Sunday, June 4, 2017, was Pentecost Sunday! In our church we all wore something red, which is the liturgical color of that Sunday. And, of course, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost. Here’s the audio of that message:
Sunday, June 4, 2017, was Pentecost Sunday! In our church we all wore something red, which is the liturgical color of that Sunday. And, of course, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost. Here’s the audio of that message:
I have read lots of articles on church outreach in my thirty years of ministry. I’ve even written a few myself. However, I have never read an article on the ethics of outreach. Maybe it’s time for a look at the ethics of outreach. Here’s why.
In Hibbing, Minnesota, according to the KSMP-TV, the local Fox affiliate, a Muslim woman who had registered for a September 28 conference was asked to leave when she showed up for the meeting wearing a hijab. Previously the women’s conference advertising had stated, “All women are invited,” according to the station.
Ironically, the event organizers were People of the Book Ministries, a Christian outreach ministry to Muslims. Cynthia Khan, presenter for the conference, said that videos and material “offensive” to Muslims would be distributed. For that reason Khan asked that Rania Elsweisy, the hijab-wearing Muslim woman, be escorted from the conference.
As a result of Ms. Elsweisy’s ejection, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a discrimination lawsuit against People of the Book Ministries.
“The only reason I was kicked out of the event was because of my religion, Islam,” said Elsweisy. “It is truly hurtful to be treated like you are lesser than somebody or that you don’t qualify to be talked to and treated equally as others,” according to the station’s website.
While the public discrimination suit will be worked out in civil courts, there is something ironic about a Christian ministry ejecting a member of the very group they claim to be trying to reach.
While I do not question the intentions of People of the Book, I do take issue with the ethics, or lack of ethics, involved here. Add to this incident a Texas megachurch that offered cars, flat-screen TVs, bikes, and other prizes for attending church on Easter, and my conclusion is that Christians do have an ethical problem with some forms of outreach.
All of this brings up the question, “Is there an ethical standard for Christian outreach programs and ministries?” Let me suggest five ethical standards that Christian outreach programs should adhere to:
1. Outreach must be open and transparent to all, including those being reached. In the Minnesota example, presenters knew that their material was offensive to Muslims, and probably for self-evident reasons, did not want Muslims present. However, Christians must ask themselves if our attitudes, strategies, and materials aimed toward those we are trying to reach are hostile, demeaning, or degrading, should we use them at all. Lottie Moon, a Southern Baptist missionary to China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lobbied to have the label “heathen” dropped when referring to the Chinese people she ministered to.
2. Outreach must exhibit a genuine love and respect for individuals and their cultures. Demonizing the “other,” especially in the fraught relationships between the Muslim and Western worlds, may be an effective fundraising technique but is a poor strategy for loving neighbors who may not be like us. Jesus used the “other” — a Samaritan — as example of neighborliness in his parable we call the Good Samaritan. That’s quite a difference from presenting material that is known to be offensive to another culture.
3. Outreach must be grounded in the Deuteronomic command to “love God” and to “love your neighbor.” Jesus taught that these two commandments summarized all the Law and the Prophets. In other words, all we need to know and practice as followers of Jesus is love for God and love for others.
4. Outreach ends do not justify unscrupulous means. Evangelism methodologies continue to struggle with the idea that Christians must do “whatever it takes” to reach the world for Christ. However, the means we use to reach the world must be consistent with the message we present to the world. Christians cannot trick, deceive, misrepresent or mislead others into the Kingdom of God. Neither can we buy the attention of non-Christians through games of chance, lucky numbers, or attendance incentives. Jesus fed people, but he fed them after they listened all day, not to get them to listen.
5. Finally, although this is the first ethical principle, outreach must be modeled on the Trinitarian action of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The theology of the Triune God must inform our purpose, our practice, and our presence to those who do not know the good news of God. Trinitarian outreach is characterized by love, self-giving, incarnation, sacrifice, humility, patience, winsomeness, and hospitality.
Pastors and church leaders are assailed weekly with the news that church attendance is declining, baptisms are at all-time lows, and young adults are leaving the church in droves. That news, distressing as it may be, cannot become the pretext for desperate and unethical outreach strategies that discredit the Gospel and further damage the reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Here’s the sermon I’m preaching for the second Sunday of Eastertide. I trust your Sunday will be a wonderful day filled with hope that the resurrection brings, just as it brought hope and possibility to the first disciples.
