The Incredible Invisible Church
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, November 13, 2022
Reading: Luke 21:5-19
Picture yourself in Manhattan on September 10th, 2001. Walking through the city streets, enjoying the late summer weather, you and your companions are marvelling at the sights of NYC, especially the Twin Towers that shoot up toward the sky, higher than all the other amazing skyscrapers in the city.
As you’re craning your neck to see just how high they go, one of your companions says that one day the world trade towers will be thrown down and crumble into a heap on the ground. Imagine how you might respond: “Are you out of your mind? These are sound structures, designed by the world’s top architects and engineers; they took years of work to erect and are meticulously maintained. It would be impossible to bring those down in one day.” What Jesus said to his followers in this morning’s scripture passage would have been received with that kind of shocked astonishment.
The temple in Jerusalem at the time when Jesus walked the earth is known as the second temple; it was the one that had been rebuilt, after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, on the foundation of King Solomon’s original temple. The walls of the Temple Mount were made of incredibly large stones, the small ones weighing a remarkable two to four tons. No mortar or any other binding material was used between the stones: stability was achieved by the pure weight of the stones, and by the precise way they were laid. The temple was a marvel of architecture in its time and considered to be virtually indestructible.
So, in verse five when Jesus prophesied, “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down,” I’m sure that even some of his closest followers fleetingly pondered the question of whether Jesus had been turning water into wine again! It must have taken a whole army, using the best methods of the time, to put just one of those stones in place. There was no way that it was just going to be toppled over.
But Jesus said it would happen, and in verses 8-12 he tells them what to watch for, the signs that this is about to happen, which include false prophets, armed conflict, natural disasters, and persecution against believers. And it happened, in fact, just as he predicted. The Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD had the temple as its focus, and it was set ablaze, and its walls were levelled. This also was a time when false Messiahs were a dime a dozen; and Christians suffered the worst recorded case of systemic persecution in history, under the direction of Emperor Nero, and we can read about these events in secular history books, as well as writings by early Christian scholars.
Whenever we put our faith in human constructs, there is a very high probability that our hopes and expectations will eventually be disappointed, no matter how secure we think they are. There was a time in our culture when Christianity was the dominant worldview, and it was not that long ago – most of us here today probably have some remembrance of it. People seem to have assumed it would always be that way, that it would become even more and more widespread. We called it “Christendom,” and we thought it was indestructible.
In an article from 2010 called “The Road Ahead for Renewal,” United Church minister Rev. Paul Miller wrote this: “The burgeoning and self-assured United Church of 1960 seems to have little in common with the beleaguered and bewildered church of [our time]... Let’s take 1965 as a symbolic year. The United Church was 40 years old and seemed poised to go from strength to strength. New churches were opening across the country every month. Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams. Life was good...The United Church [had] a wide influence. People [listened] to its leaders. More and more people [joined]. It reflected the mainstream Canadian culture.”[i]
But now, many churches – and even whole denominations – are feeling the foundations rumbling. And again, we see that false prophets abound, from nutcases on TV giving us their mathematical calculations for the end of the world to marketing gurus telling churches about how to improve their “brand recognition” as though the gospel were a “brand” or a product that needs to be sold to skeptical consumers. We’ve also seen the spread of what’s called “post-theistic theology” as though we’re somehow so sophisticated now, we’ve moved beyond God. Conflict abounds, sometimes over very serious issues; but there is also a lot of petty griping and nitpicking in churches.
As churches decline, people start scrambling after strategies for sustainability. But, going back to the article I mentioned, Paul Miller explains the cause of the decline in this way: “There was a downside, however, [to the rapid growth of the 60’s]. Breadth always comes at the cost of depth. As numbers went higher, expectations of church membership went lower. If you are going to ‘draw the circle wide’ enough to encompass anyone who wants to belong, you cannot make belonging too cumbersome. The 1960s may have been the time when churches were filling up, but” Miller says, “many of them were filling up with people who had an increasingly tenuous knowledge of and loose commitment to the Christian identity. We succeeded in growing the church but forgot how to make disciples.”
This points us to a long-held, complex teaching of Christianity known as the “Doctrine of the visible and the invisible church.” This doctrine has its foundations in the Bible, of course, and was articulated in the church as far back as St. Augustine in the 4th century and was upheld by both Luther and Calvin during the Protestant Reformation. The expression "Visible Church" was used by theologians, not to refer to a building, but to the members named on the rolls of a local church. In other words, all persons who are formal members of a local church, all those names that you can see in black and white when you print out the church’s membership list, are part of the “visible church.”
