Why Church?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
March 6, 2022
Matthew 16:13-20 

This sermon was recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, March 4, 2022. It does not include the opening comments and the prayer I used at the beginning of the service to address the troubles we’re facing in today’s world. This can be found at the beginning of the text below.

At the Beginning of Worship:

News wise, it’s been another difficult week. We’ve watched the horrors of war in Ukraine. The sabre rattling is frightening as the Russian dictator threatens nuclear war and others warn of a possible World War III. And there is little we can do, as individuals, to control events, except perhaps pay more for gas. We’re even more helpless than we are with COVID, for there at least there were things we could do to protect ourselves and others. Perhaps this challenge is forcing us to learn to lean on God, so again this morning, before we get into worship, let’s clear our hearts with prayer: 

Holy God, you have shown repeatedly how much you love the world. We know your heart must be breaking as you watch the horrors we inflect on other people, as if they are not also created in your image. We, too, are horrified as we see schools and hospitals and apartment buildings shelled and bombed. Our hearts grieve as old Ukrainian women watch in sadness as invaders burn their homes to the ground. And when we hear the talk of the war expanding, knowing the weapons available to those making war, we are frightened. We can’t image the horrors of such a scene. 

Gracious God, we pray for the people of Ukraine, and for the Russians who are prosecuting this war. We pray for the safety of civilians, especially the children. We pray that leaders of nations might act rationally, honor the territorial boundaries of others, and work to reduce tensions and to bring about peace. We pray for the crowds around the world, even inside Russia, who have risen in protest. May we all seek peace. Yet, we know we are in a world filled with sin, a world in which the evil one is in a desperate battle of destruction. Give us confidence in your love and the courage to do what we must to further your kingdom. This we pray in the name of the prince of peace, Jesus Christ. Amen.  

A New Sermon Series:

During the season of Lent, I plan to preach a series of sermons around the question, “Why church?” Why do we worship weekly? Why do we gather in this building? What is our purpose? 

Let me suggest at the beginning that church is not home. Nor is the earth our home. Our home is with God and in that final vision we have in Scripture, we learn that heaven itself is void of a church building (or at least the temple which symbolized the church in the Old Testament).[1]

Again, our home is to be with God. To quote Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian minister and theologian, “If the church is the home we’re looking for, we’re in bigger trouble than we thought.” Barnes suggests that instead of greeting people with “Welcome Home,” when returning to church, we should acknowledge that it is a place where we find “long-lost brothers and sisters who are as confused about home as [we] are.” Instead of this place being our home, we come to worship to “renew our longing for the true home.”[2]

In other words, the purpose of preaching shouldn’t be to make us comfortable as if we’re in a den by a fire enjoying a good drink. Instead, preaching’s main goal is to be like John the Baptist (although I hate locust), pointing to Jesus.[3] For Jesus is our way to the Father, Jesus is our way home.[4]

Before the Reading of Scripture:

Today we’re going to look at Peter’s Confession as described in the Gospel of Matthew. This event is a key event in Matthew’s gospel, for from this point Jesus turns toward Jerusalem. And we know what happens there. This passage is one of the most discussed and debated passages in Matthew’s gospel, as we’ll see as we get into it. 

Read Matthew 16:13-20

After the Reading of Scripture

Why Church?

Why church? My first stab at an answer to this question begins with Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church. Before we can ask ourselves why we are a part of the church, we should know why Jesus established it. And, while we’re pondering that, we should go back to the beginning. Why did Jesus pick such a motley group of men to serve as Apostles and to help establish his church? 

And, while we’re asking questions, why did this unlikely organization, fraught with weakness from the very beginning, survive over 2,000 years? After all, hosts of better-established organizations have come and gone. But the church continues. We may be beaten and bruised, or as the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation” claims, “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” yet we continue despite our troubles. While church membership in North America and Europe is in decline, we’re still here. We’re not going anywhere. And besides, the church is growing rapidly in places like Africa and Asia. 

Why church? Because Jesus wants it that way. Let’s explore our text for the morning.

Exploring the Text: A disciple retreat

Jesus and the disciples have left Galilee, which has been their primary area of mission following Jesus’ baptism. They are now north of Galilee, in a community that is between Israel and the rest of the world, a border town.[5] We can only guess why Jesus has led the disciples here. First, outside of his normal area, Jesus won’t be troubled with the interruption of crowds. Second, Jesus can spend some quality time with his core team. And third, he needs them to jell into a focused unit. This retreat with the disciples prepares them for the task ahead. At the end of Matthew, after the resurrection, Jesus sends them out into the world to do his mission. 

Exploring the Text: Jesus’ identity

While they’re all together, Jesus asks first who people say that he is. He receives several interesting responses: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. While people don’t really understand the nature of Jesus’ ministry, by equating him with one of these, they are thinking Jesus must be someone important. 

