08.24.13 How to Build a Church Matthew 16:13-20 Sermon Summary
While what Peter said didn’t make him the Pope, it is foundational for the Christian church.
- Peter’s preeminent leadership in the Gospels and what it teaches us today
- The understanding and application of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God
- Common misconceptions about Jesus then and now
- Four lessons unique to Matthew for the church of his time and ours
- Some tough observations and a word of hope
- Questions for discussion and reflection
We have to give Peter his due. He was the one who walked on water and thought to build shrines on Mount Tabor. He is the one who cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant when Jesus was arrested. And it is he who answers correctly the question Jesus asks, “Who shall you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” For this answer, Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, but it doesn’t make him the first Pope.
The Papacy is part of a beautiful church polity that has served Christendom well. It isn’t the only way to organize the wider church, as the Protestant Reformation proved (too many times, actually!). The general understanding is that when Jesus renames Peter, which means “rock,” and then proclaims that, “On this rock I will build my church,” he established the Papacy with Peter as the first Pope.
What is lost in translation from Greek to English is the fact that petros, from which we get “Peter” and petra, upon which Jesus builds his church, refer to two different though related things. “Peter” refers to a rock, and petra refers to something like a cliff, something like a quarry from which a petros may be taken.
So Peter, universally recognized as the sometimes impetuous spokesperson for the disciples in the Gospels, is the spokesperson also for the church. He is the exemplar, the symbol, even a sacrament of sorts of the church. It is what Peter the Rock says that points to the cliff upon which Jesus builds his church. It is namely his confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of Jewish longing and divine promise, and that God is so present with us through Jesus that he is rightly understood to be the Son of God.
This is the church’s confession. It is contrasted in the preceding passage by the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” which refers to their teaching. They are mistaken not to recognize who Jesus is, so Jesus asks the question of the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” Apparently in Matthew’s first audience, there was some confusion about Jesus identity. Is he a reincarnation of John the Baptist? Is he the prophetic forerunner to the Messiah, that is, Elijah? Is he a prophet like Jeremiah or the others? These are the answers the disciples offer on behalf of others.
Today still there is confusion in the church over who Jesus is. Probably the greatest misconception about who Jesus is is that he is “my Savior.” It is confusing because the reason Jesus is anyone’s Savior is because he is everyone’s Savior. That we get this confused is evident when we casually identify who’s “in” and who’s “out.” It is evident in the way we treat those we deem “out.” That Jesus was known for not judging others and his church is known for being judgmental is proof we are still confused about his identity.
As important as what Peter confesses about Jesus, it is perhaps even more important to recognize what Matthew is teaching us through Jesus’ response to Peter. Only in Matthew does Jesus say four things, each of which is meant to remind us of what it means to be his disciples.
- “This was revealed to you by my Father.” The cliff upon which Jesus builds his church isn’t something we recognize on our own, in our “flesh and blood.” To see Jesus as Messiah and Son of God requires God Spirit revealing it to us. This is what we understand grace to mean.
- “Upon this rock, I will build my church.” As a pastor and church leader, I think about building the church all the time. I often get impatient and feel like a failure in this. Here Jesus reminds us that he is the one who builds the church. It doesn’t mean we have nothing to do (see below), but it does mean we don’t have to feel like a failure all the time. Here again is an example of what we mean by grace.
- “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” It is a fascinating depiction Jesus offers. What is the church’s relationship with the powers of death? On one hand, they will not prevail against us, which suggests we’re being attacked. On the other hand, the church is supposed to be right outside the gates, which suggests we’re the ones attacking. Given this dynamic, we shall not lose hope despite the presence of the powers of death on one hand, and we shall confront these powers in all their forms on the other.
- “To you are given the keys of the kingdom.” Here Jesus is referring to the church as the kingdom of heaven, and gives the keys to this kingdom to Peter, the church leader. What is more, Jesus promises that whatever Peter binds here will be bound in heaven, and the same for whatever he loosens. The church is the foretaste, or preview, of heaven. What we say and do here as the church should reflect what is true of heaven.
An example of this is whom we welcome in worship or at the table. Actually, “welcome” is too passive a word. Jesus told us not to “welcome” people to worship, but to go and “seek” them.
This causes me to wonder: Are we taking our ability to loosen and bind seriously? I think about this often in conversations with parents and grandparents: Why are so few of our sons and daughters and grandchildren no longer attending worship? Or why are there so few of people living near this building attending worship here? Or why are there so few of your neighbors, classmates, and workmates attending worship? If we say with Peter that Jesus is Messiah and the Son of God, then why are we not loosening and binding?
As Isaiah urged, we must not forget the quarry from which we are hewn. We cannot forget that God uses small things like an old childless couple to build big things, like descendants more numerous than the stars, one of which will be the Savior of the world. We must not forget that even a small act of kindness, the offer of service, or a simple invitation to worship can be used by God to build his church. In the process, we must not forget also that Jesus desires to build his church, and that the gates of Hades will not prevail over the church. But let us also not forget that we should be knocking on those very gates.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God? Do you find in Jesus as Messiah the fulfillment of God’s promises and your longings? Do you sense God’s presence with you in Jesus as the Son of God? What difference is this making in your life?
- If this is the confession upon which the church is built, are you participating in the building of that church? Do you offer hope in Christ the Messiah, and comfort in God’s presence through Christ the Son, to those around you? If no, why not?
- In what ways do you see Jesus’ identity being misunderstood in the church today? In what ways might you be misunderstanding who Jesus is? Are you open to being surprised by the person of Jesus?
- Do you get that you, like Peter, are a rock? You’re a part of that great quarry that is the church. In what ways, however small or big, can you be used by God to bear testimony to God’s salvation of the world through Christ and the church’s ministry?