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 Preaching Matthew 18:15-20

 

This passage revolves around two questions: “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” Sometimes we get bogged down in the exegetical material, filling the sermon with explanations about Caesarea Philippi and the meaning of terms like rock, gates, and keys. All of that is important, of course, but exegetical explanation is not a sermon. Our task is to use the fruit of our exegetical labor to create a sermon that connects the people to this turning-point text in Matthew’s gospel.
If we follow the leading of F.D. Bruner, we will shape a Christocentric sermon that calls people to their own confession of Jesus as Messiah and affirms that the foundation of the Church is built upon Christ alone. For Bruner, this passage and the following one, the text for next Sunday, teach us “what makes a church a church…(1) confessing Jesus as the divine Christ (Christocentricity), verses 13-20; and (2) following Jesus as the suffering Christ (Cruciochristocentricity), verses 21-28.”1
In this sermon, we can help the congregation think about what it means to be the Church. Too often we jump over the questions in this text and land in the middle of the answer, the confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Instead, we should preserve the questions. We might even shape the sermon around the questions, beginning with the first, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” We could lead people to think about what Jesus is not, holding up the contrast, and then moving from the negative to the positive.
The book Missional Church provides ideas about who Christ is not and thus what the Church is not. In the religious economy model prevalent today, “the clergy are the church’s sales representatives, religious doctrines its products, and evangelization practices its marketing techniques.”2   We can be wooed by the latest marketing ploy that tells us how to package the Church so that people will “buy it.” Doing that reduces the Church to a product and people to consumers we are trying to sell something to, rather than human beings loved by God. What we should remember is that the Church does not have a product to sell but a person to believe in. Our focus has to be on Jesus.
Like most churches, mine is always busy. Through programs, ministries, and events, the church is doing many good things, but we can become so caught up in what we are doing that we forget the reason behind it. Civic organizations do valuable community service. Schools and cultural societies provide wonderful programs. This sermon serves to remind the people that the Church is different, because all that we do should bear witness to the truth that Jesus is the Messiah. We are not simply another do-good organization, but the body of Christ. This passage brings us back to that center, that the Church is built upon Christ.
In moving from the first question to the second, the sermon becomes much more personal.  “Who do you say I am?” When Jesus asked that question of the disciples, Peter, always ready to speak his mind, said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Peter’s declaration was emphatic, not “I think you are” or “For us you are” but “You are the Messiah!”3
Jesus affirmed his confession. On this will I build my church, said Jesus. The true Church will point to nothing but Christ. When we preach the truth of Christ, according to Bruner, we are using the keys of the kingdom, showing others the way to the kingdom, through Christ. If we are distracted from that truth, if our message veers away from the Gospel toward political ideology or social issues, we are not being the true Church. The true Church has Christ as its center and foundation.4
We are called to make our own confession of Christ, just as the first disciples did, to bear witness to Jesus as Messiah. We answer the question, “Who do you say I am,” with our lives. As followers of Jesus, our lives will reflect who he is in a way that is much more appealing than a contrived marketing ploy. That Jesus is Messiah is the good news that we share with others! The world doesn’t need one more thing to choose and purchase. People are swamped, glutted, with goods and services. What they crave is relationships. People long for community. They want a sense that they are loved and that their lives have meaning and purpose. Through the Body of Christ, they can find the answer to their deepest needs, not in a product but in the person of Christ.
Using the questions in this passage to create a Christocentric sermon helps the Church affirm its identity as the body of Christ. Jesus continues to ask his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” The Church that is focused on Christ continues to confess, through its words and deeds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Dawn M. Mayes

NOTES
1. Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary. Vol.2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 118.
2. Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 84-86.
3. Bruner, Matthew, 121.
4. Ibid., 132.

 

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