Ambitious for the Church

Original Date: 
Sunday, October 18, 2015

Matthew 16:13-18 Run to Win: Ambitious for the Church

“There’s. A. Bomb. On. The. Bus!”
It was the summer of 1994. That was the first summer of Beth and my marriage. I was working nights in a school supply warehouse. She was doing food service at a nursing home and taking summer classes. It was a hot summer day, and we decided to go to a matinee. We chose Speed.

I still vividly remember walking out of the movie that day, blinking in the bright sunlight, and thinking: “That was the most exciting movie I’ve ever seen!”

Sadly, that was 21 years ago, and there is a very real possibility some of you have never seen this classic movie. Don’t worry, I’m here to help.

Speed is a highly improbable movie in which a bad guy—played with scenery chewing relish by Dennis Hopper—plants a bomb on the bottom of a Los Angeles Transit bus and wires it in such a way that once the bus goes 50 miles per hour the bomb is armed and if the bus ever goes less than 50 miles per hour after that, it will go off. Sandra Bullock plays a frazzled young woman who ends up driving the bus and Keanu Reeves is the hotshot Los Angeles policeman who has to find a way to disarm the bomb. (At the end of the movie, they become a couple, even though they both understand that relationships begun under intense circumstances rarely work out. This is apparently the case, because by the time Speed 2 rolls around—this time it’s a cruise ship!--Keanu is nowhere to be seen. I prefer to think that Speed 2 never happened.)

Anyway, the action in Speed occurs as this transit bus is forced to travel the busy streets and congested freeways of Los Angeles without slowing down. At one point, it jumps over an uncompleted overpass (which could totally have happened!).

At another point, it is forced to go down a road in a direction it’s not supposed to be traveling. There are barricades—black and yellow gates which are supposed to restrict access—that the bus simply obliterates. A toll collector’s gate is no match for a speeding city bus with a bomb strapped to its belly.

That picture—of a wooden gate splintering into a thousand pieces before an irresistible force—is a picture that occurs to me as Jesus states His goal for His Church. It’s in Matthew chapter 16, verse 18:

18And 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.

This is an odd metaphor, I know, but Jesus’ aim for the church is that it smash through the forces of evil like a runaway bus.

“Who do People Say I am?”
Matthew 16:18 is going to be the key verse for our message today, but let’s go back to when Jesus first uttered these words so that we understand the context. Jesus and his disciples were in an area known as Ceaserea Philippi, a Roman colony filled with shrines to pagan gods. As they are walking through this area, Jesus is quizzing his followers on popular opinion: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

In other words: what’s the word on the street? People are talking about Jesus, but what are they saying?

The disciples’ answers are interesting: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Everybody they name is dead. There is obviously a fascination with the supernatural in Jesus’ life. People have no category in which to place Jesus, so they can only assume God is doing something amazing by bringing one of the great prophets back to life. It’s remarkable how they are so close to being right and at the same time so far away from the truth.

But Jesus isn’t really interested in the watering hole gossip. What He really wants to know is what the disciples think. They’ve been spending time with Him. They’ve seen Him more closely than anyone else. Who do they say that He is?

Peter, the unofficial leader of the disciples, who is so quick to offer an opinion, now answers: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For once, Peter’s impulsivity is right on the mark. He says aloud what the disciples have undoubtedly been whispering about for months: there’s something really different about Jesus. He must be the promised Messiah. He must be God’s Son.

Jesus blesses Simon Peter for his answer. This isn’t something he came up with on his own, or something taught to him by someone else. This is something God has been revealing to him and the others. And then comes our key verse, Matthew 16:18:

18And 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.

There has been more than a little controversy around this verse. What exactly does Jesus mean by “this rock” upon which He will build His church?

For those in the Roman Catholic church, the fact that “Peter” comes from the Greek word for “rock”—petras—leads them to believe that Jesus is now appointing Peter as the head of the church and granting him authority which is to be handed down in a succession of leaders known as popes.

Those on the protestant side of the aisle—that would be us—see the obvious word play between Peter and rock—but understand Jesus not to be building His church on an individual but on the truth which Peter just uttered. Under this understanding, Jesus is saying that the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is the key to the church and that those who can make this confession are those who belong to Him. Ultimately, Jesus is saying that it is His identity as God’s Son upon which the church will be built.

