I will build my church - Matthew 16:13-20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by reading to you an extract from an article which appeared in one of our national newspapers several years ago: ‘In an average English village today, Anglican worship has become little more than a dying bourgeois cult. A small cluster of motor cars may be seen outside the parish church when the service is in progress; the bells still ring joyously across the fields and meadows on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings, but fewer and fewer heed them, and those who do are predominantly middle-class, female and elderly. It must be desperately disheartening, and the Vicar often gives the impression of being dispirited and forlorn. Whatever zeal he may have had as an ordinand soon gets dissipated in an atmosphere of domestic care and indifference on the part of his flock. Small wonder, then, that in the pulpit he has little to say except to repeat the same old clerical banalities. He doubtless feels himself to be redundant. The villagers stoically die without his ministrations; they would resent any interruption to their evening telly if he ventured to make a call...In large cities the situation is not dissimilar.’ So wrote Malcolm Muggeridge some 20-30 years ago. The situation now, of course, is even worse, with the major denominations losing something like a 1500 members a week and with the average congregation size in York Diocese being in the region of 20. The poor image which the church has in the minds of many is often a sad reflection of the reality.
Of course in some ways the church is not alone in its struggle to attract and keep members. As someone has said, we live in a society of ‘reluctant joiners’, we are steadily producing a culture of non-commitment. So, couples are increasingly choosing to opt out of their marriage commitment, with the result that in Britain cohabiting has more than doubled in the last 25 years and almost one out of two marriages now end in divorce. Charities are finding it very difficult to get people to work for them on a voluntary basis. All political parties and Trade Unions have seen a sharp fall in membership. And the days of missionaries working overseas for life now seem numbered, with them increasingly being replaced with short term placements-non-commitment you see.
Now to a certain extent much of this is understandable, the degree to which we are willing to commit ourselves to a thing is dependent upon how highly we value it which in depends upon how we view it. And it seems to me that one of the reasons why even Bible -believing Christians often seem reluctant to give their all to the church is because they have never understood what being church really means. So over the next few weeks we are going to discover afresh and for some of us maybe for the very first time, what a glorious, breathtaking and exciting thing the church is. And we begin with what Jesus has to say on the matter in Matthew 16. So do turn with me to that passage.
Now this is a passage over which much ink, if not blood, has been spilt, dealing with questions such as whether Jesus is here instigating the papacy with Peter as the first pope. Well, to be frank that is to miss entirely the main point that Jesus is making .The focus is not on the relationship between Jesus and Peter as pope, but between Jesus and his people of which Peter is presented as a representative-in other words-the church. And I particularly want to us look at v18 where Jesus says : ‘ And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’
Now lets begin by asking : just what is this ‘church’ which Jesus speaks of as ‘my church’. Well, we must understand that in both the Greek and Hebrew it is a word which simply means a crowd, or a gathering ,or an assembly of people (ekklesia /qahal). So in Acts 19 for example, Luke in v32 describes the mob which was rioting in Ephesus as ‘the church’. They weren’t Christians, so this is not particularly a religious word, it is simply a term to describe a crowd on the rampage. Later on in v 39 a court of officials is called ‘the church’. So if Luke were around today and describing the cabinet meeting of Hull City Council he would no doubt talk about the ‘church’ meeting in the town hall-now there’s a thought for Pat Doyle! So ‘church’ is nothing more or less than a gathering of people. If there is no gathering, then by definition there is no church.
But of course here Jesus is not talking about any old gathering is he? He speaks of ‘my gathering.’ And as we look at the rest of the passage we find the answers to two very important questions: First, how does Jesus gather his people? And second, where does Jesus gather his people-his church?
So the answer to the question: how is God’s people gathered? Is that they are gathered by Christ himself. Jesus emphatically says, ‘I will build my church.’ And when we think of this building up of a people, it is occurs in two ways, quantitatively - in terms of numbers being added to the Jesus crowd, and qualitatively, as these people increasingly begin to reflect the character of Jesus himself, after all they are his people. And the means Jesus uses to do both of these things is the same- by the proclamation of the Gospel. That is how he calls people to belong to his crowd, in fact the very word ‘church', ekklesia suggests this, for it means those who are called together.
