What is the Church?

The following message is based on Matthew 16:13-20 and was preached at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA on July 10, 2011.

It was the late comedian George Burns, who said: “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.” I tend to disagree, but I’ll leave you to your opinion. Sermons are meant to inspire and educate. I hope to do a little of both in the following. I want to start with a question: What do we mean when we use the word “church?” Often, when we hear the word “church,” we think of a structure made of bricks and mortar, with a steeple and stained glass windows. But Jesus meant something different by the term. When Jesus used the word “church,” He was not referring to a building located at 2111 Valley Forge Road in Lansdale.

The term church shows up in different places throughout the New Testament, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul. But Jesus used the term in our passage for today. Rather, He was speaking of the congregation of God’s people that had its foreshadowing in Israel of the Old Testament and the body of baptized believers in the New Testament. He described a people uniquely blessed. Today, we said in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the … Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.” Why is this important? Why is it critical that we have a correct understanding of the church? What defines the church? What separates it from other organizations in the world? Today, I want to expound some important aspects concerning God’s people, as found in Jesus’ words in Matthew 16, the passage we know as Peter’s Confession at Caesarea Philippi. So first let us ask…

WHAT IS THE CHURCH?

Remember that the question was posed by Jesus: “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples replied various answers. Some say Elijah. Some say John the Baptist come back, others say a prophet.” Then He turns the question to them. He asks: “Who do you say that I am?” At this, Peter responds: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” According to Stephen Short, Peter was essentially saying: “You are the Messiah; God’s appointed Savior of His people, whose advent has been foretold in our sacred Scriptures (“Mark,” A New Testament Commentary, 188).” In other words, Peter said: “You are the fulfillment of God’s long awaited promise.” This was an important acknowledgement because every Jew lived with this anticipation of the arrival of God’s Messiah. And those that do not recognize Jesus still live with this anticipation. This is why there is a vacant seat at a Seder Meal.

Peter’s confession is called, by New Testament scholar Laurence Porter, “the watershed of the Gospel narrative (“Luke,” A New Testament Commentary, 224).” In other words, this is a defining moment in the life of the disciples, let alone the entire New Testament. Found also in Mark 8 and Luke 9, the Confession at Caesarea Philippi occurs right after incredible miracles (i.e. the feeding of the 4,000 and the 5,000, along with Jesus walking on water), and right before His teaching on discipleship and the Transfiguration. It functions as Jesus introduction to the necessity of His journey to Jerusalem, His suffering and death upon the cross. In other words, it is a shift in emphasis. It also teaches us the point of entry into the church; it teaches us that being a Christian is a life of revelation and reception, given by God, as well as ultimate loyalty and faithfulness offered by us.

Notice how Jesus responds in verse 17: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 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.” The “rock” designated is likely Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus. And through this confession we have promised victory over every obstacle, including death, which is represented by the figure of speech, “the gates of hell.”

And so how are we to understand the term church and the necessary things surrounding it? A few things that we can keep in mind as we think about the church. First of all, we must keep our head clear. In other words we must keep it clear who is our head. Christ is the head of the church. Notice that Jesus used the personal possessive pronoun, “my.” He said, “Upon this rock, I will build My church.” It is important to note that the church does not belong to the pastor, nor does it belong to the congregation. We do not exist for ourselves. Rather the church belongs to and is accountable to its head, Jesus Christ. Consider Paul’s words in Colossians 1:18: “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything.” And the church is more than just an organization. It is not a club, by which its direction is determined by popular vote. Being a congregational church, we are autonomous, in that there is not an outside entity that determines our direction and course. That place is reserved for Jesus Christ.

