August 24, 2008 - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I put my hand in again and tried to convince myself it wasn’t true. The very week after we moved, I was beginning to suspect that something was wrong with the big upright freezer in our garage. But I didn’t want to believe it. I kept trying to imagine that the soft ice cream and mushy frozen vegetables would harden up and that all would be O.K. But this last check made me accept the truth. The control was set at the lowest temperature, but it was still only about 29 degrees in the freezer. Suddenly, we were shopping for a new one.
We had already planned to replace an aging dishwasher and range that had come with the house, so we found ourselves in a huge appliance transition. It’s part of home ownership. Appliances, roofs and water heaters grow old, they break down and just aren’t serviceable any longer. They can’t take it any longer. Many people would say the same is true of the Church. It’s old, out-of-date, and just can’t take the pressures of modern life any longer. It needs to be replaced.
Yet our text says that Jesus Christ founded His Church upon a rock. He built it like a Maytag, to last. Yet 2,000 years is a lot longer than any washing machine has ever survived. Is that rock still in place? Will the Church survive?
The strange thing is that this particular text about founding the Church doesn’t seem very solid. Jesus said He would build His Church upon a rock, yet His people have been unable to agree upon which rock He was talking about.
Many of us as Protestants read this passage looking over our shoulders at Rome. Ever since the Reformation, we’ve been afraid that a pope is going to crawl out of verse 18 and bite us on the rear.
You see, Roman Catholic Christians interpret Matthew 16:18 as the inauguration of the papacy. Peter was the rock upon which Jesus built the Church. The headstrong fisherman was the leader of all the disciples. His successors would have that same status as the rock, the keystone of the Church. Catholics believe Peter was the first pope and that every pope in turn is Peter’s successor as leader of the Church. Protestant interpreters seem to have the single project of avoiding the pope conclusion.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A little Greek lets you see that Peter’s name in verse 18 is petros, while the Greek for the rock on which Jesus will build His Church is petra. By itself, petros might be a little stone, while petra denotes a big rock. So, it’s said, they can’t refer to the same thing. Jesus is not saying He will build His Church on Peter, but on something else (on Himself, on Peter’s confession, anything except Peter!).
This surprisingly frequent misunderstanding falters on the fact that the only way petra can be a masculine name in Greek is to have an os ending and on the fact that in Aramaic, the language Jesus was actually speaking, there’s absolutely no difference between Cephas, Peter's name and cephas, the word for “rock.”
Jesus said He was going to build His Church on Peter. That’s the fact, and almost all serious Protestant and evangelical commentators agree that it’s the fact. If you look at the Gospels and the first half of Acts, it’s obvious that Peter has priority. He’s mentioned first. He’s the spokesman. In Acts 15, he chairs the meeting and makes the final decision. Peter was the first leader of the Church. That’s the story in the Bible. If we want to escape those papal teeth in our posterior, it will have to be through a study of theology and history, not through an over-simplified Greek reading of single verse of Scripture.
This text is much more about the solidity of what Jesus began than it is about government and who is in charge. Jesus didn’t declare Peter the rock because the big fisherman was full of insight and leadership capability. As soon as Peter made that wonderful confession that Jesus is Messiah and Son of God, any possible ground for Peter’s pride was taken away. Verse 17 blesses Peter, not because he thought this up, but because God the Father showed it to him. It’s about the priority of what God reveals, not about the priority of Peter.
Peter has priority simply because he represents the Church. He’s the stand-in for us all. Over and over, I hear evangelical Christians say, “I like Peter. He so human, so fallible, so much like me.” Exactly. That’s why Peter is the rock. That’s why he is first among the disciples. He represents us all by demonstrating again and again what it is for a weak, struggling human being to have rock-solid faith in a strong Savior.
The confession of verse 16 is the response to Jesus’ question in verse 15, “Who do you say I am?” What Peter answer is the first and letter-perfect answer to that question. He said “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter is the rock, the foundation, because he was the first one to say what the whole Church has said from its beginning. Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Jewish people and God’s own Son. That is what we believe and teach in order to be the Church. This is where it all starts.
About his scientific discoveries, Isaac Newton said in letter, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of ye Giants,” referring to the philosophers and scientists who came before him. We are the Church because we stand on the shoulders of Peter and the other first Christians, like Martha in John 11:27, who also confessed Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Ephesians 2:20 says the Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And so it is. Peter is the first rock, the first building stone. The rest of us stand on him and on the others who were with him at the beginning.
Yet in verse 18 Jesus immediately moves on from the Church’s foundation on the big fisherman named Rock to a conclusion drawn from that foundation: “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” The church built on Rock is solid enough to take Hell. That’s what Jesus said. Peter went through Hell. The verses just after this show us how much he wanted to avoid it, but Peter went through the Hell of his own denial of Jesus and then watching Jesus die on the Cross. Eventually Peter went through his own crucifixion. Yet the Church stood, built solid. It took Hell and kept standing.
I remember a sermon from my boyhood which suggested that, while the promise of not being overcome pictures the Church on the defensive, the image of “gates” in front of the evil realm implies the Church is on the offensive, storming the very portals of Hell itself. Once again, careful study shows it’s not as simple as a marching, militant Church attacking Hell’s gates, like men and elves advancing on the gates of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. If you know that story, you know that’s not how goodness won out.
The biblical usage of “gates” is representative of the whole realm of Hell or Hades. The Greek word hades means the realm of death, sheol in the Old Testament, the shadowy place you go when you die. Jesus said that the power of death will not overcome His Church.
