He sat in his car in the church parking lot. In just a few minutes worship would be over and then he would know. You see, he used to attend a Lutheran church, but had stopped worshipping decades ago. Now into his mid-fifties, he felt the need to reconnect with a congregation. So, he sat in his car, waiting. The moment worship ended, he watched one person walk out the front door. Another followed, and then another, and another until everyone had left. He got his answer. “That’s not the church for me,” he later said to a friend. “The members are too old.”
They invited me to the kitchen table. These first-time visitors had just moved up from a Detroit suburb. Now they wanted a congregation to call “home.” They made their expectations pretty clear. “We want contemporary songs, modern instruments, and a casual feel. You should really think about giving us what we want.”
I asked him, “How do you like your church?” A sixth-grader, standing on the street-corner next to me. His parents wanted a church with more kids his age. So, they left one congregation for another church in the area— a larger one at that. What did he like about his new church? “Oh, it’s good,” he said. “We have bowling, Wii and XBox [video-game consoles], movies, and snacks.”
How do you respond to statements like that? (By the way, those are all real conversations I had with real people.) Your sister lays out her preferred worship style. Your friend describes how he wants the sermon/message presented in church. Your child implies that your congregation is out-of-touch with people— and you stand there in unfamiliar territory, struggling to summarize the purpose of your congregation. What do you say?
Our reading from Ephesians provides you with the only right response: Keep the Main Thing in Church the Main Thing! Only Jesus is our peace. Jesus is the only cornerstone for life.
Look once again at the end of verse 14 (in our reading). You’re immediately met with this towering, dividing wall of hostility… a wall created with its commandments and regulations. God built up this wall around Old Testament Israel. He assembled a civil law for the protection of personal property and individual rights. He constructed a ceremonial law that laid out when Israel should worship, how often, what sacrifices to bring, and the reason for each sacrifice. That wall was meant to protect the faith of the believing Jew from the influence of the nonbelieving Gentile.
The Gentiles (those not of Jewish ethnicity) sacrificed food to the sun, blessed their crops by visiting prostitutes, and bowed down to a myriad of non-existent deities. God’s wall divided Jews from Gentiles.
But that wall created another division; it stops the imperfect from approaching the Perfect. God’s command stops you still and towers high above you: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). The Jews had God’s commands, but rebelled against them. Judges refuse justice, spiritual shepherds lead masses to false gods, kings trust mortal men. The Gentiles lived “far off.” They (1) had no knowledge that Jesus would save the world with his perfect life. They (2) did not even have a Bible to introduce them to Jesus! God still looks down from heaven to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. But all have turned aside, they have together become corrupt. There is no one who does good, not even one (Psalm 14:2-3). Every single person enters life divided, separated, far off from God. No one does good. Not even one!
And he sensed it. I stood beside him at his mother-in-law’s funeral. “I hope she’s with all of her loved ones,” he said. “She is,” I replied. “Jesus did everything necessary to bring her to heaven.” His response?“Eh… maybe. I hope she’s there.” This son-in-law attended a church far larger than the one I was in. His congregation had far more programs for every age-group imaginable. Yet, for the many decades he spent worshipping there, he never found peace with God. He stood in front of that dividing wall and was convinced that the only way to approach God was to do more good to outweigh his bad. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a4.htm; see Paragraphs 1459-1460)
Here’s the point: Keep the Main Thing in Church the Main Thing. Because when you lose Jesus, you lose peace.
You lose peace when you place a higher priority on temporary things. You reach out to your community through Easter-postcard invites, doorhangers, an online presence. It seems like your words fall on deaf ears. Then out comes the pity-cry: “No one wants to hear God’s Word. We try to get it out, but nothing works. Woe is us!”
You share the most significant news ever: “Jesus alone gives eternal life!” You announce it in Sunday School. You hear in Bible Class. You sing it in worship! The results are not what you want. Out comes the pessimism: “Yeah, I thought more would come. Boy, things aren’t like they used to be. We might as well just stop the effort.”
First-time visitors, friends, children, even the sixth-grader on the corner all have in mind what they want from a church. It might have nothing to do with the Bible, but they don’t care. They want to feel entertained. Not too long after, the heart ponders: “Well, I would enjoy worship more if it was just more exciting …or I had someone here to talk to …or I fill in the blank.” Inside each of us lurks this slimy temptation to exchange God’s pure Word for sand that passes through the fingers! To fall for that trap will rob you of peace forever!