The point of the sermon today, though, is not to get into the distinctions between Catholicism and Protestantism so much as it is to see Jesus’ ambition for the church. There are three things in this verse that I want to point out to you.

His Church
First, I want you to notice that Jesus says “my church.” “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” When we are talking about the church, we need to see that Jesus claims ownership. It’s His church. It belongs to Him.

This is something we talked about last week. Jesus owns everything in the world. He owns everything you have—from your boat to your bank account to your body. It all belongs to Him. And this is also true of the church. It’s His church. We are just stewards or managers of it. We all have our roles in the church—as we like to say here, we all have to pick up our paddles—and we influence what happens in the church, but it’s never really our church. Not in the sense of possession or ownership.

This is one of the hazards of my profession. As a pastor, it’s easy for me to start talking about “My church.” When I say that, I’m supposed to mean: “the church which I am privileged to pastor.” But if I’m honest, I have to admit that sometimes I say “my church” and what I mean is: “the church which I lead,” or “the church which I’m in charge of,” or, even, “the church which belongs to me.” But that isn’t right. It’s never the church I own, it’s always Jesus’ church.

And as members we all have to be careful about how we think about the church. If it’s “our church” in the sense of the church that we belong to, that’s fine. But if it becomes “our church” in the sense of the church which we control, we are taking from Jesus what can only belong to Him.

Sometimes, when you have helped start a ministry, or you’ve given a lot of money, or you’ve served in a leadership role, you can start thinking that you have some ownership rights over the church. Like I said, I’m vulnerable to slipping into that mindset. But we all need to remember it’s always His church.

The church Jesus is talking about, of course, is the church universal. What I sometimes call the Church with a capital “C”. It’s the collection of people all over the world who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. Jesus is talking about everyone, everywhere who will be redeemed by the cross. They all belong to Him.

But what He says about the church universal also applies to the church local. Every individual congregation which confesses the name of Jesus is His church. This is His church. Not just the building, but every single one of us who practices our faith within this community, our expressions of worship, our collective mission, our identity as a body of Christ, it belongs to Him. It’s His church.

His Work
Second, I want you to notice that Jesus says “I will build.” “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” When we are talking about the church, we need to see that Jesus claims responsibility. It’s His church, and He will take responsibility for building it.

This is so important to keep in mind, especially when we see the church struggling. When waves of persecution drive the church out of entire nations—as is happening right now in parts of the Mideast where nations like Lebanon and Syria are said to be without any functioning church—it can be very discouraging. Likewise, when we see scandal or moral failure destroy high profile congregations, or when older churches decline and close or new church starts fail to gain traction, it can feel like the church is falling apart and we are letting God down.

Human failings certainly do factor into those situations. But the good news is: human effort is not ultimately responsible for building the church. Jesus takes responsibility for building His church, and He’s not about to fail. Individual congregations may wax and wane, but the overall Church—again, Church with a capital “C”—is going to go on. Jesus is not going to let His Church on earth disappear.

This should give great confidence to those of us who love the church and work in it (whether you are paid staff or a volunteer). The success or failure of the church is not ultimately up to us. Christ is going to build His Church. He has a mission for His church and He’s going to see it carried out. This should put us in a position where we are willing to take great risks for Jesus—to try new things for the sake of the gospel and go to difficult places. Because we know whether our individual efforts succeed or fail, Christ’s designs for His Church will prevail.

This idea is similar to what Jesus is getting at when He gives His disciples the Great Commission in Matthew 28. The Great Commission is that we should “go and make disciples of all nations.” But Jesus prefaces that assignment by saying “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” The idea is: since Jesus is in charge of everything, and since Jesus has our back, we can give everything we have to the mission of His church.

And I want you to notice that word “build.” That’s an ambitious word. An aggressive word. Jesus isn’t planning to just maintain or preserve His church. He isn’t intending for His disciples and a few close friends to just represent Him on earth after He’s gone. He wants to build the church. To expand it. To grow it. He intends for it to be much, much more than it is at that moment in the dusty hills of Ceaserea Philippi.

