I Will Build My Church

Sermon by Sanders Willson on March 6, 2018

Matthew 16:13-20

The Reverend Dr. David Strain: We have Mr. Sandy Wilson who is a dear friend to many of us personally. Many of you have sat under his ministry both here and at Second Pres in Memphis. Second Pres is a sister congregation to our own, closely connected to us, and so it feels very right and natural and is a great joy for all of us, I know, to have Sandy come and open God’s Word to us now. Thank you, brother.


The Reverend Dr. Sandy Wilson: It is, indeed, a pleasure to be here with you and just to get a few minutes with David and Sheena is worth the trip itself, and Ed Hartman and this tremendous missions committee and your missionaries who are here. Such a great privilege and honor to be with you. And of course, Second Presbyterian in Memphis and First Presbyterian in Jackson are all intermarried anyway! And so it’s good to see some cousins and in-laws while I’m here! I bring you greetings from a lot of people there, but also from the church in Birmingham where I’m serving, at Covenant Presbyterian Church. It’s great to be in this broader family.


And Michael, what a treat to hear what is going on in Indonesia and just through your ministry. Think of that – 100 people mobilized into church planting, 32,000 times of sharing the Gospel, 800 professions of faith! That’s almost amazing as what Bill Wymond did to get this white, Presbyterian choir to sing a song like that! I’ll tell you what, when I hear music like that, my foot just won’t stop! I was preaching one time in an African Methodist Episcopal district meeting. And it was a congregation about this size – say downstairs filled up with several hundred people. And you know how excited we get in the African American church. And about halfway through my sermon, I think the bishop had signaled them, “This is time for the sermon to be over,” so they just started getting up and dancing in the aisles, the organist got on the organ and was playing and accompanying my sermon, and before you knew it, we just had a hallelujah party! And my sermon was indeed over; that was it!


And I went from that experience right back to Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis’ staff meeting. Talk about going from the sublime to the all-out boring most experience of your life! So I go back to the staff meeting and I say, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement to make. I know I look like I’m Caucasian, but I’m not. Full disclosure, I am thoroughly African American!” And I will always be that! Have you ever thought about what the American church, just the church, much less the culture at large, would be like without our African American brothers and sisters? I cannot feature such a thing. We’d never have a song like that without them. And so I find myself when I'm worshiping in dominantly African American churches, I just thank the Lord for our family. And that's the joy of the missions process and the missions enterprise because we’re just bringing more people into the family.


And if you could travel with Michael as Rick and Rachel have a lot, and I have just a little bit, in Indonesia, you would see the glory and the beauty of this mosaic of our family members around the world that you have reached out to through people like Michael. And when you’ve got people like Michael, let me tell you something, $1 million is not much. I mean I’d give you $1 million just for Michael! This is a great ministry going on, you have other ministries going on, and it is wonderful to see the fruit of it. And I encourage you, as you think about your own strategy – we’ll talk about that tonight – about the strategy for your own personal life and how to walk with Jesus and live a missional, personal life, I want to talk with you about that tonight, but as part of your strategy, think about getting to the field and laying eyes on something of what Michael is talking about. Get down to Mission First and Neighborhood Christian Centers and see with your own eyes and touch with your own hands what God is doing through this church. It’s really, really phenomenal. And then you’ll find yourself very eager to reach back there in your pocket and write a check or get involved personally. And $1 million will not be much in the future for First Presbyterian, and I know it hasn’t in the past either.


So I want to say to you, a church that we all hold in very high regard, who is an example for so many of us, you all keep it up and step it up, because the only way you can keep it up is if you’re stepping it up. That’s the only way to go. You can’t stay in neutral. You’re either going forward and developing and getting stronger and better at what you do, or you’re falling back. And this church is too important to us all for you all not to be continuing to step forward in your work in missions. I’ve read your mission’s philosophy for your international work and your domestic work. I don’t know where you can get anything any better than that. I don’t know where you can make a better investment than that. So I encourage you, if you’ve already filled out a little card with a little number on it, you can always put in a second card with a bigger number on it. They’ll take that! Through experience, I’ve learned that!


Well, we are looking at the Scriptures and Matthew chapter 16. Please take your Bibles and turn there with me. We'll spend a few moments looking at one verse. We're going to study verse 18. There's so much in it, we don't have enough time this morning even to study that verse, but we're going to give it our best shot. But we want to read the context. And you'll remember the context. Jesus is developing His disciples and after they'd been with Him now about a year and a half I would say, about eighteen months, He's going to take them on a retreat. You know we do this in officers' retreats. You even do this in your businesses. And when you go on a retreat, it's so that you can just think from a different angle. You can think new thoughts. You can brainstorm together. So you usually go off to another venue just to change things up so that you’re thinking more freely. This is the way we do spiritual retreats. This is exactly what Jesus is doing. Caesarea Philippi, where this takes place, is about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus and His disciples spend most of their time. So Jesus trained them around the Sea of Galilee; that’s where He taught and discipled them. But here, we’re on a retreat.


It’s also interesting that Caesarea Philippi, named after Caesar, obviously, Tiberias Caesar, by Herod Philip who built the city, it’s a rather recent city, but it’s a crossroads for travelers and many different types of people. And whenever you have a crossroads, you not only have the little corner store and a river with some water in it or a stream, but you also have the temples where you can worship in this little town at the crossroads. Caesarea Philippi was like that. And the most famous temple was the one to Pan, P-a-n, the god of them all, the Roman god. Jesus takes them on this retreat to a place where there are other options for your devotion and worship. And it’s there that He asks them, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” So they choose Christ, among all the gods of the world.


But what’s most interesting for us this morning is Jesus’ response. And in the first instance, He tells Peter, “You didn’t do this on your own, Peter. I know you well enough. This came to you because My Father revealed it to you. So it’s by the Father’s grace that Peter is able to make this famous, high confession. And then Jesus, in verse 18, our text for the day, you’ll see He tells them something very important not only about who He is but what He’s up to. We’re going to see what He’s up to. What’s His big strategy? What’s the game plan here?


So let’s look at it together. I’m going to ask you to stand with me as we read this text and let us pray together and ask the Lord to turn the light on in our brain and in our hearts.


Father, we thank You for every text of Scripture and we thank You for this one set before us this morning. We thank You for Jesus Christ our Savior who now speaks through sinful preachers by the power of the Spirit as we look and expound Your Word. Speak, O Lord, for Your servants listen. In Jesus’ name, amen.


Matthew 16 verse 13. Hear the Word of God:


“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.”


All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever. Amen. Please be seated.


As many of you know, this is coming up in April, April 4 to be exact, is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis. And so, therefore, those of us who have Memphis connections are very aware of this, and there are many activities that have been going on. There's a deluge of interest from some journalists. In fact, on my way to Jackson yesterday in the car, I was being interviewed by one journalist who said, "Tell me, what's it like to do ministry in Memphis? It looks like it's so difficult there and so little progress is being made. How do you carry on?" And I said, "Well, who have you interviewed?" And she said, "Well, I interviewed a woman who's been working in the streets for twenty years in Christian ministry." I said, "Well what did she tell you?" And she said, "Well she told me that after twenty years of ministry, her neighborhood is worse than it ever was before, there are more gang members, there's more crime. And I asked her, ‘How do you carry on?’ And she said, ‘I just carry on.’” And so the journalist asked me, “Is this the strategy? You just carry on?” I said, “Yeah, that’s a good part of it.” I said, “You know, Jesus said, ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ and we’ve got them, and they’ll always be here. And when you’re working with lost and poor people you have to realize you don’t see response visibly to everything that you do, especially when you’re working with the poor. It just seems to go in this big, dark hole and you wonder sometimes, ‘Why am I out here?’”


The Church is the Key

And she said, “Well what’s the key to this strategy?” And I said, “Here’s the key. It’s the church.” She said, “What?” I said, “It’s the church.” I said, “In Memphis, we’ve looked at our one hundred twenty-seven neighborhoods and tried to analyze all of them with respect to job creation, housing, garbage pick-up, security, education, ownership of businesses in communities. But what we’ve found is that none of those neighborhoods is healthy unless they have a healthy church or group of evangelical churches in our neighborhood. Do you want to know how neighborhoods around the world are primarily under-resourced? They’re under-resourced with living, vibrant, Christ-centered churches.”


Now, this sounds like an odd thing to say when you look at sort of the cultural dialogue that's going on. For example, you could go in the bookstore here in Jackson I'm sure and see some of these titles: Why I’m Never Going Back to Church Again. Another title, How I Left the Church and Found God. Another title, Why Men Hate the Church. Another title, Why Teenagers are Leaving the Church. And my favorite title of all, Why the Senior Minister’s Wife Left the Church and Isn’t Coming Back. That’s only funny to us pastors! We could all write a chapter, I’m sure, in such a book!