And this whole discussion between Jesus and his disciples underscores the fact that he calls people to himself and so to each other by a revelatory message. Here they are in Caesarea Philippi-non-Jew country, which might in itself be significant, pointing to the fact that Jesus also intends to have Gentiles amongst his people and not just Jews, when suddenly Jesus asks his followers ‘Who do people say that I am?’. And after they have reeled off the various theories, that he is some sort of spectacular prophet, Jesus asks them directly, ‘Yes, but who do you say that I am?’ In other words what do you lot believe about me? And as usual, Peter is the self-appointed spokesman for them all- v 16 ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And what does Jesus say? ‘Well done Peter, what a clever chap you are, you didn’t even have to phone a friend or go for fifty- fifty.’ No, ‘You are really blessed Simon son of Jonah for this was not revealed to you by man, but my Father in heaven’, as if to say, ‘It is not because you are the son of your father that you have insight so as to have made such a profound confession of faith, but it is my Father who has revealed this to you.’ And then we come to a little play on words, a pun, ‘I am going to reveal something to you, from now on you are Petros and on this petra I am going to build my church.’ Your name is Rock and on that ‘rock’ I am going to gather my people.
Now what is that all about? Well, just think about what it is that Simon Peter has just professed. It is in essence the gospel isn’t it? The Good news about who Jesus is - ‘The Son of the living God’ and what he came to do, to be ‘the Christ’, the one whom God has anointed to carry out his special mission of saving people from their sins. And through that message and indeed this person, Peter, Jesus began and continued to gather people to himself. Think of the day of Pentecost, it was Peter who stood up, proclaimed the Gospel and 3000 people were added to the church that day in Jerusalem. And it is as the word of the Gospel is proclaimed and believed in the power of the Holy Spirit, then the church is built. What is more it is the same Gospel in all its richness which continues to build God’s people in terms of their spiritual life ,that is why this same Peter, Rock, great name that isn't it? -can you imagine Rock Tinker, he writes in his first letter to several Christian gatherings‘ You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of the imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God...this is the word that was preached to you’ ( 1 Peter 1:23) -that is how these people were gathered in the first place, but they are to grow by, as he says. ‘ craving pure spiritual milk.’(2:1). People are saved by the Gospel and sanctified by the Gospel.
Now can you see why all true Christian ministry is to be Word centred ministry, teaching, sharing, proclaiming the truth about Jesus? Today in the West people are wondering why there is church decline, in stark contrast to say, Africa or Asia where thousands are being drawn to Christ on a daily basis. Well, there are plenty of reasons I am sure, but one thing is for certain, many churches here have simply lost confidence in the Gospel message itself and the belief that through the power of that message Christ builds his church. Yes we have to work hard at our communication skills, yes we have to meet people where they are at, but if the claims of Jesus Christ are not presented clearly and with conviction, or are obscured by other things, then do not be surprised if we do not see churches grow, as Jesus intends them to grow. Oh, you can grow a so called ‘church’ on all sorts of foundations- turn it into a social club, or revolve it around some entertaining personality, but it will not be a church built upon the rock Jesus speaks of as we see it embodied in the person and confession of Peter, the rock of the Gospel .That is what our African brothers and sisters know and experience. And why they pray so much, asking Christ to build his church .They have not been busy dismantling the Bible like we have in the west, or being half hearted in prayer, so only a handful turn up to the prayer meeting, they still believe it and they proclaim it and so it spreads like wildfire. And that is the conviction surely, that we need to recapture. Christians are gathered together by the Gospel.
But then we come to our second question: where is the church gathered? The answer, around Jesus. Christ gathers his people around himself. So where Jesus is, that is where his ‘crowd’ is .
So let me ask: where is Jesus now? Because that is where you will find his true church.