Do you know what the main thing in church is? What is the only way through the dividing wall of hostility? I’m not sure our reading can make it any clearer. After all, how many times do you hear: In Christ or in him or through him? Twelve times! Is it any secret? [Jesus] himself is our peace, [he] has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…
Jesus did what you (and I) could never hope to do. He did the only thing that really matters; he tore down the wall between you and God. Your Good Shepherd stands up in the Bible. He searches for those lost and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd. And he speaks, “I am your perfection. I did what you could not. I obey every single command and regulation with all my heart, mind, and soul. Stop digging for peace in yourself. I am your peace.” With his own perfect flesh he stamps God’s commands and regulations ‘Kept!’ ‘Obeyed!’ ‘Fulfilled!’ In his one body he reconciled [you] to God through the cross.
He ends the hostility between you and God so that you have peace forever. He rises and breaks down the walls of death. He comes and preaches peace to you… To you! For all the times you (and I) exchange the pure Word of God for something trite and trivial, you have peace. For all the times you (and I) selfishly prioritize pleasure over hearing God’s truth, you have peace. For all the times you (and I) hang our heads, moping as though we are losing, Jesus rises with victorious peace.
My friends, Keep the Main Thing in Church the Main Thing! God clearly explains the reason you gather here: to focus on Jesus. Because only Jesus is your peace. And the more you hear that good news, the more it changes your entire outlook on life. Because Jesus is the only cornerstone for life.
That wall of hostility is busted down. So what? So then, you are no longer foreigners and aliens… You are not separated from God. Rather, right here, right now, you are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household. God has written your name into the citizenship rosters of heaven. He takes you by the hand and is leading you through this valley of the shadow of death to bring you safely to a heavenly country.
You can be sure of this. [You have been] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. God picked you up from the rock pile of humanity. In baptism, he laid you among many other bricks in a wall. With his Word, he mortared you in. With the Lord’s Supper, he tuck-points, making sure the mortar remains tough and strong so that you will never fall away. Your peace is this life is not dependent on your emotions. Those change from day to day. Your peace for heaven is not dependent on how moral you appear. You can never be good enough. You peace for life is anchored to the work of Jesus, the work which the Bible records. Point to it. It is a foundation. It will never break or crumble or fail. The Main Thing in Church remains Jesus. Listen to him because Jesus is your only cornerstone.
Jesus is your only cornerstone. People come to faith only through the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Some days, you may feel as though you are failing as a congregation. It is no secret that an increasing number of people are staying away from the Word than coming to it. You may feel as though the Word must change in order to gain larger numbers. You might think you need different activities or a different style of worship to invite people here. Now, those things are not wrong in themselves. Yet, when the purpose for attending church is to be entertained by things that cannot save, you have stepped off the only cornerstone for life. Faith comes only by hearing the Word Jesus sent out through his prophets and apostles. Not with youth entertainment and praise bands and the age of a congregation. Faith comes from the Word.
God makes that explicitly clear. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. God used his Word to bring you to faith. He still sends out the same Word, the only tool that brings others to faith as well. Keep the Main Thing in Church the Main Thing. Point people to Jesus, the only cornerstone for life.
God has handed you the priority-message: Jesus himself is our peace. Jesus’ death and resurrection promises you life in God’s family. So, you do not need to worry. Instead, you get to live in and work to share that Word of peace. You can always live built on this cornerstone.
So, what is the purpose of your congregation? If you struggle to put it into words, then repeat what our selection says here. It gives you the only right response: Keep the Main Thing in Church the Main Thing! Only Jesus is our peace. Jesus is the only cornerstone for life.
Here’s an all expense paid vacation to the Bahamas. In this envelope is your plane ticket, your hotel and dinner reservations, as well as spa reservations, fishing and scuba diving expeditions, and parasailing trips. Everything you need is right here. Take the envelope, travel to the right airport, hotel, restaurant, and activity center, claim your reservation, and enjoy the trip!
After all, it’s a vacation… And vacations allow a break from the everyday busy-ness of life. No pressing deadlines to haunt you. No exhausting trips to doctor appointments. No stressful child-sitting. No nerve-wracking phone-calls. Just let your mind wander. Let someone else care for you. Do what you want whenever you want. Daydream. Nap. Relax!
