I traveled to Wisconsin this weekend (October 3-4, 2009) to preach for the fortieth anniversary service of my home congregation, Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Pictures from Redeemer’s anniversary celebration are included throughout this post.
REDEEMER CHURCH, KEEP BUILDING!
On the proper foundation
With the proper materials
Text: 1 Corinthians 3:10-15
“Every state by ’78!” That was the motto of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Board for Home Missions around the time when Redeemer Lutheran Church held its first church service on December 14, 1969. Less than a decade had passed since the Wisconsin Synod severed its fellowship ties with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Gone were the days when our little church body could rely on her big sister to plant mission congregations around the country. The sixties and seventies were key decades for the Wisconsin Synod. We were spending major money and expending major manpower to plant WELS congregations in the vast majority of our nation that didn’t have WELS congregations. The fact that, still today, about three quarters of WELS congregations can be found in three states – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota – should tell you something about the challenge that existed for our Synod in the years immediately after we made the necessary but painful split from the Missouri Synod.
If “Every state by ‘78” was the WELS Home Missions motto four decades ago, you might wonder how a WELS congregation in the middle of Ozaukee County would have gotten started in 1969. Redeemer doesn’t fit the mold of other WELS churches founded at the same time. Redeemer is located in the heart of the WELS, not the “mission districts” of the WELS. And Redeemer was not started around a nucleus of WELS members, but by a nucleus of Lutherans fleeing another Lutheran Church that wasn’t so Lutheran anymore. These people were determined to start a Confessional Lutheran congregation in this city.
I suppose we could fill this sermon with stories about the situation the founders were fleeing from, but our time in this sermon will be better spent considering not what Redeemer’s founders fled from, but what they fled to. Today we thank God that his Holy Spirit gave Redeemer’s founders the desire to establish and build a church that was not interested in a social gospel but the saving gospel. Today we thank God that he brought together 13 faithful men and women in this community who began the push for a church that was built on the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. As we thank God for the blessings he has given to and through this congregation, we turn to several verses from the Second Lesson chosen for this anniversary service. That reading comes from a letter written by the Apostle Paul, and the excerpt we will consider describes the spiritual foundation and building materials of Christ’s church and of any Christian congregation. On this special occasion, Saint Paul encourages you, dear members of Redeemer Church: Keep building! Keep building this congregation on the proper foundation. Keep building this congregation with the proper materials.
A church building – any building for that matter – needs a proper and solid foundation. One of the reasons Redeemer exists today is because its founders recognized that the proper foundation was missing in their previous congregation. But what is that foundation? Paul tells us. “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Humanly speaking, Paul founded the congregation in Corinth that received this letter. Paul went so far as to call himself an “expert builder” – and as an apostle he had every right to call himself a master builder for Christ’s church. Yet he doesn’t take the slightest bit of credit for laying the Corinthians’ spiritual foundation. Paul said it was an undeserved gift of God’s grace that put him in the position to be an apostle.
Paul also acknowledged that the church’s proper foundation was established long before he came along. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Just one chapter earlier in this letter, Paul told the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). As far as Paul was concerned, any church that the Lord used him to establish must be built on the saving work of the Lord Jesus who endured the world’s punishment for sin at the cross.
Perhaps that point seems obvious. But a careful look at Paul’s words also addresses a problem that might not be so obvious. Paul’s original words imply that there is a problem not only when people try to replace the foundation of Jesus Christ, but also when they try to establish another foundation for the church alongside Jesus Christ. If someone were to suggest that the good news about Christ’s redeeming work is not enough to build the church on, or that the gospel message needs some additional support for the church to grow, Paul would have answered with an emphatic, “No!”
We need to watch out for a particular temptation on an occasion like this. As much as our New Man loves to give God the full credit for this congregation’s existence over the last four decades, our sinful flesh would love to feed our egos on an occasion like this. I still have relatives in the church that Redeemer’s founders broke away from. Perhaps some of you do too. Even if you don’t, you just have to read the religion articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to know that other Lutherans – representing the kind of Lutheranism Redeemer’s founders broke away from – have done everything in their power to diminish the Word of God and to ignore the will of God. And when we see that, it’s so easy to say, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). Paul said that it was the grace of God that led him to be a church builder, but we might think that God should be grateful that we grace him with our presence and offerings and efforts to keep this congregation afloat.
Paul was the author of 13 New Testament books and the founding pastor of many first-century congregations. In spite of that, 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 do any less, even on this occasion? When our lips praise God on Sunday but bark about everyone and everything else Monday through Saturday; when our Bibles are dutifully opened on Sunday but collect dust Monday through Saturday; when our confession of faith is proudly spoken on Sunday but sheepishly hidden Monday through Saturday – when an honest look at our hearts and lives reveals the inborn disease of original sin, who are we to think that this church is built on us and our contributions? If all our righteous acts are like filthy rags – to say nothing of our sin! – then what business do we have claiming credit for the existence or sustenance of Redeemer congregation? If the church is built on us in any way, the church will inevitably crumble into a rubble heap called hell, and we with it.
That is why we thank God today that his church and this congregation are not built on us! In fact, Redeemer’s foundation was laid long before Redeemer congregation even came to existence – even long before the creation of the world! Redeemer’s proper foundation is none other than Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. Could a greater foundation for God’s church exist? What greater news could this church be built on than the news that the Son of God became the Son of Mary to become your substitute under the law of God? What greater certainty could the church be built on than the certainty that Christ did battle with your sin and Satan on the cross and that his shed blood washes away all your sin? What greater confidence could the church be built on than the confidence that comes from Jesus’ doubt-dispelling victory over death and the grave on Easter morning? It is our Redeemer’s work on the entire Holy Christian Church is founded. And it is our Redeemer’s work on which Redeemer Church has been founded for the last 40 years of God’s grace.
