Too many churches want nothing to do with Jesus.
Wait a minute! Isn’t that a bit judgemental? And what a thing to come and say as the visiting preacher at a Church Anniversary!
What I mean is this: many of the assumptions Christians make about the church bear only the most meagre resemblance to what Jesus teaches about the subject.
This morning, I want to contrast many of our popular suppositions about the church with what Jesus says here. There are great riches in our short reading, but I shall confine myself to verse 18 for a text:
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.
We’re going to start in the middle of the verse and work our way outwards. Firstly, church. We may protest when the world assumes that ‘church’ means ‘building’ and 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? Have we not got locked into this idea that church is a building and an institution?
But what did the word ‘church’ originally mean? It did indeed mean ‘the people’ and they didn’t have their own buildings, gathering instead in the larger homes owned by the more wealthy believers.
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.
We are a ‘called-out people’. We assemble together for worship because God in Christ has called us out to be distinct from the world. The church is the people who have heard the call to follow Christ, and that means gathering together (the assembly) as a holy people (we are called out from the world and set apart for a special purpose).
This, then, is church. Our prime concerns are all located in that single word. Does our worship reflect the Christ who calls us out? Are living as a distinct, called-out people? How are we co-operating with the Holy Spirit who is calling other people out of worldliness to join us as Christ’s new community?
And if all the discussions about property and finance were related to those issues, we’d be in a healthier position.
Secondly, 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.
The trouble is, too many churchgoers say ‘my church’ and mean something else. They act 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. Such people throw wobblies when an act of worship does not sit nicely with their tastes in music.
But it’s Jesus here who says ‘my church’. The church belongs to him. It is his. In Paul’s terms, it is the Body of Christ and Jesus is the head.
Not so many years ago, it was popular in some Christian circles to hear preachers declare this claim: “Jesus wants his church back.” You know what? I think we could do with hearing that again. It’s his church, not ours. How many of our worship wars would be different if we were more concerned about what Jesus likes than what we like? How many of our petty arguments would fade in the brilliant light of knowing that the church belongs to Jesus? Aht do we need to hand back?
Thirdly, I will build my church. An evangelist I used to know said that whichever town he went in the UK, the local Christians always told him the same thing: “This is the hardest place in the country for the Gospel.” Now 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 is 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, let me 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 – holiness – and he wants to build the quantity of those who follow him – evangelism.
It is therefore only right to ask whether questions of holiness and evangelism are central to our conversations and our meeting agenda. I fear we avoid them and major on minors. Where are the class meetings where we hold one another accountable for our growth in grace? Where are those who are making sure we focus on how we shall reach out into the local community?
Fourthly, I will build my church. Some people who have got to know me well know one of my pet peeves. It’s the idea that churches and Christians run after the latest techniques and fads in order to turn around their fortunes. 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.
Now I don’t have any problem learning from the best of what is happening. I happen to be an avid reader. I told our daughter’s teacher at a parents’ evening last week that you can’t be a Faulkner if you aren’t a reader.
But what does this attitude do? It 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.
For God is not a machine who responds to us programming him. God is sovereign, and if that means anything it means that he has more free will than we do. It is Jesus who promises to build his church. We want to see it grow, too, but Jesus will be the one who makes that growth take place.
What does that mean for us? We may or may not use popular programmes such as the Alpha Course, but our attitude is to ask Jesus what he wants to do and what he is doing. We then seek to join in. Rather than us try to control or even manipulate things with our religious techniques, we instead place ourselves in a position of vulnerability rather than of control. Instead of taking charge ourselves, we ask Jesus to take that position. If he is to build his church, then that requires us to be dependent upon him, and therefore to seek to hear his voice and respond.
Fifthly, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. Here’s another challenging thought, something that goes against many of our natural instincts – something ‘counter-intuitive’ to use a popular fancy word these days. 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.
But, no, Jesus sees it differently. When he says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church,” he is surely responding to what Peter has just done. Peter has just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus grows his church by confession of faith in him. If you lower the bar, you stop being the church, because the church is the body of people who have faith in him. You might inflate your numbers in the short term, but in the long term you will no longer be the church. You might just about be a religious club, but you will no longer be the church of Jesus Christ.
So what about the people on the fringe whom we are nurturing? Are we discriminating against them? Are we excluding them? There is still room for them. John Wesley had a number of small group meetings, not just the famous class meeting. Some of them were reserved for those who had made a clear commitment of faith and obedience to Jesus Christ. Others were open to both those who believed and those who were enquiring about the faith – or, in Wesley’s words, ‘desired to flee from the wrath to come’.
Church holds an aspiration before people, namely to become radical disciples of Jesus Christ. Set the bar high. Make it worth the leap.
Sixthly and finally, and 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 some other countries, then.) Everything and everyone is against us. It’s time to pull up the drawbridge and defend what we’ve got.
Well, let’s not deny that the climate is not so positive towards Christianity in our society anymore. That much is obvious. 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 stands up to the words of our Lord here.
Did you notice I didn’t read the old translation, ‘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 translation I read is better: the gates of Hades. That is, the place of the dead. Death will not prevail against the church. Certainly, individual churches close and many decline, but Jesus is asserting the indestructible nature of his church. Can death ever conquer a community of faith founded in the Resurrection? Not a chance!
And specifically, there is no need to be negative here for this reason. ‘The gates of Hades’: when was the last time you were assaulted by a set of gates? It’s ridiculous! Gates are defensive tools. They are 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 the forces of sin lead to death, we proclaim forgiveness. Where death is at work in the world, we proclaim the kingdom of God. The gates of death tremble as the gospel community, the church, preaches the good news of her Saviour and Lord!
In conclusion, then, yes, the church faces all sorts of challenges and difficulties today. But part of our problem is that we 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 Jesus Christ. And then let us face the world with confidence in him and his Gospel.