St. Matthew 16:13-19Preached by Revd Dr Wilhelm Torgerson in the seminary’s Martin Luther chapel on Wednesday, 7 March 2012, in the week of Lent II.
“Church is a drag.”
Most of you will likely know people who hold this deep conviction. And many of those who think that way probably have never seen the inside of a church building, at least not for a long time. But they seem to be firm in their judgement, even though they know little or nothing about it, and furthermore, they have no intention to undertake efforts to find out. Why should they – church is a drag.
Others have had bad experiences with the church: the parents forced attendance down their throats; the pastors were nice but usually not really with it; and Sunday mornings is just a bad time for a general get-together.
Church is a drag – indeed, it is mega-out!
Now you showed up here this morning, and I’m assuming that none of you were paid a bribe to do so nor offered free pizza at noon. Am I correct in saying that you in this service want to join with one another in thanking God, thanking him for founding, maintaining, giving us and calling us to be his Church?
Admittedly, the Church is a somewhat aged lady, carrying about 1980 years on her shoulders. But whatever some people say, I’m telling you that this lady is really with it and still in top condition. At least that’s what St. Matthew says in our text. He mentions four reasons for saying:
Church – a Great Thing!
1. Her Firm Foundation
2. The Church’s Personnel
3. She is Ineradicable
4. She is the Door to Heaven
1. Her Firm Foundation
The elections, both provincial and national, lie behind us; our neighbours to the south are in high drive preparing for theirs. Last year we were, and right now the Americans are inundated with the results of various public opinion polls. Their results give each politician opportunity to fashion his public statements in a manner so as to appeal to a presumed majority. And it gives those with a mind and view of their own opportunity to ask: Is what I’m proposing acceptable to many people? Or what changes do I have to make in order to get more votes?
In our text Jesus is being told the results of a public opinion poll: Who is this guy? And frankly, the poll results and the opinions expressed about his person are an absolute catastrophe. The people do seem to regard Jesus generally as a nice guy, a decent bloke, even a religiously significant person. – But then, so is the Dalai Lama. And by the way, nothing comparable to the popularity of the previous, the Polish pope. — Jesus’ public acceptance values seem o.k., but not for what he claimed for himself. Votes were cast for him being some kind of prophet from the past, but more than that? Forget it.
One single vote is cast for his claim to be the Son of the living God, but you will look in vain for a majority opinion on that issue.
The story then takes an interesting turn: Jesus isn’t at all fazed by the results of the poll. He doesn’t say: Now if many, even most of the people, will consider me merely one of the prophets, then I’ll just not emphasize the Son-of-God thing so much. I just want the people to love and follow me.
On the contrary, Jesus makes it quite clear that his mission is not dependent on opinion polls and majority views, and that he has no intention of conforming his ministry to what most people expect of him. Because other than our politicians Jesus cannot be voted out of office. Where democracy works well, when an elected official turns out to be a dud, he can be voted out at the next election.
In the Church it’s different – surprise! She is governed by the Creator and Lord of the universe. He cannot be voted out of office; he’s the best there is, the best we have and the best one can imagine. And what this Lord says has authority in the en-tire Church, like it or not, even if a majority were to disagree – as seems to be the very case right now.
Christ is the Son of the living God – even if 95% of the world’s population would not agree. Christ is risen from the dead – even though 70% of church members in Europe today don’t quite see it that way. His commandments are in force – even if a two-thirds majority vote would declare them invalid.
So when you come to chapel here, today or any other day, you need not count on or expect to be told something other than what you’ve heard previously, despite the fact that a majority might find something newer to be more palatable or agreeable. The Church and its foundation is not dependent on public opinion or majority vote, but only and uniquely on the word of her Lord.
But then I take it you know that.
2. The Church’s Personnel
A second reason for me saying, the Church – A Great Thing, is the people called to special service, the ground crew. And I’m thinking particularly of this Peter guy, Mr. Rock.
What’s so special about him? A big mouth, no doubt; among the disciples he al-ways spouted off first, and at times something pretty substantial came out, like we just heard in our text. Though we will have to add this qualifying restriction: immediately following Peter’s wonderful confession Jesus has to tell him that he did not arrive at this because of his seminary dogmatics classes, or because he had more theological insight than the rest of the twelve. Rather, it was his heavenly Father who put that into his brain and heart.
If Peter would have been on his own there in the region north of Lake Galilee nothing like that clarion confession would have come out of his mouth that day. More likely it would have been something more like what happened later, in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace. “May I be forever cursed and separated from God if I had anything to do with this Jesus!” That’s Peter, too; he really said that!
And look at the verses following our text. Peter has the grandiose idea to suggest that Jesus better do something other than go up to Jerusalem and suffer a terrible end on the cross; it would be altogether too bad to die so soon. And boy, did Jesus respond to that suggestion: “Get behind me, Satan! You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Why am I telling you this? Simply because Jesus chose this kind of guy, Peter, and then referred to him as the ‘rock’, the rock upon which he builds his Church. Such a flop and failure! Such a wash-out and deadbeat! And this big mouth, who in the passion events was as undependable as all the other disciples, him Jesus uses to build his Church, makes him an apostle, a stone in the foundation of the church.
