Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow as I continue the 13-week series on The Apostles’ Creed. Tomorrow we come to the phrase, “I Believe in the Church.” I hope your Sunday is a great one!
I Believe In The Church
13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14They 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?”
16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And 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. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” — Matthew 16:13-19 NIV
Down To Earth Faith
We have come to that part of the Apostles’ Creed concerning the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday we looked at the statement, “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” and noted that the Creed is divided into three sections. The first section affirms our belief in God the Father; the second section, our belief in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord; and this section affirms our belief in the Holy Spirit.
The statements in this section are brief, to the point, and packed full of meaning. Today we come to the statement about the church. If we pick up the “I believe” part from the opening words of this section, we would affirm, “I believe in…the holy, catholic church; [and] the communion of saints…”
That’s it — four words for the church, and four more to describe the indescribable relationship of all God’s people, the communion of saints.
But what we also need to notice here is that the scene shifts. Our attention moves from the past to the present. From heaven to earth. From that which is other-worldly, to that which exists now. We move right down here where we live, to the church.
And, when we say we “believe in the church” we do not mean that in the same way as when we say, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only, son our Lord.” We do not even mean it the same way as our affirmation that we “believe in the Holy Spirit.”
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the Persons of the Trinity. By affirming our belief in them, we affirm they exist, they are unique, and they are worthy of our worship, obedience, and love. But our belief in the church is different. When we say we believe in the “holy, catholic church” — or even just “the church” — we are affirming God’s gathering of the church, Jesus as head of the church, and our place in the church here and now, and in the age to come. This affirmation also means we share a common belief, a common family, a common place with others in the present and coming Kingdom of God.
To say I believe in the church is to say I believe in the people of God, I believe in family, I believe in those who are with me now, those who have gone before, and those who will come after in this crazy, patchwork quilt of humanity touched by God we call the church. We are not affirming belief in some idea of the church, some abstraction, but in the real church, with all its messiness, failure, and struggle. We are affirming that God is at work in this church, and in all of God’s churches wherever they are, and whatever they look like.
Some Hints About the Church
We get some hints about the church from this passage we just read today. Jesus’ ministry is well underway. The initial euphoria of being with Jesus has faded, and he and the disciples are now in the day-to-day mission of announcing the Kingdom of God with both words and deeds.
But not everyone gets it. Some have followed for the food. Some have sought out Jesus for healing, either for themselves or others. Many have been amazed by his teaching, only to drift back into the routine of their lives without changing what they do.
Others have expressed and acted out their opposition, none more vehemently than in Jesus’ own home town of Nazareth. There they heard him proudly until he began “puttin’ on airs” and sounding likely a phony, if not dangerous, messiah. There they ran him out of town.
Of course, the rumor mill was working overtime, as they say. Imagine life in a community without television, radio, newspapers, magazine, telephone or the internet. How did people communicate? Well, they communicated the same way we do today — they talked to each other about one another. They gossiped, they discussed, they expressed opinions, they drew conclusions, and they sized up the situation.
Jesus, of course, was well aware that people were talking about him. So, he asked the disciples what they had heard:
And the disciples gave Jesus the answers he was looking for:
In other words, people believed that Jesus was somebody extraordinary. Somebody special. They said Jesus was a John the Baptist come to life; an Elijah returned as they expected; or a Jeremiah because of the plain, straightforward way he put things. But, whoever they thought he was, they knew he was somebody special.
But then Jesus asked, “What about you? Who do you say I am?”
Apparently this put the disciples on the spot because nobody answered immediately. Maybe they don’t want to hurt Jesus’ feelings because they know Jesus is not John the Baptist because John is dead. They know he’s not Elijah the Old Testament prophet who was expected to come before the Messiah came. They know he’s not Jeremiah the fiery Old Testament prophet. So, they’re at a loss for words.
If they say, “Hey, Jesus, come on. We know you’re not John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah” that sounds they don’t think as highly of Jesus as total strangers do. But, they can’t figure out what to say, or what Jesus really means by the question.
Of course, brash, talkative, impetuous Simon Peter has an answer. Peter blurts out —
The Bible doesn’t say this, but I am sure all the other disciples are embarrassed for Peter, who has stuck his foot in his mouth again. “Okay,” the disciples are thinking, “Jesus is a great guy, a terrific teacher, and he does amazing things — but the Messiah? Come on, Peter, this is way over the top!”
But then Jesus breaks the embarrassed silence.
Imagine now how all the other disciples feel. Pretty small. Kind of like when you were in school and someone answered the teacher’s question with what you just knew was the wrong answer. But then the teacher says, “Exactly right. Good work.” And then you felt like a dope. Now you know how the other disciples felt.
What Does This Have To Do With Church?
