When I first meet people and they learn that I’m a pastor, they usually ask me the same question: “Where is your church?”
Of course, they want to know the location of the bricks and mortar associated with Saint Matthew Lutheran Church. So I tell them, “In Logan” or “On East Hunter at Orchard.” But I always feel a little badly about those answers. That’s because this building is not Saint Matthew Lutheran Church.
As we continue to look at what it means to be a Lutheran Christian through the witness of The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic statements of Lutherans’ understanding of Biblical, Christian faith, we’re going to consider what the church is.
Please turn to Matthew 16:17-18. To set the context: Jesus has been asking the twelve apostles who people are saying that Jesus is. Then Jesus asks them, who they say He is. Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”
As we’ll see, Peter doesn’t fully understand what he’s saying when confessing that Jesus is the promised Messiah or “the Son of the living God,” a phrase putting Jesus on the same level as God.
But Peter’s confession is right and that elicits these words from Jesus: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah [Simon, son of Jonah or son of John], for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father Who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter [Petros, meaning Rock in the Greek in which the Gospel of Matthew was originally written], and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
In these few words, Jesus tells us a lot about what the Church is. Let’s break them down a bit.
First, Jesus acknowledges that Peter sees Him through the eyes of faith. Without the eyes of faith, Peter may have agreed with what other people’s evaluations of Jesus. He might have said that Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist (even though the Bible says that there is no such thing as reincarnation), or that Jesus was Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet from Old Testament days. Most of the crowds looked at Jesus and saw Him as just a man.
Even today, people--some of them pastors, bishops, assistants to bishops, and theologians in our own denomination--look at Jesus and see only a man. They lack faith.
But through the eyes of faith, Peter saw that Jesus was more than just a man, more than just the son of Mary’s virgin womb, but also God. God in flesh appearing! The King above all kings!
As we’ve said before, faith in Christ does not come naturally to anyone. We’re born with a mistrust toward others, especially toward God, because God threatens our desire to be our own bosses, to be our own gods.
This is why Jesus says that Peter believes what flesh and blood finds unnatural and can’t and won’t see about Jesus. “Flesh and blood” hadn’t helped Peter to see Jesus through the eyes of faith. God had! “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, [Peter],” Jesus says, “but My Father [God] in heaven.”
The same is true for all of us. We can only believe that Jesus is our Savior, God, and King because God creates faith in Christ within us. First Corinthians 12:3 says, “No one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord [meaning, God and Master of the universe] except by [God] the Holy Spirit.”
Because of his faith, Jesus gives Simon the new name, Rock, Peter. And Jesus says: “On this rock I will build My Church.”
Peter was the first to see Jesus for Who He was (and is) and to confess the truth he saw about Jesus. It’s on this confession that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God that Jesus says He will build His Church.
Jesus certainly wasn’t saying that He would build His Church on Simon Peter. You can’t build anything straight or tall or strong on a flimsy foundation. And just a few moments after making his confession about Jesus, Peter showed how flimsy he and his faith were. When Jesus told him and the other apostles that He would soon go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the world, die on a cross, and then rise from the dead, Peter tried to correct Jesus. “This will never happen to You,” Peter says.
Jesus immediately upbraids Peter, you remember? He speaks the exact words to Peter that He spoke to Satan when Satan tempted Him in the wilderness. “Get behind Me, Satan,” Jesus says to Simon Peter, the rock, “for you are not mindful of the things of God, but of the things of [humanity].”
Peter confirmed how shaky a foundation he personally would be for Christ’s Church when, on the night of Jesus’ trial, he denied knowing Jesus three times.
The sure foundation on which Jesus builds His Church isn’t Peter, but the confession Peter makes that Jesus is King and God, the conqueror of sin and death, the one Who gives new life to all who believe in Him.
Christ’s Church exists wherever people hear and believe the Bible’s Word about God, Jesus’ Word about Himself: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The first thing the church is then, is a group of people in whom the Word of God has created faith in Jesus Christ as God and King of the world.
On the foundation of faith, Jesus says, He will build His Church. The word Jesus uses that we translate as church is, in the original Greek of the New Testament, ekklesia.
Ekklesia literally means called out ones. The church is people who have been called out of the world and into the kingdom of God by the Word about Jesus that has created faith in Christ within everyone from the littlest child singing, Jesus Loves Me, to the oldest believer dying with the praises of Jesus on his lips.
Ekklesia also means assembly, gathering. And this is the second thing Jesus teaches us about what the Church is: The Church is a group of people who, together hold to the same confession of faith in Christ as Peter. There is no such thing as a solo Christian.
Whether the Word of God about Jesus that creates faith within us is given to us through a Bible left in a hotel bedstand by the Gideons, through the sermon of a preacher, through the witness of a parent, grandparent, Sunday School teacher, or friend, through the Word given in, with, and under the water of Baptism or the bread and wine of Holy Communion, no one comes to faith in Jesus apart from His Church.