The Implications of Being Sent By Jesus
John 20:19-31 NIV
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Going for the Big Finish
Our granddaughters, Vivian and Maggie, are like other 12 and 9 year old girls. They are involved in a number of extra-curricular activities. Vivian took dance for several years, and the highlight of the dance year was the annual recital. But this wasn’t just any recital. The dance studio has dozens of students, which means lots of moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and so on who will want to see their daughter, or granddaughter, or niece perform.
To accommodate the large crowds, the dance instructor rented the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, for, not one, but two days of dance recitals. But for the little girls — Vivian was a preschooler then — the highlight of the dance recital was getting to wear the costume, or costumes, depending upon how many numbers they were in.
So, this is a big deal. And, like dutiful grandparents, we made 4-and-a-half hour trip one way to see Vivian on stage for all of about 3 minutes. That’s what grandparents do, and we did it a couple of times.
Well, by about the third or fourth year of dance lessons, Vivian’s interest in dance classes was waning. So before signing up for dance lessons for another year, Laurie, our daughter, and Vivian had a little chat.
Laurie asked Vivian if she wanted to take dance for another year. Vivian said, “Yes.” Then, Laurie said, “But that means you’ll have to go to dance lessons every week.”
Vivian replied, “Oh, I don’t want to go to the lessons. I just want to be in the recital.” Laurie informed Vivian that the only way to get to be in the recital (and wear the sparkly costumes) was to take dance lessons each week. Thereupon, Vivian’s dance career came to an end.
The Disciples Face a New Challenge
All of us have had those moments where we want the big finish without all the prerequisites that go before it. And followers of Jesus are no different. Let’s look for a few moments at the implications of being sent by Jesus.
First, of all, we have to realize that the disciples had not thought about their future without Jesus present to lead them. However they had imagined their lives turning out as Jesus followers, a life without him was not one of the scenarios they entertained.
So attached were they to Jesus that when they thought about his leaving them, as they do in John’s Gospel the 14th chapter, Jesus has to reassure them that where he is going, they are going to, and that there are rooms prepared for them in his Father’s house. (John 14:1-6 NIV)
But that doesn’t seem to satisfy at least one of them. Thomas complains, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
So, when Jesus is crucified and buried, their world collapses. Now, on the first day of the week, the disciples have had time to see the empty tomb, and to discuss the implications of that for themselves. Of course in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene claims to have seen the Lord herself, but in John’s telling of the story, the disciples have gathered together behind locked doors because they are afraid of what the Jewish authorities will do to them next.
They must be imagining that the authorities, with the consent of Pilate, have raided the tomb of Jesus, and concealed his body so that his grave will not become a martyr’s site for Jesus’ followers. Or, they might be afraid that the authorities have stolen the body of Jesus in order to blame them, his followers, of doing the same thing and thereby trying to perpetrate a hoax that Jesus rose from the dead.
Whatever they are thinking, they are dealing with the implications of having been Jesus’ followers. And, I imagine that not a few of them are wondering how they got in the mess they found themselves in.
But suddenly, without announcement or warning, on the evening of that day that had seemed to go on forever, John simply says, “Jesus came and stood among them…”
He greets them with the words, “Peace be with you!” which was the standard greeting among Jews, the greeting that God’s peace would rest on the person or family to whom one was speaking.
Immediately he shows them his hands and side. This is no apparition, no ghost, no fog-machine scene where they can barely see Jesus. No, as proof that he is who they think he is, he shows them the nail wounds in his hands and the gaping spear wound in his side. Now, you and I can only speculate on what this looks like. Apparently these wounds were meant to verify that this really was Jesus, rather than further disturb the disciples, so the visible wounds had a reassuring, rather than revolting, role.
Then, Jesus says to them again, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
And there we have it. This is what they are going to be doing in their future which does not include the physical presence of Jesus. They are going to be sent into the world by Jesus, just as the Father had sent Jesus into the world.
We read these words so casually now, as if we are thinking, “Well, of course that’s what Jesus is doing, sending the disciples into the world. We all know that.”
But for the disciples this is a new revelation. Of course, Jesus has hinted at their mission. He’s even sent them out on trial runs of the sort capture in Luke 10, where 72 of Jesus’ followers go on a mission of ministry to do what Jesus did. They heal the sick, they cast out demons, they seek the person of peace — meaning one who is a conduit of God’s shalom — and when they return Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18 NIV).
But now, rather than going immediately where Jesus is going, Jesus is sending them on a mission to the world, in the same manner in which God the Father has sent him. In other words, just like Vivian learned, before you get to the big finish, there are some things that have to be done first.
So, what are the implications of being sent into the world by Jesus?
Equipped by the Spirit
The first implication of being sent my Jesus into the world is that Jesus isn’t sending them, or us, alone. No, as he promised he is sending the Holy Spirit to be his presence in our life.