Secondly, we are united in belief and behavior. In other words, we are one holy, catholic church. Catholic here is not a proper adjective, but a word meaning “universal,” or “recognized.” We share a common belief, summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, which has lasted over 2,000 years. This is especially important as we are living in a postmodern age where objective truth is often challenged. This is a subjective age, where there are those that think truth is what they make it out to be. And that your truth is not the same as my truth, because our circumstances are different. This usually plays itself out in one who believes and behaves selfishly. We’ve caught fire when we’ve taken exception to the behavior or the doctrine of those who have chosen to believe and live independently from the clear teaching of Scripture. God’s word, the Bible, must remain the church standard for all things doctrinally and ethically! Christians should be united. This was the thought of the founder of our movement, Caspar Schwenckfeld. Central’s former Senior Pastor, Dr. Jack Rothenberger wrote his Master’s thesis on Schwenckfeld and the Ecumenical Ideal. In it, he states that Schwenckfeld’s purpose was “To find ‘the Holy Spirit recognizably present with power,’ in the life of Christians. He was a great man of religion who engaged in theological discussion in order to seek unity among all Christians. He expressed the ecumenical ideal in terms of a unity of purpose in the way Christians should live.” We must be united in belief and behavior.

We are also diverse in race, language and national identity. We are also the communion of saints. It is impossible to experience this communion if we possess prejudice or bigotry based on a person’s ethnicity or background. Revelation 5:9 tells us that the blood of Christ “…purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Our fellowship must go beyond race and color. Interestingly enough, according to a 1993 survey among our membership, 163 people identified themselves as being related to original Schwenkfelders; 230 stated that they came from some other Protestant group. And our church is more diverse than you might think. We have some from Asia, others from Germany; still others from Scotland, and thankfully an Irish hillbilly! God intends His church to be a bit of a melting pot! Next, let us ask…

WHAT IS OUR ROLE IN THIS WORLD?

In many places we see Jesus described as being light: Take for instance John 8:12: “I am the Light of the world; He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” But then he turns around and calls us the light of the world in Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” And the message of Christ that we bear, functions as light. Consider Acts 13:47: “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'” So, we can deduce from these verses that we are His light to the world. In other words, our main role in this world is to point people to Christ. Notice the words of C.S. Lewis in his book, which has become a Christian classic, entitled, Mere Christianity. He states: “The Church exist for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, mission, sermons, even the Bible itself are simply a waste of time. God became man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful… whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.” There is a common notion that people don’t attend church, because, “I don’t get anything out of it.” The same people have missed the point that it is also about what you put into it. That it is a Christian’s obligation to attend worship and be involved in the activities in order to use your spiritual gifts, which God has given you to aid His people and expand His kingdom.

Church council has established the mission statement for our congregation. It is to: “love God, to serve others and to grow disciples.” I hope you will support this statement, as you serve Christ within the context of Central Schwenkfelder Church. Because our task is great; we are the minority. According to a new report in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, the actual number of people worshiping each week is closer to 53 million, but just a little over 17 percent of the U.S. population. Why should attendance numbers matter? Because they show that a shrinking number of people are participating in that most basic Christian tradition- the weekly gathering together for worship, teaching, prayer, fellowship and Holy Communion.”

That is why missions is so important. We sent over 60 of our people to Polaski, VA this morning to assist those ravaged by tornadoes. I told them that they were not to go there just to do charity work, but that we have a message to bear. It was A.J. Gordon that said, “The church that does not participate in missions will soon become a mission field.” And one said: “The church that does not evangelize will soon fossilize. Rather, we function as the world’s lifesaver! Paul wrote in Romans 10:13: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Friends, we are the ones given the task to bring the good news to the world! 

We are the world’s only hope. And by saying the Apostles’ Creed on a Sunday morning, we recognize that we are not independent from Christians of years gone by. We are a part of a larger family, that has spanned 2,000 years and all over the world. Our faith is the same today as it was two millennia ago. The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 54 asks: “What do you believe concerning the Holy Catholic Church?” Notice its answer: “I believe that, from the beginning to the end of the world, and from among the whole human race, the Son of God, by His Spirit and his Word, gathers, protects and preserves for Himself, in the unity of the true faith, a congregation chosen for eternal life. Moreover, I believe that I am and forever will remain a living member of it.”

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