12th Sunday after Pentecost (Prop 16 – A)
Matthew 16:13-20
August 27, 2017

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel, which was read a few minutes ago.
One of the most heartbreaking things to me is the sight of a vacant church all boarded up.  Worse yet, is seeing a church converted into something like an indoor skateboard park.  Over the years, many churches have closed and have been torn down as well.  The ones that remain require constant upkeep and maintenance, like front step projects which have gone on way too long or new water heaters.  All churches are built and dedicated to the glory of God, but they’re all susceptible to fire, decay, and ruin.  Jesus today speaks of a different type of Church, a church that will always prevail and will never succumb to the ravages of time or anything else.

When we think about the church, we usually think about this building or the services we hold here.  In His discussion with Peter and the rest of the disciples, Jesus gives us another definition, one that can include the buildings we see around us, but not necessarily.  Jesus asserts, On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  The rock that Jesus is talking about is the belief behind the confession of Peter, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  The Church is found wherever Jesus is clearly proclaimed as the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Sadly, not all churches faithfully proclaim the fullness of this confession, but this confession must be the foundation of any church if it is to be part of the Church.

The confession of Peter is the rock upon which the Church is built and it’s the message that must be shared because most people don’t know it.  Jesus had spent the last two years or so, teaching and performing miracles, but it’s clear that the people don’t understand Him.  Jesus asked the disciples, Who do people say that I am?”  To which they replied, John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah.  These men had all been faithful prophets who did good things, but Jesus was more.  He is more!

This is our confession and you must make this confession every day.  You daily confess that Jesus is more than a nice man, more than a good man, more than a teacher or a magician.  If He’s nothing more than a good teacher, He does nothing for us.  But as the Son of the Living God, He is more than a prophet. He’s the Savior.  We confess Jesus as the Savior because it helps us remember who He is.  It’s easy to lose sight of Jesus and what He’s done for us.  It’s easy to push Him into the background.  So instead we voice our confession in our prayers and conversations.  We proclaim who Jesus is, to tell others and to remind ourselves.

To confess Jesus is to do more than a stating a fact.  A fact is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This doesn’t take faith.  To confess that Jesus is the One who died for you, to give you the forgiveness, this takes faith.  This faith is formed when you hear God’s Word and take it to heart.  As Jesus told Peter, Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”  This faith takes ahold of Jesus as the one and only Son of the Living God.  This is the rock upon which Emmanuel, and the Church is built upon, and which will forever be built upon.

It doesn’t always look this way though does it?  It seems like the Church is constantly wearing down, or being torn down.  Attendance wavers and wanes.  Families move away.  Bigger and so-called better congregations pilfer members from the smaller ones.  Rifts develop.  Conflict raises its ugly head.  Some congregations suffer horrible scandals.  Churches run out of money and close, leaving members heartbroken.  Overseas, Christians are slaughtered, pastors are hauled off to “re-education camps”, their buildings bombed.  Who would blame faithful Christians for wondering if the Church will survive.

It’s true that we have no guarantee from Jesus that the local churches, the congregations will survive.  And they won’t, you know that.  Christ’s Church though will stand forever.  Jesus promises, On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Christ’s Church will never fall because it’s not a physical building, nor is it limited to a particular place.  The Church is the communion of all believers.  All the faithful make up the Church of Christ, and they’re spread far and wide.

The Church built on the confession that Jesus is the Son of the Living God will never succumb, it didn’t in the past and it won’t in the future.  Oh, Satan has tried to take it down.  He has thrown all the strength of Hell against Christ and the Church, but to no avail.  He attacked Jesus repeatedly, doing all he could to stop the forgiveness that Jesus promised.  His attacks culminated as Jesus hung on the cross taunted by those who hated Him.  The Devil and the whole evil host of Hell thought that they had done their worst, but Jesus rose from the dead and proved that nothing can stop Him or His Church.

Satan couldn’t stop Jesus and he can’t stop the Church, but he hasn’t stopped attacking you and me as members of the Church and he certainly still attacks local churches and congregations.  He introduces strife and conflict.  He causes hatred and dissension.  He leads pastors and people into scandalous sins.  These churches will struggle, but through all this, do you know what has happened?  Christ’s Church, the one that He built with His body and blood has grown even stronger.  His Church will stand even as steeples fall and doors are nailed shut.

Christ’s Church will never fall because it has an important task, the most important task since the one Christ took upon Himself, it must use the keys to the kingdom.  It must proclaim the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus says, I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Contrary to what our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters believe, Jesus didn’t give the keys only to Peter.  Jesus used the plural form of “you” so He gave the keys to all the disciples as the first members of the Church.  These same keys have come down to us as the Church as we faithfully confess Jesus to be the Son of the Living God.

The authority that the Church has from possessing the keys to the kingdom of Heaven is unlike any other kind of authority.  The Church has no authority to tell you where to shop or who to vote for.  The Church can’t tell you to wash the pastor’s car, although it is a good idea.  The Church can’t, and won’t, dictate where you work or what you do with your paycheck.  So what authority does the Church have?

The Church’s authority comes from Christ’s command to forgive sins.  I proclaim to you, I promise you, that as you sit here your crushed by sorrow over your sins, repenting of your sins, you are forgiven.  There aren’t any conditions to being forgiven, you just are, right now.  I exercise the keys to Heaven when I speak Christ’s words to you and when I give you His body and blood.  You are forgiven so now the gates of Heaven stand wide open to you.  Heaven’s no longer off limits, but it’s yours, now.

The authority that Christ gives the Church has another side, and that’s the authority to not forgive sins.  If you are sinning and don’t care, if you’re rejecting God’s Word, if you’re snubbing Him, you’re unrepentant and the forgiveness that Christ offers through His Death is withheld.  In this case the gates of Heaven are barred to you.  We see happen in I Corinthians where a Christian man is having an affair with his step-mother.  The congregation knows about it and they’re turning a blind eye.  When he finds out, Paul wields the keys that have been given to the Church.  He calls for the man to be expelled from the congregation for an unrepentant life.

This sounds harsh.  It sounds judgmental.  And it is.  The Church is to judge the behavior of its members, and in this case, Paul acted accordingly.  Do you know what happened after this?  Did the man storm off and join another congregation?  Did he gossip and speak ill of Paul and the Church?  He did the complete opposite.  He confessed his sins and he was restored to the Church.  He repented and heard the loving words of forgiveness as Heaven was once again opened to Him.

This is why the Church proclaims the full extent of God’s Word.  We don’t leave the parts we don’t like out.  We don’t change what Jesus teaches or what we believe about Him.  We preach the Word of God and use the authority that Christ has given us.  We preach the Law which condemns sin and sinful behavior, and we preach the Gospel which forgives all sin and sinful behavior.  Those who are heartbroken for their sins, those who can’t forgive themselves, those who admit that they are sinners, find forgiveness in Christ.  The Church belongs to Christ.  Christ’s authority belongs to the Church.  So it is here in this local church and in community of Christian faithful, that you can the gates of Heaven being opened by Christ Himself.

Churches will come and go.  There used to be a church in Ulmer, it’s be gone a long time.  There wasn’t a Lutheran church in Lake View, now there’s a vibrant, loving congregation.  Someday, Emmanuel may be gone.  I pray that it is here until Christ returns, but if it closes, the Church goes on.  The Church of Christ, founded by Him, watched over by Him, and guided by Him, will always survive.  The gates of Hell couldn’t stop Jesus and they sure won’t stop His Church.  His Church will never be toppled because it confesses, because we confess, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen