Posts Tagged ‘dying and rising with Christ’

'888' photo (c) 2008, S.³ - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/I received a thoughtful and poignant response to my recent post “And God certainly made small churches, too.”  The writer wonders about small congregations that are getting smaller and fading away.

There’s no question that the losses hurt deeply.  We miss our saints that have moved on to the Church Triumphant, and those that have moved away or left for some other reason.  It is painfully disappointing when others take our hospitality, but show no interest in the beautiful worship service that means so much to us, or in the other things we offer, or in becoming members of the covenant community with us.

It strikes me that this gives us a new understanding of what Jesus himself experienced when the crowds lost interest in him.  In John 6 he said to the few that were left, “do you also wish to leave?”  As the cross drew near, even they left him, though they later returned.

Death is certain even for the very best people, but it does not negate all that was faithful and beautiful in their well-lived lives.  I think the same is true in a congregation’s life.  Death in some form is certain for every congregation, but even death by complete closure does not negate all that was beautiful and faithful in the congregation’s life.

Just like individual believers, congregations belong to God in life, and in death, and in the life to come.  Resurrection can be a reality even when a congregation closes.  I heard a story earlier this week about a congregation that closed, and whose assets became powerful seed money for a new ministry that is blessing many.  And closing doesn’t have to mean completely disbanding.  The closing church can become a new kind of church.

Every congregation is called to die and rise with Christ.  Death can mean letting go of something that has been in order to receive what God is creating now.  It may mean letting go and moving beyond our disappointment when people don’t come to worship as we want them to in order to reach them in another way—perhaps somewhere beyond the building.  It may mean letting go and moving beyond our anger when they don’t respond and do what we think they should do.  It may mean rethinking what the purpose of a church is.  Perhaps it will mean letting the idea of getting more people into the church pews recede in order to focus more on introducing people to Christ somewhere out in the world.

What’s more, God is still calling people to form committed, covenant communities like the ones I described in the earlier post.  God is still creating new small churches.  Some are brand new and don’t look very much like the organized church that we have experienced and cherished.  Often they don’t have a building, and they meet in a home or a public place.  One new Presbyterian congregation that I learned about runs a coffee shop in a strip mall and meets there.

Some new small congregations are nested inside of larger congregations, or they share a building with another small church.  In New Hope Presbytery, Durham Presbyterian Church and Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanuel share a building.  New churches are being born in the midst of and alongside of old ones.

In John 3 Nicodemus asks whether a person can be born again after growing old.  The answer is “yes,” by the power of the Holy Spirit.  By the power of the resurrection, old congregations can be born again.  But it won’t be without pain and struggle and many tears, and it calls for ever deeper trust in the One who has walked the way of suffering on the way to new life.

When life as they knew it in Jerusalem was ending, and God’s people were about to be deported to Babylon, God spoke through Jeremiah, saying, “I know the plans I have for you.  They are plans for good and not plans for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” Jeremiah 29:11.  These plans did not become clear for a long time, and they did not mean escape from pain and death.  These plans were fulfilled when a new generation “came home” to Jerusalem.

God knows the plans God has for our congregations, plans for our good, to give us a future and a hope.  And God promises to stay right with us while God is working those plans out.  In our living and dying and rising again, Christ will be honored and glorified.

Resources related to churches dying and rising:

Gail Irwin writes a blog that explores questions related to the life, death and resurrection of congregations, including those who close.  It is called “From Death to Life: Churches Facing Resurrection.” (freelancepastor.wordpress.com)

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a movement aimed at launching 1001 new worshiping communities in the next decade.  Find out more at this website: onethousandone.org.    Many of these are or will be small.  See profiles of some of the new communities that are starting.

See Peter Bush’s book In Dying We Are Born from Alban.  You can read an excerpt of the book here.

There is also a helpful article that appeared in Weavings magazine called, “When the House of God Falls Vacant.”  (Volume VII, No. 1, January-February 1992.)  The theme of the issue is Failure, and it can be ordered from the Upper Room at http://weavings.upperroom.org/back-issues/

See my post “Every Church MUST Die,” which is a reprint of a sermon from my archives.


