ for His Growing Church." I wonder why?
Acts 2: 41-47 has it all. It has Word and Sacrament. "Those who accepted his message," it's literally "received the Word of him," "were baptized," and there's the Sacrament. You have the "apostles' teaching"- there's the Word, and "the breaking of bread" which we're allowed, according to our Confessions, to say is the Sacrament (AP, XXII, 7). On top of this, you even have formal worship mentioned. "They devoted themselves" not only to the apostolic doctrine and the Lord's Supper but literally to "the prayers." What text could be more suitable to preach on at a worship conference?
So what's the problem? Every single pastor here knows. It's numbers. "About 3,000 were added to their number that day." Yeah, that's been my experience. Not hardly. In fact, I don't know anytime in the rest of church history apart from the First and Second Great Awakenings and the later revivals that have numbers approaching this. And those looking for those kinds of numbers adopt their kind of methods. And we who don't want to use the popular methods are accused of not wanting the numbers. Would to God that I had those numbers. Would to God that I wasn't afraid of numbers.
Even if brother pastors won't admit it, most of them are too. In the logbook of my sermons, in the early years, I put attendance numbers. Long before there were smiley faces made with key strokes or bouncing yellow ones made by clicks, you'll find my handwritten happy ones next to "good" numbers and sad ones next to "bad." How sad on both counts, but I'm not confessing just my own sins.
In the mid-90s in the New Orleans area, 3 or 4 of us LCMS pastors were having a farewell beer with a departing brother. 1 or 2 of us had collars on. Two Bible-toting Pentecostals entered the restaurant. It was not long before they were on us. They were from the local mega-church. We 4 soldiers of the cross held are own when challenged about casting out demons, the power of the Holy Spirit, and even walking on water. But then one of them asked, "So how big are your churches?" We all looked down; we all cleared our throat; we mewled apologetic answers, and only the grace of God prevented us from peeing our pants.
It's even worse when our own Districts and Synod do this to us using the Book of Acts and numbers in general. You know the line. Jesus counted numbers; how else did he know 1 of the 99 was missing? We counter with broad path, big numbers, narrow door few. But why are 3,000 mentioned in our text and 5,000 later, if Acts doesn't wish to be about numbers?
I think those numbers are recorded to show that the Word of the Lord grew despite the acts of the apostles, a point I find immensely comforting. Acts is commonly called the Acts of the Apostles, but if you read the first line of Acts, Luke tells Theophilus that his gospel was "about all that Jesus began to do and teach." This makes Acts what Jesus continued to do through His Church once He ascended. What Jesus did was grow it despite the apostles. Follow me.
After the report of the Word gathering 3,000 souls, Luke tells us everyone else was filled not with reverential awe but just plain old fear. And this is a big point for Luke. Though not translated, Luke introduces this fear the same way he does the Christmas Gospel, "And it came to pass every soul was afraid." Wonders and signs were meant to draw people to the Word not put them in fear. Luke has those outside the church in fear and those inside it in communism. You are turning a deaf ear if you don't hear the communist mantra here: "From each according to his ability to each according to his need."
Yet, Luke reports things are just hunky-dory for the church. Every day they continued to meet in the Temple, and had distinctly Christian services in their homes. They were together "with glad and sincere hearts praising God and enjoying the favor literally grace before all the people." Rather than the people outside the church enjoying the grace of God through the acts of the apostles, the apostolic church was enjoying grace from them.
Our text concludes, "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." Two things: If the particle here is translated "but" as it can be, it further shows my point. The apostolic church had the people in fear, were practicing communism, and had grace from outsiders, "but the Lord added to their number" anyway.
Second this translation, leaves out what the Spirit emphasizes by putting it last in the sentence. "At the same place," the Spirit was doing this. Go back to the passage about budding communism. Again most English translations leave out "at the same place." "And all those who believed were "at the same place" and had everything in common." If you jump to Acts 2:1 where this event begins you find the same construction: "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together at the same place."
You know how much it's going to take to finally get the Church to move from this place. Though Jesus had commanded they go as soon as the promised Spirit came, they didn't. The apostles didn't even leave when the persecution started with Stephen. Acts 8 tells us, "On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria." Despite being a separatist group distinguished from the people; despite causing fear among the people, "the Lord was adding to them each day at the same place those being saved."
Why? Because Christ is always for His Church. Remember how protective you were of your bride? Remember how nothing was too good, too special, too much to ask from you to provide and protect her? Paul says he's really talking about Jesus and His Church when he speaks about how husbands and wives relate. Go from what you know about your early married life to get in touch with how Jesus' always provides and protects His Church.
When you're bride goes through a sickness, a pain, a struggle, O how you want to take her place. You can't for your bride, but Jesus did for His. God the Son became incarnate in the womb of a virgin, to take our place under the Law. He slogged through our temptations; He crossed every t and dotted every i the Law demands or else. But all this fulfilling of the Law led Jesus to Gethsemane. Even though Jesus had lived the perfect life in your place that was not enough. Not only the Law's requirements had to be fulfilled so did its judgments. But no man, woman, or child could bear these if it took an angel from heaven to strengthen the perfect man Jesus to do so.
Every sinner deserved to be in Gethsemane getting their life blood pressed out of them by judgment. Every person in the world ought to have been arrested, beaten, whipped, crowned with thorns, stripped and crucified. This is especially true of the Church who lives so close to the grace of God in Christ. It's even truer of us in the Church who baptize, absolve, and communicate the Body and the Blood of Christ.
It should be us brides who have adulterated our marriage vows pleading for God's wrath to pass us by, but it's not. It should be us brides who have forsaken our groom that God abandons, but it's not. It's Christ Jesus who is handed the cup of God's wrath and who hangs between an angry heaven and an ugly earth not only for the sins of His Bride the Church but for the sins of the world She lives in.
Jesus keeps His Bride in the world for the sake of the world, so rest assured He can and will take care of her here. After all it is His body and not even sinners says Paul hate their own bodies. But what about the numbers?
The first time as a chaplain I was to brief the commanding officer the chaplain above me would normally brief, my supervising chaplain asked me if I was ready. I said I was and proceeded to recite number of chaplains, number of services, number attending. He stopped me and said, "O no don't do that. That commander lives by numbers day in and day out. You and I don't."
No we don't live by numbers, and we need not die by them either. The Church has never gathered to worship people but Her Groom, Savior, and Lord. He has promised to be in our midst not if we could manage to gather 2 or 3 thousand or even 2 or 3 hundred and not even 3 just 2. And we gather with many more than that because we gather with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.
Read the rest of Acts. The faithful preaching of the Gospel didn't get Stephen numbers but stones. It got Paul blows, arrest, and imprisonment. From the halcyon days of thousands being gathered in Jerusalem, Acts ends with Paul in prison in Rome preaching to Jewish leaders. There we find that delicate Greek construction. On the one hand some were being persuaded and on the other hand others wouldn't believe.
No mention is made of numbers now. In fact after, the opening chapters of Acts numbers disappear. Maybe the Church learned to think in the Lord's numbers. He highlights the widow's mite not those giving much. He waits for one woman at a well and looks for one tax collector up a tree. He tells His Church when she's worried about the large harvest and the few workers to pray not do. And He assures feeble pastors who are afraid of numbers by parable and promise. In a parable, He says His Church grows like a field a man plants: "The seed sprouts and growshow, he himself does not know." And in an extreme promise, He says the gates of hell itself cannot prevail against His Church. If the legions of hell can't destroy her, then certainly little, lone me can't either. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
2013 ACELC Conference, Austin, Texas (20130417); Acts 2: 41-47