Fifteen Years And Counting
In a day when two out of three church members are not to be found in their own churches worshipping on any given Sunday…in a day when average church members spend more in a week buying one fast-food meal at McDonald’s than they spend trying to alleviate human suffering in the same week…in a day when Biblical illiteracy is so pervasive that now one in ten Americans believes that Noah’s wife was named “Joan of Arc” and an even higher percentage of Americans believe that the Epistles were the wives of the Apostles…in a day when on a per capita basis it takes 10,000 Christians in order to win three new converts to the faith…in a day like that, I am frequently asked why I remain in the ministry and why I stay with the church. My answer is always the same, and my answer is built on something Simon Peter said and on something Jesus Christ said, both at Caesarea Philippi.
You remember the story in Matthew 16. Jesus took His twelve disciples to the town of Caesarea Philippi, about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Now Caesarea Philippi was a place where all kinds of pagan gods were worshipped and exalted. Not only that, but the centerpiece of the city was a huge, glistening, white marble temple built by Herod the Great, and that temple declared that the Roman Caesar was god. So Caesarea Philippi was the place where all of these pagan gods were competing for the allegiance of the people, and that is precisely why Jesus took His disciples there and once there, Jesus delivered to them a very pointed and powerful question. He said: “Who do people say that I am?” He elicited from His disciples a whole variety of answers, none of them the right one. And so Jesus rephrased the question, much more specifically this time, and said to His disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” And with that, Simon Peter immediately declared: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” It was quite a remarkable thing to say. And in response to what Simon Peter said, Jesus then said: “On the kind of faith you have just expressed, I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”; an even more remarkable thing to say. And so whenever I am asked why I stay with the church, why I remain in the ministry, my answer is always based on what Simon said and on what Jesus said at Caesarea Philippi. I want to show you what I mean.
Look first at what Simon said.
On that particular day and encountered Jesus with His disciples there Jesus would have looked to us like a perfectly ordinary man…looking, acting, dressing, talking, just like everybody else. But Simon Peter saw Him in a different light. You see, Simon Peter had been with Him for just about two and a half years at that point; had been with Him constantly and consistently, had looked at Him eye to eye and heart to heart. Simon Peter had seen the passion in the man, such that He could move through life with inexhaustible zest undeniable power. Simon had seen the compassion in the man such that the needs of others aroused Him—not to pity—but to action. Simon had seen the fearlessness of the man, such that no beast, human or animal, could ever cause Him to quake or shake. Simon had seen the vision of the man, such that even in a little backwater place, He could throw Himself into the vocation of seeking to win the whole world.
When Simon Peter looked at Jesus, he saw in Jesus the unmistakable traces of deity and the unmistakable marks of humanity, and therefore, he sensed that this Jesus was not just an ordinary man. He was unique, so unique that Simon Peter was moved to cry out: “Jesus, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Now I cannot explain to you precisely how Simon Peter arrived at that conclusion, but what I can say is that every one of you who have had the experience of coming to know Jesus Christ in your heart, in your mind, and in your soul, every one of you will know what I am talking about. It has been my experience and it has been the experience of so many of you that when you encounter the reality of Jesus Christ in your life, then you know who He really is.
Max Weber, the great sociologist, declares that there are three forms of authority evidenced in the human experience. The first is tradition. That is the authority which comes from customs and mores which are handed down from one generation to the next. The second is legal—the authority which comes from a system of rules and those who enforce the rules. The third form of authority is, according to Max Weber, the most decisive form of all. It is what he calls “charismatic authority”—that is, authority which is divinely delivered. Now many people look at the church today and they see it as simply the repository of customs and traditions handed down from yesterday. Still others look at the church and see it as a system of rules and regulations with which one can build and approach to life. But the reality is that the authority of the church is not found in either one of those things. The authority of the church is based upon the fact that the church is divinely delivered. It is established by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. That is the secret of the authority of the church. And so therefore, whenever someone asks me why I stay with the church, my first answer is always this: “It is because the church was established by Jesus Christ and therefore I cannot and I will not forsake that which is divine, in its origin, in its essence, and in its life.” The church is divinely delivered by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And this Jesus—He is mine and I am His.
But then I want you to look at what Jesus said in response to what Simon said.
Not very long ago, I saw a young person wearing a T-shirt, and on that T-shirt were printed these words: “Jesus? Yes! The Church? No!” My friends, that is absolutely illogical and impossible. If you declare your belief in Jesus Christ, then you must also declare your allegiance to the church. Why? Because it is His church. He said it and He meant it: “I will build my church.” It’s not yours. It’s not mine. It’s His. You cannot be a part of Jesus Christ and stand apart from the church. The church is not perfect, the church is not ideal, but it is His. Mind you, we do not believe in the church. We believe in Christ, but because we believe in Christ, we love His church. He said: “I will build my church.” And then He added: “And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Understand, please that Hades is the place of the dead. In other words, Jesus was saying that the church will not die. Jesus was declaring that not even the gates of death are going to be able to withstand the force of the power of the eternal life which Jesus brings to and through the church. Jesus was saying that the church will not die. The church will win. The church will win finally, and the church will win forever. The church at this point in time is the oldest institution on the face of this earth, and nothing now or ever will be able to stop it…not even its own sin. The church is impervious to death because Jesus promised the final victory to His church over death and everything in life that promotes death.