His Goal
Which leads to the third thing I want you to notice: Jesus says “the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” When we are talking about the church, we need to see that Jesus claims victory. It’s His church, He’s going to build it, and it’s going to prevail.

This is good news for the church. This is a bold and magnificent promise: The gates of Hades will not overcome it. Hell will not be able to hold back the church. Jesus is saying that He is going to unleash a movement that will be so powerful and intense that it will be unstoppable. The church is the speeding bus. The gates of Hell are the barricades being turned into toothpicks.

Now, we need to understand what Jesus is saying here. In my imagination, I used to picture this verse as all these forces of evil and darkness assaulting the church and the church standing up against every attack. I think a lot of churches take this mentality—I call it a fortress mentality, a lot of churches even build their churches to resemble a fortress—of the forces of hell mounting wave after wave of attack and the church holding them off, beating them back. Some churches present a very defensive posture, the need to protect the faith against every movement of worldliness or secularism.

But that’s not the picture Jesus is painting. He’s not talking about the gates of heaven standing up to attacks by the armies of darkness. Jesus is talking about the gates of Hades. The fortress here is Hell and Jesus is talking about His church taking the fight to them. There are places of doubt and death and darkness in the world and Jesus’ plan is for His church to storm the gates. Again, a speeding bus crashing through barriers.

Jesus’ ambition for the church is that His called out people will be on the offensive, carrying the truth of the gospel to those who have doubt, bringing the hope of His love to those in the midst of death, shining the light into the darkness. Jesus is talking about His church going to the broken cities of Haiti and the oppressive nations of the Middle East and the pre-modern tribes of the South American jungle. He’s talking about His church reaching out to the single mom down the street, the recent immigrant to our country, and the elderly neighbor who can’t do yard work anymore.

Jesus is talking about a church that will expand His kingdom, and take back territory the enemy has claimed. And when we do, He guarantees that the church will win. The gates of Hades will not overcome it. They can’t stand up to the force of love and grace and hope and joy that Jesus has let loose in us.

So take encouragement: if you are a part of the church of Jesus Christ you are a part of the most powerful, irresistible force in the world. The movement you belong to will push back the darkness and shine forth His light. Hell doesn’t have a chance.

His Ambition, Our Ambition
So here’s the big idea today, and the challenge to us: Our ambition for the church should match Jesus’ ambition for the church. Our Lord has ambitious plans for His Church in the world, we should too.

We are in the midst of a capital campaign for the church. We started the message today by sharing how much our leaders have pledged to the campaign already. We have a goal of eliminating our debt in the next 3 years.

And so, we are in the midst of a sermon series I’m calling Run to Win. Based on 1 Corinthians 9:24 where Paul tells us to “Run in such a way as to get the prize;” I’m making the argument that we should all be striving to make Hope Church the best church it can be. All of us who consider ourselves to be part of Hope Church should desire to see it be the best representation of Christ’s body it can be. In its worship, in its preaching, in its children and youth ministries, in its outreach and service to our community, in its prayer and its care ministries, in its small groups and body life, in its mission and its witness, we should all desire that Hope Church be the best church it can be. In other words, we should be ambitious for the church.

Now, let me pause a moment and say something about that word: “ambition.” There is a sense in which ambition can be a dirty word, especially among Christians who value humility and service. The word “ambition” can conjure up images of power hungry dictators and stab-you-in-the-back corporate climbers. People who are considered ambitious are often thought to be self-promoters and selfish.

Our second president, John Adams, once spoke of the natural “passion for distinction” we all have—how every person is “strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected.” (quoted by Dave Harvey, Rescuing Ambition, p. 13) That’s what we usually associate with ambition.

Steve Spurrier was in the news this week because he retired as the head football coach at the University of South Carolina. As I was reading an article reviewing his career I learned that in 1966, the year he won the Heisman Trophy as the quarterback of the Florida Gators, he insisted that he be the one to go out and attempt a 40 yard field goal at the end of a game that was tied at 27 with the University of Auburn. This in spite of the fact that he was a quarterback, not a kicker. This in spite of the fact that he hadn’t practiced kicking for weeks leading up to the game. He insisted that he was the star of the team, and he should be allowed to try the kick.