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'Take Up Your Cross' photo (c) 2009, Godly Sheep - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/The Gospel lesson for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) is Jesus’ first passion prediction in Mark.  When Jesus told his disciples that he must die before rising again, and that they, too, must die and rise, it took their breath away.  The Way of the Cross is definitely the road less taken.  But are we being truthful in our Christian witness when we tiptoe around the pain and the demands of the cross?  Here is a sermon from my archives on this text. It contrasts the Way of the Cross with the way of self-fulfillment.

A Divine Mindset

A Sermon on Mark 8:27-38

Peter’s longing was the longing of all Israel.  Peter longed for the time when God’s anointed one, the Messiah, would take the throne himself, liberate the nation from oppression, and restore its power to what it was when King David reigned.  Israel would be in control of its own life again.  No more Roman procurators.  No more Pontius Pilate.  No more Roman soldiers.  No more Roman crucifixions.

The sight of crucified bodies was a common one.  At times the roads were lined with them, cross after cross, and the message to the people was clear: this is what will happen to you if you dare to challenge Roman authority.  How everyone longed for all that to stop!  How everyone longed for a new king, a righteous king of their own!

Peter was right—Jesus was the anointed one.  Moreover, he had reason to believe that Jesus would fulfill all their hopes.  He and the other disciples had witnessed Jesus casting out unclean spirits that fought against God and caused untold suffering.  He even made the wind be quiet!  That’s power!  They had witnessed many healings, even one in Peter’s own family, when Jesus lifted up his mother-in-law, as we saw last week.  That’s power!  Peter and all the rest were on hand and participated when Jesus fed 5000-plus hungry people with only a little food, and then did it again later for a crowd of 4000.  That’s power!  Yes, Jesus certainly had the power, and that made the victory they all longed for seem so close.   The crown seemed so close.  At last, everything was going to get better.  At last, everything was going to get easier.  Never again would their stomachs turn at the sight of a cross.

It must have felt like Jesus had slapped Peter!  What did Jesus say?  No, it can’t be!  No, Jesus’ journey can’t lead to a cross.  This road leads to a crown.  The Messiah must not die!  If Jesus dies, that’s the end of the dream.  Jesus will be just one more in a long line of failed liberators, and we’ll be right back where we started!

Jesus was talking foolishness, and Peter started to tell him so.  He rebuked Jesus.  Matthew tells us what Peter said.  “God forbid!” Peter exclaims in Matthew.  “This shall not ever happen to you!”  And implied is this: “And it had better not happen to us, either!”

It must have felt like another slap in the face when Jesus, with his eye on all the disciples, rebuked Peter in the strongest possible way.  “Get behind me, Satan!  Get out of my way, Satan!  You’re working for Satan.  You mind is on human things, not on the things of God!  You’re not set on God’s way.  You’re set on YOUR own way.  You’re set on what YOU want.”

And as if that weren’t enough, Jesus gathered the crowd around him along with the disciples and told them all, “The cross is the way.  If you want to be my disciples, then the cross must be your way, too.  You must deny yourself, put your life on the line, shoulder up your cross, and follow after me.  For those who seek to save their own life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus calls his disciples to accept the pain that comes from trying to do the will of God, the conflict that so often gets aroused when you obey God.  The accusations that Jesus endured would be theirs—this one for example: what on earth are you doing associating with THOSE people?

Jesus calls us to come with him and die and then to let God raise us to new life.  The center of our concern cannot be me, mine, we and us.  Serving ourselves and keeping ourselves alive cannot be the goal.  Our heart, soul, mind and strength must be set on the things of God, the will and the way of God.  (more…)

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Jesus said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” Mark 8:35.  This is part of the gospel text for the second Sunday in Lent, Year B.  Often we read Jesus’ call to take up the cross and die as the call of the individual Christian.  Certainly it is the call of every disciple.  But it is also the call of every group of disciples: every congregation, every judicatory, every denomination.  If our worship and program schedules look successful–and no doubt some good is coming about–if things look okay, we presume they are okay, and thus we don’t have to worry about dying.  Christ bids the church to come and die.  If we want to put people in touch with the living Christ, then we must be willing to die to self as a church. 

In the sermon that follows I put it about as starkly as I ever have with my flock.  I had been at Morton Church for nineteen years when I preached this sermon.

Those who die with Christ will rise with Christ.  Lord, what in me needs to die?