And no one can keep believing in Jesus in this hard, sinful, dying, cynical, self-serving world without the fellowship of the Church.
Let's be clear: The Church is filled with sinners and hypocrites like you and me. And there’s no doubt, as Jesus says in Matthew 7:21, that not everyone who calls Him “Lord” will “enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But just as surely as a limb sawed off from a tree will die, so will the faith and eternal lives of Christians die if they sever themselves from the Word of God about Jesus that’s preached, taught, and given through Christ’s Church.
That’s why the preacher says in Hebrews 10:24-25: “...let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not neglecting the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as you see the Day [of the risen and ascended Jesus‘ return to this world] approaching.” The second thing the Church is then, is the assembly of people called to faith by the Word of God. And the church is the only way anyone receives or keeps hold of saving faith in Jesus. It's for the sole purpose of sharing the Word of God about Jesus that Jesus has called the Church into being.
In His words to Peter and the other apostles Jesus also says of His Church: “...the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” “The gates of Hades” or, as is mentioned several times in the Psalms in the Old Testament, “the gates of death” are expressions that refer to anything that might cause a person to enter hell or eternal separation from God.
Jesus is saying that His Church, the fellowship of believers built on faith in Christ will never die. The Church is eternal.
Jesus promises all of us who trust Him when He says that He is the way and the truth and the life and that no one comes to God the Father except through Him (John 14:6) that He is “the resurrection and the life” and that all who believe in Him, though they may die, will live with Him now and in eternity (John 11:25).
The worship, service, and honor we offer to the God we know in Jesus Christ imperfectly here in the Church on earth will continue in perfection for those of us who are part of the Church in eternity.
Three truths Jesus teaches in Matthew 16 then, are that:
- His Church is founded on faith in Christ,
- His Church is His indispensable fellowship for receiving and growing in faith in Christ, and
- His Church eternal.
Our churches teach that one holy Church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints [saints are sinners saved by the grace of God through their faith in Jesus Christ] in which the Gospel [the Word that all who believe in Jesus will not be condemned to hell for their sins, as those who refuse to believe in Jesus will be] is purely taught and the Sacraments [Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, the Word about Jesus given through water, bread, and wine] are correctly administered. For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, that rites or ceremonies instituted by [human beings], should be the same everywhere...”The true Church isn’t defined by the buildings it owns, the kinds of hymns it sings, or the earthly denominational structures to which its people belong. The true Church can’t be identified by whether, during worship, its pastors wear robes or suits or Polynesian shirts. There are many churches in our own denomination, the ELCA, where every note played in worship is pitch perfect and the liturgy is done with slavish exactitude, but where neither its pastors or its people believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that He is God in the flesh, or that He physically rose from the dead, or that He gives life beyond the grave, or that Jesus is the only Son of God and Savior of the world.
Less than forty miles from here, there is a pastor in our ELCA, highly thought of in our denomination who once told me about what, to him, seemed to be a rewarding experience. He had read and discussed a book by Marcus Borg, a theologian who was raised Lutheran and is now an Episcopalian. The book is called, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In it, Borg argues that Jesus wasn't born to a virgin, wasn't God in the flesh, didn't rise from the dead, and can't save us from sin and death. Borg has become all the rage in the ELCA, appearing often to give lectures at ELCA colleges, seminaries, and pastoral retreats. A number of our bishops and theologians approve of his ideas, which veer about as far from the confession of faith in Christ on which Jesus says He builds His Church as one can imagine. This pastor told me with evident satisfaction that after he and members of his congregation had read Borg's book, a member of the discussion group said, "I'm so glad I don't have to believe that stuff any more."
Such rejection of the revealed truths of God about Jesus Christ to instead embrace a religion that gives us license to believe whatever we want to believe--even that Jesus was only a man and not also God, that He died but didn't rise, and that He won't return one day to judge the living and the dead--is increasingly accepted and encouraged in our ELCA.
I pray almost daily about the sad state of our denomination and I wonder whether if it will long be possible to be either a Christian or a Lutheran in the ELCA. I wonder whether it doesn't make more sense for those who seek to be faithful to Christ and to the Lutheran confessions to leave the ELCA, as hundreds of other congregations have done since 1999. I think that those are questions worth your spending time to pray about too.
There are many congregations today that may look like churches. But appearances can be deceiving.
That’s why it’s essential in this day and age when there are so many wolves in sheep’s clothing for God’s people to remember what it means for a church to be a church.
The Church exists where the truth is told about the Gospel--the good news of Jesus--and where the Sacraments are administered according to the will of God.
The Church is the fellowship of people with faith that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, the only crucified and risen Savior Who can forgive sin and give eternal life.
The Church is the only fellowship in the world in which we receive faith and can have that faith strengthened.
The Church is the fellowship of Christ that will last for all eternity.
Remembering these truths and living in accordance with them are truly the difference between life and death. Amen
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