Matthew 16: 13-18
There is an anthem our choir has sung before with this first line: “Built on the rock the church doth stand.” Today as we celebrate the anniversary of this congregation, we first think back to the earliest reference found in the New Testament. It’s in Matthew 16. Jesus deliberately took his disciples away from the Galilee where he was always pummeled with requests or threats. He took them north and east to an area that is still there today: our 2021 Holy Land trip will include a visit here for the first time! It is called “Caesarea Philippi. Herod the Great had divided his kingdom into three parts, to be given to his three sons when he died. He died around 4 B.C. To one son, Herod Archelaus, he gave the region that included Jerusalem; to his son Herod Antipas he gave the region that included the Galilee. And to Herod Philip he gave the northeastern region that now bears his name. In that region, there was a unique natural wonder. It was a cave, and it is there today. It goes so deep into the ground that it constantly spews sulfur gasses. People who lived in that region, who believed in beings that lived in the underworld, called it the “Gates of Hell;” or “the Gates of Hades.” Biblical teacher Ray Vanderlaan believes that Jesus deliberately took his disciples to that spot for another one of his teachable moments. He asked them: “Who do people say that I am?” And they gave some fumbling answers. Then, I imagine Jesus pointed a finger at them and asked: “But who do YOU say that I am? And Simon, who Jesus called Peter from that day forward, said, “You are the Christ [or the Messiah,] the Son of the living God!” Jesus must have lowered his pointed finger and smiled, saying his famous words: “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven. And I tell you now, Peter (in Greek Petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church.” And then Ray Vanderlaan believes Jesus pointed to that cave-like opening with sulphur gases spewing out, saying, “And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” What a teachable moment, to be standing there and pointing to the cave spewing noxious gases! Jesus, I think, had made his point. Over the years, our Roman Catholic friends have decided that when Jesus said, “Upon this rock (petra) I will build my church,” that Jesus meant the man, Peter. Therefore the center of the Roman Catholic faith architecturally is the structure in Rome called St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course it is called “St. Peter’s!” The church is built on that “rock,” they say. But Protestants from the beginning have declared that the “rock” is what Peter said, not the person of Peter. So what is the “rock to Protestants? It’s the declaration Peter gave, that each of us say at some time or another when we become Christians: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” So Protestants have some differences when compared to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We have some differences compared to our Jewish friends, or from Muslims, neither of which believe that Jesus is the Messiah nor the “Son of God.” So we are “set apart” in a unique way. And that uniqueness has passed through the centuries. Later in the first century, the word about Jesus had traveled by evangelist who told other people about him; evangelists like Paul, Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, and Peter. According to Acts 11:26, it was in a town called Antioch that the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians!” And through the years, the mantel has been passed to those who call him Lord: to house churches, to small churches, medium churches, large churches, and mega churches. The proclamation “You are the Messiah” continues, and the ministry Jesus first carried out is still being done in his name: praying, blessing, feeding, praising! The church of Jesus Christ has continued, “built on the rock!” And now, even God is turning evil to good, as churches have burst out of the walls of their buildings to be the church in the world, through technology and with neighbors helping neighbors! Built on the rock, “the gates of hell will not prevail against it!” We will continue to be “the church” wherever we carry his name and share his message.
Through the ages there have been churches started all over the world. Literally all over the world. Presbyterians and others told people in Korea that “Jesus is the Messiah,” and many there agreed and decided to take that message across the nation. Now the largest Presbyterian church in the world in in Korea! But there are many more stories than that one. Here’s a local one:
In October 1946, a small Sunday School was started in the unincorporated area of Wilbur By-The-Sea, south of Daytona Beach. This was the humble beginning of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church and was the dream of The Rev. Paul M. Edris, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Daytona Beach. Rev. Edris, with Miss Elizabeth McNeil, Director of Christian Education at First Church, conducted this outpost Sunday School for one year; then it was decided that more people could be reached though weekly prayer meetings. [The number of interested persons grew and the gathering continued weekly.]
In February, 1955, forty-two people gathered for the first Sunday service in what was called the “Wilbur by-the-sea Clubhouse.” In May of that year, with sixty-two charter members present, a committee from the Presbytery of St. Johns installed The Rev. Richard W. Sauerbrun as the first Pastor of Westminster By-The-Sea Presbyterian Church. [An elder suggested the name “Westminster” since the Westminster Confession of Faith upheld the high standards of the Presbyterian Church; it was also decided to keep “by-the-sea” in the name to honor the local roots in Wilbur by-the-sea.] Soon the congregation outgrew its temporary quarters in the Wilbur Clubhouse. Plans were made for a move. Mrs. Laura Fair Ferran donated land at the corner of South Peninsula Drive and El Portal Avenue (which is now called Westminster Drive) and construction began on the first building of the church complex. On Christmas Eve, 1956, the first Candlelight Service was held in the recently completed Fellowship Hall, which was to serve as the temporary sanctuary. An education wing was added in 1958. [and after an extensive fund-raising effort,] the beautiful colonial sanctuary was a reality in September, 1964.
Over these sixty-five years, Westminster has had just four installed pastors, and four secretaries! We also have been blessed with Associate Pastors and Parish Associates, with gifted Choir Directors, Organists, teachers, and Christian Education Directors. We have had welcoming greeters, congenial fellowship leaders filled with hospitality, plus talented tradesmen and professionals. Our first Pastor’s wife, Suanne, was scheduled to join us for this celebration until social distancing clipped the wings of those plans. But she, and others still in the area and around the world, rejoice with what God has done in this corner of Christianity! And it all started with a declaration: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” It continued when people saw the gatherings and called them “Christians.” It was blessed by a visionary Pastor who saw a need to expand the Christian witness to the unincorporated are of the south peninsula; it grew with a generous gift of land to locate our facilities in such a prominent place. And we pray that God continues to bless us with the means and the people who join arms in carrying out Christ’s work in the twenty-first century with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” Happy Anniversary to all who are a part of Westminster By-The-Sea!
May they know we are Christians by our love.
Let us pray: O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come; we will need to count on you in the future as we have counted on you in the past. What will the future hold in this new era of social distancing? Even now, we are sure you are working your purposes out, and we want to be a part of them! Bless us with wisdom, patience, and direction. We pray for it in the name of Jesus, who is the Christ, the Son of the living God; the rock upon which the church is built. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 17, 2020