The church I presently serve in the San Francisco area also operates a small Lutheran elementary school. Nearly every winter, the same problem arises in our school building. Winter is our rainy season; after heavy rains, the school classroom walls built into the hillside of our property frequently leak water. As the story has been related to me, the original plans called for an expensive method of waterproofing the walls, but financial reasons led to the decision to use a less expensive waterproofing method to save some money. I wasn’t around when that decision was made, so it’s hard for me to know exactly how the details played out, but I do know what happens every winter in those classrooms, and I certainly appreciate the lesson that can be learned. When you’re building, the materials you use are very important. Second-rate materials will lead to problems down the road.
Quality materials are important for a building. Quality materials are just as important for the spiritual building of the church. That’s the point that Paul wants us to understand as we look at some of the other verses from today’s Second Lesson. “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.” Paul describes physical building materials in order to get us to think about spiritual building materials. He doesn’t say what each item he has listed stands for. But we can notice a few things from Paul’s list of six potential building materials. Paul lists them in order of the most expensive to the least expensive. And his list has two types of materials: the first three that would survive a fire (gold, silver, stones), and the last three that would be burned up in a fire (wood, hay, straw). People living in the first century world would have appreciated Paul’s illustration. When fires swept through a city, the only thing left standing might be a temple with its large stones and gold and silver ornamentation.
Even though Paul doesn’t assign a particular meaning to each substance he lists, I think we can understand what he is saying. As we build the church on the foundation he has given us, there are proper building materials that will last. There are also building materials that will be burned up and not stand up to God’s test. The next few verses complete Paul’s point. “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. 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.”
Confessional Lutherans strive to hold on to everything in the Word of God, not altering, adding, or deleting anything from the inspired Scriptures. But we know that there are many other Christians and Christian churches who hold partly to the Word and partly to non-biblical teachings. At the Last Day, anything that is not founded squarely on God’s Word will be “burned up.” Outright false teachings, human traditions and human reason made equal to the Word, and anything else not found in Scripture will be shown to be worthless building materials as they are burned up by God’s judgment. Those who held to false teachings will not be lost if they had faith in Christ as their Savior, but the teachings they promoted and preached will be proven worthless. And that should be a wake-up call for all Christians, ourselves included, to build the church with nothing more or less than the whole council of God in the Bible.
Confessional Lutherans strive to hold on to everything in the Word of God, but Confessional Lutherans still need to be reminded that the church is only built with the proper materials. In the American “me-first” culture, it is easy to forget that. It is easy to think that our power and wisdom and creativity can expand the list of suitable building materials. There is certainly no harm building a float for the Fourth of July parade, but the float itself cannot convert people to Christ. There is no harm laying out a delicious table of deserts for fellowship hour, but those treats cannot feed souls with the Bread of Life. There was something neat about your Vacation Bible School program last summer, its space theme and the rocket launch on the last day of VBS, but that rocket cannot launch someone to heaven. There is something absolutely wonderful when Redeemer members volunteer next door at Lasata Nursing Home, but volunteering without confessing will not proclaim to others the precious gospel hope of heaven that awaits those who trust in Christ as their Savior.
The church is not founded on us, nor is the church built on our works. Rather, the church is founded on Christ, and the church is built with the proper building materials that we call the “means of grace.” Those building blocks and their symbols are before us today! There at the font, Pastor Kaiser baptized a 40-day old screaming heathen 34 years ago, who is now preaching to you this afternoon. Here from this pulpit and lectern, men like Becker, Gerlach, Kaiser, Jahn, Radsek, and now Rohrback have proclaimed to you the Word of God and pointed you to the Word who became flesh and lived among us as our Savior. Here at this altar, you have been fed and built up with the body and blood of Jesus that won your acquittal in the past, that delivers Christ’s forgiveness in the present, and that previews the heavenly banquet in your future. Here in this chancel, Pastor Rohrback stands before you each Sunday and builds up your faith by bringing to you the good news of peace with God and forgiveness through his Son’s redeeming work on the cross.
Perhaps we are so accustomed to these building blocks that we almost take them for granted, but should we? Here are the proper building materials that bring people to faith and that lead the angels of heaven to rejoice! Here are the proper building materials that build you up in your faith and sustain you through life and even in death. Here is the forgiveness and mercy of God delivered to you personally, dear Christian friend – and in the process, the church is built up with God’s divinely prescribed building materials.
When Redeemer’s church building was first built in 1973, plans were put in place for a second building phase. The second phase would have turned this present sanctuary into an educational wing, and a new sanctuary would be built toward the west. I know that there are new plans for expansion, and those plans are probably just as useful as the original expansion plans. But whether or not you build on to the physical church building, you still have all the materials you need to keep building. By God’s grace, you have had 40 years of faithful pastors and a confession of faith that has built this church on Christ as its proper foundation. For 40 years, Word, water, bread and wine have been used to build you up in the faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ. In our increasingly secular and postmodern world, those are blessings we dare not take for granted. And those are blessings that we dare not set aside. Redeemer Church, God has built you on the proper foundation. He has blessed you with the proper building materials. So take those materials, dear members of Redeemer Church, and keep building! Amen.