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Sunday, August 21, 2011

“To the Gates”

Jesus established the Church to continue his mission as Messiah, that we might bring God’s healing grace incarnate into the world, to the very gates of death, and like our Lord, even death cannot stand against it.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ordinary Time, Sunday 21, year A; texts: Matthew 16:13-20

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

My grandmother, who died at the age of 97, spent at least 80 of those years as a member of our home congregation, St. Matthew’s, and for something like 50 or 60 years lived across the street from it. For Grandma, church was that congregation. She didn’t pay any attention that I could see to denominations or structures. Church was her church. Others had theirs.

That’s something of a limited understanding of what church is, but it’s common. Some take it a step further than the local congregation and imagine that their group, association, denomination is what is meant by “church.” And so our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is completing today a week of meeting as a Churchwide Assembly, doing our work on our behalf, doing work of the church. Sometimes we think that’s only what “the church” is, but that, too, is a limited understanding.

And then there are some who struggle with “church,” people who would describe themselves as “spiritual” or perhaps even identify as believers in God, but who utterly reject anything that looks like what they would call church. Given the sins of the institutional Church throughout history we can understand such reluctance. It’s easy to criticize institutions because institutions can often act in sinful ways, even ones who call themselves Christian.

This week I’ve been thinking about what we mean by “church,” both those who might have too small a definition or those who want nothing to do with the church, because of what happens in our Gospel today. As Peter confesses that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus declares he will create his Church on that confession, and on the testimony of believers wherever they answer the question “who do you say that I am?” Matthew’s the only Evangelist to use the word “church,” and he only uses it twice, but his witness here is that Jesus established the Church himself, with clear intention and call. And Jesus has big plans for this church he is making, to bind and loose, to proclaim his good news even in the face of death.
So whatever we might want to do with the concept of “church,” we begin today realizing that it is Jesus with whom we have to deal, and Jesus whom we must understand.

By its very name, the Church is shown to be called out from the world, to be an ecclesia.

That’s the word used here – and ecclesia literally means “called out.” Jesus called his disciples, and by extension, us, out of the world to learn from him, to gather as a community of faith, to support and encourage one another.

Because Jesus established the Church, that means the Church is not simply a voluntary association or club, or a means to achieve a common goal, or even simply a place for individuals to come and believe. We are established as Church by our Lord and Savior to whom we look for all our life and our good. We cannot be Christians without the Church because Jesus didn’t create disciples without also creating the Church.

And so in our ancient Creeds that we speak to this day the Church’s existence is an article of faith: “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” We believe in this Church Jesus has made, we confess it as his gift, his grace, his idea. Jesus believed the Church was necessary to his mission as the Messiah, and so established it. And it is from there we begin our life, our work, our mission, our faith, our call. So for better or for worse we cannot do without the Church. We don’t have the authority to say we don’t need it.

It might be helpful to recall Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4. He says we carry the treasure of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in clay jars, “so that it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

The Church as it is structured is just such a clay jar, and it’s flawed, easily broken. But it contains the living Body of Christ, it provides a place to bring the Good News to the world, and because it is flawed and broken, we are constantly reminded that the power of the Gospel comes from and belongs to God and not from us, no matter how well we think of ourselves.

And though some of us think our own individual jars are the only ones that matter, and some look at the brokenness of the jars and reject the grace they contain, it’s still out of our hands whether we are the Church or not. Christ established the Church, and to the best of our ability we’ve structured how we work together, for 2,000 years. And those structures, those jars themselves are not living, but they do enable the living, breathing Church within to live and thrive.

At the same time, we cannot hide from the sins of the Church, for they are our sins, too, and they are always in need of confessing. There is always need for reform of structures, for prayer, for renewed sense of mission. And for confession and openness to the correction of the Holy Spirit.

And because Jesus has established his Church and included all his disciples, what others in the Church around the world say about faith, life, worship, mission, matters to us – whether they live now or are part of the great tradition of the Church which has come before us. We may not always agree, and we do believe the Spirit of God continues to guide and shape us through the Holy Scriptures, but we always must account for each other, listen to each other, pray for and with each other, and see each other as sisters and brothers, for that is what our Lord has made us in Baptism.

And fundamentally, after all this we have to remember one thing about the Church of Christ: we are called out of the world, yes, but we are not called out for ourselves. Nor do we stay out of the world.

You see, there’s something funny going on here with this ecclesia Jesus is creating. It doesn’t seem Jesus means it to stay out of the world.

Did you notice that Jesus says that the gates of Hades cannot prevail against this ecclesia, this community that is called out? I’ve often interpreted that as the powers of evil cannot overcome, overwhelm the Church. As if we are that house on a rock of Jesus’ parable, standing firm in the midst of storm and strife, called out of the evil world, safe and protected by Jesus. Many of our hymns, including our first one today, use this metaphoric imagery. “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

Except that’s not what Jesus is saying here. Elsewhere, sure. But not here. The gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church, Jesus says.

Gates don’t travel, my friends. Gates that don’t prevail – that’s an image of a siege which fails, a battering ram which breaks down doors in a walled city. Do you see? The gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is the one challenging the gates. Jesus says he’s sending us to the very gates of Hades, we’re the ones on the move; he’s not blocking us off in a protected enclave.

So we need a brief stop on the word Hades – it’s not hell as the Church has evolved the idea. Matthew’s word here is simply the Greek term “Hades,” which, like the Hebrew term “Sheol” was the place of the dead. Not necessarily punishment, just the place people go when they die.

And so Jesus proclaims that he will send us to the very doors of death in our mission to bind and loose, to proclaim the coming kingdom of God. And even death won’t be able to stop our mission. Death’s doors will be broken.

That’s kind of a different way of looking at it, isn’t it? Kind of exciting. Kind of frightening. It’s the difference between staying in your lighted, bright room in an utterly dark night and going outside with a flashlight to face the darkness and find people who need that light.

And this is hugely important to our sense of who we are here. For we are not to think of ourselves in this room as locked in a fortress where we cannot be harmed. Here we are called out from the world – an ecclesia – to be fed, taught, guided, blessed; to worship almighty God and be made holy through God’s presence here. And then we are sent out – for that is what the word “apostles” means – and we are sent to the doors of death.

And we understand that intimately in our own experience here – in the past two weeks two of our own have died suddenly, without warning, and we have done our best to surround their families with our love and our prayers and our support. We have, and will continue to walk with them and with each other again and again to the very doors of death and proclaim death has no power over this world, over our loved ones, over us. And just yesterday we had another community meal, where we opened our doors to those of our neighbors who are hungry, as we do now twice a month, and fed in Christ’s name, and offered life in a world that is hungry and often near death. In so many ways in this place we stand at the doors of death proclaiming the life that Jesus has given us and the world, that those doors cannot stand.

But Jesus didn’t only establish Mount Olive congregation in Matthew 16. He apparently believed that all his disciples were the Church, all his disciples were called out of the world and then sent back into the world.

And so everywhere in the world where disciples of Jesus gather in ecclesia it is the same. Local communities, members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, have their gifts and abilities and are sent to serve as apostles in their place.

But together, as groups of communities, denominations, communions, all are members of Christ’s one, true Church on earth, and are joined in our work and prayers by those who have gone before us.

And given that we are sent to the very gates of death, it would be wise for us to keep these broader understandings of Christ’s Church before us – we can use all the help we can get. I don’t think Paul’s words to the Romans today are just meant for us to see each individual person as members of one another in the Body of Christ. In Jesus’ great vision of his Church, individuals, congregations, communions, are all members with differing functions, differing gifts. And all part of the one Body, the Church of Jesus Christ.

Where this leaves us today is that in recognizing not only our call but the Body of Christ, we now pray for guidance on how to continue Jesus’ work.

Jesus spends a lot of time binding and loosing in Matthew’s Gospel – interpreting Scriptures by the grace of God he came to bring, saying “you have heard it said, but I say to you;” offering grace and forgiveness and healing even to outsiders, foreigners; offering himself to the world as the One who has utterly broken the doors of death.

What is daunting is that he apparently believes we must continue in this work. Always mindful of our sisters and brothers who are engaged elsewhere in this task, we are called here to get up as his Church and go back into the world to bring the reign of God to fruition. Called out of the world as ecclesia we are now sent back as apostles as God heals the world through this Church. In this place each of us has differing gifts which each contributes to the mission, and this congregation itself has differing gifts from other communities of faith around the world, but all of us are part of Jesus’ greater mission and plan. And the power to do this mission, this plan, comes from Jesus who made it, not from us.

So let’s get up and pray that the Spirit show us where we are to go next. Because even the gates of death cannot stop the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ once we get going.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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