Church Anniversary (evening sermon)

Matthew 16:13-20

Too many churches want nothing to do with Jesus.

Wait a minute! Isn’t that a bit judgemental? And on Church Anniversary!

What I mean is this: many of the assumptions some Christians make about the church bear only the most meagre resemblance to what Jesus teaches about the subject.

This evening, I want to contrast some of the suppositions I’ve sometimes heard over the years, not from any of you, of course, about the church with what Jesus says in our reading, in particular verse 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.

Starting with ‘church’, we all protest when the world assumes that ‘church’ means ‘building’, and we say, “No, it’s the people,” but what is the reality? How much of our time do we spend talking about property and finance? How often do we say we want to get more people through the doors? Is it possible that some of us might occasionally fall victim to thinking that the church is a building and an institution?

What did the word ‘church’ originally mean? Of course, it meant ‘the people’. They didn’t have buildings, they met in people’s homes. More specifically than that, ‘church’ comes from a word used in the early Greek democracies to indicate the calling out of a people to assemble together. Split down very literally, it is ‘the called-out people’ and that came to mean ‘the assembly’ of people.

Perhaps we might have something to learn by remembering that we’re a ‘called-out people’? We’re here because God has called us. If all the discussions about property and finance are always remembering that, it can only help our discipleship.

I’d also remind us that Jesus talks about ‘my church’. There is a healthy way in which people can say ‘my church’. They can mean, this is the congregation where I can love and be loved, and work out my discipleship. Buit sometimes it is possible that some might fall victim to saying ‘my church’ and mean something else, acting as if they own the church, or as if church solely exists for their benefit, and that it should conform to their tastes and prejudices. But it’s Jesus here who says ‘my church’. The church belongs to him, not us. How many of our discussions and debates would be different if we were more concerned about what Jesus likes than what we like?

Jesus also says, ‘I will build my church’. I once read about an evangelist who travelled the country, and everywhere he went people told him that their community was the hardest in the country for Christianity. Some of that might reflect the general difficulty we have in the present climate for sympathy to Christianity, and I can understand that. But what is the alternative? If you were to believe some Christians, it’s to batten down the hatches and simply ensure that my local congregation will see me out. Once I’m dead, it can close. If that attitude shocks you, I can assure you that it is widespread among churches.

Yet, whatever the difficulties, it has to be clear that Jesus has a big vision for his church. It is to be built. Let’s not have any arguments about quality versus quantity, Jesus wants both. He wants to build both the quality of our spiritual lives, and he wants to build the quantity of those who follow him. It is, therefore, only right to ask whether questions of growth in numbers and in spirit are central to our conversations and our decision-making?

One of the things the United Reformed Church is good at is offering programmes, sometimes quite forcefully, from the General Assembly and from Synods. The clear implication that comes with the programmes ranges from a resource to help us, through to the suggestion that if only we do this, numerical decline will reverse. It’s the URC version of following all the latest gimmicks and bandwagons.

If someone else has made something work, then this is what we must do. If this is what we have learned at this conference, then it must be right for us. If this is the latest big-selling Christian paperback, then we must put it into practice here as soon as possible and as much as possible. I don’t have any problem learning from the best of what is happening. But this attitude assumes a kind of technological, push-the-button approach to the spiritual life. Follow these five steps and everything will be all right. Practise this technique and your troubles will be over.

As if! God isn’t a machine who responds to us programming him. We may or may not use popular programmes, such as the Alpha Course, but it’s really our attitude and approach that matters. Rather than us try to control or even manipulate things with our religious techniques, God challenges us to place ourselves in a position of vulnerability rather than of control. If Jesus is to build his church, then that requires us to be dependent upon him, and so to seek to hear his voice and respond.

You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, Jesus said. Here’s another challenging thought, something that goes against many of our natural instincts: if we want the church to grow more, then wouldn’t it be obvious that to be able to include more people in the church we should lower the bar for entry? Shouldn’t we make church membership easier? Besides, we don’t like to ask embarrassing or intimidating questions, nor do we want to appear judgemental. That should start to increase our numbers.

When Jesus says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church,” it comes immediately after Peter has confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus grows his church by confession of faith in him. If we lower the bar, we miss the point because we’d stop being the church, and just become some social or humanistic club.

Jesus ends that verse by saying that, “the gates of Hades will not overcome it”. Let’s call in the doom and gloom merchants again. The church is under attack. Christians in this country are now being persecuted. (Goodness knows how they would describe what happens to Christians in Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Yemen!) Everything and everyone is against us. It’s time to pull up the drawbridge and defend what we’ve got.

Obviously much of the climate around us is not warm to the church or to Christianity, but is it really faithful to Jesus’ vision of the church to conceive of the battle as all being one way, the forces of darkness rampaging against the church? I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended.

In some older translations it reads, ‘the gates of Hell will not overcome it’. The association with Hell makes people think this is about evil forces assailing the church of Christ. But the gates of Hades might be more illuminating: that is the place of the dead. Death will not prevail against the church. Certainly, individual churches close and many decline, but the Church universal is indestructible. Can death ever conquer a community of faith founded in the Resurrection? Not a chance!

And, just out of interest, when was the last time you were assaulted by a set of gates? It’s ridiculous! Gates are defensive tools. They’re used to protect against invasion. But Jesus is saying that his church invades and conquers the forces of death. Where death attempts to reign, we proclaim resurrection. Where sin threatens death, we proclaim forgiveness. Where death is at work in the world, we proclaim the kingdom of God.

Of course this church, and all churches, face all sorts of challenges and difficulties today. But part of our problem is that too often too many of us have allowed ourselves to believe distorted accounts of what the church is. When we return to the teaching of Jesus about the church, we have every reason to believe that God has given us a hope and a future. Let us put our house in order. Let us be humbly dependent upon God, and then let us face the world with confidence in him and his Gospel.

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