Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20
Context matters. There are a lot of different things that can go into making up a context. The physical setting. The history of a place or a people. Who it is that is saying or writing something. Who it is that they are saying or writing it to. The medium that is being used.
Imagine that I go to a worship service someplace. Imagine that when I get home Julia asks me how many people were there and I answer her, “You wouldn’t believe it! The sanctuary was full!” If the service was at our Washington City sanctuary, that probably means there were a couple of hundred people. If it was at the church I grew up in back in Ohio, it means there were around 100 or 120. If I was at a worship service at the Hylton Chapel in Woodbridge it means there were a few thousand. In the summer months Washington City used to have their worship services in the chapel, in what is now the music space. If that was the sanctuary it means there were 40 or so people. My answer means nothing to Julia if she doesn’t know the context of where and what I’m talking about.
Context can also matter when we’re thinking about God. A little while back Bryan gave an excellent presentation on theology from the perspective of Black folks like James Cone and Drew Hart and Otis Moss III. Your views on God and the church can be different depending on your own life circumstance and history. Groups and people that have traditionally been on the outside of power structures often see God in a different way than groups and people who have been at the top of power structures. When I was in seminary the theologians we studied were predominantly white, Protestant, and German, and were deeply affected by the rise of the Nazis and World War II. None of them are necessarily right or wrong. It’s a matter of different perspectives caused by different contexts.
Let me talk a little about the physical context of our reading from Matthew. Jesus and the disciples are at Caesarea Philippi. Herod the Great had built a huge complex of buildings, and there was a spring in front of a cave. The spring and cave and a temple near them were dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Among other things, Pan was the god of desolate places. The mountain that the Cave of Pan was in had a lot of little niches carved into it, and in each of these niches was a little shrine or a little icon for some other god. The Roman Empire was fine with all kinds of religions as long as people who believed in them participated in Rome’s civic religion, from which Jews were exempt. Here’s a picture of what it looks like today. https://images.app.goo.gl/HD2XuQjhtDPYRnPH9 And here’s another picture that shows those niches I mentioned a little better. https://images.app.goo.gl/WtypGmiTcVXbS1EG9 The Cave of Pan itself was sometimes used for sacrifices, and these sacrifices were sometimes human.
So that’s the physical context for our reading from Matthew. Put a pin in all of that for just a minute and we’ll come back to it.
There are a few things in this passage you could preach on. The discussion about who people say Jesus is thought-provoking. Likewise, sometimes in this passage people get caught up in Jesus changing Simon’s name to Peter, and then saying of Peter, “…on this rock I will build my church…” For Roman Catholics, this is Jesus appointing Peter as the leader of the disciples and essentially as the first Pope. Protestants don’t necessarily agree with that interpretation or that application. Once again, the context affects how you read this scripture and what it means to you.
I don’t want us to get caught up in that debate this morning, although there are a whole lot of sermons that you could preach on that particular part of our reading too. I want us to look at the rest of that verse, though.
Jesus says “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Jesus is saying this at Caesarea Philippi. He’s saying it at the location of the Cave of Pan. He’s saying it at a place where human sacrifices were made. No, it’s not the literal gate to Hell, but it’s probably as good an example as you could find in that part of the world.
What is it that will not prevail against the church, against Jesus’s followers? Well, Caesarea Phillippi was a symbol of the power of King Herod. Governments will not prevail against the church. The mountain into which Pan’s Cave led had many symbols of other gods and other religions. Other belief systems will not prevail against the church. The Cave of Pan itself was a place of sacrifice, sometimes human sacrifice. The most horrible human acts and beliefs will not prevail against the church. Evil itself will not prevail against the church.
Thinking about our current context, do we believe that? In a lot of places it seems like the church is in retreat. I bought a copy of the denominational yearbook a couple of weeks ago. If you’ve never seen it, the Yearbook is a comprehensive directory for the denomination. It’s got the names and addresses of all the congregations, all the ordained and licensed and commissioned pastors, it’s got attendance and giving statistics for each congregation and district, and there’s a lot more stuff in there to explore.
It’s not news to you that our denomination is getting smaller. That’s been the case for a long time now. I can see how things are changing when I look at the district where I grew up. When I was in high school, the Southern Ohio/Kentucky district had two full time district executives and a full time administrator and owned two camps. Now? One district executive who I think is full-time, some part-time office staff, and no camps. When I came to the Mid-Atlantic district in 1995 we had two full-time district executives, Ron Petry and Pam Leinauer, plus a full time office administrator. Now? One DE and one part time office staff.
Staffing and finances for districts are in large part a function of worship attendance and giving in local congregations. You don’t have to have been around the Church of the Brethren very long to know that overall attendance and giving are down in most of our congregations and that more and more congregations find themselves unable to afford pastoral service.
It’s not just us, and it’s not just mainline Protestant denominations either. Worship attendance in the US is down across the board, including in many more evangelical denominations. The number of people who identify as Christian is down too. Christianity overseas is either something of a cultural artifact as it is in many places in Europe, or it’s under persecution as it is in China, Nigeria, and so many other places. In light of trends like this, do we really believe that the gates of Hades cannot prevail against God’s church?
That depends. It depends on what context we use to define church. Most of you probably learned this very little poem and the motions that go with it as children. Feel free to do the motions along with me.
“Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people!” When I was a kid it took me a while to figure this out. I was kind of clumsy and it was hard for me to get my fingers together to get the people inside the building, so I used to just interlace my fingers across the top. The problem with that is that when you open the doors there aren’t any people inside. Maybe it was prophetic.
So what’s the problem with that little poem and the motions that go with it? The church isn’t the building. The church is the people.
The church isn’t the building. The church isn’t the denomination, or the district, or even the congregation. Those are institutions. Those are expressions of the church. Those are how the people who are the church organize themselves in a particular time or place, in a particular context, to do ministry.
It’s hard for me to remember that sometimes. People will ask me where my church is, and I’ll say it’s at 337 North Carolina Ave SE in Washington DC, between the Capitol South and Eastern Market metro stops. That’s not where the church is, though. That’s where the building is.
The church is right here, right here on this Zoom session. The church is each of us, seeking God’s will. Following God’s leading. Asking God’s forgiveness. Sharing God’s gospel. The church isn’t the building, The church isn’t the institution. The church is the people.
The church is the people, people filled with and directed by the Spirit of God. If we remember that, if we let that be our context, then indeed the gates of Hades cannot prevail even if the building, like the tomb, is empty. Amen.