Jesus promised the disciples, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:16 NIV)
This Spirit of truth is the Holy Spirit. Now this is not the first time we see the Holy Spirit. From creation onward, the Spirit of God has been present and at work. But this is the first time that the Spirit is promised to someone other than a king, or a priest, or a prophet. This time the Spirit is promised to be the ever-present companion of every follower of Jesus, just as Jesus was with the disciples in his earthly life.
Then, Jesus doesn’t just promise the Spirit, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Wow. That was unexpected by the disciples. While they’re still trying to digest the idea that the resurrected Jesus is standing before them, and that he is sending them, he does something he has never done before — he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Somehow in our misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit, we have thought that the Holy Spirit is optional, at least in our worship and doctrinal expression. So, when the charismatic movement came along, you were either in or out. You either decided that you wanted those expressions of the Holy Spirit or you didn’t. The same is true today. Pentecostals represent those who are led by the Spirit in worship, while the rest of us are led by our understanding of Scripture, or tradition, or doctrine.
But if we think that about the Holy Spirit we miss His presence and power. The Holy Spirit is our promised companion regardless of worship style or basis of authority. You might find it interesting that early in our founding years, Baptists were viewed as wild-eyed spiritual fanatics who neither respected tradition or reason, but held an unseemly commitment to letting the Spirit of God speak to them. Interesting how we’ve gotten tamer over the past 400 years!
But the point is, one of the implications of being sent by Jesus is that we’re not sent alone — the Holy Spirit is our ever-present companion.
An Unthinkable Ministry
But if you think the idea of having the Holy Spirit present as our companion is unsettling, just wait. Jesus also gave the disciples a ministry previously reserved for God alone. The act of forgiving sins. You remember the famous encounter Jesus had with the religious authorities of his day in Mark 2:1-12. Jesus is teaching in a house, and the crowd is so great that no one can press through. So, four friends who have brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing, quickly climb up on the flat roof, remove the roof tiles in the spot above where Jesus is teaching, and lower their friend down right in front of Jesus.
Mark says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2:5 NIV)
Religious authorities are present in the crowd, and they are appalled. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they ask. Then Jesus says, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take up your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:10-11 NIV)
The disciples must have recalled that incident as Jesus gave them authority to forgive sins. But, what does that mean for us today? Is that our ministry, or did it just belong to the disciples? Well, if the Holy Spirit is ours, then this ministry is ours also.
But, this ministry of forgiving sins is a mystery to us. We do not know exactly what it means. What it does not mean is that we are now to pass judgment on others who are not like us.
What I think it means is that we act like Jesus acted toward those who are sinful. While that would include all of us, in Jesus day there were the righteous Jews, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and other religious figures, and then there were the sinners like the tax collectors, women of the street, and so on. Jesus ate with these sinners. Jesus went into their homes. Jesus pronounced as Zachaeus came to faith, “Today salvation is come to this house.”
Our ministry, with the leadership of the Holy Spirit, is to be Jesus to those for whom access to God has been denied, or discouraged. We open the way for them to find forgiveness by showing them the kindness of Jesus himself, the kindness wrapped in redemption and hope.
When I was in the hospital, a lady came in to clean our room every day. I’ll call her Pauline, which was not her name, but I want to protect her privacy. It was obvious Pauline had had a difficult life. You could see it in the stoop of her shoulders, and the shuffle of her feet. And it was written on her weary face.
At first, Pauline went about her business of emptying the trash, and then mopping the room with little to say. She would say to Debbie, “Come out so I can mop.”
For many people, Pauline was the anonymous housekeeper, one of the many faceless, nameless people to do menial labor that others do not want to do.
Debbie and I decided to make a friend of Pauline. We had heard one of the nurses calling her name, so each day when she came in, we were greeted her with the same friendliness and warmth of a welcomed guest. And each day, Pauline opened up a little more of herself to us. Pauline was there everyday except Sunday. When she returned on Monday, we told her we missed her the day before.
She asked if anyone had mopped our room, and we said no, they had only picked up the trash. With a sense of pride, she said, “They’re supposed to mop, but all they do is pick up trash.” We assured her that we had missed her careful attention to our room. By the time I was discharged, Pauline was actually laughing with us.
Okay, you say, “But where’s the forgiveness of sin in that?” I believe as we forgive each other the little moments of sullenness, the times of testiness, the words that wound, and the looks that kill, we free that person to be what God intended for them to be — His child, filled with his Spirit and joy.
