By Pastor Jack Hartman
Scripture: Matthew 16:13-18
Before I read the text, I want to set it in its context. Jesus is nearing the time of his death, and he is giving instructions to his disciples. In this passage, he is talking about the future coming of the church. The church at this time is not a reality. The church does not exist. The church comes into being at what we call Pentecost when God’s spirit came upon and among the people.
Let’s do a timeline. Jesus is speaking with his disciples in this text about the church. Some weeks pass, and Jesus is crucified and is resurrected from the dead. Then Jesus spends forty days in his resurrected power and at the end of those forty days ascends back into heaven. Ten days later, Pentecost happens, and the church is born.
Jesus – before his death and resurrection –wanted the disciples to know ahead of time about the church and what the foundation of the church would be. So hear the words of the gospel writer Matthew.
Text: 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,[a] the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter,[b] and on this rock[c] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
The word “church” is such a simple word. Everyone knows what church means, don’t they? How could they not know – especially in America where churches are everywhere? However, the basic question is this: Is the church today the church Jesus envisioned it to be? The answer is in the text from Matthew when Jesus states, “On this rock I will build my church.” What is the rock on which the church is built? That is the question we want to explore today.
Please pray with me: Gracious Holy Spirit, we humbly ask that you open our minds, our hearts, our spirits to understand what you want us to understand and apply to our lives. Let your message of love and truth shine through us. We ask this in the name of Jesus, the rock of the church.
Let’s look at our key verse again. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
The Catholic Church and the protestant church disagree completely on the interpretation of this text. The Catholic Church believes that Jesus is saying to Peter, you are the rock. Peter, you are the rock on which I will build my church. Therefore Peter is the first Pope of the church. Protestants disagree. Jesus was not saying Peter was the rock on which the church is built. Here is what is interesting. Peter’s name literally means “rock.” So what do you think of when you think of “rock?” Do you think of the rock as a boulder? Do you think of the rock as something much smaller like when you say, “I have a rock in my shoe.” The rock in that case is a pebble.
Jesus is using a play on words. The word for Peter is more accurately translated pebble. Peter the pebble. However, the word for “rock” Jesus used to describe the church is a boulder.
Jesus is really saying to Peter: Even though, Peter, you have correctly identified me as Christ, the Son of the living God, you are still a pebble. You always be a pebble. I think what happens after this conversation is absolutely amazing. It is almost comical if it were not so tragic. Here is the text: 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.” Jesus is making it very clear that he is going to die with great suffering in the city of Jerusalem, the most holy of all cities. Now remember, Peter has just told Jesus who he was, “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
So here is Peter’s response. “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Do you get the picture? Peter is saying, “Jesus, over here. Come with me.” Peter is doing this so he does not embarrass Jesus in front of the other disciples! Why does Peter take Jesus aside – away from the others? To rebuke him!
Are you kidding me? Peter is rebuking Jesus. He took Jesus aside so as not to embarrass Jesus in front of the other disciples. That is a strong word. It is not, “Jesus, do you think there might be another option?” It is not “Jesus, can we talk about this?” It is not, “Jesus, I don’t understand.” Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter is saying, “Sorry, Jesus, but you do not know what you are talking about. Jesus, you are so wrong! Jesus, get that idea out of your mind.” Remember I told you Peter is best-translated pebble and would always be a pebble. Someone best defined Peter as “ready, fire, aim.” Well, if Peter is not the rock on which the church is built, what is the rock.”
The rock is Peter’s confession of who Jesus is. Therefore, the foundation of the church is people like us confessing who Jesus is. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus himself is God in human form. Jesus, though he did face death and suffering in the holy city of Jerusalem, lives forevermore and reigns with God the father and God the Holy Spirit. That is the church’s message.
Our opening hymn’s first line is: “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” That verse ends with the words: “With his own blood he bought her and for her life he died.” So here is the bottom line. Jesus created the church – it belongs to him – and it is built on people confessing who he is and living that out in their daily lives and giving their witness to others.
When the word “church” is used in the Greek New Testament the word is - ἐκκλησία, ekkelsia, which means a called out assembly or a congregation. The church at that time did not have buildings. They were people who felt called out by Jesus to assemble regularly to understand how to live as called-out people. Remember, there are no church buildings.
Their focus was very clear. They were giving their testimonies of how Jesus who had lived among them had been put to death, but God had raised him from the dead, and they were eyewitnesses of all that had taken place. They were living out what Jesus meant when he said he would build his church on the rock – remember what it was? It was and is the confession of who he is.
Look at this text from the book of Acts, chapter 2. This is the first known sermon preached by those called out. Peter, the same Peter, is giving the sermon. Let me set the scene. Jesus has been put to death, has been resurrected, and has been with the disciples for several weeks. Now he has ascended back into heaven. Before leaving, he told his followers to stay in Jerusalem until the Spirit came upon them. That is the context when Peter gives this sermon.
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”
Peter is eye to eye with the people who were instrumental in getting Jesus crucified. He is speaking directly to them. He reminds them of what they did. But more importantly he shares what God has done. “God has raised him up. He is alive!” Peter’s witness is that we have seen him, talked to him, ate with him, and spent time with him. He is not dead. He is alive and will live forevermore!
