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.