But then to be honest: he’s even using people like John Stephenson and Bill Mundt and Tom Winger. What’s worse, he might even be using Torgy. And in Finland they’re so desperate, they’ve even called Juhana to serve.
You know what? That’s the way Jesus does things even today, just you wait for call day. That kind of people have a place in Christ’s Church: Failures, big mouths
and odd guys; people that no one else wants; top guys and losers, stars and wall-flowers – all of them Christ can and will use as he builds his Church. Because it is not us who build the Church; we are not the ones holding the Church’s future in our hands. Christ alone builds his church. He knows exactly where to put you and me to work – without him having any illusions about what kind of weaknesses we have or what kind of head-cases we might be. And yet he accepts you and tells you: You are one of the stones with which I build my Church.
So, that’s another reason for saying: the Church – a Great Thing! In it there’s room for all sorts of people.
3. The Church is Ineradicable
In English: As long as the world stands, you cannot make her dissolve into no-thing! And I can already see in my mind’s eye people jumping up and down: it ain’t so, it aint so. After all, consider that once so lively Church in northern Africa, evoking famous names of great saints, Cyril, Tertullian, Augustine — where is it? Gone, swept away by the waves of Islam in the eighth and ninth century. How apt Dr. Luther’s word about the ‘Platzregen’, the downpour that comes once and then passes on, possibly never to return.
I mentioned at the beginning we’re looking back at 1980 years. It all started with
a few people who gathered 50 days after the resurrection of Christ, just a handful of people in the backwater of an insignificant province of the Roman Empire. On the basis of Peter’s speech 3000 people came to be baptized that day. Nobody could have foreseen that this will eventually become a community of more than a billion people.
And a look at the history of the church gives even more cause to be astonished: persecution of Christians – simply because they were Christians – in the early centuries; persecution in the 70 years of Communist rule; and persecution in many Islamic societies today.
And what seems so terribly ludicrous, look at what’s going on inside the Church! The unfaithful faithful; incompetent pastors, bishops and popes; false teachers and heretics questioning the fundamentals of the Christian faith, particularly today — and doing so successfully. Church schisms – there were at one time 53 different Luther-an church bodies in North America! And finally, moral scandals in the Church that make the face of even the most devoted member blush. Yet she’s still around, the old lady.
Perhaps you’ve heard the cute story about Napoleon and a Roman cardinal: Napoleon threatened the cardinal with his power to be able to destroy the Church. The cardinal answered: “Your Majesty, you won’t be able to do that; we’ve been trying that ourselves for centuries and didn’t succeed.”
It is nothing short of a miracle that the Church still exists, sometimes out in the public market, powerful, influential, rich. But more often she’s struggling in a back
room, weak, disregarded and poor. In appearance she at times compares to one of the myriads of human associations, clubs, parties and groups. But if she were just that she’d have gone the way of all flesh by now. Lo and behold, there are even places where she grows and flourishes, often not in the places you’d expect.
Think of the Christian Church in China. No one can say with any degree of certainty whether there are 60 million or whether by now the 100 million mark has been passed. Most of these Christians gather not in church buildings but in private homes and without permission of the state authorities. Isn’t that the way everything began?
There’s one thing which not even the powers-that-be, in the politbureau in China, in the White House, or at 24 Sussex in Ottawa, can do away with: the promise of the Lord that not even the gates of hell shall prevail against the Church. That’s the promise by which Christ’s little band of the faithful lives, and we better not forget that! Not by evangelism methods and missionary drives, not by generous financial offerings and faithful member support – and by the way, I’m against none of these. Rather she lives by Christ’s promise and by his faithfulness to keep his word.
Finally – most important of all
4. The Church is the Door to Heaven!
At the end of our text Christ states: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
There, in the Church, the doors of heaven are opened to admit the many. And faithful men are called upon to be the turnkeys. In all frankness and honesty we have to add: The Church at times also has the command and authority to close that door and lock it. Sometimes pastors and people seem to forget that. After all, it is not so that once a person dies he automatically enters heaven; in fact, the whole thing can go terribly wrong. Anyone who’s kept away from God all his life will be kept out in the end. And the Church should tell him that this is a real option – and tell him early on and repeatedly!
It is most certainly true that God has no interest in keeping people away. He wants them each and all. He sent his Son to run after people, to go looking for them wherever they might be hiding: whether that be in other religions, in ideologies, in self-constructed piety or in unbelief. In the Word and the Sacraments which the Church dispenses, it is Christ himself seeking out the lost to be saved and, if needed, be dragged into heaven.
Now how’s that done? How does he do it?
The Church has been given the command and the authority to loose and to bind, to free people from their sins or to retain them upon their wish. The use and application of the keys of the kingdom, that’s what we have, and that’s how it’s done to open very heaven itself. This door is opened and this gift is bestowed in the baptism you received or dispense, in every absolution the pastor pronounces, in every Supper of the Lord celebrated according to the Lord’s institution. We’re on the road to heaven, of which we have already been made citizens.
So, being the Church is not merely an exotic hobby for the few liturgically inclined; its not a movement for improving the moral fibre of society; and most certainly it’s not the task to accord to the opinions of the majority. Here in chapel we dispense the Word and the Sacraments; where we have that, that’s where the Church is. Here we turn the key to open the door to heaven – because that’s where you belong.