The dialogue now is, “Let’s get around the church. You know, the church is part of the problem.” Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to notice first and foremost in this verse 18. Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter and on this rock, I'm going to do something." The word "Peter" means "rock" in both Aramaic and in Greek, actually. And so He says, “On this rock, Peter, I’m going to do something.” You say, “What? He’s going to start a ministry center, He’s going to have an evangelistic crusade? What’s He going to do?” “I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” That’s the reason when you hear someone like Michael talk about his ministry of church planting in one of the most difficult religious contexts of which we are aware, in the Muslim context. You’re saying, “That’s our business. We don’t know a lot, but our business as church people is the church and our business is to evangelize and lead people into the church.” This is the reason.


For example, when you get to the end of this gospel account, Jesus has His last words with His disciples. You know what He says to them? He says, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” And then what does He say? “Baptizing them.” You don’t baptize someone if you don’t have a church in which to baptize them. So He says, “I want you to go make disciples and I want you to baptize them into the church and then I want you to teach them." Teach them what? "Everything that I have commanded you." What has He commanded you? The book of Matthew! Matthew has five sermons by Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount being the most famous, chapters 5 through 7. Chapter 10, sermon on mission. "I want you to teach them that," He says. Chapter 13, the sermons on the parables that tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God. "I want you to teach them about the kingdom and how it works." You get to chapter 18 and what does He teach them? About the church and about relationships. He's saying you cannot be a disciple without being discipled in church life. This is our business. And then, of course, you get to chapter 24, 25, and He teaches them that the whole mission of the church is couched in this urgent moment of eschatology. We are right on the edge, waiting for the coming of Christ. What are we supposed to be doing? He says, "The gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all the nations and then the end will come. So teach them that.” That’s what He’s saying that we are to do as we make disciples. The church is His strategy.


Now, for those of you like myself, who’ve been in the church for a few decades, we can imagine the angels listening in on this and saying, “Ah, Father? Does the Son have Plan B? I mean, I’ve been watching this church for a couple of thousand years and they ain’t been doing so well! There’re crazy people down there and they don’t obey all the time and they split up and get angry with each other and all kinds of things! Are You sure this is Your primary strategy?” Jesus said, “You’re Peter, and on this rock, I will build My church.” That’s His big strategy. And I can say to you, it’s not just true in Memphis and Jackson; it’s true all over the world. What the most desperate nations in the world need are Christ-honoring, Bible-believing, healthy, evangelical churches. That’s our business. And as Peter Drucker would say, “How’s business?” We have to ask ourselves over and again, “How is the business of the church going on?” It is to plant churches.


The Builder

That’s the reason I’m so thrilled to be here on this particular year of your Missions Conference when the committee and Ed and the Session and all of you together are saying, “We want to be planting churches.” Now we’ll talk a little bit more about that even tonight. But for now, let’s look with this Jesus strategy of planting churches. And it’s important for us this morning in this brief text to discover three things that Jesus says about Himself relative to the church. And it’s vital for us to know these things. The first one is, “I will build.” So Jesus is the builder. He didn’t hire it out to someone else. He didn’t ask some flunky like me to go dream up what a church ought to look like, come up with your best plan, and go start a club or a society; you can call it church if you want to. No, Jesus said, “I’m going to build it. It’s going to be according to My desire. I’m going to take the raw material and I’m going to put it together.” And ladies and gentlemen, when He says, “I’m going to build the church,” I’ve got some new for you. He’s going to build it!


And you can look at the nation of India where William Carey went to sleep one day, went to death, and you could have put his converts in a small kitchen somewhere. Now you just look at northern India where the Dalits are coming to Christ hand over fist, two hundred years later! Why? Because Jesus said, “I’ll build My church!” You can look at China, where Hudson Taylor went, and struggled and suffered and did all of his work as a missionary. And then you look at that great nation now and most missiologists believe they have more real Christians than we do – in China! Why? Because Jesus said, “I will build My church!” Where is the most rapidly growing Christian community today in the world? Do you know where missiologists tell us it is? Iran! Of all places! Do you know why? Because Jesus said, “I will build My church!” And so I have a message for Syria and Somalia and Afghanistan. Your walls are coming down because Jesus is the church builder and He intends to do it in every nation of the world. So we can take great comfort from this.