Well, first of all he is in heaven isn’t he? Seated at the right hand of God, surrounded by his people ,all those who have died trusting in him, believers from the Old Testament period right up to the present day. The writer to the Hebrews in chapter 12 speaks of this as the heavenly Zion, ‘the church of the firstborn enrolled in heaven.’ That is the primary church which Jesus is building and which the gates of Hades, that is death, cannot destroy. How can it, these people have already cheated death, since they are now alive with Christ in heaven, never to die again. And as the gospel is proclaimed, and people believe it, then they are automatically signed up to the everlasting church of heaven. Let me tell you that if you are a believer, your name is already on the heavenly membership list even as I speak, and nothing can take your name off it. Do you not find that reassuring? I know I do. No matter what might happen on earth, no matter what might happen to St John’s, my place amongst God’s people in heaven is guaranteed .This is what we mean when we say in the creed that ‘We believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic, church’. It has nothing to do with Roman Catholicism, ‘catholic’ simply means, universal, made up of all sorts of different people. Well, that is exactly what the church meeting in heaven is made up of- people from every race from every age. And it is one, there are not several churches meeting in heaven, only one crowd meeting around the one throne. And that is why we say we believe in this church, because we cannot yet see it, but one day we shall and what a day that will be. You have not yet seen a church which even begins to match up to that one, pure, vibrant, pulsating with love and unadorned beauty, engrossed in selfless adoration and praise of the one who died for them. You wont want to miss that church will you? Do not say church is boring. Not Christ’s church anyway-it is the only place in the universe where there is life.
But while Jesus is present bodily in heaven with his children gathered around him, he is also present on earth by His Spirit. So that when he people are gathered together by His Word as we are this morning, Jesus is actually moving amongst us, just as surely and just as real as when he was present with his disciples here in Caeserea Philippi. You can’t see him, but he is here nonetheless. Jesus says something to this effect in Matthew 18 the only other place where Jesus uses the term ‘Church’, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name -there is the Gospel again- there I am in their midst.’ Not, I may be there on the odd occasion, I am in their midst. Now that is truly awesome thought isn’t it? Just listen to this description of the Jesus who is with us at St Johns now, it is taken from Revelation 1: ‘When turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash round his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.’ The lampstands we are told are local churches, like ours, and yet Jesus is moving amongst each one of them. Now, knowing that, how does that affect your feeling about being here this morning? How does that affect you feeling about wanting to be here tonight and next week? For if you want to meet with Jesus, then you must meet with his people, for that is where you will find him.
So while there is only one church in heaven which Jesus is building and the gates of death cannot lay a finger on it, there are many churches on earth, which should be reflecting, mirroring the church in heaven. You might want to think of the relationship between each local church and the one true heavenly church like a spider plant. Each Gospel believing congregation is an offshoot, and albeit an imperfect replica of the church now meeting around the throne of Christ in glory. Do you see?
So what are some of the implications of this, I hope you agree, marvellous, view of the church?
First of all, we must get our thinking right. It means that by definition that a denomination is not a church, because it isn’t a gathering. Strictly speaking there isn’t a Church of England, there is a federation of churches called the Church of England. And just in case you think have lost it and that I am a few vouchers short of a pop up toaster let me read to you what article 19 of the Anglican 39 articles of belief says about what makes a church ‘ The visible church of Christ (as contrast to the invisible heavenly church) is a congregation of faithful men (that is Christian believers) ,in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered.’ Which is really all that we have been saying isn’t it? We are not part of the church in Hull, we are a church in Hull, a colony of Christ’s church in heaven.
But second we must get our priorities right. Our passionate concern should be to be working with Christ to build his church in heaven. Yes he is the one who does the building but he does it through people like you and me. So evangelism must be central to all that we do- reaching out to others ,prayerfully, lovingly so that they get enrolled in the great gathering of heaven- their eternal well being depends on that. We are not to be inward looking, but always outward looking. That is what this business of the keys in v 19 is all about ‘ I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth has been bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth has been loosed in heaven.’ In Luke 11, Jesus castigates the religious rulers of his day for taking away the key of knowledge so as to prevent people from entering God’s kingdom .But Peter and now all Christians through proclaiming the Gospel have the key to true knowledge, so that those who believe it are set free and those who continue to reject it are bound. What is Project Newland? It isn’t primarily a building project in terms of bricks and mortar, it is a kingdom project, a spiritual church building project if you like, to provide the facilities we need to do a far better job than we are doing in enabling men and women boys and girls come to know Jesus. And that is why every single one of us needs to keep on giving and praying for this exciting vision so we can be partners in real church building, Christ building his everlasting church through us. Now that is something to live for isn't it?
But we should also treasure this local gathering of Christ’s too. And I mean treasure it. The Lord Jesus loves his people meeting with him, and if he thought it worthwhile to give his life to enable that to happen the least we can do is to have the courtesy to meet and serve each other in whatever ways we can. ‘I will build my church,’ says Jesus, ‘and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’
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