Auguste Rodin was probably the best-known sculptor as the last century turned into this one. Most of you know, I’m sure, what is regarded as his greatest work, the sculpture known as “The Thinker”—the man sitting on a rock with his chin on his fist looking down in deep contemplation. What you may not know is that Rodin never intended for that work of art to be a separate work of art. It was originally designed to be a part of a much larger masterpiece. In 1880, the French government commissioned Rodin to create an enormous, massive set of bronze gates. Those gates were to artistically display the themes found in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Those great bronze gates became the consuming passion of Rodin’s life and actually consumed the balance of his years. Oh, occasionally he would take time here and there to create some other work of art, but always, he would come back to those massive gates, always adding to them, always adjusting, always changing, always improving. It wasn’t until 1917 that he first made a plaster cast of those massive gates. He called them “The Gates of Hades”. Unfortunately, within a matter of several months after he made that plaster cast, Rodin died. He never finished the great masterwork of his life. And it wasn’t until years later, in 1938, long after Rodin had gone that finally, those gates were cast in bronze. But Rodin, as he conceived the gates, had it in his mind that “The Thinker” would be at the top of the gates, looking down on everything portrayed on the face of those gates. And there, on the face of those gates, Rodin, artistically depicted the whole record of human pain and tragedy—all of the things that strike people dead and dash people’s hopes and dreams, all of the accumulated sorrow of the ages; all of the things in life that speak of death—all of it was there, displayed on those gates. And that’s the reason that “The Thinker”, at the top of the gate is looking down so intensely and so intently. It’s because he is looking at the gates of Hades—the gates of death. But Jesus says the gates of Hades will not prevail. The gates of death will fall. Jesus says that the church of Jesus Christ will not die. Death itself will die, but not the church. The church will live. And that’s why whenever someone asks why I stay with the church, it’s because the church is divine and the church is deathless.
But now, in response to what Simon said and what Jesus said, here is what I want to say to you today…
It was on the second Sunday in June, 1982, fifteen years ago, that I stepped for the first time into this pulpit to preach my first sermon as the pastor of this church. What has happened during those fifteen years is almost too incredible for me to describe. What I can say to you is this—those fifteen years have had an incredibly shaping and determining force in my life because it is here, in this church and in this pulpit that I have come to a deeper understanding of the transforming power of Christ in human life, and of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ in the center of a great city. I am so grateful to God that He called me to be the minister of this church at this time and at this place in human history. And I’m so grateful to you for those fifteen years.
I am grateful to you for the sense of unity that pervades this place. God has brought together an incredibly diverse collection of people here, and He has welded us together in oneness with Jesus Christ. Not very long ago, I had a friend who came and visited this church, and after seeing everything that was happening here, he said to me: “You know, this place is out of control and knee-deep in miracles.” He is right! This place is so dynamic, so chaotic, so busy, so caught up in every conceivable kind of powerful ministry that we just don’t have time to waste on things like dissension and disharmony. And I’m grateful to you for assembling here what I believe to be the finest staff of any church in the United States of America, and for then giving us an atmosphere of encouragement and affirmation in which to work and to serve. I am grateful to you for your own adventurous spirit which will never let us be trapped in doing things the same old worn-out ways and which will keep always as the motto of this church: We are ready to try anything in the name of Jesus Christ. And I am grateful for the remarkable ways you pour out your time, your prayers, your skill, your money, your energy to keep this church strong, dynamic, going and growing. I am grateful, especially, for the love you have showered upon me and my family; joyously celebrating with us the good and the glorious times and genuinely holding us together in the tough and the tragic times. I am so grateful to you for those fifteen years. But you see, I’m still counting. I’m pointed toward tomorrow. By my reckoning, I’ve got a good fifteen or twenty years left to stand in this pulpit. It may even be more than that. It may be even more than that because I keep remembering that Norman Vincent Peale was still preaching in his church in New York City when he was in his late 80’s.
And I believe that the greatest days of this church are still before us, and therefore today I want to call you to join me in doing two things.
I want to call you to join me in trying to live a compelling Christian life.
You see, people everywhere today are looking for the right answer to the challenges of life, and we have that answer. And when you and I live coherent, meaningful, fulfilled, joyous, attractive lives centered on the faith, then the people of this world take notice and they then say: “If it is the Lord who enables you to hold your life together when the world is falling apart all around us, then I want to know Him too.” And so I call you to join me in trying to live a joyous, attractive, compelling Christian life.
And I also ask you to join me in focusing always on Jesus.
Jesus is all Christianity is about. Jesus is all that really matters. Jesus is all we really need. Jesus, the One who turned clear water into white zinfandel. Jesus, the One who turned a summer squall into a gentle sunset. Jesus, the One who turned a stinking, decaying corpse into a living, breathing man. Jesus, the One who turned the world upside-down with His words and with His deeds. Jesus. When you come to grips with Him in your life, then you are able to come to grips through Him with all of the burning issues and challenges and problems and difficulties of life in this world. Jesus is all I preach. And Jesus is all we need.
And so, out there ahead of us is a church with a promised destiny. The greatest days of this church are still in front of us. I know that’s true. Why? Because we are His, and He is ours. And you are mine, and I am yours. It’s been true for fifteen years; fifteen years and counting…