We also get challenged because, still sticking with this first point of His building the church, you have to notice His building material – Peter! It's a joke! It'd be kind of like my saying, "We want to restart the moral majority and the CEO of our movement will be Donald Trump!" I mean you just laugh at this! It's a complete joke. It's hilarious. It couldn't be. It's impossible. It's a contradiction in terms. It's an oxymoron. Peter? You're going to build Your church on people like Peter? Well, You can just give it up then! No. Why? Because Jesus is doing it. He's going to take flunky, failed, Christ-denying Peter and make an apostle out of him. And Peter, along with James and John and Andrew and Thomas and the apostle Paul, as Paul says in Ephesians 2, are the foundation of the church. This is apostolic foundation. It's Peter personally along with the other apostles. This is an apostolic church. It's built on the foundations of those men with the chief cornerstone being the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus said, "That's what I'm going to do."


And so you and I can look at our lives, the weaknesses in them, the failures in them, the dumb, stupid, idiotic – I’m sorry, kids. I used the “s” word again – the dumb things that we’ve done in our lives, and say, “God couldn’t use me.” Oh yes, He can! You know why? He’s building a church. It’s His work. So we engage in it not because we are self-confident, not because First Presbyterian has a great strategy and a lot of money and a lot of really fine people. We engage it because we believe what the choir just sang. "Trust and don't doubt. Jesus will bring you out. He's never failed me yet!" He's going to build the church through people like us. So that's the first thing we should notice in this text – this amazing determination by the Lord Jesus to you sinners to create this international church. It's incredible.


The Owner

Now secondly, notice in the text He’s not only the builder of the church; He is the owner of the church. And some of us here, especially have you have a little gray hair, you need to hear this. This church does not belong to you. Session members, you especially need to hear it. This is not your church. Our Westminster Confession of Faith says it very well in chapter 25. “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is the head and the owner. It’s all His. You may have a plaque on a pew, you may have your name on a stained-glass window, you may have a room named after you. It’s not your church. It’s His church!


When I retired from Second Presbyterian Church about a year ago, maybe a year and a month ago, I initially spent my first several months consulting churches. Now churches that want to be consulted are churches that have problems. Right? You don’t call in a consultant if you can’t dream up any problem that you might have. So I’m consulting five or six churches. Let me just give you the bottom line. In every case where there was a problem, I’ll tell you what the problem was – pride. That’s the number one problem. The number two problem is pride. The number three problem is pride. It’s either senior pastors, typically, or powerful elders, typically, having a sense of entitlement that they’ve been here, they’ve kept the nursery, they’ve done this, they’ve done that, they’ve been around, they know the ropes, and they become the source of division within the church. And Jesus gives us the answer for this. “I will build My church.” And those of us who are in leadership, especially, need to remember this.


I remember I was in a church one time before I was a minister, and I noticed that the people, some of the elders, were talking about how they really need to replace the Sunday School superintendent, but if they did, she would really have her feelings hurt and they didn’t know how to solve that problem. Could that happen to you? People really think you need to move aside, but we don’t know how to solve the problem of your hurt feelings. You know why your feelings are hurt? Because you think this is your church. It’s His. He’s the owner. He’s the sole Lord. When we are planting churches here in urban neighborhoods in America, north Boston, east Los Angeles, or Bangalore, you’re planting the number one symbol of the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ over His creation.


When Lesslie Newbigin, who ministered in India for a number of years as you know probably, wrote the book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, what did he say about the church in his experience in India? He says the number one apologetic tool for evangelism in the church. People see the visible church, they see people loving each other, worshiping God, living a sort of order, caring for each other, relieving each other of their suffering, weeping with each other, rejoicing with each other, and they ask the natural question just as they ask Peter on Pentecost Sunday when fire was on their heads – they wanted an explanation for the fire! And Newbigin said they’ve got to have an explanation for the church! And the only explanation is Jesus Christ!

So if you don’t have a church in Jackson, if you don’t have a church in Bangalore, you don’t have the greatest apologetic tool you need to reach the mass number for Jesus Christ. It’s His church, and when you plant it, you are planting His ownership around the world. I’d encourage you to keep it up and step it up.


