What is the Church? (A Sermon on Matthew 16:13-25)

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Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

I remember once hearing an elderly European gentleman compare his time in the church to his experience of a Nazi field hospital that he’d visited during his time as an infantry soldier during World War II. He’d been injured, though not seriously, but had been told to report to the field hospital. When he got to the field hospital there were two doors – one for officers and one for enlisted men. He took the second door, as he wasn’t an officer. He then found two more doors – one for Nazi party members, one for non-members. He took that latter door as he was not a member. This led him to another set of doors – one saying ’seriously injured’ and one saying ’not seriously injured’. He took the latter door and found himself back out on the street. He returned to his camp and his friend asked him how he found the hospital. He said, ’well, it didn’t do a lot for me, but they are tremendously efficient!’
And I think that does sum up the experience of church for many people – perhaps particularly the higher up the church hierarchy you climb – that we don’t seem to do a lot for anybody, but our efficiency is fantastic! Thankfully, we get a rather different image of the church altogether in our Gospel reading today – a reading that began, you might remember, with some discussion not about the church as such, but about the identity of Jesus.
‘Who are people saying that I am?’ Jesus asks his disciples, and evidently there were a variety of opinions circulating. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” And if you’re familiar with the characters that they are comparing Jesus to, you’ll appreciate exactly what they are saying. People are saying that Jesus is one of the great ones – like Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius or Oprah, depending on who your favourite wisdom teacher is.
People say lots of things about Jesus. People have always said lots of things about Jesus, and for the most part they have been favourable things. Humanity over the ages has recognised Jesus as (at least) one of the great ones – a great thinker, a great teacher, a great person, a great leader. And you might think that that would be enough, but it doesn’t seem to be enough for Jesus, at least so far as His disciples are concerned. So he says to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ And Peter says, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. In other words, ‘you are not one of the great ones. You are the great one – God’s chosen one, the Christ, the Son of the living God!’
Which this leads us to the answer we were looking for, to our question about the identity of the church. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”.
This is the church – it is the community that is built upon Peter, as the first brick in the building of living stones that Jesus is going to construct, and not simply Peter because he’s a great guy and a fantastic fisherman, but Peter as the bearer of this confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”
This articulation of the faith is indeed the essential foundation-stone. On this the community of faith is built – on the confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God!
Now let’s take a moment to recognise the significance of that. For it means that the church is not about the teaching – not fundamentally. It’s not fundamentally about loving your neighbour, nor about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, nor even about forgiveness – not fundamentally. What the church is fundamentally about is Jesus – not the teachings of Jesus but the person of Jesus and identity of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
That may strike you as rather weird when you think about it. It certainly makes Christianity somewhat unique in the world of religions. Normally a faith is centred around a book or a body of teaching, and not around an individual, but this is the very nature of the Church. She takes her starting point not from the book or the teaching but from this discovery that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and nothing is more essential than that.
Some people think that’s where Christianity went wrong – focusing on the person of Jesus rather than on His wisdom and His teaching. A good friend of mine who is a human rights activist thinks this is why the Church has so often gone off-track – because we focus on the person of Jesus rather than on the power of the Beatitudes – ‘blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the pure in heart’, etc. – which she would say are the core of his teaching.
And you may agree with her that this focus on the person of Jesus is a big mistake, but even so, the church is what it is, and the Christian faith is what it is, and that was reflected entirely in the creed we repeated this morning.
Perhaps you haven’t thought about it much, as we repeat the ancient creeds of the church, week by week – that these fundamental statements of the church’s faith never make any reference to Jesus’ teachings! Scour each of the three historic creeds – the Apostle’s creed, the Nicean creed and the Athanasian creed – and you’ll find that there’s not a single quote from the beatitudes in them nor any reference to any of Jesus’ parables. What we do get instead is a series of historic statements about the person of Jesus and what happened to him.
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate
etc.
This is the Christian faith. This is the church. This is what we are about. We are about Jesus! The church, Karl Barth said, is simply “the crater reflecting the impact of the coming of Jesus in history.” It has no significance beyond that – beyond bearing witness to the identity and to the impact of the person of Jesus.
Now I could leave this sermon here, on this rather triumphal note, recognising the glorious role of the church in bearing witness to the identity of Christ in our world, (and I’m betting that most of our visitors who aren’t used to sitting quietly while someone prattles on forever like this would be quite happy if I left it here) but I’m conscious of the fact that our Bible reading does not leave it here because Jesus Himself did not leave things there, but, we’re told that He immediately then started talking to His disciples about his coming sufferings:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
This gets a harsh response from Peter, who, we are told, starts telling Jesus off, saying that these things are never going to happen, to which Jesus responds with even greater severity: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
It is quite bizarre, I think, that in the space of just a few sentences you get Jesus blessing Peter and affirming Peter, and then you get Him calling the same guy ‘Satan’, who would hardly seem like the appropriate character to have as the foundational member of your church.
I imagine that Peter must have found this a little confusing, and rather deflating, but the only explanation for this complete change of attitude, I think, is that Peter, who was totally right about the identity of Jesus, was simultaneously totally wrong in his understanding of what that meant.
Peter intuited that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God, but he evidently associated that role with regal power and might, and not with suffering and death, and who can blame him?
We don’t have to go into any lengthy analysis of the Messianic expectations of Jesus’ 1st century contemporaries to work out that the God-appointed deliverer that everybody was hoping for was someone whom people presumed was going to make things a whole lot better. If Jesus was the Christ, God’s Son, then surely He was going to be powerful, and surely He was going to change things for the better. And surely latching on to that gravy-train was going to mean sharing in that power and journeying with Him to ever greater glory?
After all, isn’t that why people take up a religion? Isn’t that why people have always adopted a religion – because they think it will improve their lives in some way? And isn’t this, in truth, why we bring people for baptism – because we think we’re giving our little people the right start and helping to set them on a track that will lead to a better, more fulfilling and happier life?
And yet, as Jesus ends this dialogue with His disciples, the only thing He promises them is more of the same sort of treatment as is going to befall Him:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

