April 15, 2012

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


Matthew 16:13-18

We’re rewinding the tape a little this morning. Last week we reached the pinnacle of the story of Jesus.  This week we climb back down to a scripture that seems mundane in comparison.  Actually, it’s a very significant, foundational passage of scripture.  Without it, Easter and all that God has been up to since Easter makes no sense.

Jesus has been with his disciples for some time now. They’ve shared many experiences.  They’ve bonded.  They’ve become close.  And through it all the disciples have had ample opportunity to see that Jesus is special.  Not just in the sense that we’re all special.  They’ve heard wisdom come from his lips, they’ve seen miracles performed by his hands, they’ve felt in his presence as if they were in the very presence of God.

Have you ever been with another person and you knew something that you couldn’t bring yourself to say?  Maybe you even knew that they knew it too, and yet neither one of you was quite able to put it into words.  I think it might have been something like that with Jesus and his disciples.  They knew he was more than just a man.  He knew that they knew.  And I imagine this awkward dance had been going on for some time – thinking about what the other is thinking, wondering if he’s thinking the same thing you are.

And then at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus finally brought this silliness to an end.  He asked the question they were all hoping he would ask and wishing he would never ask.  “Who am I?”  He kind of eased into it.  First he asked the less threatening question.   “Who do other people say that I am?”   There were all kinds of rumors circulating.  People were saying the strangest things — that he was John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  They could have talked more about what other people were saying.  That was kind of fun.  But Jesus was in no mood for small talk.  He needed an answer.  “Who do you say that I am?”

Only one disciple responded.  It was Peter.  He said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

I want you to notice something here.  I think this is important.  It took those who knew Jesus best quite awhile to figure out who he was.  And Peter’s confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi didn’t exactly settle things.  There was still confusion and doubt and backsliding right up to the resurrection and even beyond. Recognizing Jesus was not a quick, simple, easy matter.

We’ve adopted a purpose statement for our church.  “Know Christ.  Love God.  Serve Others.”  I want to just talk a little about the first of these.  Knowing Christ was not a quick, simple, easy matter for the disciples who knew him best.  Why should we think it will be for us?

I’m reading a book about a missionary to the Masai in Tanzania, East Africa.  He tells about coming back to the United States and talking to young people who were resistant to the Christian claim that Jesus is God.  They were saying things like, “Why should I worship Jesus?  I’d may as well worship Buddha or Mohammed.  They were all just men.  Why do I need another God?”  He wished someone had taken the time earlier to introduce them to Jesus as the Masai in Africa had been introduced to Jesus.

The starting point with them wasn’t the divinity of Christ.  That wasn’t the starting point when Jesus first met the disciples and invited them to follow.  They met Jesus first not as God, but as a man.  That’s the way the Masai met Jesus.  They were told stories about Jesus.  They were told the stories Jesus told – the parables.  There was no need to be in a hurry.  There was no rush to “close the deal”.  It was a process that could unfold gradually and gracefully, kind of like the opening of a flower.

And even as they had discovered as Peter and the other disciples had discovered that Jesus was special — he wasn’t just an ordinary man –even as they were on the verge of taking that leap and confessing their faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” this missionary to the Masai still would take his time.  It was important that their faith in Jesus be connected with their felt need for Jesus.  Otherwise saying that Jesus is God isn’t much different from saying that Obama is President.  It’s just a statement of fact.  Faith in Jesus is much more than just agreeing to something in our heads.  We really don’t have faith in Jesus until we know in our hearts how much we need him.

There are three questions we’d better answer.  I got these three from Adam Hamilton.  Before he started his church in the suburbs of Kansas City, the church that grew to be huge and now supplies us with pretty much all of our adult curriculum, he spent some time wrestling with these three questions.  We’re on the first one right now, but I’ll go ahead and give you all three.

1.)    Why do people need Christ?

2.)    Why do people need the church?

3.)    Why do people need this particular church?