The confession and proclamation of who Jesus is, is the rock on which the church is built. This church’s foundation is exactly the same. We are the ones to tell others of the resurrected power of Jesus. This is the witness of the church. That is the message we need to share. God lives and can make a difference in your life! That is what the word Ecclesia meant in the NT when it referred to the church – not a building – but a movement of people focused on Jesus and sharing his love and grace with everyone.
But in the third century the word for church got changed to a German word, Kirche, which means a location, a building. In the third century the ekklesia, the movement, began building churches, the Kirche, the place. The place, the building, became more important than the message. When I was in seminary, we began an inner-city after-school program before those programs were popular. Another person and I were assigned to a church in downtown Dayton, Ohio. We had met with the pastor and leadership of the church to explain that we wanted to help them reach the people in their changing neighborhood that was mainly African-American. We, as a class, developed the program. When my partner and I went to the church that first Wednesday afternoon, the Trustees had put chains and padlocks on every door, and one of them stood in front of each door. They told us, “We don’t want those kind of people in our church. They will only make a mess and destroy our property.” We never did get into that church. This church was about the building, not the message of Jesus.
Too often today, church people are more concerned about their buildings than they are about the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the power he has to change lives today.
You, as a church, are working on your building, but it is not about the Kirsch – the place - the building - it is about ekklesia, the movement. We want and need to spread the word that this Jesus who healed and forgave, that was put to death on a cross, was resurrected, and lives forever. He died to show the love of God, and he rose to prove the power of God. We want more and more people to know and receive Jesus as a part of their lives. The building is a tool to be used to reach out in the name of Jesus. It will enable the ekklesia, the movement in the place, to expand its existing programs and develop new programs that we may not even have dreamed possible yet.
In the last couple of years, Trinity church has been emphasizing its mission and its vision. Let me remind you of both of these because they are central to the church being the ekklesia in this place. Our mission is the same as the mission for all United Methodist Churches around the world. No matter where you go in the US or the world, you should find the same focus. So here is the mission of the church: The mission of the UMC is to preserve our buildings. What do you think? Is that the mission of our church? Wrong!
The mission of the UMC is to do what the people in the church want to do. Do you think that is the mission of the church? Wrong! Unfortunately, many people in the church do! The church is not ours; it belongs to Jesus. Jesus is clear about what the mission of the church is and must be. The mission of the UMC is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” So our church, the UMC, is aligned scripturally with the understanding Jesus had of the church. We are aligning the church with the New Testament Church to share the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the difference his resurrection makes in the lives of people.
Not only does Trinity church have a clear mission, it has a clear vision. The mission tells us what to do – that is, to make disciples and transform the world – but our vision explains how we are uniquely going to make that happen in and through this church. Do you remember what the vision of Trinity church is? Let me remind you. In fact, turn to the cover of your bulletin cover. Printed there is the vision of this church. The vision of the church is: “Growing in love and service through relationships with God and community. “
So our vision is to help people connect to God, the trinity – connect to God as a loving, caring father, the Son Jesus who offers abundant life now and eternal life forever, and the Holy Spirit that gives direction and guidance for daily life. The reality is that most people do not know God in their own lives. They may know something about God, but they do not have him as an integral part of their lives. This is our mission field. Jesus is expecting us as His church to make this your mission field and help people relate to God.
Once people have connected to God, the desire is that they – as well as us – grow in Christ. We have to understand our faith response to God as a life-long process. I want to illustrate growing in Christ by using this slinky. At one end, are persons who have no connection with God and have no good understanding of who he is. At the other end of the slinky is the most faithful, the most dedicated spiritual people you could ever meet. They are living witnesses of their faith and have a desire that others know who Jesus is.
You and I are somewhere between those two points. You may be here. Our task is to help you grow in your faith to here … then here … then here. The same is true for those who are not yet a part of the church. New people to the faith as well as those who have been long-term practitioners of the faith need to keep growing and becoming more and more like the disciples Jesus wants us to be. It is so important to understand the difference between ekkelsia and kirsch. It can be defined this way. Kirsch is measured by how many people fill the pews. The ekklesia is measured by how much these people are filled with Jesus.
The end result is that we want those who connect to grow in their faith to love one another. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." In fact, that love needs to be extended to everyone regardless. There are no exceptions. You do recall that the greatest criticism of Jesus is that he was extending the love of God to all persons – no exceptions.
So we have a mission: to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. We have a vision to get that done. We want us and others to grow in love and service with God and community.
Let me say again: This is why you are involved revitalizing your building. It is the tool to help you fulfill both its mission and vision of the church. I would like for you to expand your understanding of the building, but as a place where you will make more disciples of Jesus, where lives will be transformed, where people will come to know and accept the fullness of God and grow in their faith, and really learn how to accept and love all persons.
So my invitation today is to become involved in the movement – the Ekklesia – become involved in reaching out in the name of Jesus and make this a place where new disciples experience the love of Jesus, where lives are transformed, where people connect to God, grow in Christ, and learn to really love like Jesus loves.
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