This week we begin a new series of messages titled I Love the Church Because…

I appreciate very much receiving answers to that statement and I will share as many as possible in the course of the series. Some of them might be adapted a bit in order to make sure the individuals won’t be identified in any way. I will begin this morning with one of them – I know our world is in bad shape and many people can only see negativity in everything.  I get so overwhelmed when I watch the news that often I feel hopeless.  But when I come to church I feel renewed.  I feel the love of God and the congregation surround(s) me and that gives me hope for tomorrow.   I know that what comes next is in God’s hands.  It is easy to forget that when I see so much pain in the world.  But from the minute you walk in the door of FCC I feel…connected to something greater that myself.  I feel so blessed to be part of that love. I think that is so well expressed, and I think it speaks for all of us as well.

Our Scripture text for this morning is, I think, the obvious place to start, because it is, interestingly, one of the few places where Jesus used the word church – Matthew 16:13-18.

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

I thought I would begin this morning by taking just a moment to tell you a bit about my home church. I was raised in the Wellsburg Christian Church, in Wellsburg, West Virginia, just a few miles from Bethany, where Alexander Campbell lived and where he founded Bethany College, one of our very fine Disciples schools. Wellsburg Christian Church was founded by Alexander Campbell and his father, Thomas, both of whom served as the first ministers of the church. The Campbells were two of the four most important figures in the movement that led to the founding of the Disciples of Christ churches. Walter Scott, a third member of that group of four (the fourth being Barton W. Stone), was also one of the first ministers of the church, so I grew up in one of the central locations in the history of the Disciples churches.

In many ways, there is nothing special or outstanding about that church. It was, in my younger years, a typical small town church. We weren’t very large (there weren’t any large church where I grew up, as it wasn’t a very churched area in comparison to this area and most of the south); we didn’t have a lot of impressive programs; we never had a youth minister, a children’s minister, or a music minister, only a minister; we didn’t have an impressive building; we didn’t have a big budget; we didn’t have a lot of the things that we often associate with churches today. In recent years, the church has struggled and has declined, reflecting the slow, painful decline of the town and larger area. Wellsburg has lost quite a bit of population since I graduated from high school in 1975 and the county – Brooke County – is, according to an article I read in the New York Times, is literally the dyingest county in the entire country. Brooke County, and Wellsburg, have been hit hard by the economic downturn that accompanied the closing of almost all of the steel mills in the northern Ohio Valley. The towns, the businesses, and even the churches, all reflect the decline of the area.

Having said all that, and though I have a great deal of sadness about what has happened to my home area over the years, it still remains very much a part of who I am, and it would be impossible for me to adequately communicate what the Wellsburg Christian Church has meant to my life. The people of that church taught me in Sunday School, contributed the money that helped to send me to church camp, the adults of the church who served as role models, and one minister, in particular, shaped and molded my life in a way that has been so very profound, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like without those experiences and those people. When I return home to visit my family it is a rare occasion that I am able to worship in my home church, but I do like to drive or walk by it and, when I can, stop in and step into the sanctuary in order to be transported back in time. When I walk in the building, climb the steps to the second floor to enter the sanctuary, and sit in a pew, I see that almost nothing has changed, at least in the appearance of the building. I can sit in a pew and remember where people sat all those years ago. I can see them in my mind, getting up to receive the offering or to serve communion, or to open the windows on a warm summer day. Many of those people are long gone, but they remain very much in my heart and mind and the faith has now become part of my faith. I am so very grateful to that church and to those people who nurtured my faith, who cared for me, and will never be forgotten.

I imagine my experience is true for many, if not all of you, as well. Whether you grew up in this church or in a different one, your experience was probably very similar to mine, certainly in respect to the people who influenced your life, because here is an important truth – when we look back on the churches that shaped and molded our lives, we rarely if ever speak of a fancy building or impressive technology. We rarely if ever speak of the style of worship. We rarely if ever speak of the amazing committee meetings. We almost always talk about the people and the ways in which those people helped to connect us to God, how they helped to deepen and enrich our faith, and how they shaped and molded our lives.

