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Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 23, 2020

Matthew 16:13-20

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was serving my first call as a pastor up in north central Montana, there was a fire at the Lutheran church in a neighboring town. The fire started in the early morning hours of Christmas day. You see, a candle from the Christmas eve service had not been entirely extinguished. After hours of smoldering, the flame spread, eventually burning the entire church building to the ground.

That next Sunday, in the bitter cold of a January morning, the congregation gathered at the church property. The pastor, dressed in his white robe and his white stole for the Christmas season, waded into the wreckage and found two charred pieces of lumber. He lashed them together with some rope to make a cross. Then, dragging the cross down the block as the ash from the wood dirtied his robe, he led his congregation to the nearby school gym where they propped up the cross and held the rest of their service.

The building, which had stood there for nearly a hundred years, was gone, and it was an enormous loss. So many important moments – generations worth of baptisms, weddings, and funerals –  took place within those hallowed walls. The flames had taken that building, that special, sacred place. But those flames did not prevail against Christ’s church. They simply planted the cross down the road and continued their ministry.

The focus of our gospel reading for this morning usually lands on Peter’s confession of faith – and for good reason. In the midst of a lot of misunderstandings about Jesus, in the midst of a lot of wrong answers about who he is, Peter, answering on behalf of all the disciples, gets it right: Jesus is the Messiah, the savior. He is the Son of the living God. It is a crescendo in the gospel narrative. It is a crucial moment of insight in the lives of the disciples.

This confession is so very important indeed, but there is something else which is equally important in this reading. Not only does Peter make a confession, but our Lord Jesus makes a promise. Jesus has some fun with Peter’s name – calling him Petros, which in Greek means “rock.” Jesus says that on this rock – that is, the rock of his confession – he will build his church. And then Jesus makes a promise: “And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The gates of Hades, the portal of demons, all the forces aligned against God and would hinder his saving work, the unholy trinity of sin, death, and the devil, the flames of hell, will not prevail against Christ’s church. A church that is centered on the truth of who Jesus is cannot be burned down!

These days it feels like we have some flames licking at our foundations as a church. There is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic, which hasn’t burned our building down, but it has done a pretty good job of emptying it. Christians have been kept apart from one another and apart from the sacraments. It remains to be seen what programs and ministries will remain standing through all of this. Furthermore, as we’ve all been holed up in semi-quarantine, some of our foundational members – pillar members we sometimes call them – have had to move into assisted living. Some have had to move off island and will not be joining us again in our sanctuary. The church is going to look different when the smoke clears from this pandemic, that’s for sure.

There is also the anger pandemic in our culture, which has people constantly at each other’s throats. The prevailing attitude is: If you’re not angry about the thing I’m angry about, then I’m angry at you! This is being fed by people being stuck at home and spending way too much time on social media and cable news and internet rabbit holes and echo chambers. People are being formed in anger rather than in a faith that loves the neighbor, puts the best construction on their words, and treats them with a love that is patient and kind.

And then there is the related pandemic of hyper-partisanship, exacerbated by a growing extremism at both ends of the political spectrum. Flames of extreme partisanship in an intense election year are increasingly scorching the ties that bind us together as Christians.

But a church that is centered on the truth of who Jesus is cannot be burned down. A church that is built on the rock of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the savior and the Son of the living God will not fall. As Jesus has promised us, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Our mission as the church is to confess this truth about who Jesus is. As the world around us is confused about ultimate truth and about Jesus’ identity, we are called to point people to the truth that he is the Messiah, that he is the savior of the world, that he is our savior and theirs! Our calling is to confess that Jesus is the Son of the living God, present and active in our lives in the here and now. Our calling is to use those keys Christ gave to Peter, to the church – the keys of the kingdom of heaven – unbinding people with the Good News of what he has done for us. A church that is focused on this mission, a church that is focused on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us, cannot be burned down!

What is true for the church as a whole is true for us as individuals as well. What foundation are you building your life on? What is the rock that you stand on? Where do you turn for stability and strength in your life? Most of the things we usually stand on will eventually go down in flames. But a life built on the truth that Jesus is your savior and Son of the living God, cannot be burned down. This truth gives us the key to a new life that begins today and continues forever!

Today there is a beautiful new church in that little Montana town where the church burned down. It does not look like the old church. People still grieve for the loss of that precious building, and that’s OK. It is entirely understandable. But that congregation now gathers in a new building. It is a building that is well-suited for the ministries they are engaged in now. They continue to gather to worship and pray, to hear God’s Word and receive the sacraments, to confess their faith in Jesus as savior and living Lord. You see, it is true – a church that is centered on the truth of who Jesus is cannot be burned down. “The gates of hell will not prevail against it,” Jesus promises us.

The gates of hell will not prevail against us either. For now we have planted the cross back in a pewless sanctuary. We have planted the cross online. We have planted the cross in our parking lot. In these unusual ways and places we continue to confess the truth that Jesus is the savior, the Son of the living God. Whatever the church ends up looking like on the other side of what we’re currently going through, it will built on the rock that is our confession of faith, and so it can never be burned down. It will still be there when the smoke clears. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.

The gates of hell will not prevail against you either. For the Lord Jesus has given you a rock upon which to build your life, the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and the promise of his enduring presence.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church