The question Adam Hamilton asked, “Why do people need Christ?” is not the same as the question Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”  They are similar.  They are not the same.  We need Christ whether or not we believe in Christ.  But why?  A lot of people seem to get along just fine in life without Christ.  How can we say they and we and everyone else needs Christ?

The best way to answer that is to examine that assumption that people get along just fine in life without Christ.  Read the newspaper.  Watch the news.  Get to know people.  Get to know yourself.  There is a lot of weird stuff going on.  A lot of things going on that shouldn’t be going on.  And below the surface of the sensational that we hear about, a lot more emptiness and heartache and brokenness.  And if it’s not insensitive to say this on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, we only see the tip of the iceberg!

The Masai in Africa who live such a different life from ours have problems that are remarkably similar.  Arguments.  Fights.  Thefts.  Killings.  Wars.  Unhappy marriages.  Unruly children.  Broken relationships. Hunger.  Disease.  Sorrow.  Despair.  Hopelessness.  Meaninglessness.

All people everywhere are pretty much the same.  And all people everywhere need the Lord.  Why do I say that?  Because I know I need the Lord.  From personal experience I know that.  And I believe that I’m not that different from you.  Or anyone else.  Jesus fills our deepest longings.  Jesus is the answer to our world’s deepest problems.

If we don’t believe that, we don’t even need to go on to the next question.  If people don’t need Christ, they don’t need the church either.  But if you’re with me so far, if you agree that people do need Christ, then we do need to answer question number two:  Why do people need the church?

Our text today is one of only two places in the Bible where Jesus uses the word “church”. It’s here and it’s also later in Matthew where Jesus tells us how to resolve conflict (18:15-17).  Peter confesses his faith in Jesus and then Jesus says “on this rock I will build my church.”  Whether the rock is the faith Peter just demonstrated or whether the rock is Peter himself is sometimes debated.  But the main point here is that church is the logical and necessary next step. Jesus didn’t tell Peter to take his new faith and go off into a cave somewhere and meditate on it.  As soon as Peter pledged his faith in Jesus it was time to start talking about a community where Peter could join with others who had also pledged their faith in Jesus.

It’s apparent here that Jesus believed that we need the church. But why?  It’s a question a lot of people ask today.  There’s a huge segment of our population that describes themselves as spiritual but not religious.  That is, they believe.  Not necessarily Christian beliefs, but in their own way they do have faith.  They just don’t feel the need to bring that faith to church.  They might say something like this:  “I believe in God but I don’t believe in organized religion.  Just leave me alone.  Just let me find my own path to God.”

The problem with that is that when we’re on our own and when we’re left alone we are cut off from the main way people come to faith in God.  It’s happened no doubt, but it would be exceedingly rare for someone to become a Christian without any contact from other Christians. It just doesn’t work that way.  Ask yourself how it is that you are a Christian?  Was it a private, mystical revelation from God?  I doubt it.  More likely it was a person, it was people, it was a church that brought you to the point where you could profess your faith.

And once you’ve started your journey of faith, the likelihood that you will grow in your faith and move toward spiritual maturity is just about zero without other people in a mutual web of encouragement and accountability.

I could learn to be a surgeon by sitting in my den and reading all the books the great surgeons have read.  But you wouldn’t want me to operate on you unless I had gone to medical school and entered into the community of those who are committed to excellence in surgery.  It’s like that with our faith, too.  We need each other.  We need the church.

This missionary to the Masai said that he wasn’t getting anywhere in introducing Christ to this pagan culture until he was willing to let go of two of the most cherished idols of western culture – individualism and love of organization (Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, page 89).  Churches often organize themselves to death.  But churches also are all too often a collection of isolated individuals who never quite enter into the relationships that create community.  People don’t need that kind of a church.  But people do need the church that Jesus told Peter he came to build.

One more question.  Why do people need Nampa First United Methodist Church?  There are lots of choices, especially in a heavily churched community like Nampa.  Why choose this church and not one of the others?