And so we are left with this image of Peter – who embodies the whole church at this point – getting it totally right, and yet simultaneously getting it totally wrong! Peter is totally right about the identity of Jesus as God’s Messiah, yet he is totally wrong in his understanding of who God’s Messiah was supposed to be.
Peter was right in recognising Jesus as the Son of the living God, but completely off track if he thought that being Son of God was all about power and prestige. And if he thought that following the Son of God was going to be a path towards wealth and success and spiritual self-improvement he had another thing coming!
And this too is the church – saying all the right things about Jesus but completely losing track of who He is and what He is on about! This has indeed been the sad history of the church – so often seduced by power and the desire for worldly glory that we have completely lost track of the path of sacrifice and service that Christ Himself trod and in which He called his disciples to likewise walk.
For Jesus, being Son of God was all about service, and there is no service without sacrifice, and no sacrifice without pain. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
And so I respond to my friend who says that the problem with the church is that we focus on the person of Jesus instead of on His teaching, by suggesting that maybe the problem is rather that we forget who the person of Jesus is – confuse him with some political power-figure or self-help guru – and so fail to see Him as the servant King who calls us to follow Him in the path of self-sacrifice and love.
And so we welcome our new brother to the church! But to which church – to the glorious church of God that holds fast the eternal confession about the true identity of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, or the dithering and hypocritical church that repeatedly gets Jesus wrong and confuses Him with some self-help guru or worldly power-monger?
Well … to both, and unfortunately sometimes to the church that resembles the Nazi field hospital as well, in all its useless efficiency. For, for better or for worse, this is Christ’s church as we experience her – a bizarre mixture of wisdom and ignorance, of glory and shame, of love and judgementalism, of joy and struggle, of divinity and humanity.
And yet we hold fast to our confession, believing that if we continue to invoke the name of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, that He might yet transform us into His image, draw us ever more closely into His way of self-sacrificial service, and so lead us to become the community of love that we were always destined to be.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 2008.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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