So, I decided to offer this series of messages for several reasons.  One is because I am, frankly, tired of hearing so many bad things about churches.  I am a member of a number of email lists that send out church news and information about the world of faith and ministry.  More often than not these days I delete the messages without reading any of the articles.  The reason?  I’m tired of the gloom and doom drumbeat of bad news.  I know that there are churches struggling in this day and age, but I also know that the news is not always as bad as it is made out to be.  The church is very much in transition these days (and that is not a bad thing, in my opinion.  We were very much in need of some of the transitions that are taking place) but it is certainly not in danger of dying, as some would claim.  The oft-heard narrative about the decline of the church is, in all honesty, about as far from the truth as one can get.  Yes, there is decline in some places, but even the measurements of those areas do not tell the entire story. Indeed, on a worldwide scale the church is booming, and it is booming in parts of the world that were once – and in some cases continues to be – hostile to both the church and the Gospel.  China will soon be home to more Christians than all of Europe and by the middle of this century may have more Christians than any other country. Imagine that! A country that is officially atheistic is now witnessing some of the greatest in the history of the church!  Throughout Asia the church is growing exponentially.  The countries that comprised the former Soviet Union are seeing much church growth, as is sub-Saharan Africa and South America. The church is alive and well, of that there is no doubt about.

I am also presenting this series of messages as a rebuttal to those who claim the church is irrelevant in our modern age.  Once again, nothing could be further from the truth!  I’m not sure who first equated ancient with irrelevant, but those two words are not connected.  In fact, there is much ancient wisdom in our world that remains incredibly beneficial to us, and that is because the human condition never changes.  Technology brings about great change to the way we live, conduct business, and other matters of life, but the basics of human existence do not change.  The literature of the ancient Greeks is every bit as powerful today as it was millennia ago.  The engineering skills of the ancient Egyptians is as impressive today as it was in their day.  And is there a modern writer the equivalent of Shakespeare?  And where are the modern day versions of Beethoven and Chopin?  And we certainly continue to value the words of an old document we call the Constitution, as much as we sometimes argue about it.  No, ancient is neither equivalent to being irrelevant or out of date.  We still have much to learn from the recent and distant ancients.

But the primary reason why I decided to do a series of messages titled I Love the Church is because I love the church! I was a “pew baby.” I have attended church all of my life, even in my younger adult years when I was doing what I will simply refer to as some “wandering.” I love the church! And I find it amusing that I am often asked a question, a question that is always prefaced by an interesting statement. Many times over the course of my ministry I have been approached by someone who begins with the following statement – I want to ask you a question and I want you to tell me the truth (do they think I need to be reminded to tell the truth?). That statement is almost always followed by the question, when you are on vacation, do you go to church or do you sleep in? Yes, I go to church! I love to attend church when I am on vacation. It’s nice to listen to someone other than myself for a change! I like to slip into the back of a sanctuary and observe what is going on, experience a different style of worship, and enjoy church without all of the things that would normally occupy my mind and attention on most Sunday mornings. I know every criticism of churches. I have heard them all. I have also experienced many of the shortcomings of churches, and I have experienced many of the hurts as well. Some of those experiences are why I ended up here instead of continuing on my previous path (and I am very, very grateful to be here). I’ve been a minister for over 35 years, so I have seen, heard, and experienced almost everything possible in churches, both good and bad, and I still love the church, and nothing will ever change the fact that I love the church.

That is a rather long introduction, so let’s turn now to this morning’s Scripture texts, which is one of the most famous in all of the Gospels.  Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, which was home to many competing truth claims.  It is in that context of various religious and political ideas that he draws from Peter the great confession of faith, a confession that continues to serve, after all these centuries, as our great uniting point – You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  The response of Jesus is so inspiring, as he proclaims that upon that confession he will build his church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

So allow me to offer a few words about the indestructibility of the church.

The Church is Indestructible in Spite of Itself.

I had originally planned to write a message for this series titled I Love the Church In Spite of…, but I thought that sounded far too negative, and I don’t want to be negative in this series, especially since one of the reasons I decided to offer this series was to counter the negativity that is often attached to church.

We all are well aware, however, of the sometimes problematic history of the church, and that history and the failures of churches are very painful to witness and to experience. There are, for instance, many Catholics who have given up on the church because of the terribly tragic abuse scandal that continues to unfold in very painful ways. That is certainly one of the most painful and terrible stains on the church in its entire history. On the Protestant side of the faith we must remember that the struggle of any church, or denomination, becomes in some way our struggle as well. We are all part of The Church, and what affects one part of the body of Christ affects us all.

I understand, I want to emphasize, that I understand how the depth of hurt does cause some people to turn away from the church. We all know people who have joined what one person describes as “the church alumni society.” The amount of hurt and pain out there has added far too many members to that “alumni society,” and I would never minimize the pain and suffering of anyone, but personally, I would never turn away from the church because of its failures, any more than I would consider turning away from my citizenship as an American because of the failures of our nation, which are also numerous and painful. I might change congregations – and I have done so – because of hurts and struggles that take place, but I will never give up on the church. It is my responsibility, I believe, to remain a part of the church and work to make it better, stronger, and as Christ-like as possible.