It’s not that the other churches are all bad and this church is the only one that is any good.  There are many excellent churches to choose from.  It’s that every church is different.  No two churches are the same.  And we are a church that we believe God is using to reach some people that the other churches in town aren’t going to be able to effectively reach.  That means this church is not for everyone.  Everyone doesn’t need this church.  There are people, good people, strong Christians, who just wouldn’t be happy here.  Which isn’t to say we aren’t a great church, just that we are a  particular kind of a great church.  And if we aren’t clear about who we are and confident that this is who God wants us to be, new people are going to sense this and be more likely to just keep on looking for the church that is right for them.

So who are we?  We are United Methodist, for one thing.  Out of all the churches in Nampa, there are only two of us.  We are Wesleyan.  We believe the love of God in Jesus Christ changes people and changes society.  We believe the Bible and we also believe in freedom for people to think for themselves about what the Bible means.  We believe God’s grace is for everyone, no exceptions.  Our denominational motto is “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”  We realize that may be a bit too “open” for some and, as I’ve said, that’s OK.

We are United Methodist but that’s just part of who we are.  No two United Methodist churches are the same.  We have several things we emphasize that make us unique.  We are committed to a ministry to young children and their families.  Kid’s Stuff is one expression of that.  We are committed to offering choices in worship styles.  That means we’re not one of those “single cell” churches that can never grow bigger than the size where everyone knows everyone else.  We are a “multi-cell” church, which means we have at least the potential to grow much bigger.  Related to that, we are committed to small groups, so that as we grow we never grow too big for close relationships and the experience of community.  We are committed to kindness outreach into our community and beyond.  We bring God’s love to others.  All this is summarized in our purpose statement that I’ve already mentioned once in this sermon.  (I try to work it in at least twice.)  We are here to know Christ, to love God, and to serve others.

We don’t pretend that everyone needs this church, but we are not timid in saying that a lot of people do.  And part of our purpose in knowing Christ, loving God, and serving others is to draw people here so that they can know Christ, love God, and serve others with us.  You are the ones who can best do that.  You are this church’s best salespeople, provided you agree that people need Christ, people need the church, and people need this church.

Even in a highly churched community like Nampa, 64% of our population does not go to church.  Many of them are like Ole Sikii, a young Masai warrior.  He knew he needed God.  He just couldn’t understand why God kept hiding from him.

Ole Sikii tried as hard as it was possible to try.  He was consumed with a desire to see God face to face.  So he hiked 75 miles all by himself and climbed to the top of a mountain.  Oldonyo L’Engai.  The name means “mountain of God”.  It was believed that God lived on this mountain.  It’s near Mt. Kilamanjaro.  But Kilamanjaro is a dormant volcano.  Oldonyo L’Engai is active.  Ole Sikii risked his life to go and see if God was there.  He climbed and climbed until there was no more to climb.  He looked down into what looked like the mouth of hell.  He stayed there three days, praying, waiting to see God.  Fully expecting that God would appear.  And then the 75 mile journey back home wondering what was wrong with him that God would not allow him the privilege of seeing God face to face.

He was preparing for his second journey to risk his life once again in hopes that he might see God when he met the missionary.  Here’s what the missionary said to him.

Ole Sikii, you have tried as hard as a man can try.  You left your father and family and home and went in search of God up that terrible mountain.  You tracked and followed him to his lair, like a lion tracks a wildebeest.  But all this time he had been tracking you.  You did not send for me or look me up.  I was sent to you.  You thought you were searching for God. All this time he had been searching for you.  God is more beautiful and loving that even you imagined.  He hungered for you, Ole Sikii.  Try as we might, we cannot reach up by brute force and drag God down from the heavens.  He is already here.  He has found you.  In truth, Ole Sikii, we are not the lion looking for God.  God is the lion looking for us. (Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, page 116)

Ole Sikii asked to be baptized.  In time, he baptized his people.  He accompanied this missionary to distant villages and helped them meet this lion he had sought who all the while had been seeking him.

People do need Christ.  And people do need the church.  And yes, people do need this church.


God, help us now to see that for those of us who have answered those three questions, there is work to do.  Never again can this church be a safe, quiet, comfortable retreat.  This is our mission field.  This is that for which we were created.  Help us together to build your church, so that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.