Don’t Tear Apart the Church

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

One of the benefits of our live-streaming is the comments we receive from all of you in Christ Church, but also other folks we’ve never met. One of those viewers left a question: “What about Satan?”

Not sure what the viewer wanted to know about Satan. Does he exist? Are we vulnerable to him? How do we deal with him? What about Satan?

Jesus is pretty straight forward on this one. There is a conflict with God’s message of love to the world because an enemy – the Devil – has sown the weeds. Now you and I live in the 21st century. You won’t get a lot of push back talking about “God.” But talk about Satan, talk about “the Devil.” That just sounds so medieval, doesn’t it? No one believes in the Devil anymore, do they?

In Belle Plaine, Minnesota, there is a Veterans Memorial Park. In that park is a walkway with rows of American flags on either side that leads up to a Huey helicopter and a granite monument with the engraved names of residents who died in past wars.

The New York Times reports that soon there could be a monument sponsored by the Satanic Temple. It would be a black steel cube with a golden inverted pentagram on each side and an empty soldier’s helmet on the top. But oddly enough, even the members of the Satanic Temple, who are pushing for their monument, don’t believe there is a devil. Their founder says, “We are non-theistic.” So even the founder of a group called the Satanic Temple does not want to acknowledge that there is Satan, the Devil, the Enemy.

Jesus had no problem stating very clearly that there is a devil. Not only did he say that there is a devil, he said that the devil is very active in the world sowing his seed.

The Devil has been at work to derail the church since the church’s very beginning. Church members in Jerusalem were executed by the religious establishment. Paul, himself, was on his own personal crusade to root out and dispatch church members.

Then, as the church spread from Jerusalem throughout the Roman Empire, the Roman emperors joined in the persecution. Christians were covered in wax and then lit up as human torches for Emperor Nero’s sport. Some were boiled in oil. You hear these horrors and it’s not hard to see the hand of Satan at work.

This continued for the first 300 years of the church’s history. And a strange thing happened. Persecution was having an opposite effect on the church. Throughout three hundred years of persecution, the church grew. Indeed, the church thrived. One early church father said, “The blood of the saints is the seed of the church.”

Satan was foiled. So in 313 AD, the persecution came to an end. This happened because the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity. The church moved from an underground movement to the religion of the realm.

That’s when Satan took changed his strategy. He began his campaign to destroy the church from within. Early on you had the different heresies that cropped up and had to be resolved through the church councils.

In the Middle Ages, you had corruption in the church leadership. The Pope initiated a little fund raising program to build his big cathedral in Rome. He sold indulgences to shorten your time in purgatory – or to shorten the time for your relatives who might have predeceased you.

Then, of course, during the Reformation period, there were the burnings that took place  in England. Devout Christian men like Archbishop Cranmer, torched by a bitter queen. All in the name of God.

It’s understandable that the faithful might ask, “Why do you allow this, Lord?  Why don’t you strike down these emissaries of Satan?” Jesus answers that with his parable.

A sower comes and plants wheat in a field. But after that seed was sown, and second sower came by the same field and planted some weeds called darnel in that same field.

Darnel is somewhat poisonous, so you have to separate it out from the wheat. You can’t do that while it’s growing; because in its early stages it looks just like wheat. You need to wait till it’s grown tall and you can distinguish it from the wheat. But by then, its root structure has thoroughly intertwined with the wheat. Pull out the darnel and you pull the wheat with it too. The second sower has effectively sabotaged the wheat field.

That really happened in ancient times. A disgruntled neighbor might sneak over to his neighbor’s field at night and sow weeds. We know this happened because there was a statute on the Roman law books prohibiting this practice. It was also common practice in ancient warfare to destroy the enemy’s agricultural base. If the enemy army couldn’t eat, they couldn’t fight.

The parable tells us that the Kingdom of God – that is, the Church – has been infiltrated. There are those who profess to be “church members.”  But are they? Do they believe that Jesus is the unique and only begotten Son of God? Do they believe that they are indeed sinners bound for hell unless they change course in life? Do they believe that accepting Jesus as their savior and the Lord of their life is the only way they will escape Hell? And have they intentionally submitted to the Lordship of Christ?

Unless they answer “Yes” to all those questions, they’re not in the Kingdom of God. They are not wheat, they’re weeds. So why would someone who is a weed choose to be part of a church?

Different people have different reasons for joining a church. In the sixties it was a good way to meet people who could be prospective customers or clients. A lot of companies encourage their agents to join churches. But you saw the same thing back in the year 313 AD when the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity. Suddenly, if you wanted to advance in the bureaucracy, then you joined the Emperor’s religion. That’s when we started seeing nominal Christians – people who were Christian in name, but not belief.

A lot of people join a church to find a social circle and make new friends. And that’s great as a first step. But just being a member of an organization won’t save them from hell.

You can have weeds pasturing churches. These pastors might have started out looking orthodox, but somewhere along the way, they took a left turn. They no longer believe. But they continue in the church – in some cases to the detriment of the flock.

You remember the Rev. Jim Jones of the Kool-Aid fame. He was ordained by the Independent Assemblies of God in 1957 and again by the Disciples of Christ in 1964. Was he always a poisonous weed among the wheat? Did he ever profess orthodox faith? You really can’t tell until the weed matures.

I was just talking to a well-respected leader in a local church the other day. There is no denying his genuine faith in Christ. Not only that, this man is bearing fruit for Christ. He came to faith in a church pastured by a charismatic leader. But today, the charismatic leader is preaching a strange Gospel, a false Gospel. Even though there are a lot of believers that continue in his congregation.

There will be those among the faithful who are used by the Devil to thwart Gods’ work in the church. How can we identify them? What are the tell-tale signs? Jesus parable tells us we can’t in the beginning. They look and talk and act like the faithful. So what do we do? We do what Jesus has always commanded: Love your enemies. And let God do the judging. Very simple: We love and let God judge.

But there’s this timing issue. Why does God allow these people free rein in the church? They can be destructive and make things difficult for the wheat. Oddly enough, He delays his judgment for the faithful, for the wheat. He holds off for us. I think of this parable in August every year. Because in August crab grass starts appearing in my lawn.

Now my next door neighbor, Pete, has a lawn that is the envy of everyone in the neighborhood. Somehow he gets those sprinkler working just right so there are no brown spots. And not a weed in site.

Not so for me. I aspire to have a lawn like Pete. So every year when the crabgrass starts sprouting, I try to get ahead of the game and weed it out. And some of it comes up pretty easily. But there’s this other kind that is intertwined with the good grass. I’ve tried poisons, but they don’t work. So one year I just went at it and pulled out a patch.

Big mistake. What was left was a patch of dirt in the middle of the lawn. The meager blades of good grass came out along with the crab grass. Their roots were intertwined. Had I just left everything alone, the crab grass would have died out at the end of summer and the good grass would have grown back.

Weeds and wheat have roots that are intertwined. But God is gracious. He understands that peoples’ lives are intertwined with one another. Rip out the weeds and you rip out the good wheat with them. So God holds off until judgment day.

Not everyone in the church is necessarily a believer, a disciple of Jesus. How can we tell the difference? We really can’t in most cases. Understand also that we have a real enemy who would like nothing better than to sow discord and division within God’s church.

But the good news is that we have the weapon to demolish both the Enemy of God’s church and the weeds that would destroy his church. It’s the same weapon that Christ wielded on the cross. We are reminded of it every time we gather around the Lord’s table. It’s the weapon of love. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. And you shall love – not just your fellow Christian – but your neighbor as yourself.

We let God sort out the rest in his time.