A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 16:13-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March 19th, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 12/15)
While out visiting with a deacon, we came to the home of some delinquent members who had not been in church for a long while. When we knocked, they opened the door, but did not invite us in. After I introduced myself, I explained that we missed them and would love to have them back with us in worship. They answered, “They now worshiped through their TV each Sunday.” The church on TV had become their church.
I tried to counter this ridiculous notion by reminding them that Scripture tells us not to forsake assembling together. What my German church would have encouraged me to do would have been to inform them, that if they did return, they would be put on probation. After six months to a year of not attending, church leadership would have then requested to the congregation to have their membership expunged, unless they renewed their commitment to participation in Christ’s church. I'm not sure such a warning like this would be welcomed or appreciated in most American churches.
So, what attitude should we have toward the church? We certainly don't take our church or church covenants that serious today. Most understand participation in a church as just another volunteer organization. We attend when we feel like it, and we participate when we want. Over half of those who were baptized and still have their names on church membership rolls, don't attend at all; nor do they move or remove their membership. In many ways, church does not have the meaning it used too, nor does the church have any elevated place in our lives, unless we were to tamper with those membership rolls.
“I Will Build My Church”
Is the church in decline in our western culture? Certainly the traditional church that has been a part of the established way of live in western culture is. So are most other institutions in the west too. As folk song writer Bob Dylan sings, “The times, they are a changing.”
Late last summer, CBS Morning News was interviewing two smart, young, entrepreneurial-types; one had dropped out of Harvard, and the other left MIT. They left their respective schools to start a new kind of online financial website, allowing businesses and individuals to hold, loan, borrow, and exchange money, without the need of a bank, and sometimes even without the need of money itself. Along with this they had also designed software that gave financial advice, replacing the need for bank tellers, financial advisors, or any kind of human interaction. They explained, “Millennials don't like to go to banks, don't care to write checks, don't like using ATMs, and most would not know what to say if they went up to a teller.” Now that is moving a long ways into a ‘brave’, or should I say, not-so-brave, new world.
In out text today, Simon Peter was very brave. He was brave enough to become the very first person to openly declare his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the long-promised and expected Messiah and redeemer of Israel. Hearing Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus responds: “I will build my church”; my ekklessia, assembly, or this meant literally: my ‘called out ones.’
Called out of what, for what? What is the ‘holy catholic church’, as it is named in the creed, called to become? Now, we must first understand that this word ‘catholic’ does not mean Roman Catholic, but catholic simply reflects the Greek word for universal. It means, as the gospel says, that the church of Jesus is supposed to extend it ministry, message, and mission into the whole world.
What it most basically means to be called out to be “church” is expressed most beautifully in the most catholic and universal epistle; the letter to the Ephesians. Expressing why the church came (or was called out), about Paul: “…Although you were dead in your transgressions and sins…God, being rich in mercy because of his great love…made us alive together with Christ—by grace are you saved! (Eph. 2: 1-5). That the “why” of the church and the “how” of it comes next, in words meant for people like us: “You (Gentiles, without the Messiah)…having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12), …who used to be far away, have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v.13). Now, pay attention to how he concludes: “…YOU HAVE BEEN BUILT on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with CHRIST himself as the cornerstone…in whom YOU ARE BEING BUILT TOGETHER into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v.20-22).
Don’t miss the specific image of “building” being used. It goes back to what Jesus says in our text, when he responded to Simon Peter, “On this Rock, I will build my church!” Paul actually saw this ‘church’ being ‘built’ and becoming reality. As Paul wrote: ‘Because of God’s great love’...‘those having no hope and without God in the world’ were being ‘built’ to become the ‘building’ and ‘a holy temple in the Lord’ (v. 21). Paul goes on to set the tone for the rest of his letter, which he writes from his prison in Rome: “... I urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called….” (NET, 4:1). This very calling is to be the ‘building’ and ‘the body’ of Christ (Col. 1.24, Rom. 7:4; 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 3.6). It is to be the people called out to become the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v.22).
Several years ago, Teresa visited Turkey. We didn’t get to see very much of what is now, modern Turkey, but we did get to see the remarkable remains of that great, ancient Roman city called Ephesus. Interestingly, Ephesus used to be a port city, but now the Sea is 2 miles away. That’s reflects just how long ago it was and how things have changed. Still, many foundations of those ancient structures and buildings once standing in the city, still remain. I got to see where Paul preached in an old outdoor amphitheater, still there. We saw remains of aqueducts and of Roman baths, all designed with some of the very first plumbing. We also saw the Gate of Augustus, the grand old Library of Celsus, and several other old foundations, still there after 2,000 years. But do you know what we did not see there? We did not see any remains of a church building. And do you know why? The church was not, has never been, and can never actually be reduced to being ‘a building’. The church is made up of the people, whom Paul addressed in this great letter to the Ephesians, as ‘the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 1:1).