Dying Into Life

A Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 and Philippians 2:1-13

Jesus delivered one shock after the other that day.  Peter and the other disciples could not believe what they were hearing!  Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought that the words “Messiah” and “suffering” go together.  Everybody thought that the Messiah was going to inflict suffering on the oppressors, not experience it himself.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought that the words “Messiah” and “death” go together.  The Messiah couldn’t die!  The Messiah was going to kill all his—and our—enemies.

Peter and all the rest had really gotten their hopes up that, after so many would-be Messiahs had come and gone through the years—and yes, there were many—in Jesus, here he was at long last.  In Jesus they saw the power they thought it would take.  They had seen Jesus heal people, and subdue demons, and feed thousands on just a little food.  Jesus had to be the Messiah, and no, the words “Messiah” and “death” do not go together!

Nobody wants to hear the words “church” and “death” talked about in the same sentence, either.  But sometimes we can’t avoid it.  Recently we received the painful news that yet another small church nearby is closing.  We know what this means!  It means that children have left, many people have died, and that hopes and dreams have died.  Our friends in that congregation are living through hurt and loss.  And we can imagine them also experiencing a sense of failure, perhaps, maybe even shame because they can’t keep going.

How can God allow this to happen to good people?  How can God allow a church to die?  We sure don’t want that to happen to us! (more…)

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English: Icon of the Resurrection

Image via Wikipedia

Mary and Joseph both laid down their old lives in order to embrace new life in Jesus.  The themes of Christmas and Easter hold together.  Here is a review I wrote of a book entitled In Dying We Are Born, which calls the church to lay down its life in order to receive the gift of the resurrection.  Yes, all Christians and all churches are called to die, and then we will be born anew by the power of God.

In Dying We Are Born The Challenge and the Hope for Congregations By Peter Bush The Alban Institute, 2008.  Pb. 138 pp.  $17.00.

“No, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!” Peter cried when Jesus declared that the way to life led through death.  Not said aloud but surely echoing in every disciple’s heart was this: “And it had better not happen to us, either!”  Congregations and denominations in North America certainly don’t want it to happen to us.  As we struggle with decline we want someone to tell us what to do so that we won’t die.

That person is not Peter Bush.  He calls the church to stop focusing on explanations, stop looking for people to blame, stop putting our faith in technical solutions, and above all, stop trying to save the church from dying.

Instead, we need to start depending on the God of the resurrection to raise the church to new life in God’s own way and in God’s own time.  The future of the church lies in dying and rising with Christ.  Every church is called to die.  There are no exceptions.  Death means dying to self, taking up the cross, and following Jesus.  We must be ready to lay everything down, even models of church and ways of doing ministry that we have cherished.  For example, Bush believes that the assumption that there always should be paid full-time clergy in every local church is one that must die.

Bush presents a succinct review of various models for congregational renewal.  Generally they take one of two approaches: build on what you’ve got (e.g. Kennon Callahan and Christian Schwarz), or tear down and start again (e.g. Alice Mann and Easum & Bandy).  Bush finds much that is helpful in these models, particularly where they recognize that God is the one who transforms lives and renews the church.  He critiques them where they focus too much on human effort and human planning processes.

Drawing on the whole range of scripture, Bush reintroduces us to the God of the resurrection, who alone breathes life into the church.  He points to this God in action in the Book of Judges, as well as in Ezekiel 37 and in the Easter texts we expect to wrestle with in any discussion of resurrection.  Bush also shows this God in action in stories of contemporary congregations that have been raised to new life.  He offers much inspiring material for preaching and teaching.

Leaders journeying with the church through death to resurrection must ourselves be willing to die and rise with Christ.  We must die to our own plans and to our desire to be right.  With a prayerful, humble spirit, we are called to refocus the church on God’s story, help the church to grieve what is lost, articulate the promise of the resurrection, and invite the church to trust God.  Leaders guide the church to put God’s will for the church first, trust God’s ways, and stand in awe of the One who brings life out of death.

Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  This means that every disciple, every congregation, every judicatory, every affinity group and every denomination must die.  And then God will raise us to new life.

(This review is published in the December 12, 2011 issue of The Presbyterian OutlookYou can view an article adapted from this book at the Alban Institute’s website, and read the book’s prologue there as well.)

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