12th Sunday after Pentecost – 8/23/2020
Is the Church of Jesus Christ relevant for our day? Does our congregation have anything pertinent to offer our community? These are serious questions that deserve serious answers. Pollsters have been saying that most people, both outside and inside the church, feel the church is out of touch and irrelevant to their lives. On top of this, significant numbers of the intellectual elites in our world today, including many liberal theologians, are writing and teaching that humanity, in its evolution, has reached such a state of sophistication and advancement that we are beyond the need for religion and belief in a god.
Some within the Christian church have responded to these assertions by insisting that the church needs to change to make itself look more relevant to contemporary man, or the church will die. These same voices are saying that, first and foremost, the Christian church needs to change its message. They insist the church's message needs to be more positive and practical. They were no more talking about guilt and sin. Tell people that God loves them just the way they are. At the same time, instead of talking about such abstract terms as "grace," "atonement," or "heaven," teach people things that can have more immediate application in their day-to-day lives. For example, teach them how to survive divorce, be personally and financially successful, and cope with various problems. Instead of offering people the Word and Sacraments, give them seminars. Instead of providing Bible classes, conduct "community building" experiences. Instead of using the ancient worship liturgy, which focuses on the life and passion of Jesus Christ, hold celebrational events that are entertaining and allow the people freedom of expression.
In all honesty, will all these changes to the church's message and way of doing things cause the church to be more relevant or, in fact, totally "irrelevant? If our congregations become the churches of What's Happening Now," what will become of them when the "now" is no longer in vogue? Then the "Churches of What's Happening" will become the "Churches of What Was, But Is No More." They will be replaced with what the next generation considers more relevant.
If the Christian Church, our Synod, and this congregation are to be relevant to the people of our society and the world, then we must retain our distinctiveness as the Church of Jesus Christ. After all, the church should be "the salt of the earth" and a "light on a hill." But what does the church offer the world if its light is indistinguishable from all the other lights around it—if it resembles just another service club or the nightclub down the street? How can it offer people the life-preserving "salt" if its flavor is the same as the rest of the world? The true Christian Church's message must remain constant, unchanging, and faithful to its source.
Sure, it is a given that if we keep our distinctiveness as the church of Christ, especially as a genuinely confessional Lutheran church, we will look alien to our contemporaries. But so what? The Christian Church has always been "counter-cultural." The church's liturgy, as we still use it today, has been utilized for 1800 years or more. It was just as "foreign" to the unbelieving world in the 3rd and 16th centuries as in the 21st century. The gospel message the church is to preach has always been revolutionary and often been considered even "subversive." Like its founder, Jesus Christ, the church has suffered persecution precisely because it was so different and its message so radical.
Yet, the true church's strikingly different look and message make her and always has made her so relevant to our world. The authentic Christian Church shows people another way. Its flavor is unlike anything else they can taste in this world. It offers people not more of what they want but what they truly need. It provides them with intimate communion with God and the eternal salvation of their souls.
The church does all this, not through its buildings, potlucks, or programs but through its "confession." That confession of the truth, which is the church's foundation, builds the church and opens the gates of heaven to mortals.
Our text finds Jesus and His followers right in their contemporary society. They had traveled to the northern region of the province of Galilee. It was known as "Caesarea Philippi." Here, the Jewish king, Herod the Great, had built a temple for the god "Pan" in tribute to his Roman superior, Caesar Augustus. The area was still a Roman province governed by Philipp, a son of Herod, hence its name, "Caesarea Philippi." Although Jews lived in the land, it was dominated by the Hellenistic worship of idols. It was the most appropriate place for Jesus to teach true faith.
Jesus asked the 12 apostles, "Who do the people say the Son of Man is?" By using the term "the people," Jesus showed that He was uninterested in what the pagans thought about Him. Instead, "the people" was an apparent reference to God's chosen people—Israel. He wanted to know the perceptions and beliefs of the "church people."
Their beliefs were a "mixed bag" of falsehoods. Some people thought he was John the Baptist coming back from the dead. Others believed him to be a reincarnation of one of the Old Testament prophets, like Elijah or Jeremiah.
The times have not changed much, have they? Many contemporary people, both in and outside the church, likewise perceive Jesus as nothing more than a prelude to someone or something else. Few worship him as God or consider him the source of their salvation. Some honor him as one of the world's great thinkers and teachers, someone who helps us understand ourselves and our great potential. Others see Jesus as an example to emulate, someone who has shown us how to achieve our salvation. For still others in this postmodern age, Jesus is one of the many voices through whom God has spoken. All in all, it seems our enlightened age still views Jesus as someone who can help us understand how to save ourselves, but not that He is the one who is THE WAY of salvation.
Jesus' question about what others think about Him was only a lead-up to what He wanted to know. You see, Jesus always wants to know what those who claim to follow Him believe about Him more than anything else. Jesus looked His 12 apostles straight in the eyes and asked them point blank, "But who do you say that I am?" After all, if these men, who followed Jesus on the road, ate and slept with Him, heard all His preaching, and were eyewitnesses to His miracles, did not believe the truth about Jesus, then how could Jesus expect anyone else to?
