Matthew 16: 13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 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. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”
So, St. Peter is at his desk before the Pearly Gates, telling people in line which elevator to take, up or down, when he notices that someone is trying to sneak what looks to be a very heavy leather satchel into heaven….
Wait a minute: just where did anyone ever even get the idea that, St. Peter stands at the Pearly Gates of heaven? And that Peter would have the authority to say, “You’re in; you’re out?”
That comes from taking Jesus’ words, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” and then piling one tradition onto another over the centuries, So, if Peter has the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he should be standing at the Pearly Gates with power to open or close them on people as he sees fit, right?
Well, that makes for a lot of good jokes. But it’s saying a lot more than Jesus ever intended, as I hope to show in this, the first of eight messages on the church. There will also be a few meetings and maybe a Sunday School session about this, with the aim of discussing and discerning whether church membership should be a covenant that we renew annually. More information on that to come. Even if we finally discern not to change anything, not to make regular membership renewals, I hope that the time we take to think about the why, the what and the how of church and our covenant to God and each other is fruitful and enriching for us.
Here’s a commitment I make to you about this series: that I will speak of church in relation to Jesus Christ. Because church stands or falls finally and only in its relationship to Jesus Christ. The church exists ultimately only because of the will and the work of Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ, apart from Jesus Christ, what, finally, then, is the point of church? And that’s why the first of these messages comes from Jesus’ own words about the church, especially the words of verses 18 and 19: “…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”
We need to go back to the basics, because this is a tough time for the church. Today we are being squeezed in the pincers of two scandals, one of them of the church’s own making. In Europe, the historic church cathedrals that dot the landscape everywhere are now more like museums and mausoleums, empty more often than not, sometimes even during times of worship. Here in America, gone are the days when the New York Times could publish an article about how church attendance would boost your chance at landing a job. Now, job applicants wonder and worry about putting church membership, or their leadership of a college campus Christian group, on their resumes. Will a potential employer see that and assume that I am judgmental, hateful, hypocritical, politically of just one persuasion, and pushy about my beliefs? That’s what a lot of people think of Christians and the church anymore, for reasons I can understand. Add things like sex abuse scandals, or self-serving political engagement, or financial mismanagement, and, we all suffer from the scandal of the church’s self-inflicted wounds and bruises, whether we are guilty of them or not.
But if we were perfectly virtuous, and seamlessly practiced everything we preach, why would we come off any better than Jesus did? For his virtues and sinless perfection, he got a cross. His grace, his goodness and his gospel often scandalize the world. That’s why persecution of the church is increasing in those parts of the world where the church is growing. Like in China, because Christians, in their faithfulness to Jesus, cannot be trusted to participate in the resurgence of Chinese nationalism, militarism, Communism and imperialism. It’s why the church is so fiercely persecuted in Eritrea: because loyalty to Jesus stands athwart the personality cult of its dictator, and its connections to Christians in other countries threatened the war effort against neighboring Ethiopia.
Here, as Western societies slide ever deeper into moral relativism, hedonism, consumerism and post-modernism, some people take the very existence of people who live by firm and ancient values and beliefs as offensive and oppressive to themselves. The church is being squeezed between two scandals: the very avoidable, regrettable scandals of the church’s own making, and the unavoidable scandal of Christ and his cross. Both scandals contribute to decreasing church membership and attendance today.
Some say that therefore, we must back pedal and soft pedal the cost and commitments of church, and so lighten the load of scandal in the eyes of the world. Some even wonder, Why even bother with church? If church is so compromised, complicated, costly and unpopular, wouldn’t it be easier to follow Jesus without it, on my own? But I would ask, “What’s the point in seeking the applause and approval of the world if it will be just as scandalized by our faithfulness as by our lack of faithfulness?”
I perceive this then to be a time of purification, as the church gets whittled down to those who most want the God whom Jesus Christ embodies and represents, and the eternal life that he gives. For we’re getting less and less of anything else people might have once expected from church, like social status, respectability, prosperity and power. That is how it has most often been for the church of Jesus Christ in most times and places, and perhaps that is as it should be. Therefore, I believe that, in times like these, we must take our commitments to Christ and to each other more seriously, not less. For only Christ’s love for us is eternally and unconditionally guaranteed. Again, the church stands or falls in the eyes of Jesus Christ, not the world.