Okay, so that’s a great story, and we can put ourselves right there with the disciples because we would not have done any better than they did playing Jesus’ version of Jeopardy. But, what does this have to do with the church? Listen to what else Jesus says to Peter:
Without even knowing everything that this means, even the beginner Bible student can figure out Jesus is telling Peter some good stuff. But, let’s take a moment and figure it out.
First, Jesus tells Peter that “you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” In English, this can be confusing. Why is Jesus dragging in a rock? Where did that come from?
How many of you like a good pun, also known as a “play on words?” It’s kind of like the helpful phrase I remember the teacher telling us in the third or fourth grade when we were trying to learn when to use the word “to” and how to spell it correctly. The teacher reminded us that there are “three tos” in the English language. Which is a pretty cute way to remind yourself to use the right “to,” too! Okay, enough of that.
Well, this business about “you are Peter” and “upon this rock” is a play on words. Peter’s name would have been spelled P-E-T-R-O-S — “Petros.” The word for rock in Greek was spelled p-e-t-r-a, and pronounced in a similar manner, “petra.”
So, Jesus was really saying, “You’re name is Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.” Rock, rock — get it? Okay, I didn’t say it was a funny play on words, but it is one nonetheless.
The main point here is that Jesus will build his church on the rock of Peter’s confession — Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Of course, our Roman Catholic friends believe that this passage proves that Jesus chose Peter to be the first pope. Neither history, nor scripture support that assertion. It would not be until about the third century that the Bishop of Rome would gain ascendancy over the Bishops of Jerusalem, and Alexandria, among others.
And of course, Peter was not a rock. Peter will deny Jesus, not once, but three times when Jesus is arrested. So, it is not Peter, or Peter’s faith, or even faith like Peter’s that Jesus was affirming, but Peter’s statement, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
It is that statement, that belief, that affirmation that is the entry point, the foundation, for belonging to and believing in the church. No one who does not affirm that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God” can be part of the church, for the church is the body of Christ. She is not a club, or a civic organization, or a fraternal order, or a sorority of the like-minded. The church is the Bride of Christ, the people for whom Christ died, and the presence within whom Christ now dwells.
What Can We Say About The Church?
So, the first thing we can say about the church is — the church is comprised of those who believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the savior of the world. It is not enough to believe that Jesus is or was a great teacher; members of other religions believe that. Muslims and Jews both add Jesus to their lists of great ethical teachers.
It is not enough to believe that Jesus was an extraordinary figure, a man-among-men, a uniquely gifted holy man, a mystic who could do strange and wonderful things. While all of those things might be true about Jesus in some way, that is not why he came to earth, that was not his mission on earth, and that is not his continuing ministry to earth.
Paul said, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” I Corinthians 12:3
But, now let’s move on to what else Jesus says about the church. Secondly, Jesus says that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Now, usually we think that this means, “The devil can’t do anything to the church. Hell can’t hurt the church. The forces of evil cannot stop the church.”
That’s not at all what this means, although those statements are true. Here Jesus is saying, “The gates of hell will not be able to stop the church on its victorious march.”
Do you remember the old black-and-white western movies? Some of my favorites were movies like John Wayne’s Fort Apache, but it could be almost any western featuring the U. S. Cavalry, and Indians. Of course, we now know that we were stealing the lands owned by native Americans, but that’s not my point. My point is that in those movies, almost always there comes a time when the fort is under attack and they’re forced to close the gates.
And, for dramatic effect, as the gates are closing, the lone rider who many thought would be lost, comes riding in just in time to get inside the fort before the gates are closed. Then, the Indians attack, but usually the gates hold and the Cavalry is victorious.
Okay, you’ve got that scene in your head. Only imagine the fort is hell, hades, the world of the dead, and the church is launching an attack on the gates. But this time, the gates don’t hold. The church breaks through, death and hell are defeated, and God’s Kingdom is triumphant.
That’s what Jesus was saying. The church, his church which he builds on the rock of confession, will triumph. The church will win.
But Jesus goes on —
The church, built on the rock of confession that Jesus is the Christ, will become a keeper of the keys to the Kingdom. What are they? We don’t know exactly and scholars have debated this endlessly. But we can get some hints by just asking ourselves what keys do. Keys unlock locks. Keys open doors. Keys allow access where before the way was barred.
So, the church holds the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. For me that means that we have the great privilege and responsibility of opening doors that others cannot open. We can open a way to God. We can unlock the gift of eternal life. We who are in the church hold the keys of life — keys that unlock shackles that bind; keys that unlock prison doors.
And, Jesus says, whatever we unlock on earth, God will consider unlocked in heaven. In other words, we in the church are acting with the authority of Christ. We are his representatives, his ambassadors, with full authority to act on behalf of our King.
That’s the church we believe in. That’s the church universal, the church of all believers from all times and places. That’s the church of Jesus Christ, with all its earthly imperfections, its faults and failures, that’s the church to which Jesus has entrusted the keys to the Kingdom.
What we do with those keys is up to us.