It is no different today. It is immaterial what the philosophers think. The pollsters say the average person thinks, or even what the church on the other side of town teaches about who Jesus is. Jesus wants to know what you and I believe and teach Him to be. Is He simply a good friend or someone we depend on to save our hide? Is He someone we admire or the One to whom we owe our allegiance and worship?
Serving as a spokesman for all of the 12, Simon Peter spoke up in reply to Jesus' question, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."
Wow! Peter could have been more politically correct, was he? His confession starkly contrasted the prevailing notions of even his fellow Jews. Peter boldly stated that Jesus is not merely some rabbi who proclaims a hopeful message, but rather that Jesus is God's promised "Messiah," or "Christ," Himself, the fulfillment of all the prophecies, who was to come to save people from their sins. Peter said that Jesus is not merely a man, even a reincarnated man or a man back from the dead, but that He is entirely the "Son of God" in human flesh. With this confession, Peter said that Jesus is not simply the mouthpiece of God to speak His Word but that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Likewise, Peter boldly confesses that Jesus is not just some lifeless stone image made by human hands and in human minds but that He is the "living God."
Jesus responded immediately, saying, "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."
Peter's birth name was "Simon Barjonah," "Simon, the son of Jonah." But when Jesus called Simon to follow Him, He changed his name to "Cephas" or "Peter." The name means "a rock." It was indeed a fitting name since so often, as we see here with this solid confession of Jesus, Peter was Jesus' most stalwart supporter.
But Jesus was making a play on words when He said, "You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church." Jesus was not saying He would build His church on the man Peter as if Peter himself were an excellent foundation. Remember, Peter was the one who began sinking like a rock and needed Jesus to reach out and save him from drowning. On one occasion, Peter was the one to whom Jesus had to say, "Get behind me, Satan!"
Peter is the one who would, just a short time after this glowing confession, stand in the courtyard of the high priest and deny Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. Even a year or two later, after Jesus' ascension, it would be this Peter that the upstart Apostle Paul would have to dress down because Peter was on the wrong side of the gospel! Peter was anything but a solid foundation upon which to build the church. He was a stone (petros) from the rock (petra).
But what could make a solid foundation to build the church is the truth that Peter confessed, namely, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This truth is the real rock (petra), or precipice, upon which the Church of Christ stands. The truth of this gospel (or "good news") never fails but always protects, saves, and prevails, even against Hell, the place of eternal punishment for sin. As the Apostle Paul writes, "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
Now, you and I can count on this "rock"—this foundation of the truth of Jesus Christ— to be solid and reliable because "it was not revealed by flesh and blood, but by the Father in heaven."
Peter didn't just come up with this confession of truth through his brain power. God revealed it to him and gave him the conviction of faith to proclaim it. God the Father sent Jesus Christ to demonstrate His love for sinners and plan of salvation, and He sent His Holy Spirit to reveal Christ and the saving truth to human hearts and minds.
This confession is as solid as God himself. Accordingly, we sing, "The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord. " The truth about Jesus Christ's identity and mission is that it is the rock upon which the church is founded, remains secure, and grows.
You can take away the pews and all our sanctuary furniture. You can eliminate all our social gatherings. There will still be the Church of Jesus Christ, provided the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is still preached and confessed by us. But if you remove that confession, there will be no church, and countless souls will die in their sins.
Here in this confession, we see the relevance of the Christian Church in our world today. The truth about Jesus is the good news that all sinful humanity needs to hear. This "gospel" is the power of God unto salvation.
The church's foundation was laid as the apostles confessed this saving truth about Jesus. You, I, and every other believer have been brought to faith in Jesus through that Word of Truth revealed. We have each become "living stones" in what God calls the "body of Christ," the Holy Christian Church (II Pet. 2:5). Only those brought to faith through this confession of truth are saved from Hell.
Also, dear fellow members of Christ's church, we see our relevance in our community. People will survive with or without our social events. But as we confess this truth of Christ in our churches, on the internet, in our homes, in our community, and our world, Christ continues to use that word to save more souls and build His church: our great privilege and only business as the church is to confess this truth. Our worship, our programs, and our activities are to proclaim this life-giving message. Through this message, souls are rescued from the fires of Hell itself.
If the Christian Church is irrelevant to our world, then consider this: Jesus said, "I 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." When the church proclaims the truth of Christ, we are, in effect, "unbinding" sinners from guilt. We are opening heaven's doors to them. Conversely, if we withhold the pronouncement of forgiveness in Christ from impenitent people, we are "binding" sinners to their sins and closing heaven to them.
Talk about relevance! The world's people need more than anything else to hear and know the truth that is our foundation and that we have been given to proclaim, namely, the truth that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God." And, yes, especially now when many of those who call themselves Christians are awash in false understandings of Christ, the church, and the true gospel, it is even more critical for the salvation of souls that we remain a clear voice of Christ's truth in our community and world. Our relevance hinges not upon our friendliness and busyness but upon our faithfulness to the biblical truth of Jesus Christ and our bold confession of Him. May God's Holy Spirit keep us relevant!