The Triumphant Leader

Now lastly, notice in verse 18 He not only is the builder and the owner, He is the triumphant leader of the church. The triumphant leader. As we heard from Michael just a moment ago, we don’t just persevere because we’re stubborn. I think Michael may be a little stubborn, but that’s not the reason that he keeps going! I got an “Amen” out of that! In a Presbyterian church that’s rare, Michael, and so we ought to remember that you gave the “Amen” today! But we plant them because He says the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. And most scholars believe that when He says “gates of hell” He means the “gates of death.” And you can’t kill the church.


Now I have to say, as a pastor and someone invested in missions all my Christian life, for forty years plus, I have found myself in tears many times as I look at the sufferings of Christians around the world. And some of them in the country where Michael serves. Some severe things are happening to people. Let me tell you, we believe we are losing about 90,000 Christians a year to martyrdom, today – 90,000. You could look at us and say, "You look so weak. You look like a bunch of losers. All this vain effort to send your children around the world and they're just going to get butchered. Why are you keeping this up?" Well, the reason is, first of all, because Jesus told us to and that’s enough for me. But secondly, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve lost more people because they’re Christians in the last 150 years than all the other years combined. And we’ve seen the church expand over these 150 years like we’ve never seen before. And I tell you, these two things go together! You can’t expect a church to expand into India and Bangalore without somebody getting killed. How do you expect to reach the Muslim world if your children aren’t willing to die? And so Jesus is saying, “I will build My church, and you disciples need to know something. Death can’t overcome this! The gates of hell cannot prevail against the church! The church will go on.” And what we need in a Missions Conference is a congregation full of people who believe that.


I close with this. These past two weeks, of course, we’ve all been grieving and remembering gratefully the life and ministry of Dr. Billy Graham. My own life included. I could tell you stories about how I’ve been influenced; I know you have been too, so many of you. And the older you are, the more influence, probably, you’ve had from his life. And I just noticed a couple of things here recently. One was, USA Today, on the day that he died, they had an article. I read it, and then there was a little video clip, some of you may have seen it, with Billy Graham and Woody Allen, of all people, in 1969. Well you know I punched that thing. I wanted to hear that! Because Woody Allen is crude and I can’t watch most of what he directs, but the guy is so funny. And one of the least open people I would ever think to the Gospel. So here's Billy Graham and Woody Allen. I'm watching this interview. And they're both very funny, Woody especially, but Billy's funny too. And it's clean, so you can listen to it. But then at one point, someone from the audience asks a question of Dr. Graham. They said, "Dr. Graham, have you ever seen a Woody Allen movie?" And Billy says, "No, I haven't," which was to his credit I think, but he said, "After this interview, I think I will go see one of his movies." And Woody said, "Well if you'll go to one of my movies, I'll go to one of your crusades!" And Billy said, "Put her there!" And they shook on it! You know, probably most of us would think Woody Allen is a lost cause. But Billy always knew something – the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church, her people, and her Gospel. 


And some years ago, I was for some reason traveling through Ashville, North Carolina. I was in the airport. It was pre-security days. You younger ones wouldn’t know what that was like, but you could just move freely all over the place. I was waiting to take off on my plane to go to Boston and in comes somebody who had to be a celebrity because everybody was backing up and shooting flash pictures of whoever was on the other side of these people backing up. So I was really curious to see who this was. I happened to be standing, can you believe this, with Dr. Ed Clowney at the time this was happening. So Ed and I were looking on. Well, it was Billy Graham coming home to Ashville for the weekend! Do you know who was with him? Mohammad Ali. What do you think they talked about when they got in the rocking chairs up in Montreat? Why do you think Billy had Mohammad Ali come to Ashville to visit? Just to find out more about boxing, maybe?


No. You know what he was doing. He would go into the roughest places, the least likely places, the hardest people, because Billy knew something we all need to know again. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for the Jew first and also for the Greek. And the gates of hell cannot prevail against his work. So when I'm interviewed yesterday about Memphis or Jackson or Bangalore or anywhere on the planet, do you know what the secret is? The church of the Lord Jesus Christ planted everywhere. Let's pray.


Father, we need You every hour. We pray even now You'll help us as we step forward with our own lives this week for the advancement of the Gospel around the world and the planting of Your church in city after city after city. And we would pray that You would take this great church that You planted in 1837 and bring her to fuller flower every decade that rolls by. And use her, O Lord, not only to plant churches but to encourage other churches to do the same, here and around the world. Pour out Your blessing by the power of Your Holy Spirit upon these people as individuals and families and a congregation, that through them, Jesus Christ would be praised. We make our prayer in His name, amen.


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