When Jesus posed the question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he did so in a place and time where Peter’s answer would also have scandalized many: Caesarea Philippi. That was the nerve center of Greek and Roman culture, power, religion and empire in First Century Palestine. There a devout Jew would find his spirit stressed by temples and statues of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, plus stations and symbols of Roman imperial power and morality. Peter’s reply to Jesus’ question— “Who do you say that I am?” — was risky and gutsy in that setting: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
I bet some disciples were tempted to say, “Shhhh: not so loud, Peter! Don’t let them hear you call this poor, homeless Jewish carpenter and rabbi from Nazareth, ‘the Son of God!” Not when there’s a shrine and a statue down the street to Emperor Augustus Caesar, ‘the son of the Gods,’ and another a shrine and statue of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, his successor, the current ‘son of the gods?’ Or in the shadow of the shrines to other Greek and Roman gods, like Mars, the god of war, and their divine sons and daughters.”
To hear how we sometimes describe the gospel, Jesus should have then said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah…for you will go to heaven with me.” It would be true. That’s what Jesus told the penitent thief on the cross next to his: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
But Jesus went straight from Peter’s confession to saying, “18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hadeswill not overcome it.” Church then must be pretty important to Jesus.
That, by the way, includes several jokes of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Jesus does have a sense of humor. The first has to do with Simon’s new name. Simon comes across in the Gospels as cowardly, impulsive, impetuous, with a tendency to shoot-first-and-aim later, and to open-mouth-and-insert-foot. And Jesus calls him “Peter,” which roughly means, “Rocky.”
Here’s why that’s funny: Any football fans here remember Jerry Ball, former defensive linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings? He was so tall, wide and heavy that people joked, “He should have his own zip code.” Calling Simon, “Peter,” or “Rocky,” is like calling Jerry Ball, “Shrimpy,” or a skinny, 90-pound weakling, “Brutus.” But Jesus is looking at Simon’s potential, not his past. He sees what God can do through Simon in God’s own divine power, and not what Simon cannot do in his human weakness. Aren’t you glad that Jesus looks at each of us that way, too?
There’s also a pun in the two rocks, when Jesus says, “You are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church.” Our Roman Catholic friends say that Peter, the Rock, and the rock on which Jesus is building his church, are one and the same rock. That’s why every church and every pastor and every ministry of theirs must somehow connect back to Peter, who became the Bishop of Rome.
I, however, agree with Protestants and Pentecostals and Anabaptists who say that the rock on which Jesus is building his church is not Peter himself, but Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The grammar and the two different forms of the word, “Rock,” in Greek, make people think so. In that case, Jesus is building his church not upon any one person but upon the faith and the confession that all churches and Christians share: that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
And there you have all you need most for church. Wherever and whenever there is Jesus, and someone who trusts him and confesses him as the promised Hebrew Messiah—the Christ—and “Son of God”–Israel’s king, and God’s self-expression in flesh– there you have the church. That also means that the very first gathering of the very first church ever took shape out in the open, on the road, in the sight and shadow of pagan imperial shrines, gods and idols. Take away our sanctuaries, denominations, clergy, committees, whatever, and as long as you have Jesus, present at least in his Holy Spirit, plus people who confess him as Christ, Lord and Son of God, you have the church.
And there we have the first of two reasons given in this passage why Jesus would build his church, and why church is so important to him: to carry forward Peter’s confession, that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” For Peter’s confession is the key that opens the gates to the kingdom of heaven to everyone and anyone. In that way Peter can be said to have “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” We also carry those keys, if we share his faith, and have made his confession.
So, the first reason Jesus gives for the church, why it is so important to him, is that there might be ever and everywhere be those who carry forward Peter’s confession, in word and deed, in witness, worship and work.