His coach relented. He made the kick. The Gators won the game.

It’s that kind of supersized ego that most often gets associated with the word ambition.

But ambition is not the problem. Ambition is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s more a question of what you are ambitious for.

I have in my office a book called Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey. He makes the case that “ambition—godly ambition that is—is a noble force for the glory of God.”(p. 14) He quotes J. Oswald Sanders who said: “Ambition that centers on the glory of God and welfare of the church is a mighty force for good.” (p. 163) There is nothing wrong with ambition, so long as we are ambitious for the right things.

And if you are a Christ-follower, then your ambitions should match up with your Lord’s ambitions. And as we have seen, our Lord is ambitious for the church. It’s His Church. He promises to build it. And He wants it to storm the gates of Hell and shine His light into the darkness.

So when we talk about helping Hope Church to be the best Church it can be, I think that ties in directly to our Lord’s ambitions for us. He doesn’t want us to be a church that settles for the way things have always been done. He doesn’t want us to be a church that says things are good enough. He doesn’t want us to be a church that is content with what we have, with the number of people who attend, with the impact we are having. He doesn’t want us to be a church that hunkers down and keeps the world away.

He wants us to be a church on a mission. A church which is actively storming the gates of Hell. A church that is always seeking to build His kingdom.

What’s It Mean for Me?
So allow me to wrap up by doing some application. How does this make a difference for you? There are three things I’d like to ask of you:

First, Love the church. Jesus loves and cherishes the church. It’s His church. Made up of the people He called out and redeemed. Shouldn’t we love what He loves? Shouldn’t we share His passion for the church?

Part of loving the church, then, means being committed to the church. One of the truths we must reckon with is that a prevailing church like Jesus describes in Matthew 16 is going to be a church that changes over time. Those of you who have been a part of this church for 40 or 30 or even 20 years know: it’s not the same church that it was. It’s not the same building. It’s not the same style of worship. It’s not the same ministry programming. Hopefully, the commitment and love for Jesus is the same, or even deeper; but the church that you were first drawn to has changed.

And it’s going to change in the future. I doubt that we’ll be the same church one year from now, we’re pretty much guaranteed to be a different church 5 years for now. Some of the changes you might like. Some of them you might not like.

But I’m asking you to love the church Jesus loves. Stay committed. Dave Harvey says:

My church is much different in size and feel then when I first came. Same gospel—different programs, needs and priorities. Challenges and changes like this should not constitute an automatic call from God to leave. (165-166)

Second, Pray for the church. Jesus takes responsibility for the church. He promises to build it. Ultimately, the success of our church is up to Him. So we should be praying to Him for our church. We should be lifting Hope Church up in prayer to Him. Ask Him to be building us into the church He wants us to be.

This may sound self-serving—I don’t mean it to be—but can I ask you to pray for me and the rest of the church staff? We just appreciated the staff, and it’s good to be thanked, but one of the best things you can do for us is pray that God would use us for His glory. Pray for outreach events like Trunk-or-Treat. Pray for programs like our youth group and children’s ministry. Come early on Sunday morning and go to the Grace Room and pray that God would speak in our worship services.

He’s responsible to build the church, so let’s ask Him to do just that.

And then, third, serve the church. Jesus is ambitious for His church to storm the gates of Hades. So are you doing your part to help it do just that? Recognizing that Christ is the Master builder, are we helping to build the kind of church He wants?

Harvey again:

There are a lot of good things Christians can build—good families, businesses, reputations, houses, memories, lifestyles. But there’s nothing better to set your ambitions to than building a good church…

So does your involvement in your church contribute to its welfare? Do you help strengthen your church, or are you just another body that shows up on Sunday mornings? Is Sunday morning the day you get to gather with God’s people to celebrate what he’s doing and to hear what he’s saying? Or is it the day you have to get up too early, drive too far, sit too long, hear too much, then try to make it back home before the game kicks off or before the meat overcooks?

The church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) in our world and the center of God’s redemptive activity. It’s the one human institution that will shine brightly throughout eternity.

If we’re going to build, let’s build the church. (p. 163-164)