The Building of the Church

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
Sunday, August 27, 2017

Matthew 16: 13-20 (NRSV)
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And 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. 18And 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. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

In Nazi Germany, one of the many ways Hitler sought to gain power over the country and people was through the Protestant Church. In the early-1930s, the Third Reich began working to draw the Christian Church into the control of the regime. While the Nazis were successful to some degree in establishing a state-run church, there were still many churches, pastors, and Christians who resisted the control of the regime over the affairs of the church. Early on, it was pretty innocuous, but eventually, the state was essentially establishing the doctrine of the Protestant Church in Germany. Over time, the Protestant Reich Church came to look more and more like the government that was running it, defrocking clergy of Jewish descent, or clergy who were married to non-Aryans, and pushing out of membership any Christians who had converted from Judaism.

Throughout this time, there was a growing movement of pastors and churches who sought to fight the control of the regime. In the mid-1930s, when the Third Reich began to push out clergy and laity of Jewish descent, even though they were professing Christians, several of the dissenting clergy wrote a reasoned but firm letter to Hitler. In this letter, they protested the regime’s anti-Christian tendencies, they denounced anti-Semitism, and they demanded that the Third Reich terminate interference with the internal affairs of the Protestant Church. The response of the government was not good. Hundreds of dissenting pastors were arrested. Executives of the loosely affiliated churches were executed in concentration camps. The Third Reich confiscated the funds of any church that would not sign on with the regime, and they forbid the collection of offerings or funds in any way. In the midst of it all, the Nazi minister of Church Affairs said this, “Positive Christianity is National Socialism…National Socialism is the doing of God’s will…[People] have tried to tell me that Christianity consists in faith in Christ as the Son of God. That makes me laugh…Christianity is not dependent on the Apostles’ Creed…but is represented by the party…the German people are now called by the Fuhrer to a real Christianity…the Fuhrer is the herald of a new revelation.”

After that, the Christian Churches opposed to Nazi control went “underground” so to speak. They met in secret and collected offerings in secret. They would even collect IDs and citizenship papers sometimes to alter and give to Jews. They held secret seminaries to train pastors, and these seminaries would move around, from the home of one sympathetic to another. They called themselves the Confessing Church because they were based on a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. At a time when an oppressive regime was trying to co-opt Christianity and make it something it is not, the Confessing Church maintained to the best of their ability the church of Jesus Christ.

The text we heard a few moments ago lets us listen in on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. And it all begins with this question from Jesus, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples first answer with some sort of generic responses that basically equate Jesus with well-known prophets—John the Baptist, Elijah, and others. But then his question gets more personal, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered resolutely, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This is something wholly different from the prophets before, and Peter recognizes that truth. Jesus isn’t just another mouthpiece of God, he is the promised Messiah. Without hesitation, Peter confesses his faith in Jesus Christ, the Savior.

What follows is the founding of Christ’s earthly church. Jesus says, “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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Now, there’s a lot going on here, and many different ways of interpreting this passage. For example, most of you are probably familiar with the Catholic understanding of this passage, that Peter truly is the rock upon which Christ’s church is built. For this reason, the church at the Vatican is named St. Peter’s Basilica, and body of Peter is buried beneath the great Cathedral. Peter certainly was instrumental in establishing the early church following Christ’s death and resurrection; however, I think Christ’s meaning here is a bit broader. When I read this passage, what I understand Christ to mean is that the foundation of the church is not Peter, but rather Peter’s testimony, his confession of faith.

That’s why I told you the story of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. We get so caught up in thinking of the church in all these different ways that are really only secondary to what the church truly is. So, for example we think of the church denominationally. We are a United Methodist Church, which is different from the Church of God on the next block, or the Presbyterian Church, or Baptist Church down the road. Or we think of the Church as an institution, which is an organization bound by established laws, or practices, or customs. So the leadership of the institution becomes an important factor, and there is often a hierarchy of leadership within a church. Or we think of the Church as a building, the place we go to worship, or to study the Bible, or to pray. And certainly, the Church is all these things in practice, but all of these aspects of the Church are ultimately only secondary. That’s what we need to hear and understand as Christ establishes his Church.

First and foremost, the Church is people who confess Christ. Primarily, the Church is faithful people who make that faith in Christ the foundation of their lives, and who continually profess Christ in the world. The foundation of the Church is the confession of faith; the Church is nothing without that. And we look less and less like the Church as we downplay the primacy of that confession. That’s why the Confessing Church of Nazi Germany was so important. At a time when there was immense pressure for the Church to “conform to the world,” so to speak, the Confessing Church held on to what was true. At a time when their lives were threatened for defiance, they abandoned their buildings and went “underground” in order to maintain the Church as it should be. To some degree, this hearkens back to the earliest Church, when the faithful were forced to gather in secret for fear of being punished by the Roman Empire. What’s truly amazing is that even under such circumstances, the Church grew exponentially. It just goes to show, doesn’t it?

The Church is not a Temple. It’s not a building or an institution or a denomination. The Church is an article of faith. It is a community whose identity is grounded in and shaped by Christ’s own identity and mission. I think it’s interesting to think about the fact that any of the twelve disciples could’ve been named “Peter.” For that matter, any disciple at any point in history could carry that title because it’s not about the person, it’s about the confession of faith in Christ the Messiah. This is a confession that all Christians make. And the “keys to the kingdom” aren’t just given to one person, the “keys to the kingdom” are the new life that is offered to all who profess faith in Christ and offer their lives to him. That’s why the “gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Hades is death. The Kingdom is life, and life comes through faith in Christ. When we cling to this truth and proclaim it faithfully in the world, we are being the Church as Christ intended it, in the best sense possible.

You know this question, “Who do you say that I am?” is massively important. And how we answer it matters a great deal because that is the core of our identity and the foundation of Christ’s Church on earth. Yet so often, we get caught up in the institution of the Church, and the Church building. This passage makes me wonder, what would it be like to just abandon the Church building? To walk away from here out into the world as a community of faithful Christ-followers? Are we even willing to do that? Are we willing to abandon everything in order to make our faith in Christ primary? These are the questions this passage raises. These are the challenges we need to be working through, whether it’s about a building, or an institution, or our jobs, or families, or our possessions, we all have these things that get in the way of us fully living and practicing our faith. There are these times when we hesitate to profess faith in Christ with the certainty that Peter exhibited. But we can do better. We should do better. And when we do better, we, by the power of Christ, build the Church.

I want to close with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a theologian and leader of the Confessing Church. He was hanged by Nazis on April 9, 1945, one month before the war ended. These are some of the final words of his book, The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes, “It is only because we are identified with [Christ] that we can become like him…We pay no attention to our own lives or the new image which we bear, for then we should at once have forfeited it, since it is only to serve as a mirror for the image of Christ on whom our gaze is fixed. The disciple looks solely at his Master.”

“Who do you say that I am?” As we look to our Master, our answer to that question matters a great deal. It is the foundation of the Church and the key to life. When it comes to building the Church, what matters is not the earthly structures, but our faithful, unwavering confession of Christ the Messiah. So…what’s your answer?

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