The second reason for the church might sound strange coming from a pacifist Anabaptist preacher in a pacifist Anabaptist Mennonite Church about Jesus, the Prince of Peace: that Jesus is building the church to carry forward Jesus’ combat against what he calls “the gates of hades,” or “hell” as some of your translations might put it.
What are “the gates of hades?” The simplest answer I have found in the Bible itself is “death.” “Hades” is an ancient word for “the abode of the dead.” Most simply, Jesus is saying, “I will build my church, which will never die. Nothing can kill it off; not even killing it will kill it.”
Now, death and “the gates of Hades,” also have to do with the evil spiritual powers of death, the devil, demons, the Accuser, Satan, however we want to name the personal forces of death and evil. I know that kind of talk might rub modern and postmodern people the wrong way; it might sound medieval and outdated to some. We can try to have the kingdom of heaven without the kingdom of Hades, or hell, or the devil, but Jesus did not. He brings the kingdom of heaven into the world like an invasion, to conquer and replace the kingdom of Hades, or hell.
That makes the church something more like an army, than a social club or an ethnic family heritage center, or a weekly drive-in inspiration station. Only this is the army that sheds no blood, led by the warrior-king who shed his own blood, for friend and foe. This army’s enemies are not the flesh-and-blood people who would want to kill it, but death and killing themselves. And every other form of evil. And the spiritual powers of evil behind them.
According to Jesus, this army is not to be hiding behind the walls of the church to defend it from the spiritual forces of death and evil trying to batter down our gates. His army is to be out and banging at the gates of hell, just like Jesus did when he lived, died and rose from the dead. And it is to fight with the same weapons which Jesus used. For, as John the Beloved put, “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil.” He did so with prayer, fasting, and worship, with words and works of mercy, of healing, of service and compassion, preaching, teaching and truth-telling.
The keys to the kingdom, which Jesus gave Peter, are also the keys to Jesus’ armory, his weapons room, so that we can use the same weapons he used in the same war that he is fighting. Our confession itself, that Jesus is the Christ and Son of the Living God, shakes the bars of hell’s gates and dismays the devils inside.
Those of us who, for example, are teaching English or citizenship to our immigrant friends and family, letting them know that they are loved and welcome, not feared, keep it up, because you are thereby banging on “the gates of Hades.” Those of us who are teaching Sunday School, or Vacation Bible School, or serving people in or out of church in any ministry of witness, hospitality, labor, support, encouragement or prayer, you’re fighting in the army that sheds no blood to batter down the gates that keep people in bondage to the powers of death. Those of you engaged in feeding the hungry, keep it up, you’re scaring the hell out of hell, reminding them that they are on the losing side.
But like in any army, a solitary Christian on his or her own, outside the ranks, with no one at his side, no one at his back, can expect only one outcome: to be either a casualty or a prisoner. All the more reason why church is so important to me as well as to Jesus: because I can’t be any kind of Christian on my own, not for long. I know the church is bruised and broken, that it is mixed up, messed up, too often the army that shoots its wounded.
But I don’t say that as someone looking down on the church. I don’t want to hear any more critiques of the church from any who consider the church beneath themselves, or who consider themselves superior to it. Ask me what’s wrong with the church and I’ll give you the same answer that G. K. Chesterton gave to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”
In the fallenness and frailty, the brokenness, confusion and craziness, which every Christian shares, we need our brothers and sisters more, not less. How else would we have ever known about Jesus and eternal life, if there had never been church to confess him Lord and Christ and Son of God? So, to the church, not just here, but worldwide, not just now, but through all time, I say another thing that Peter said to Jesus: “To whom else can I go? You have the words of eternal life.” Especially the words of that soul-transforming, death-defying, hell-busting confession: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Oh, and as for the man carrying the heavy leather bag up to St. Peter’s desk at the Pearly Gates, that could never have happened, by the way. But if it had, Peter would have looked inside the bag and seen a dozen gold bricks. The man brought them because he wanted to be as rich and powerful in heaven as he had been on earth. And Peter would have looked at the man in surprise and shock and said, “Paving stones? You went through all this trouble to bring us worthless, excess paving stones?”