Jesus displays an important insight with his questions. He doesn’t come right out and ask the disciples to make a profession of faith. His teaching is more inductive. Think about this, these 12 men have had more exposure to Jesus than to anyone else. So, when we are talking to someone who isn’t a believer, we shouldn’t expect them to make a profession of faith right away. Jesus didn’t expect the disciples to get it immediately. Instead, we should provide space for nonbelievers to ponder and for God’s Spirit to work a miracle.[6]

Yet, the question really isn’t who people say Jesus is, but who the disciples (and us) say that Jesus is. When Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am,” Simon Peter shouts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

Exploring the Text: Peter’s confession

Peter gets it. Peter understands. Notice his language. He doesn’t say, “I think you are the Christ.” He doesn’t just believe Jesus is his personal Messiah, nor the Christ of just the disciples. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One who bridges the gap between earth and heaven.[7]  There is no other.

Next, think of how Jesus responds. He doesn’t say, “Way to go, Peter. You got a good head on your shoulders.” However, Jesus does call Peter “blessed,” but instead of congratulating him for receiving an A+ on the only exam that matters for eternity, Jesus informs Peter that he has had some help. Peter’s proclamation didn’t come from his brain, it came from God. God always acts first. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, God gives Peter this answer, just as God works on our salvation even before we knew we were lost. 

Grace means that our relationship with Jesus isn’t something we’ve done, but that which God has done for us which allows us to experience the benefits of such a relationship. 

Exploring the Text: Jesus builds his Church

Next, Jesus plays with Peter, essentially using a pun based on his name. Verse 18 can also be translated like this: “Rocky, on this very rock I’m going to build my church…”[8] Of course, Peter will later show that rock might also refer to his head, for he had a hard head and wanted things his way.[9]

Jesus continues talking about his church, how the gates of Hades will never prevail against it and how the church will be given the keys to heaven with the power to loosen and bind, with its authority extending even to heaven. What does all this mean?

There’s been lots of debate over this. The Roman Catholic Church uses these verses to proclaim Peter as the first pope and his successors all coming from him. But Protestant and even Orthodox Churches speaks of the church being built upon the Apostles, not solely on Peter’s shoulders. Even some notable Catholics of old, such as Bebe, an English Doctor of the church in the 7th Century, insisted that Christ is the Rock, not Peter.[10]Regardless of which way you take this verse, the emphasis is that Jesus is building his church. The church belongs to Jesus. As Paul writes, as is found in many of our hymns, Jesus is the cornerstone.[11]

As far as the “gates of Hades,” this was an ancient way of saying that the powers of death won’t destroy the church. You know, in my ministry, I have seen the death of many whom I’d call saints, pillars of the church. But the church’s foundation isn’t upon us. Jesus Christ, the eternal one, is the foundation. We are to just do our part as long as we’re able. But we have an important part to play for we’ve been given the “keys to the kingdom.” In other words, we are the organization that God uses to help further his kingdom. 

Exploring the Text: The Church as the People of God

The Greek word used for church by Jesus here is Ekklesia. While we think of the church as a New Testament concept, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek around 200 years before Jesus, the same word, Ekklesia, that Jesus used for the church was used for the “people of” or the “community of God.”[12] To answer my earlier question, that’s what Jesus expects the church to be, the community of God. And God’s community may look surprisingly weak to the larger world, but when it’s us and God, we’re strong.

Much of God’s work is done by people like you and me who, not on our own ability, but on God’s power, commit ourselves to do God’s work in the world. 

Conclusion 

So, “why church?” Because it’s the way Jesus Christ has set things up. We don’t come here because we think we’re special or superior. We come here because we know Jesus is the Lord, the Messiah, the Christ, the one who bridges the gap between earth and heaven. We come here to worship, and then to be sent back into the world, to do his work. Amen. 


[1] Revelation 21:22.

[2] M. Craig Barnes, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 26. 

[3] Matthew 3:11-12, Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:16-17, John 1:23-28

[4] John 14:6.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (1990, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 119. 

[6] Bruner, 120. 

[7] Bruner, 121.

[8] Bruner, 119, 127. 

[9] Immediately following this encounter in Matthew, Jesus chastises Peter, calling him “Satan” for not accepting Jesus’ teachings. See Matthew 16:21-23.  And Peter will also be quick to deny Jesus three times after Jesus’ arrest. See Matthew 26:69-75 and companion stories in Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62, and John 18:15-18, 25-27. 

[10] Bruner, 129. 

[11] Ephesians 2:20

[12] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville; John Knox Press, 1993), 191. 

Iona, Scotland

12 thoughts on “Why Church?”

  1. Great message, Jeff. I love your statement, “Because it’s the way Jesus Christ has set things up.” From another line in the great hymn you quoted, “From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride . . . “

    • You know, there are a lot of great hymns that link Christ and the church and the line you quote is reflected at the closing scene of Scripture, with the New Jerusalem descending.

  2. I think you already know that I’m not religious, I’m Agnostic. But I enjoy your trips and photos. And I enjoy reading posts like this one to read your thoughts on this subject.

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