Throughout the church’s history, theologians maintained, however, that it is possible for someone to become a member of a local church for motives that have little to do with loving Jesus, and to claim to be Christian while being very far from knowing or following him. Jesus himself knew this, when he said in the New Testament, “Many will say on that day (the day they come face to face with the Lord), did we not do this and that in your name? Jesus will then say, "I never knew you".”
The “invisible church,” on the other hand, refers to those persons whose very hearts and souls have been regenerated or enlivened by the Holy Spirit, and are inclined to know and obey him. Of course, none of us can look into another person’s heart to see if they are truly united to Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. I can’t look out into this congregation and make that distinction. God alone can truly see the difference, and so that is why it is called the invisible church. And so, it falls to each one of us to examine our own heart in prayer and ask God to reveal to us whether our love for and commitment to him are genuine.
One of the questions we can ask ourselves is very closely tied to this morning’s scripture passage: If this temple were thrown down, if the church as we know it were to cease to exist, would we still gather to worship God? If the building were to be torn down, and the UCC folded as a denomination; if the organ were to seize up; if the whole choir and all the staff resigned en masse; if all of the dinners and concerts were cancelled; if all of your friends left the church, would you still gather with whoever was left – maybe in somebody’s home, or in a park, or a coffee shop – to study the Scriptures, to sing hymns, to share bread and wine, and to praise God?
Why is it important to know this? Because the church built by Christ, that is, the invisible church – the body of true believers that Jesus himself established – cannot be defeated, even if the visible church appears to be in turmoil. If what we love is the institution, then the decline of the institution will cause us anxiety. If what we love is Jesus Christ, then the demise of the institution may be disappointing to us – because, of course, we feel certain nostalgia for the institutions we are a part of – but it will not be catastrophic to our spiritual life.
In these verses, then, Jesus is telling his followers not to put their faith in things built by humans, not even those things that seem to be indestructible. Nothing built by humans can last. Even a church in the way we think of it – that is, a building, a congregation, a denomination – can’t last forever. The way the church is now is not the way it has been and or will be, but this thought should not alarm us if our hearts are fixed on Jesus.
While these verses contain much that is challenging for us to understand, and it would be easy to allow anxiety to get the better of us, they also contain striking words of comfort and encouragement for Jesus’ friends who were facing the upcoming destruction of their beloved temple. In verses 12-13 Jesus says, “Before all this occurs...you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.” Jesus actually says that the tense and uncertain times they will face will be an opportunity for them to share with others about the eternal life given to us through Jesus Christ.
Yet he says, “Make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” It is an opportunity, but they don’t need to come up with any fancy defence or marketing strategy for spreading the word. Because they have already committed their lives to being in close communion with God, immersing themselves in study and prayer, they will already be sensitive enough to the voice of God to be able to take his lead in times of trial. They don’t need a defence: the gospel is its own defence. They don’t need elaborately prepared membership programs: living a life that has been transformed by the Holy Spirit is a powerful marketing strategy.
Finally, in verses 18-19 he says, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Although Jesus had talked in verse 12 about the disciples being handed over for judgment to the synagogues and prisons, and in other parts of the gospels he talks about disciples being killed for their faith, here he says, “not a hair of their heads will perish.” And that is because the powers that can kill the body, cannot kill the spirits of those who cling to Christ. Many of the people to whom Jesus spoke these words were martyred for their faith. The visible church may be brought down, but the invisible church is eternal.
God has promised to guide our footsteps, even through these challenging times in the life of the Christian church. Our only task is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
It’s like one of my favourite stories, about a little boy who hated when his mother washed his hair, because the shampoo would run into his eyes, and the stinging would make him cry; and even though she would be very careful, and would reassure him, and tell him not to look down, every time his mother poured the water over his head to rinse away the shampoo, he would duck his head in fear...and the water and the shampoo would run right into his eyes.
So finally, with a gentle hand under his chin, she told her son to look right up into her eyes as she poured the water, and no matter how afraid he got, he should just keep his eyes fixed on hers. And sure enough, with his head raised to look at her smiling, reassuring face as she poured the water, all the shampoo ran down the back of his head and didn’t go into his eyes.
So, it is with our lives. If, in times of difficulty, we start looking around frantically for human solutions to the challenges we face, the challenges will overwhelm us. But when we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, though the world may be crumbling around us, our Lord will lead us safely through it. Amen.
[i] Miller, Paul. “The Road Ahead For Renewal” in Theological Digest and Outlook Vol. 26 no. 1, March 2010, page 5.