Of course, there are other implications of being sent by Jesus than the presence of the Spirit and the ministry of forgiveness. But those are two that are important. Sometimes we skip over those two implications and rush right on to preaching and teaching and all of the ways in which people hear the Gospel. Because after all, Jesus told Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
But in this Easter season, let’s not forget that the presence of the Spirit and the ministry of forgiveness are where Jesus started with the disciples.
I have waited far too long to spotlight Mark O. Wilson’s new book, Filled Up, Poured Out: How God’s Spirit Can Revive Your Passion and Purpose. Mark and I met as fellow-bloggers, and I have followed his blog, Revitalize Your Church for several years now. Mark is a warm-hearted, spirit-filled pastor who encourages and challenges all of us to be all that God has called us to be.
That’s exactly what Mark’s book does, too. In 13 concise chapters, Mark identifies for his readers the persistent problem that plagues ministry and ministers — running on empty, which Mark characterizes as “vacuus=empty, devoid of, free from.” He writes about empty pastors (chapter 1); empty churches (chapter 2); and, the solution to both (chapter 3).
In the next section of the book, headlined “repleo,” Mark talks about how to replenish the power of God in your life through “immersion, faith, contentment, enduement, and confluence.” In the final third of the book, Mark reveals how the filled up pastor allows God’s grace to flow out in compassion, blessing, righteousness, influence, and saturation.
Each chapter in the book overflows with stories, scripture, insights, and mind-pegs to get you thinking, praying, and dreaming about what God has for your ministry. With 13 chapters, the book’s format is perfect for small group Bible studies. Although the initial audience for the book is pastors, church leaders and members will benefit from Mark’s easy style, and memorable insights. Pastors, this book contains more sermon illustrations than you could come up with in hours of searching. Many of the stories are from Mark’s own ministry experiences.
I especially love the story about his trip to Africa. Asked to preach at a local village church on a Sunday morning, Mark was amazed to see over 3,000 people gathered for worship at 7:30 AM. The frame structure only held 1,000, but the other 2,000 worshippers surrounded the building, responding to every line in his sermon. After he preached, Mark recalls that the congregation began to sing. The local missionary explained to Mark that they were making up a new song from the points in his sermon, which was their way of remembering what they had learned that Sunday. A new song, Mark noted, flowed from their hearts. That story would resonate with any congregation which was seeking God. And, there are more just like that in Mark’s book.
Get this book. As you read, you’ll be blessed and encouraged, perhaps to the point of being “filled up” yourself, so you can be “poured out” for others. After all, that’s what pastors do, and Mark helps us remember that with joy and wonder.
Trinity Sunday offers an opportunity to examine Paul’s idea of life in the Spirit. According to Romans 8:12-17, living in the Spirit means that we don’t live by the “flesh” — which is a word Paul uses to identify that which is dying and passing away, that lifestyle to which we were slaves prior to coming to Christ.
Life in the Spirit means we are God’s children, and as God’s children we form habits as we are led by the Spirit of God. Those habits will bring us into conflict with the world that lives by the “flesh” and we will suffer as Christ suffered because we are living by the Spirit. But, Paul reminds us that if we suffer with Christ, we will also be glorified with Christ, too. Here’s the link to Life in the Spirit.
Pentecost Sunday is the last big Sunday in the liturgical year, but often churches that celebrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter fail to give equal emphasis to Pentecost. Pentecost is the culmination of the Christian Calendar, and has been called the “birthday of the church.” Without Pentecost, the Christian Year is incomplete because it is at Pentecost that Jesus fulfills his promise to send the Holy Spirit to empower, equip, enthuse, and embolden the apostles. It is also on Pentecost that the church launches it mission of taking the Gospel to the whole world.
Pentecost carries great significance for those early followers of Christ, and for us today. Here’s the sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012, titled Living in the Power of Pentecost.
On Pentecost the fire of the Holy Spirit fell on the apostles. Debbie installed this multi-layered representation of the Pentecostal fire for our celebration of “the birthday of the church!”
Now that Easter Sunday is behind us, what do we do next? How do we as followers of Jesus live in light of Easter’s message of hope and joy? In John 20:19-31 we read the story of Jesus’ first encounter with his disciples after his resurrection. This account is unique to John’s gospel and gives us insight into what Jesus intended for his disciples to do in light of his resurrection. The words of Jesus to his followers have implications for those of us who live in light of Easter, too. Here’s the link: http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/02_Living_in_Light_of_Easter.mp3
On Pentecost, the community that was divided by God at the Tower of Babel is recreated in the miracle of communication at the coming of the Holy Spirit.
1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
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.