“Things Jesus Didn’t Say: Church Should Make You Happy”
A Sermon on Matthew 16:21-26
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
August 25, 2019 – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
This is the last sermon in our sermon series “Things Jesus Didn’t Say.” And y’all, I saved the hardest for last. Today, we’re going to talk about a phrase that no one explicitly attributes to Jesus, but we all assume he meant. We’re going to talk to a phrase that is a baseline for much of how we view our journeys of faith, but that leads us astray. Today’s phrase is this: Jesus never said, “Church should make you happy.” Now, I mean a very specific definition of the word happy. Church should absolutely make us joyful, but sometimes we confuse Christian joy with shallow, momentary happiness – the same happiness you get from your coffee order being right, or wearing your favorite shirt, or walking into church and realizing someone brought donuts. In other words, happiness as consumer satisfaction. The purpose of church, of the Christian life, is not to cater to our preferences, make us feel comfortable, or give us an easy pathway. Christian community and our journey together is sometimes very hard; if we put our surface level happiness above all else, we’ve missed the point of the Gospel entirely. Church isn’t supposed to make us happy, it should help make us holy.
Church should, as I said, absolutely give you joy. We can even have fun in church, and do frequently. Last week we had a service that was very different – it was meaningful, but also intentionally fun. We eat together, play games together, hug, hand out candy, and all sorts of fun, happy things. It’s fine for church to make you happy. But there’s a deeper level to that we call “joy.” Joy is peace and thankfulness even when things get rough. Joy allows us to weather the rough patches of life. God’s joy is the thing that let’s us proclaim our hope for redemption in the face of sin. Joy is an important spiritual discipline and gift. Church should make you joyful.
Philippians 4 tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always.”[i] But just two chapters earlier, Philippians also tells us this: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”[ii] Sometimes, beloved, we confused our joy or reasonable happiness with the satisfaction of our own interests; with what our Gospel reading might call setting our mind on human things rather than divine things. I’ll put it this way: Sometimes we put church member preferences ahead of our mission. Friends, God never promised us that the church would make us happy by meeting all of our preferences.
Sometimes, we expect the church to be exactly the way we personally like it. If we don’t like the hymns on a Sunday, we consider it a waste. If we don’t like the preacher, we stop showing up. If we don’t like a decision made by session, we refuse to serve on session ever again. It’s these moments that we refer to the church possessively. “This is my church, and I want…” We begin to confuse the body of Christ with a consumer good, like a car that should come with certain bells and whistles. I will say, Trinity is better about this than many churches. You are often willing to work together to come up with compromise, and are almost always happy to try new things. But even here, we like things just the way we like them. If you’ve ever been involved in a church conflict, there’s a good chance it came down not to the church’s mission, but to member preference. I see it time and again. Sometimes my own preferences even get in the way.
Let me give you some examples. I’m going to read a list of things that we are not planning on doing here at Trinity. Let me repeat, none of these are serious suggestions. I made them all up. But just imagine how you would feel if one Sunday, we announced that Trinity was going to:
· Put screens in the sanctuary and used them every Sunday instead of hymnals.
· Stopped singing songs entirely and instead only chanted…in Latin.
· Removed all of our pews and replaced them with chairs.
· Converted our sanctuary into a shelter for homeless men with drug addictions.
· Eliminated our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.
· Stopped worshipping on Sunday morning and moved our service to Saturday evening, instead.
· Never had another potluck.
· Hold church in a storefront, sell our building, and donate all the money to charity.
Did you have a reaction to any of those? Some of you may have liked a few, but I imagine most of you would not love these ideas. Not in our church. Again, none of these are actual suggestions. But I will tell you, they are all things that other churches have done in recent years. You know why? Because none of those things are actually required to be a genuine Christian community. Because, in some contexts, the people discerned that changes would serve the mission, so they put their preferences aside. They discerned that’s what God would have them do, and they did it – even though a lot of these were hard decisions. I wonder what of our preferences at Trinity we might need to give up to more faithfully follow God?
In our Gospel reading today, Peter has some clear preferences that Jesus refuses to meet. To be fair to Peter, his preference is that Jesus doesn’t die. Jesus is going around foretelling his death, and Peter gets peeved. So much so that he takes aside our Lord and Savior, and “rebukes” him, saying “God forbid it, Lord!” Not in my church. And then Jesus says my favorite put-down in the Bible: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things by on human things.” Peter was focused on the idea of avoiding suffering. Peter wanted things to be easier, to meet his definition of success…to be happy. But Jesus knew a harder truth: Sometimes the life of faith means suffering. Jesus was faithful all the way to the cross. And I guarantee you, it didn’t make him happy – not in a shallow way, at least. Jesus knows that we sometimes have to endure things – things much worse than just not singing our favorite hymn or disliking a new wall color in the church.
And in the face of this conversation about hard things, Jesus doesn’t say “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll take care of all the hard stuff.” He doesn’t say “Eh, once we’re done with the crucifixion, it’s all uphill!” He doesn’t say “This should make you happy.” Instead, he invites us to take up our own crosses and follow him. Jesus doesn’t promise us happiness – but he does promise us a way to resurrection.
We live in a world where our comfort and our preference rules above all. Happiness has become an idol for us. There are even churches that preach that God’s goal is to give you rewards for being a Christian. That’s call the prosperity gospel, and it’s untrue. Even with churches catering to our desire for instant happiness, in the last 20 years, church membership has dropped by about 20%.[iii] Do you know the reasons people often gave for leaving the church? They didn’t like the worship style. The church’s politics didn’t match their own. They just aren’t that into organized religion. They mean to go to church but it’s just so hard to get up early and give up part of the weekend. The church doesn’t meet their preferences. The church didn’t make them happy. The life of faith is not for the faint of heart.
Let me be clear, church shouldn’t make you miserable. If it does, there’s something wrong. The church is not infallible, and we have been guilty of abusing our own many times. But I invite you to not confuse institutional failure with momentary discomfort. All of us will have to put up with things in church that aren’t our choice. Sometimes we have to trust in the Lord and not lean on our own understanding. And that often means things that give us holy discomfort rather than momentary happiness.
I tell you all this not to introduce some big change – I’m not aware of any we’re making right now. I end the series with this sermon because time and again I see churches, even ours, make ministry choices based on preference rather than mission. Preference is not an essential issue. There’s nothing wrong with a church that meets some of our preferences, but there is everything wrong with a ministry that is only based on preference. Church can make us happy, but that’s not the goal. Church should make us better, holier. Church should welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give voice to the oppressed, and spread the good news. And the hard news today is that’s not always a comfortable process. Sometimes we are called to give things up and to take up a cross. That’s ok.
Following Jesus means not always getting what we want. It means compromise. It means giving up on our preferences to meet a shared goal. It’s not always fun. It’s not always easy. But, my friends, it’s what we’re called to do. There will be moments of joy and moments of suffering and everything in between. That’s ok. Because ultimately, church is not about our preferences. It’s not about us; it’s about God. And when we turn toward God, our happiness passes into joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Philippians 4:4
[ii] Philippians 2:3-4