Summary: This sermon is the first in a short series of messages on the church, and it examines what the church of Jesus Christ is.
For the next four weeks or so I would like to interrupt my series in Paul’s letter to the Romans and preach a short series of sermons on the church.
I am doing so for the following reason. Over the course of this past year the Session of the Tampa Bay Presbyterian church has been looking at how we raise up leaders—and officers in particular—in this church. We plan to adopt an approach that clarifies our present system. We want people to grow in their personal character, in their public ministry, and in their theological education. And in order to do so effectively, it is important that you understand how Jesus builds his church.
So, to that end, I am preaching a short series of sermons titled, “Jesus Is Building His Church.” I want to draw your attention to the narrative where Jesus told his disciples that he is building his church. It is found in Matthew 16:13-20, and the particular text for our focus is Matthew 16:18. Let us then read the Word of God:
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 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. 18 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. 19 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.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20)
Jesus is building his church. He has been doing so for centuries. Whether in Jerusalem or in Judea, in Samaria or in the ends of the earth, Jesus is building his church.
John G. Paton left Scotland with his young bride, Mary Ann, on April 16, 1858 to sail for the New Hebrides, known today as Vanuatu, a series of Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Australia. The Patons went to Vanuatu as missionaries to take the Gospel to a cannibalistic people who had never heard about Jesus.
Almost 7 months later they arrived on the island of Tanna. A few months after that, in February 1859, Mary Ann gave birth to a son. But within a month both mother and son were dead. The loss for Paton was almost too much to bear. “But for Jesus,” he said, “I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave!”
Reaching the Islanders of Tanna with the good news of God’s grace was extraordinarily difficult. Historian Ruth Tucker said that the Islanders “were deeply involved in deadly and often subtle games of warfare among themselves. Killings occurred almost daily and were accepted as a routine part of life, with occasional violent eruptions that threatened the whole population. It was a tension-filled time with hardly a moment for relaxation.”
But, over the course of time the Gospel triumphed, the Islanders were converted, and a church was established on Tanna. Almost 30 years later, in 1886, having been gone for about four years, Paton returned to the Island. Here is his recollection of what happened:
Before daybreak I lay awake thinking of all my experiences on that Island, and wondering whether the church had fallen off in my four years’ absence, when suddenly the voice of a song broke on my ears! It was scarcely full dawn, yet I jumped up and called to a man that was passing, “Have I slept in? Is it already church-time? Or why are the people met so early?”
He was one of their leaders, and gravely replied, “Missi [the name given to Paton by the Islanders], since you left, we have found it very hard to live near to God! So the Chief and the Teachers and a few others meet when daylight comes on every Sabbath morning, and spend the first hour of every Lord’s Day in prayer and praise. They are met to pray for you now, that God may help you in your preaching, and that all hearts may bear fruit to the glory of Jesus this day.”
Paton said that he returned to his room and felt wonderfully prepared. He also said that “on that day every person on the Island seemed to be at church, except the bedridden and the sick.”