We need to be reminded, first of all, that the Church Jesus ‘built’ was not a building, nor was it originally an institution. Faith in Jesus gave birth to the church, but that faith was not officially institutionalize until about 250 years later. That happened when the Roman Emperor Constantine was said to have been converted. He then made Christianity the accepted, official religion of the Roman Empire. It is only then, almost 300 years after Jesus that the people called ‘church’ began to move out of homes to worship in buildings.
Ever since those days, the Church has had an established presence in Western Society. However, what we see happening today, in our own time, is that institutional church is facing great challenge and unprecedented changed. Some even dare to suggest that this increasingly ‘anti-establishment’ culture of ours, will either change everything, including the church.
The real question that remains for the church to answer is not; how will we continue to keep people coming to our old, historical, church buildings and forms of worship? No, the better question to ask is, rather, will there be a faithful people, who are still being ‘called out’ to become, as Peter said in his letter: ‘living stones,…built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood…offering spiritual sacrifices…to proclaim the virtues of the one who called (us) out of darkness into his marvelous light. Then Peter adds so eloquently, echoing Paul: Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy” (v.10).
Peter’s words should remind us of something else. Because the church is not a building, but is a people, it must continue being built in every generation. This means the church is always on the edge of life or death. In each generation, somebody has to come to know and realize “God’s mercy”. Someone has to come ‘out of darkness into his marvelous light’. If this is happening, the church always has vitality, life, and energy. IF this does not happen; and if we fail to pass on this ‘merciful’ faith of light and life; or if we the people, lose our faith; or can’t see the value of it; fail to live out the importance of it---then, we, in this generation, or any generation, become the terminal generation of a church, and the church where we live, will die. While the church can’t die in God’s heart, it is capable of dying in our hearts. This is always possible because the church is not, in its essence, a building nor institution. The church is a people. So, to have life in this generation, or the next, the church must be an answering, responsive people to the redeeming love of God.
“Upon this Rock I Will Build My Church”
It is exactly this kind of living, ‘responsive,’ redeemed people Jesus meant when he said, “ON THIS ROCK, I will build my Church.” Even though Jesus nicknamed Peter “Rocky,” the ‘rock’ Jesus was referring to was not merely Peter himself. The ‘rock’ was Peter’s response of faith, which pointed directly to Jesus as the God’s chosen Messiah, the Christ. And like Peter, we too are ‘called out’ to keep building the church by pointing to Jesus, becoming ‘living stones’ that build the church through our own rock-solid confessions.
But what kind of confession is “rock-solid” enough to point to Jesus and build the church for today? Jesus underscored the kind of confession it takes to build, and to keep building his church, when he told the simple parable of comparing a house build on the sand verses a house built on a rock. A house build on sand crumbles when the storms come, but a house built upon the rock stands. What kind of rock-solid faith did Jesus mean? Jesus went on to declare that a confession of faith based only upon words, (words without actions), builds a faith-house that crumbles. Only those who ‘do the will of the father’ build a house that stands and survives (Matt. 7: 24-27).
THE CHURCH IS ONE: Perhaps the most classic text on what it actually means, in nuts and
bolts terms, to build a church that not only says it believes, but also behaves as a church
should, so that we keep building the church, also comes from the letter to the Ephesians, in
the fourth chapter, where Paul speaks clearly about ‘living worthily of the calling with which
you’ve been called’ (4:1, NET). His main focus here is what it takes to build a church, or make
a church, which is an understanding and commitment of ‘unity’ or ‘oneness’. “Make every
effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…(4:4ff). Paul goes on to remind the
Ephesians that there is ONE body…ONE Spirit.. ONE Hope…ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE
Baptism, ONE God and Father of all… A confession of faith that builds, and keeps building
the church is a confession that lives a commitment to ‘oneness’ in God’s Spirit. Scholars of
the Church call this the first ‘mark of the church’.
THE CHURCH IS HOLY: The next ‘mark’ that builds and keeps building the church is a
commitment to growing into holiness. Paul says that by living a new, different, ‘way of
righteousness and holiness’ (4:30). “Be Holy, for I am Holy” goes all the back to God’s call to
Israel (Lev 11:44; 19:22, Isa 35:8), but continues in the New Testament call to be the church.
As Peter wrote, “…like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your
conduct (1 Pet. 1:15). What is important to understand here is that by calling the church to
be holy, Paul is does not mean living morally perfect lives, but he means living our lives based
a desire to grow spiritual, and to develop morally, but more than anything else, to live our lives
as a people who are called to lead lives that answer God’s call and purpose. Listen to how
Peter puts in the most classic terms of what it means to be holy as God’s people, the church:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that
you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous
light” (1 Pet 2:9). Here, the point is not moral perfection, but God’s choice to have a ‘people
of his own’ or as the KJV says, to have ‘a peculiar people’. When we say that we should strive
to be ‘holy as the Lord is holy’, it is about being willing to grow and be used of God, and want
to be Christ-like in how we live and want we do with our lives.
