“Making Church Strong”
27 August 2017
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
East Rochester & West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches
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 the Messiah.
It’s pretty apparent.
People do not agree on who Jesus is.
I have Muslim friends who consider Jesus as a great prophet.
Many of my Jewish friends think of Jesus as a wise rabbi,
While a few others think of him as a failed Messiah.
I have some friends who claim they are not people of faith,
Who think of Jesus as a wise, but mortal man.
I have a lot of friends who just don’t know what to believe about Jesus.
Even among my Christian friends and colleagues
There is a diversity of views about who and what Jesus is.
Church councils, conferences, and enclaves for generations
Have been debating if Jesus is fully human or fully divine,
Born of a virgin,
Expected to imminently return,
The nature of is imminence and his transcendence,
The substance of His body and blood in our Sacrament,
And His role in the Church today.
At the risk of sounding too self-centered
The debate in much of the contemporary American Church,
Both Roman Catholic and Protestant, is
What makes Jesus relevant to my life today?
If we have difficulty stating clearly and concisely who and what Jesus is,
There should be little mystery why
His disciples failed to come up with an answer to His question,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (16:13)
The best they could do is to come up with a list of dead prophets.
They even hedge that bet by saying, “Some say …”
Well, some say …
But, others say …
Holy non-committal, Batman!
Indeed, much of the world doesn’t know who Jesus is
Or what to do with Him.
The Gospel of Matthew runs this fine line
Of embracing the world
That is conflicted and contested
With the identity and nature of Jesus Christ.
Thirty-two years ago
Cynthia and I traveled to Caesarea Philippi.
Hopefully, my memory will serve us well … that and Wikipedia!
It is important to paint the picture of the environment
Where Jesus intentionally led his disciples
And initiated this Gospel discussion.
Caesarea Philippi is an ancient city,
Built in the third century BC by the Greeks as a center of cultic paganism.
Pagan worship ran deep, for the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians
Are known to have worshipped Ba-al at this site.
It is located approximately twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee.
It lies on the southwestern base of Mount Hermon in the modern-day Golan Heights.
It would have taken Jesus two days to lead his disciples from Capernaum on the North shore of the Sea of Galilee to Caesarea Philippi.
A two-day walk is a journey made with intention.
Jesus wants to lead the conversation about his identity specifically
At Caesarea Philippi.
A spring gushes forth from caves in the mountain at Caesarea Philippi
Forming one of the main tributaries of the Jordan River.
Here, the Greeks dedicated shrines to the pagan god of Pan,
and related deities.
On the walls of the cave behind Jesus
Are carvings of Pan, the god of the wild, shepherds, music, and the companion of nymphs.
Pan is depicted as sporting hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat.
Behind Jesus were even more ancient carvings of Ba-al,
The pagan god associated with storms and fertility.
Sculpted icons and symbols in the rock walls around Jesus
Created a Mount Rushmore type environment from which Jesus spoke.
From the mouth of this cave, on center stage,
Set before numerous and diverse symbols of pagan worship,
Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (16:15)
At least the disciples were smart enough to choose a list of dead prophets …
… John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
Good thing no one pointed to Pan or Ba-al and say, “You’re that guy.”
That would have been bad!
Jesus brought his disciples to the Mount Rushmore of the pagan world
To make a statement,
Not only about identity,
But also about how one comes to know Him and relate to Him,
Starting that day, and moving forward.
Jesus wasn’t a stone-cold monument to a transcendent god.
Jesus is our living, breathing, loving, personal, caring God;
An ever-present companion on life’s tumultuous journey.
This is a vitally important lesson Jesus taught His disciples.
It is just as important for us to learn today.
Simon Peter steps up to the challenge
With his short, succinct, persuasive elevator pitch:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (16:16)
Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner people.
The winning ticket was claimed by Peter in a pagan cave at Caesarea Philippi.
Jesus correctly observes that flesh did not reveal his identity.
In other words,
It wasn’t the pagans,
The Romans or the Greeks,
Who revealed to Peter who Jesus is.
It was our Father in heaven. (16:17)
Peter’s statement of faith is based on
A personal encounter with Jesus
And with a living, contextual, and relevant heavenly Father.
This essential truth from this Gospel passage
Clearly marks the lines of responsibility when it comes
To establishing and implementing
God’s policy manual
For leading a Christian life.
Are charged with introducing people to Jesus,
Creating the personal encounter with Christ.
We do the introduction.
Then get out of the way.
God does the rest.
It is through that introduction,
Through our clear, concise, succinct elevator pitch,
That God finds a way to enter the lives of others.
God finds a way to nest into their contextual setting.
God finds a way for each individual
To be discipled and educated in the ways of Jesus,
That Christ may become relevant in the spiritual life and journey
Of every called and claimed Christian.
This is our pitch.
This is our song.
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Introduce people to Jesus.
Trust that God will do the rest.
Do not worry about our Jewish or Islamic friends;
God’s promise to our Jewish and Islamic sisters and brothers,
As is God’s promise to us, remains strong and true.
Jesus does not break that which God has vowed by sacred covenant.
Rather, Jesus comes as a living God to the Christian Church.
Our God, through His Son, Jesus Christ, desires an authentic relationship
With each of us individually,
And with us corporately, as His Body, as His Church.
Peter is likened to a rock,
Petra, in the Greek,
And upon this petra foundation,
Christ will build his ekklesia,
Jesus will build his Church.
Peter is rock strong.
Jesus is Church strong.
You will notice
I’ve put in the bulletin this morning
Information about hashtag #ChurchStrong
If you don’t know how to use hashtags in Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram,
Ask a friend, or ask your grandchildren.
They’ll show you how.
I’ve done this to encourage you
To drop in the hashtag #ChurchStrong as you talk about
The Gospel passage and today’s message in social media.
Doing so will allow us to search #ChurchStrong,
Read each other’s replies,
And witness to the world
That we follow Jesus,
As built upon Peter, the rock.
Let me start the conversation
About what makes #ChurchStrong,
And I look forward to reading from you this afternoon and in the coming days
Your thoughts, your beliefs,
About what makes Church Strong.
Live an honest, authentic life.
Follow the rules.
Nothing undermines the Christian message or the messenger more than hypocrisy.
Purge hypocrisy right out of your life.
Lead with your heart.
Be kind in every circumstance,
Especially when the spiritual forces of wickedness attack you.
Be passionate in your love of God and neighbors.
Few things undermines the integrity of the Christian life than casual indifference.
Speak and act with conviction.
Make a commitment, and keep it.
Introduce a friend to Jesus and let God warm their heart.
Study together with others the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Testify how God is at work in your life
And celebrate how God is at work in the lives of others.
Take a stand for that which is just, honorable, and true.
Praise God in your waking and when you go to bed.
Praise God in your prayers and in your devotions.
Praise God in your work and in your relaxation.
Praise God at home and together in weekly worship.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Never stop praising God.
Doesn’t mean big, or rich, or powerful by any measures of this world.
Being Church Strong doesn’t mean taking a seat at the head table,
But giving up your VIP seat for someone more deserving.
Being Church Strong means being the compassionate hands of Jesus
Reaching out to the last, the least, the lost, the left behind of this world.
Being Church Strong means encouraging all to become servant leaders for the transformation of the world.
Church of Peter,
Body of Christ,
Testify to who Jesus is:
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Tell the world why God has sent us His Son:
Just as Peter had a personal encounter with Jesus,
God would like to have a personal, loving relationship with you, too.