The church needs, I believe, to acknowledge and speak against its own struggles and failures, as well as those outside of the church. There are failures and hurts all around us, and any institution – the church included – have perpetuated some measure of hurt, but that is all the more reason why we must speak up and speak out. I think it is, for instance, commendable that members of the Catholic Church have forced it to confront the terrible scandal of abuse that has hurt so many people. I think it is commendable that some of confronted the church with its role in the history of racism in this country. The recent events in Charlottesville remind us that racism is still a powerful force in our society, unfortunately, and the church has not always set the best example in how to confront the scourge of racism.

This is why we must remember that while the Church is indestructible, not all individual congregations do survive, or will survive. One of the reasons why I chose the picture that stands at the top of this message is because it serves as a reminder that some churches do not survive. Sometimes, the closing of a church is due to sociological factors such as population shifts or the decline of a particular community. Other times, however, churches close because they cease to be relevant to their communities, and one of the ways in which they become irrelevant is by ignoring the needs that exist outside of their walls. If a local congregation cannot – or will not – speak against the ills that surround it or work to ease and eradicate those ills, then perhaps it is not only inevitable that the church will close, but perhaps it should close.

The Church is Indestructible Because of Its Anchor.

Listen again to the exchange between Jesus and Peter –

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

One of the great beauties of the church is that in these times of uncertainty, the church provides a sense of certainty. That is true, I believe, of all the centuries of the church, because all times in history have about them a sense of uncertainty. For over two millennia now, the church has served as an anchor of certainty in a sea of uncertainty. When Jesus stood with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, I imagine there was a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty among them. They were surrounded by many competing ideaologies and philosophies and it would have been very difficult for them to enjoy a sense of certainty and security. Some of those ideaologies and philosophies would have been very demanding of them, such as Rome and its demand for ultimate allegiance. Today is not much different from the context in which the disciples found themselves. We too have many competing ideaologies and philosophies competing for our hearts and souls – and some of them are very demanding – but the church provides an anchor of certainty that reminds us God will be for us and with us whatever kingdom claims control. We need that sense of the eternal and unchanging now more than ever. In the midst of competing truth claims, Peter was able to make his great confession of faith, and in the midst of today’s competing truth claims and sometimes overwhelming uncertainty, let us also make our confession of faith and trust in Jesus.

The church has survived for 2,000 years because it is founded upon the eternal, and it will survive – and thrive – until God decides to bring a conclusion to creation.

The Church Will Continue to Change Lives.

My life was changed by a church. Your life was changed by a church. How many lives have been changed by this church, or any church, we can never know for certain. There is no way for us to know in this life, but we can be assured it is a great many. Some day, in eternity, we will have the privilege to know who they are.

At its heart, the church is about relationships, and it is through relationships that lives are changed. I will close this morning with a very powerful testimony sent to me. It is a beautiful testimony to a life changed be a church –

What does the church mean to me…Salvation, in the spiritual sense, but also from an earthly perspective. I grew up in extreme poverty, without a named father and with a mother who put men and drugs ahead of her children and disappeared for weeks at a time. Although my family situation has sadly become commonplace nowadays, it was foreign to my small town [at the time]. Yes, I was blessed with grandparents who cared for me as their own and made sure my needs were met, but to the outside world, I was an outcast, an untouchable. And then, one day in 3rd grade, a neighbor offered to pick me up on her way to church. I don’t think I missed a Sunday for the next 3 years! Partly out of pity and partly out of love, the congregation adopted me as their own. They saw potential in me that I couldn’t yet see. The Music Minister gave me free piano lessons and one of the older ladies from church picked me up every day from school and took me to her house to practice. The next thing I knew, the church delivered a piano to my doorstep. The congregation paid my way to church camp. Even my high school jobs were working for church members. When I was serving in [another state], they sent me letters and love offerings. They supported me, guided me, prayed for me. To them, I wasn’t “just that poor kid”. I WAS SOMEBODY WHO WAS CREATED IN GOD’S IMAGE. The church helped me rise above the circumstances that I couldn’t control and become the person that I was created to be. They could have easily turned away, but they didn’t. Their love and compassion saved me.

Isn’t that an amazing, beautiful testimony? Our story may be different in the details, but we were changed by a church as well, and that is one of the reasons why I love the church.