Back then, a gallon of gas cost just over a dollar. The average home cost just over $150,000. Titanic won Best Picture and became the first movie to gross $1 billion. The “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty to planting bombs and sowing terror throughout the country. Bill Clinton became just the second President in history to be impeached. And last, but not least, a little company with the funny name of “google” was founded in Menlo Park, California. In the midst of it all, in one little corner of Wisconsin, God was busy working on something that didn’t generate national headlines, that didn’t make the cover of TIME, that went unnoticed by all but a handful of people. On September 13, 1998, God led a small group of Christians – 15 or so – to a grade school gym, to the very first worship service of Risen Savior Lutheran Church. A lot has changed in 20 years, but one thing – the most important thing – has not: God is still working here to lead desperate sinners to saving faith in Christ, he is still building his church – and through the Apostle Paul he encourages us to keep building, on the proper foundation, with the proper materials.
Paul is generally considered to be the most prolific and productive of the Apostles. He wrote 13 books of the NT and established over a dozen churches. His letters detail how he suffered beatings, imprisonment, riots (2 Corinthians 6:4-10), how he was whipped, stoned, and shipwrecked; how he endured sleepless nights and starvation for the sake of the Gospel. (2 Corinthians 11:23-29) Humanly speaking, no one deserves more credit for establishing and spreading the church than Paul. And yet, who does Paul give the credit to? By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. Paul recognized that it was only the result of God’s grace that he was privileged to suffer, strive, and sweat to establish the Gospel throughout the ancient world. Paul no doubt remembered that before Jesus knocked him off his feet on the road to Damascus he was no Christian hero, he was a murderer of Christians (Acts 9) – and even worse, his self-righteous spirit was earning him an eternity in hell. But Jesus turned his life around – turning him from someone who trusted his own works to someone who trusted God’s grace; from someone who persecuted the Gospel to the greatest Christian missionary in history. Paul knew full well that it was only God’s grace that gave him a role in building the Church and to suffer and sacrifice for the Gospel.
The question is: do we always realize that? On an occasion like this, it’s so tempting to imagine that this congregation is built on our hard work, our offerings, our effort. We each have an ego, and we like to stroke that ego by coming up with a pretty impressive list of all that we’ve done for God and the church. “This church wouldn’t be here if I didn’t leave the comfort of my home church and start worshipping in a gym; the bills wouldn’t get paid if I didn’t frequently and generously open up my wallet; there would be a lot more empty seats if I hadn’t chosen this church out of all the available options; this place wouldn’t still be standing if it wasn’t for the time I’ve spent mowing, shoveling, cleaning, organizing, baking, teaching, preaching, giving, praying, etc.”
The truth is, if it wasn’t for the grace of God, not only would we not have the privilege of doing those things, we too would be on the fast track to hell. Because for all of the offerings we have given cheerfully and generously, how often have we given only reluctantly or only the leftovers? For all of the time we have spent here listening to the Gospel, how much more time have we wasted chasing after worldly pleasure? For the many times we have boldly confessed the Christian faith within the safety of these walls, how often have we kept silent when given the opportunity to speak the truth or, even worse, have denied the truth? In spite of all that Paul did and accomplished for the Church, he called himself the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:16) and less than the least of all God’s people (Ephesians 3:8) Can we confess anything less? If even our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) – to say nothing of our sins – what business do we have claiming any credit for establishing, sustaining or growing Risen Savior? For us and for Paul, it is only by God’s grace that we are privileged to participate in the building of the Church. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
But if we don’t get the credit for building Risen Savior, who does? For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. Long before we were ever born, long before Paul had ever stepped foot in Corinth, Jesus Christ laid the foundation of the Church by his life, death and resurrection. The Church is not built on our blood, sweat and tears, but on the tears Jesus shed as he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4), on the sweat that poured from Jesus’ face as the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6), on the blood that spilled from his side as he gave up his life to pay for our sins. Most of all, the Church is firmly founded on the fact that Jesus rose from the grave – hard evidence that our sins are paid for, that we are right with God. There is only one foundation for the Christian Church – that is, Christ himself.
Perhaps that seems obvious. We just sang “the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” (CW 538) But the fact that Paul had to write these words proves that this is not obvious to everyone. The danger is not really trying to replace the foundation of Jesus Christ – obviously, if a church stops confessing Christ, it has ceased to be the Church. The real danger trying to establish another, a second foundation alongside Jesus. This happens whenever people fail to trust that the Word will accomplish exactly what God promised it would (Isaiah 55:10-11) and substitute their own wisdom and reason, whenever we think that the Gospel needs some dressing up or modification or some special marketing campaign to make it attractive – as if anything we could offer is better than the free forgiveness of sins.