Yet I still like the notion of the Church on the offense. It’s possible that Jesus pictured His Church breaking down the gates of death and freeing those trapped by it, freeing those afraid of dying. A much-ignored Christian doctrine is found in the Apostles’ Creed in the little phrase, “He descended into Hell (Hades). The biblical basis is mostly Acts 2:27, 31 and I Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6, all verses written or spoken by Peter. We believe the Church is solid because Jesus went down into the kingdom of death and set free all those who believe what Peter believed, that He is the Messiah and the Son of God.
We find the Church solid wherever it is setting people free from death and its power. When you the Church gathered around Don in love when Jane died this month, you were solid for him. When you cared for Arezoo and her family as she was dying, you were being rocks for them. When you loved Reed’s family through the death of his infant nephew a few years ago, you were standing firm. When the Church gathered around Beth and me in the loss of an unborn child and the deaths of our parents, you held steady, held true to that faith that overcomes death: Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.
There is strength in the Church. There is strength here for you. Here one rock keeps getting stacked upon another, building this wonderful structure that Jesus loves, that Jesus died and rose to create. Beginning with Peter, the stones keep rising. You can be a stone too and Hell will not overcome you. In the Church, we will take Hell, but we will overcome it. We will take Hell.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, there was conversation between the Confederate generals about the need to capture the hills where Union forces sat. It’s much debated whether it would even have been possible, but some felt that much earlier assaults should have been made upon Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. In the film “Gettysburg,” when General Isaac Trimble saw Union forces digging in on Cemetery Hill, he supposedly said to General Richard Ewell, “Sir, give me one division and I will take that hill.” When Ewell said nothing, Trimble said, “General Ewell, give me one brigade and I will take that hill.” Finally, he said, “General, give me one regiment and I will take that hill.” But Ewell held back, allowing the Union forces to entrench. He’s often blamed for losing the battle to the Union army because of his indecision to advance and take that high ground.
Founding His Church on Peter and Peter’s faith in Jesus, the Lord called you and I to advance on the forces of our enemy. As Christians we may expect to take Hell, to suffer all sorts of trials and persecutions, but in the strength and faith of Jesus Christ we may also expect to take Hell, to overcome the powers of darkness and death.
That’s why we get together. That’s why you’re being invited to get together even a little more, to be the Church, to be the force on earth that takes Hell, that overcomes death and stays strong in the Lord. These Growth Groups we’re talking about, these little gatherings of you and me in all our weaknesses and failings and imperfections, are actually regiments and divisions in the power of God to overcome death through faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Part of our aim for mobilizing in these Growth Groups is to find ways together to make a difference wherever the enemy is strong. Out of these gatherings we might feed the hungry, or befriend the elderly, or help build a house for the homeless. Yet we also know what the rocks at the foundation are. They are people of faith, people who believe in Jesus Christ. And so we also gather to study and pray and encourage each other to remain strong in that faith, the faith of Peter, the faith of Martha, the faith upon which Jesus built His Church.
Let’s dare to sing a hymn that has fallen on hard times. It’s been criticized as a product of a different era, of a violent, militaristic mindset that has little to do with what the Church should be today. The critique is perfectly fair if we sing this to justify hatred and violence toward people that Jesus loves. But “Onward Christian Soldiers” is not about armed war against sinners. It is about spiritual war against the very roots of sin, a war against Hell. If the Church is to be as solid as our Lord meant it to be, we may have to figure out how to sing this song again.
The gates of Hell are the entry into death. As followers of Jesus, you and I oppose death wherever it is found. We march on the side of the Lord whom Peter confessed, the Son of the living God, in the name of His divine life. We live for Him. To do that, we might die for Him.
Our closing hymn is a challenge to take Hell. You and I will certainly take Hell in the form of all sorts of personal struggles, suffering and hurt. The song says we march, “with the cross of Jesus going on before.” That means we march forward into the Cross, into all the pain that it means. Yet believe, like Peter did, in Jesus and you can take it. I know you can take it. You will not be overcome by any of it. You can take Hell.
Yet join together with your brothers and sisters in Christ in prayer, fellowship, study and mission and you can take Hell in an even better way. You can advance together on the gates of Hades itself, joining Jesus in breaking them down so that the world can go free. I challenge you and challenge myself to take Hell in that way, to be part of the Lord’s march to overcome death all through this world.
In verse 19, Jesus told Peter he was being given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Those are not just the keys to the Pearly Gates, those are the jail keys to the prison of death and Hell. Peter was charged not just to let people in, but to let them out, to set them free. Peter received those keys as the Church’s representative. Passed on through Peter and all the Christians who came after him, those great keys are still ours, the keys of faith, hope and love. We have faith in the name of Jesus Christ that sets people free from the power of death and hell. We have hope in the Resurrection He guaranteed to us all. We have His love guarding and guiding us through everything Hell can dish out. Let’s take those keys and take those deathly gates for Christ.
Verse 20 seems strange. Peter got the answer right, made his wonderful confession, became the first rock of the Church and then Jesus, “warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” Like a wise general, He knew it wasn’t quite yet time to charge the hill. But it is now. It has been for a long time. It’s time to come together and then go out to spread the good news.
In a way, the battle is already done and won. Jesus died and rose again. The gates of Hell were broken down as He walked out of His grave. Yet not everyone knows that. You and I don’t believe it strongly enough. We forget that Jesus is alive and that His Church is built on a rock. And many of the people you meet each day are still waiting to hear what you believe and to learn how to believe it themselves. May we come together often and faithfully to be solid people, to be our Lord’s solid Church. And may we go out today to invite those around us to build their lives on the Rock.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj