08/04/2020 By The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey
One of the most powerful scriptures that arrests me is Jesus’ proclamation about his Church:
“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ After sharing what some of the people were saying, Jesus then asked his disciples directly, ‘But what about you. Who do you say I am?’
Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (ekklesia), and the gates of Hell will not overcome it…’” (Matthew 16:13-19, emphasis added)
Picture with me Jesus standing at the convergence of two cities: one named in the honor and worship of the Roman Emperor; and the other, the “gates of Hades,” a nearby grotto reputed to be the birthplace of the god Pan, the most famous fertility symbol of ancient paganism. Jesus is literally standing at the convergence of political power and the power of human sexuality. Is there any other comparable place of convergence that epitomizes so well the secularizing forces and values that the church faces today?
What about the pandemic? Organized racism? Rioting and violence? Rage? Increasing unemployment and financial insecurity? The loss of civil discourse and the polarization of parties? Jesus says to this and more, and to Hell itself, “You will not prevail against my church.” Why? Because it is built on the rock-solid foundation of the Gospel itself and absolutely NOTHING can prevail against it.
Later in the book of Acts when the hammer of persecution came down upon the church (as it continues to do so today in places like China and Nigeria), and people were literally being dragged out of their homes and imprisoned or worse – all but the apostles were scattered. However, “those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (Acts 8:1-4) God even used persecution to grow his church and spread the good news of Jesus Christ!
What a stunning picture of the invincibility of Christ’s church. What a comfort for you and me today.
But this is not a cause for complacency.
During my leave this summer, I listened, read, reflected, and wondered about the church, our culture, and where we go from here. One of the books I read was Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher also reflects on Jesus’ words in Matthew 16 about his invincible church and concludes by surveying the landscape of North American Christianity. He writes, “Jesus Christ promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church, but He did not promise that Hell would not prevail against His church in the West.” That’s a sobering reminder to those of us here. I commend his book to you. Dreher outlines how the North American Church may be the real problem because many churches have compromised with our secular culture by exchanging the Gospel for an insipid “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a “feel-good” consumer-driven spirituality that reflects our secular consumer-driven culture. Because such spirituality is ultimately self-centered rather than God-centered, it has no transcendent good, virtue, or truth to offer a fractured and fractious society.
When Jesus proclaimed the church’s eternal truth and victory, he used a Greek word-play on Peter’s name, “Cephas,” which means “rock.” It wasn’t Peter, in his personal capacity, upon which Jesus was building his church but on his confessional capacity. Jesus builds his church on the revelation, Peter’s Gospel confession, that Jesus alone is the Christ, the Messiah. This is the foundation upon which the church is built and prevails. Reflecting on NT Wright’s book, God and the Pandemic, Bishop Todd Hunter (ACNA Diocese of the Church for the Sake of Others) writes:
“Put Jesus in the center of the picture and work out from there. We don’t start thinking and responding via the frame of anything else – political parties, political theories, theological action groups, or even extra-biblical theological constructs and schemes – and then try to fit Jesus and the Kingdom into those frames. It distorts, pollutes and marginalizes Jesus every time.”
God is sovereign; he is not surprised at the times we are in! This means he is working out all things for our good, for those who love him, through these times (Romans 8:28). So, I wonder, what could God be doing through all the circumstances we face – from pandemic to unemployment to hell itself – to strengthen his Church here in North America so that it will prevail? What have we done, consciously or unconsciously, to distort, pollute, and marginalize Jesus and remove him from our center? From what is God calling us to repent?
I love the Church, and I believe we are on the cusp of an incredible awakening and revival. I also believe God is refining us to be a different church than we have been. He is calling us to be a different kind of people emerging from this pandemic, disciples who are so fully devoted to him that he is always in the center of the picture. This will require our church culture in North America to move from being a weekend culture of consumption to a culture of disciple-making. The mission of the American Anglican Council, semper reformanda, is to always reform the church we love because Christ loves his church.
To that end, would you please join me in completing a survey we just put out on the state of the church in and through this pandemic? You can find the link to the survey below. The latest national survey by George Barna of online church attendance during COVID-19 suggests that roughly one-third of Christians across all denominations are staying with their local church, one-third are looking for a new and better church/sermon/pastor, and one-third have dropped out entirely. Among the millennial generation the drop-out rate is 50%. We want to hear from YOU regarding what your experience is, what challenges you face, and how best the American Anglican Council can help you, your family, and your local church become not only the body that will prevail against Hell itself, but salt and light (Matthew5:13-16) to a lost and hurting world because it is founded on the rock-sold foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his transforming love! Please take a moment to respond, and we will report back to you the results very soon.
In the words of Paul in Romans 15:13, may the God of peace fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in him, so that we may overflow with hope in the power of the Holy Spirit!