Fear? Not!

Alleluia!  Sing to Jesus; his the scepter, his the throne; Alleluia!  his the triumph, his the victory alone. Hark!  The songs of peaceful Zion thunder like a mighty flood: “Jesus out of every nation has redeemed us by his blood.”

This is the first and last verse of hymn #392 in the ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship), which we sang last night at the observation of Christ’s ascension into heaven.  I like hymns that use this convention of repetition; the text strikes you a certain way when you sing it the first time, then the two or three verses in between expand and explore the theme and give the text a greater depth when you repeat it in the final verse.  More than anything, though, with this particular hymn, I was captivated by the last line:  “Jesus out of every nation has redeemed us by his blood.”  What a beautifully inclusive vision!  It speaks of grace that transcends the artificial boundaries of nations, politics, denominations, etc.  We are all one to Christ.  We are all one in Christ.  This is our calling as a church. Even our Gospel reading for this Sunday, John 17:20-26, reflects this call to universal oneness and love:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me…”

Following worship last night, I hung around in the atrium for a little while and found myself reading the bios of our 11 new members, posted on the bulletin board.  I was gratified and a little taken by surprise to see that over half of them specifically mentioned our refugee resettlement project as something they wanted to be involved with.  In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all, since I’ve been working with these folks on the refugee resettlement committee, but it had never dawned on me that the committee is made up of new members, attracted to Grace by our sense of mission. This, to me, is an example of the very best kind of evangelism — in truth, the only kind of evangelism — the spreading of good news about something you truly believe in.  It goes much deeper than just trying to convince people that they should come to your church.  It’s inviting people to be a part of something that really matters, inviting them into works that reflect Christ’s glory and victory, like in the words of the hymn.  

We’re in the midst of redevelopment at Grace, and I couldn’t be more excited about the kinds of ministry we’re doing if I were a dog in a chew toy factory (it’s made me a compulsive evangelist — seriously, ask anyone I know; I never shut up about it).  I love it, because rather than sitting around and bemoaning the reality of their dwindling numbers, the people of Grace Lutheran are getting up off the pews, out the door, and into the world to take Christ’s love where it most needs to go.  In addition to resettling a refugee family, we’re hosting several ESL classes through Lincoln Literacy, starting an outreach mission to veterans, creating after school activities for kids at Prescott Elementary, and leading a young adult faith discussion group at a local coffeehouse on Sunday evenings.

All this does much more than just keep us busy and distract us from the church’s discouraging realities in an increasingly secular society — it realigns us with Christ’s all-inclusive vision for the world.  It’s what we’re meant to do as a church, and doing so makes us part of something irresistible, something worth sharing.  And people notice that!  When we are authentic about our mission to love the world as Christ did, and earnestly work to fulfill that mission — regardless of the number of our members or any threat to the status quo — it can’t help but show.  Our new members talk about it, and I’ve heard from many long-standing members of Grace how excited they are to be a part of all that’s going on; they feel like they’re part of something wonderfully meaningful and important.  And they are!  We are bringing God’s kingdom to earth, bringing Christ’s life-giving victory day by day.  This is how we should feel as a church!

So often we hear concerns churchwide about shrinking membership — concerns full of fear about the future of the church.  Without a doubt, there is much cause for fear.  Numbers are shrinking.  Budgets are failing and debts are growing — the most recent email in my own inbox is about budget concerns for an upcoming church council meeting at Grace.  There is much to fear, BUT Jesus tells us not once, not twice, but over and over again in the Gospels: “Do not be afraid.”  Notice that he never says that there’s nothing to be afraid of — he simply says not to be afraid.  Fear only cripples us and keeps us from moving forward.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Our [fears] are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” (“Measure for Measure” Act I, Scene IV)  (Actually, if you want to read a great sermon on this, check out Mike Ostrom’s sermon from last Sunday.)

We can’t let our fear of what might happen strangle our vision — Christ’s vision — of what could be.  Hard as it may seem, we have to learn to let go of our fears about the church’s future in order to secure it — just as Jesus spoke of losing our life in order to find it.  We have to trust in Christ’s triumph over evil, even on days when that seems like a pretty empty victory.  This means being boldly becoming a church in mission, trusting that as long as we are doing our best to carry out God’s work in the world, God will see to it that we have everything we need to do that work.  And we have to accept that what we think we need and what God thinks we need may not always be the same thing. Worrying about the future of the church as we know it means that we are constantly looking inward, when really we should be looking upward and downward and outward in every direction, looking for where Christ is at work and where we can pitch in and join his expansive vision of grace.  We live knowing the glorious truth that Christ has redeemed us by his blood; and Christ calls us to follow him out into the world to share that message and to share his love with the people of every nation.  This is what it really means to be the church.

Alleluia!  Sing to Jesus; his the scepter, his the throne; Alleluia!  his the triumph, his the victory alone. Hark!  The songs of peaceful Zion thunder like a mighty flood: “Jesus out of every nation has redeemed us by his blood.”

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