THE CHURCH IS CATHOLIC: When the creed uses the word ‘holy catholic church’, it means that
the true church of Jesus Christ has a concern and heart for the world. While the church begins
with a ‘local’ vision of ministry and mission, that local vision must also include a world vision,
so that the local church attempts to answer the great commission of Jesus ‘to go into all the
world’ (KJV) or ‘make disciples of all nations’ (NET). The church is to differ from the world,
but it is also ‘in the world’ and is ‘the light of the world’ and to be responsible ‘to go the
world’ with the good news of the gospel. This ‘world-wide’ concern also means that we
should work with and relate to others Christians and even non-Christians who are also trying
to do good works in the world.
THE CHURCH IS APOSTOLIC: In our Baptist churches, we would probably not use the word
‘catholic’, but we should live what it means. The final major ‘mark’ of a faithful church is, not
in the Creed, but should be lived out by us, as it is very biblical. The church today, if it wants
to be a Church that is faithful to the best traditions and teachings of the church, must work to
also be a ‘biblical’ church that constantly goes back to, and builds upon the original ‘apostle’s
teaching’ (Acts 2:42-47). Today, we consider the original ‘apostle’s teaching’ or ‘apostolic
faith’ to be to work to be ‘biblical’ in justifying our church’s faith, ministry and mission. It
remaining faithful to things like weekly worship, daily prayer, fellowship, discipleship, ministry
in the community and mission to the world. These are the kinds of actions and activities we
must not just believe in, but also engage in, and practice, to keep building the church for our
own time. When we fail to be church, the church puts itself at great risk.
“I WILL GIVE YOU THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM”
But as we conclude, the question comes back to what that couple meant, when I visited their door and they answered, ‘TV is our Church’. What they were in fact saying, was that the actual, living, active, and faithful body of people called the church, where I live, where I participate and who Christ embodies doesn’t really matter. That is what Christians say when they don’t participate in a church that impacts the very community in which they live.
Of course, our society is much more influenced by the ‘ways of the world’ than the ‘calling of Jesus’ and the ‘call to be church’. So, what does this matter? What does it matter if we live by our ‘options’ rather than live for God’s purposes? To live by God’s purposes means that we build the church as a ‘holy’ people who become a local body of believers who living, fellowshipping, serving, ministering and worshiping right in the middle of the community where they live? Our modern and very mobile world offers us all other ways, options, and choices to be church. But those are all ‘our’ choices! What about God’s choice, God’s purpose, and God’s plan for the church? What about his call for us to be ‘salt and light’ and to offer Christ’s ‘salvation’ and ‘ministry’ to our ‘neighbor’? For you see, when Jesus ‘blessed’ Peter’s faith as true foundation of the church, he also gave that church ‘the keys to the kingdom’ and he gave the authority that be ‘binding, not only influencing the outcome of what happens ‘on earth’ but also having the ‘power’ to impact what happens ‘in heaven’ (Matt. 16:19). What does this mean for the church to have ‘the keys to the kingdom’?
Back in 1992, Germany was going through incredible changes as East and West reunited. As you can imagine, there was a lot of social unrest, based on insecurity, change and fear. Even ‘good’ changes invite unrest. That was also the time we moved into eastern Germany to serve a small Baptist group as pastor and missionaries. Our very first week in the apartment in our city, we heard crowds marching and bombs going off not too far in the distant. Then one day is abruptly and suddenly stopped. Later we discovered that our located in our city was a home for refugees. It was a place where people would come from other countries seeking safety from political or religious persecution. Neo-Nazis and Skin Heads, that is the ‘Republikaner’ party were gathering to protest the presence of the refugees and were trying to frighten them into going back home by throwing ‘fire bombs’ over the fence that enclosed the facility. The night the bombings stopped, was the night the local Lutheran Church organized itself, and marched straight into the middle of those ‘skin heads’ with a large cross, calling for peace, love and a halt to the hate.
This is exactly how I still visualize what it means to be church. You cannot go up against the evil, sickness, and ugliness of this world without a ‘people’ who will pick up the cross, and put their own life on the line for the sake of “God’s love” for the world. The church is not perfect, but it is ‘perfected’ by being faithful to Jesus’ call to ‘take up the cross and to follow’ by serving as a witness to Jesus Christ, as his saving power that can still save the world, through the calling and work of the church, as his Christ’s body that is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. You just can’t serve the world by watching church on TV. You have to ‘take up the cross’ and be the church in the world. Amen.