Now, you could take this envelope jam-packed with tickets and reservations. You could spend thousands (of your own dollars) on a plane. You could spend hours scouring the internet for the best hotel rooms. You could spend all week calling restaurants and charter boats and day spas. Even though I arranged the entire trip for you, you could try to make all the arrangements for yourself. Then you would be quite stressed, anxious, and exhausted during your entire vacation. In fact, it would not be much of a vacation at all, would it? You would be working to obtain a ‘rest’ that has already been given to you.
It would be foolish to work instead of rest. It is just as foolish to work when you could be Receiving Your Sabbath Rest from God. The time you spend with God— hearing his Word, reading devotions, gathering in worship— is a time where God gives you rest and God comes to you.
In the Old Testament God set aside a special day of rest called the ‘Sabbath Day. Remember, ‘Sabbath’ is a Hebrew word meaning: ‘rest’ or ‘cease from work.’ God instructs: Six days you shall labor and do all your work-- your field work, your construction jobs, running your restaurant, sitting at your work desk, doing tedious household chores and errands— but the seventh day is a Sabbath, a ‘day of rest’ (Deuteronomy 5:13-14). On the seventh day you stop your busy-ness. Why? So that you may have a clear, stress-free mind to recall, remember, and reflect on what God has done for you.
So, ancient Israel stopped working, and the clear mind (that comes from resting) allowed them to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). They could recall the sweat and heat, the aches and pains, the twenty-hour-a-day/seven-days-a-week-labor, the lack of personal freedom. Then they remembered how God pried them out of Egypt with ten plagues and led them into an entirely brand new way of life. As the nation remembered what God did, they could reflect how God did all this out of mercy. This recalling, remembering, and reflecting motivates thanks to their awesome God.
The Pharisees knew God commanded them to Remember Sabbath by keeping it holy (Deuteronomy 5:12). The way to demonstrate respect for the day is to not work.
Jesus’ disciples are walking through a grainfield on a Sabbath day. They’re snagging handfuls of wheat kernels, rubbing them together in their hands, cracking open the chewy husks, and snacking the soft grain. The Pharisees are watching this. In their book, plucking is the same as reaping— as though the disciples are swinging harvest sickles (or jumping into the John Deere to harvest wheat).
They rush up to Jesus, chiding, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” This plucking is not forbidden by God. In fact, God allowed people to walk through grainfields and take just enough to fill the stomach (Deuteronomy 23:25). It was the Pharisees who called this action ‘illegal.’ In fact, the Pharisees added extra layers to God’s commandments. When it came to the Sabbath Day, they added 39 classifications of forbidden work.
There’s a reason they did this. The Pharisees recognized their own sinfulness; they are not perfect. So, they add regulations that they could keep. Yes, they might not love God with all their heart, mind, and soul (Matthew 22:37), but they could obey their 39 different rules of approved work. They could sit in the synagogue for hours. They could put an end to their excessive laboring. They could stay out of the grainfields. Because they could keep their own manmade rules, they felt proud.
That pride soared even higher when they caught others breaking their rules. The Pharisees could not only (1) obey manmade rules, but (2) did something the majority could not. So, they point a finger at the disciples, calling them worse sinners than they. The Pharisees even imply that Jesus failed to be God’s approved Savior because he did not call the disciples’ actions wrong.
You see, the purpose for spending time with God is for God to give you rest. Stop to recall, remember, and reflect on the Savior who brings peace with God. Yet, the Pharisees did not want this spiritual rest. They wanted to work for God’s favor.
Inside each of us is that same workaholic heart. It can take something so beneficial like worship or personal devotions and twist it into something great you do to earn favor with God. It happens when you slip into bed Saturday night and wake up Sunday morning feeling as though worship is some enslaving command.“Well, I gotta go to church. It’s expected. I must do it. I can’t wait until it’s all over then I can get on with my day.” Instead of finding spiritual refreshment, worship becomes a chore.
Fingers points at those neglecting worship. “Well, Dan was baptized and confirmed here, but he hasn’t been to church after confirmation!” What’s the purpose behind that statement? Do you sincerely desire to call back someone neglecting the Word? Or, do you feel that God is happier with you because you came to ‘church’ and you showed up more often than Christmas and Easter service only? Has your worship attendance become some sort of track record you want God to reward?