Which is why we aren’t celebrating our 20th anniversary by acknowledging the human effort that went into establishing Risen Savior (even though it was significant), but by thanking God that the church is not built on or by us. We thank him for planning our salvation even before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4); for making and keeping his promise to send a Savior from sin; for using men like Paul to spread this good news throughout the ancient world; for giving us parents and grandparents who brought us to be baptized and fed at Jesus’ feet; for pastors like Dan Sims, Oliver Lindholm and Nathan Fager who faithfully preached nothing more and nothing less than the Word of God; and, most of all, for the Holy Spirit who sanctifies all of our imperfect efforts and to this day attaches the power of salvation to simple things like water, bread, wine and the Word. (Romans 1:16) If this church was built on our own effort or ingenuity, it would have crumbled long ago. It’s a testimony to God’s grace that even as the past two decades have seen our nation, many of our nation’s churches, and even many of our family and friends walk away from Christ – God has kept Risen Savior grounded on the only foundation that can withstand the storms of sin and Satan: Christ crucified.
Speaking of storms, I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures and video of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Florence on North and South Carolina. Cars and homes and entire communities were all swept away by the wind and waves. It’s interesting, though, that when the waters finally recede, for the most part, the foundations will still be standing. Why? Because the foundation was built of solid, indestructible concrete while the structure above was built of cheaper and lighter 2x4’s, drywall and plaster. Paul uses a similar image in describing the church: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. Even though Paul doesn’t define these different materials, we immediately notice that they fall into two groups: three that are non-combustible (they don’t burn up in fire), and three that are combustible. People living in the 1st century would have appreciated Paul’s illustration. When a fire swept through an ancient city, the only thing left standing might be a temple or palace built of costly stones, gold and silver. We get the point, right? As we build on the foundation of Christ, we have a choice: build with proper, precious materials that will last or build with the easy, cheap materials that won’t. While there may seem to be no visible difference between churches that build with precious materials and those that build with worthless ones (it might even seem like those that build with worthless materials grow bigger, faster), Paul says that one day it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
Paul’s words should be a wake-up call to every church – even ours. Satan is always tempting us to build with materials other than those God has given us. There’s always the temptation to think that if we just provide the services and programs that people in our community want: day care, rent assistance, children’s programs, marriage and financial workshops – that then we can slip the Gospel in without them even noticing and the church will really grow. But not only is that deceptive and manipulative (and therefore incompatible with the Gospel – 2 Corinthians 4:2), but Jesus and the Apostles regularly told people that they would not provide for their bodily needs, but what they could give them was far more important: the forgiveness of sins. (John 6:27; Acts 3:6) We might be tempted to modify the more controversial teachings of the Bible to make them fit contemporary society – the roles of men and women, gender identity and sexuality, closed communion, fellowship – but Revelation 22 warns if anyone takes words away from this book…God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city. (Revelation 22:19) We may be tempted to think that it’s the persuasiveness of the pastor, the friendliness of the people, or the quality of the snacks that converts unbelievers – but Scripture is clear that faith comes from hearing the message. (Romans 10:17)
The church is not founded on or by us, nor is it built by our wisdom, methods or strategies. The Church is founded on Christ and still today the only proper materials to build on that foundation are what we call the “means of grace.” To the credit of those who were members back in 2010, they decided to place those building blocks front and center in the very design of the church. The pulpit where the Word is proclaimed, the altar where the body and blood of Christ are distributed, the font where sinners become saints – those are the priceless building materials that Christ uses to build his Church. No, they’re not as flashy or exciting as a superstar pastor or a professional praise band, it takes far more effort and patience to use them than the latest, greatest marketing scheme, and many in our world have absolutely no use for them - but it is only through these means that God shines his truth in this dark world, creates and strengthens faith, and makes new and stronger believers. Let us never take them for granted. Let us never abandon them for any poor imitations that promises quicker results or seems to be more acceptable to the world – because the true test is not whether what we teach and do grows the church now, but whether it will stand up to the fire of God’s judgment on the Last Day. Remember that 20 years ago Risen Savior started in a grade school gym by 15 people with little more than a Bible, some water, some bread and wine and Christ’s promise that where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20) – and that when we look around today, we see evidence that by God’s grace the proper building materials – the Word and Sacraments – do work.
It’s been 20 years since Risen Savior’s first worship service, and a lot has changed. Hundreds of homes have replaced corn fields. A beautiful, permanent sanctuary has replaced worship in a gym. 15 members has grown to almost 150. We have more children who want to learn about Jesus than we have room to teach them. Only eight years after building a church, an expansion is already in the works. Founding members have died and been transferred to heaven and new ones have become children of God right before our eyes. A lot has changed. But the most important things have not. By God’s grace Risen Savior is still standing on the only foundation laid by God himself: Jesus Christ. Even in our ever-changing world God has preserved here the pure teaching of his Word and the Sacraments – the only building materials that will stand the tests of time and Judgment. In our Risen Savior we have a solid foundation and building materials that will stand the test of time and eternity. May God in his grace lead us to keep building on the proper foundation with the proper materials for the next 20 years. Amen.