“Discernment is Church Work”

Matthew 16:13-20

Discern means to come to know or to mentally comprehend. In plain English it means to figure something out. Like a multiplication problem or a physics problem or an experience with God. To discern in religious language means to figure out what is true and what God expects of us. This act of discerning God and God’s will is never easy. When a replacement for Judas was needed, the church cast lots. Strange way of discerning but then again people have been reading cards, fortunes, and palms for centuries to get at the truth. Trevor Noah in his biography, Born a Crime, says: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense. Our arrogance about our ability to discern deserves to be slapped around once in a while. The church has used prayer for discernment, Scripture, debate, even church fights.

Discernment is hard, serious work. St. Paul: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Baptists and Catholics have been arguing over our gospel text for as long as there have been Baptists. Is Peter the Rock? Or is Peter’s faith the rock? If I were a literalist, and I’m not, but if I were, I would be worried about people who think that the most important argument in the world is about a rock and that includes the idols formed out of rocks: statues. Look, I am a Southerner, and I can’t work up a good rant about Robert Lee one way or the other. I am amused at how many Yankees are fired up over defending Confederate statues.

How did Simon Peter reach the conclusion that Jesus was the Son of God? Our faith is rooted in Peter and his declaration. The church has always been made up of people just like Peter: sometimes he was a rock and sometimes he was a stumbling block. He tried to walk on water and he tried hard to stop the gospel from going to the Gentiles. Everyone knows rocks can’t walk on water. Our granddaughter Katie, when she was three, had a serious interest in walking on water. She had heard the story of Jesus walking on the water in Sunday school. We were all at the Shreveport, Louisiana Country Club swimming pool one summer afternoon. We were lounging in our chairs, watching the children swim. Katie, at some point, backed up, got a running start and ran into the pool with her little legs churning away. Each time she would sink beneath the water. She would get out, shake off the water and try again. After several failures to walk on water, she came over and asked her mother, “Did Jesus wear floaties?”

This may have been the most important act of discernment in our history when Peter says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”Whether he was the first pope or not pales in light of how every Christian since Peter has uttered this confession. How Jesus loved this man and how important he is to the church.

Peter discerned or figured it out with help from Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Discernment always requires help. The work of figuring it out is our work as well. This is the most important work of the church – the theological task of discerning and then doing the will of God.

It occurred to me that the end of summer can leave us with a sense of disappointment. No more fun trips. So I tried to think what the whole church could do to get perked up about the approach of fall. I came up with an idea. I think we need to take a trip in a time machine back to the past of the church. Now think about it. Don’t get too excited. That’s not a proper Baptist response. I know some of you are already filled with objections because that is a Baptist response. “Who will feed the dog while I’m gone?” “How much will this cost?” “Can we afford it on our budget?” Just save the questions, and let me take you on the trip. We can fly out of Peoria International. We can visit Antioch, the first home of the Gentile church. I think all of us would profit from a visit to first-century Antioch. Our time machine seats 150 comfortably and all the seats are first-class and they recline for those inclined to nap. This trip will remind us how hard and long the church has struggled to discern the truth.

Not only were we first called Christians at Antioch, but here the early church engaged in a debate about the origin of the universe and the cause of evil. For the first 150 years of the early church’s existence, the church believed that creation was an act of divine persuasion and that it developed over a long period of time. Hermogenes, an Antioch theologian taught that the origin of evil was the original disorder of matter remaining in every created thing. From Plato, he had learned the idea that creation came from unformed matter and that all matter, all beings, all entities, having free will, could resist the will of God. Hermogenes would have probably been the greatest theologian of all time except for the opposition of Irenaeus. According to Irenaeus the process of creation was known as creatio ex nihilo – God created the world out of absolutely nothing. This became the orthodox position of Christianity.

It was the most fateful decision made in the history of Christian thought. First, it opened the door to blaming God for evil. If God created everything from nothing, then God created evil and that threatens the perfect goodness of God. This became one of the major reasons for the rejection of belief in God in modern times.

While we are in the earliest century of the church we might as well make a quick stop in Jerusalem, David’s city, God’s city. We can sit in on the church debating what to do about those Gentile converts. Paul was going all over the Empire preaching up a storm and converting people to Christianity, but the Church in Jerusalem wasn’t so sure about allowing Gentiles to be part of the church. You know we are always getting bent out of shape because some group or another wants to get “in” and we want to keep them “out.”

I know you are getting antsy so let’s get back in the time machine and go to Geneva in the early 16th century and check in with John Calvin, the remarkable teacher and scholar who taught us that the Holy Spirit serves as the eyeglasses through which we properly read the Bible. But he also did a bit of discerning that has put us in a tremendous bind. Did you know that the greatest conflict between Catholics and Protestants was over miracles? Calvin said that we no longer needed miracles to prove the faith was true because we had the Word of God. The church had always believed in miracles and Catholic missionaries used miracles to prove that the Christian faith was the one true faith. This pitted Catholics and Protestants against one another in a nasty fight. Protestants: “Catholic miracles are of the Devil.” Catholics: “Protestants have no miracles; therefore their faith is false.” To answer the Catholic charges, Protestants invented one of the strangest doctrines I have ever encountered by claiming that the age of miracles ended with the death of the last Apostle. They were so determined to deny Catholics any claim to miracles that they decreed that after the first years of the second century there were no more miracles. Look, Geneva makes me a bit uncomfortable. A lot of Baptists died here and Calvin’s predestination hangs in the air here like a heavy fog. If we don’t leave now I will start believing I am not one of the elect.

Let’s jet over to London and peek in on the beginning of our own Baptist faith. Our Baptist precursors had a serious problem with Catholics. They were like a cleaning service sent to clear out a building. Once Baptists got started throwing out anything that looked, smelled, or acted Catholic, they threw out almost everything: The sacrament of Holy Communion, the creeds of the church, the kneelers for prayer, all the statues, icons, and artwork, infant baptism, bishops, cardinals, and popes. If it said Catholic, it had to go. This was a demolition project.

For example, how many of you were taught that Baptists did not believe in creeds. What an odd statement that Baptists don’t believe in statements of belief. I was taught there was no creed but the Bible. Then I learned that the statement wasn’t even made by a Baptist but by Alexander Campbell, the founder of the Church of Christ, A.D. 30. Then I learned that the Bible doesn’t have a single set of beliefs but a multitude of credal statements. I was taught that we didn’t believe in creeds because they were written by men. Then I learned that the Apostle’s Creed contains biblical language, and that the Bible itself was written by men and maybe a woman or two. I was taught that creeds were Roman Catholic and therefore Baptists didn’t believe in creeds. Then I learned that the Apostle’s Creed was composed in the early second century before there was a Roman Catholic Church. So I studied the Apostle’s Creed and discovered that I believed every word of it. This is my faith. In 2004, three contributors to my Baptist book of worship authored a request to say the Apostle’s Creed at the 100th anniversary of the Baptist World Alliance and they did exactly that: Steve Harmon, Philip Thompson, and Elizabeth Newman. After the sermon, I’m going to ask you to say it with me. You don’t have to do it, but if you would like to do it, I will be pleased.

Well, we really need to be getting back. Time is short and we have all this discernment work to do. Zoom, zoom, zoom, and welcome back.

Thanks for making the trip. Here’s the wrap up. Just this one little critical tidbit about discernment: Jesus tells Peter that the Holy Spirit revealed the truth to him, and that is our key: the church is to always be about the business of discerning the truth in concert with the Holy Spirit – the giver of all good gifts. And that means praying a lot. And we need the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate discerner of truth; she is the fountain of wisdom. We also need Peter being the Rock. We need his confession of faith to tell us who we are. This is the answer to the only question we ask of new members at First Baptist Church. The repetition of this confession is at the heart of who we are. And remember that repetition is but another word for the worship of God. Ask anyone with two years of French in college back in 1967 who hasn’t spoken a word of French since and they have been rendered mute. Maybe a bonjour or Parlez vou Anglais or Laissez les bons temps rouler but not much more.

Therefore, with open Bibles, open hearts, and open minds we will go on discerning, figuring it out. To discern means to test the spirits, challenge assumptions, upset old paradigms, struggle for that which is just and right, and never ever think we have it all together. This is our essential work. Let us love the work we have been given.