Peter’s Declaration about JesusMatthEw 16:13-20 (NRSV)
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was[f] the Messiah.
There are lots of different churches and denominations, and people understand God, their faith, and the Bible in many different ways. Our church is a part of the United Church of Christ, which is a denomination that began in 1957 when the Evangelical Reformed and the Congregational Christian Churches came together to form an organic merger. As the United Church of Christ, we believe that Jesus is the sole head of the church. We do not have a hierarchical structure in our denomination, but we faithfully and prayerfully put authority into the hands of the people. Through the emphasis of autonomy, brought to us by our roots in the Congregational Christian Church, we are called to individual participation and responsibility in our faith communities, which means that our pastors and our local churches make their own decisions, and congregations vote on issues rather than being told what to think and do. Because of that, each of our congregations is unique and independent, just like our worship leaders and worship styles. And that is one of the things that I celebrate the most about serving as a pastor not only of the Oldtown Church but in the United Church of Christ as a whole.
Now for all you superhero fans out there, Spiderman always says that with great power comes, what? Yes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And Eleanor Roosevelt told us that with freedom comes great responsibility. So whichever way you look at, as a Congregational Church in the United Church of Christ, we have a big responsibility because we decide the direction that our church goes as we listen for the still speaking voice of God to guide our understanding of scripture and the way we work together as the church.
As a pastor in the United Church of Christ, I have what they call “the freedom of the pulpit,” meaning that it is up to me to decide what scripture to preach on and what I want to say about it. Now sometimes in Oldtown, we follow themes for different seasons, like last year when we had a preaching series called “In This House,” reflecting for several weeks on what our faith calls us to be and do as a community. But usually, over the summer, I tend to follow the Revised Common Lectionary which assigns scripture readings over a three-year period, bringing a little more variety to the scriptures we reflect on.
Okay, so where am I going with all of this? Well, this week I experienced a little “Holy Spirit moment.” Our church committee–which has been working hard keeping the administration of our church functioning while our church building has been closed due to the pandemic–had a difficult decision to make this week regarding what is going to happen with and in our church building over the next few months. Will we open our church building, with restricted numbers, wearing masks, socially distancing, and sanitizing the sanctuary and the bathrooms, even though we cannot sing or share in group responses or join together for coffee hour or hug one another? Or will we keep the building closed, and continue to worship online, making sure that everyone stays safe?
Friends, believe me, we all want to be together again. We all want to “get back to normal” as they say, and we all want to feel the comforts of home in Oldtown. But the decision was made this week to keep our church building closed until next year and to only open once it is safe for everyone to return. I know, you are probably wondering where the Holy Spirit moment is in that? Well, the Holy Spirit moment came as I reflected on the scripture this week.
I will admit my energy was low from the anxiety of uncertainty and the responsibility of working with the church committee to make such a difficult decision. My heart was feeling heavy because I was facing the fact that it would be much longer before we would be together again in person. And I could not imagine what kind of message I could give to bring comfort and hope in such a time.
As I reflected on the scripture, I thought about Jesus and the uncertainty he was feeling when he wondered about what people thought of him and who they thought he was. I’m sure that was not easy. Jesus faced uncertainty and he wanted people to follow him. But though there was a feeling of uncertainty, that did not quite feel like it connected to where we are today.
It was not until I read the words, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Friends, you see Jesus called Peter the rock and said that he would build his church upon him. Now obviously, he would not physically build a church building on Peter, but the church would be built on Peter’s belief and on his confession.
If you think back to just a few minutes earlier, Jesus said that Peter has just stated that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. So, the rock that Jesus is talking about is Peter’s belief and Peter’s confession. The rock is Peter, as he publicly confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Upon that rock, Jesus will build his church.
My friends, the church is built on belief. Because being a Christian does not just mean being nice to others or loving your neighbor. Being Christian does not just mean attending worship online or in-person or reciting memorized prayers. Being a Christian does not mean being a member of a church or ever even entering a church building. Being a Christian means that you believe in Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God.
And I believe that when Jesus said, “Upon this rock, I will build my church,” he said it to all of the disciples. The question that Jesus asked was not just to Peter, it was to all of them; “Who do you (all) say that I am?” And when Peter answered, he was not answering only for himself; he was answering for all of them. So, yes, Peter is the rock, but so are all the other disciples. And thousands of years later, so are we! Because the church is not about a building. It is not made of wood and stone and nails; it is made of people–people confessing and believing together that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That, my friends, that belief is the foundation of the church.
Now personally, I think that is good news enough. But because of the added uncertainty and difficulties that we face in the midst of a pandemic, I have to tell you, I had to smile and I’ll be honest, I even laughed out loud at the Holy Spirit moment I experienced this week. Because not only did today’s scripture remind us that the church is not about a building, but that it is about people who believe in Jesus. Then Jesus goes a step further to say, “And not even the gates of Hades with prevail over it.” My friends, if the church can prevail over the gates of Hades, I think we can handle a pandemic. And we can all be patient until it is safe for all of us to return. We simply must continue to believe, keeping the church strong as we continue to live out our belief loving and serving others in all that we say and do.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your week ahead, take some time to think about what you believe. And then know that you not only stand on a firm foundation but that you are a part of it! And whatever struggles you face, may you never be afraid to look to Jesus, for he is the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God! And he has assured us that not only will we make it through this pandemic, but that even the gates of Hades will not prevail over us!
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.