Do you, like the Pharisees, create and follow manmade rules for worship? Like, kids must be quiet— and if your child is quieter, then you are a better parent. You must wear a suit & tie, a dress or slacks; you must wear a certain standard of clothing— and if you do, you are a more sincere Christian than others. You must sit still and follow along— and if you are actively engaged the entire time, then you had a good day. Do you brag about your Sunday School attendance as though you love God more than those who do not come? Are you holding up Bible class attendance and your daily devotions as badges of honor before God?
You see, you may not condemn people for crushing grain in their hands on the wrong day. Yet, inside each of us beats a heart which wants you to measure and compare yourself to others according to your own manmade rules so that you look morally superior
Do you want to know what Jesus says about that? The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. If you believe you are doing God some great service by worshipping, reading your Bible, and learning God’s Word, you are fooling yourself! The ‘rest’ you get with God is not some meritorious work. It never was (and is) meant for that purpose. To believe it is will rob you of ‘rest’ forever.
You are created first. Then, so that you enjoy peace with God, God gives you opportunities to find physical and spiritual rest. Receive Your Sabbath Rest. Did you catch it? Receive. Not something you earn. Rather, God gives you rest.
You receive rest as you spend time in God’s Word. God does not command you, living after the time of Jesus, to worship only on Saturday. You are free to set aside a specific day for worship (Colossians 2:16-17). You are allowed to work, if needed, on your worship day. Why? Because The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.
The point of the Old Testament Sabbath Day is to spend time with God— and not just for one day, but daily time with God. As your Substitute he does what you (and I) have not.
Jesus is a Son born to the man, Joseph. Jesus has flesh and blood; he is a real, living human being! Since he is born of a woman, he is born under God’s law (Galatians 4:4). That means the Third Commandment is laid on Jesus. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8).
He makes worship his custom. Never does he skip worship because he’d rather be fishing. Never does he groan and gripe that time with God is some chore. Rather, Jesus delights spending time in the Word! He not only listens to God speak, the Word of God is on his lips He preaches to crowds. He teaches. He encourages with the Word. The Lord of the Sabbath dies for your (and my) abuse of the Sabbath. His blameless life satisfies God’s anger forever.
God keeps coming to you with that precious message: “Forgiven!” On Easter Sunday (Sunday!—the day on which you worship!) Jesus hands you eternal rest! Recall how he comes to set you free from guilt. Remember he paid the price with his life. Reflect that now you are set free from sin, set free from work, set free to live in peace! As you recall, remember, and reflect, praise and thanks will gush out.
That is the purpose for diving into God’s Word. It’s all about what God has done for you! As you better grasp how God has, in Jesus, truly forgiven you all your sins, you live a new kind of life. No longer is worship about you doing something for God. No longer are you fighting to look morally superior than others. Rather, you heart lives at rest knowing God has done all the work need to save you!... and to make you his!
Love for worship motivates you to call others to faithful worship. So, look around. Do you recall those who worshipped with you once, but have now grown a little slow? A brother? ...sister? A son? ...daughter? …grandchild? A friend? A neighbor? Why does it hurt you when people stay away from God’s house? Because they see no need to thank God for setting them free from death in hell. They ignore the only One who will give real joy and peace in life. You have experienced real rest in the forgiveness Jesus brings. That makes you qualified to share your experience with others. You may be related to those slow to worship. You may be a friend. You may be an acquaintance. So, pick up the phone and call them. Shoot a text message. Drive to their house. Hold up the real rest given in worship. Your love for the day of rest compels you to do so.
Love for God compels you to spend time with him. So, you carve out time to spend with God. You make daily devotions a priority. Either you read a page in the Meditations booklet. Or you find strength in a chapter of the Bible. Or you grow in Bible Class as you see what God is capable of doing for you. You Receive Your Sabbath Rest because God comes to you.
You could try to earn God’s favor by behaving a certain way. You could measure yourself to a little child. You could make sure to stand up first and speak the loudest. You could stare at your watch so that you do not miss out on devotion-time or Bible Class. You can live quite stressed, anxious, and exhausted trying to be good enough for God. But you would be foolish to work instead of rest.
God hands you his Word so that you may Receive Your Sabbath Rest. The time you spend with God— hearing his Word, reading devotions, gathering in worship— is a time where God gives you rest and God comes to you.