“I Will Build My Church”
A few years ago, just before the Covid-19 Pandemic started to spread, here at First Church we were deciding what to do about our crumbling foundation. Those who were serving on the Session or the Board of Managers back in early 2020, as well as a few other congregation members with architectural expertise will remember it well.
As we prepared to do some water-proofing of the foundation walls of the church, we discovered that we had some more serious issues with some of the walls due to water damage, Regina’s expanding and contracting soil, and likely not the best quality cement used back in 1926 when the church building was constructed.
The first quote we received for a repair to solve the problem was astronomical. We all said, “Well, we can’t pay that to fix the foundation! There’s just no way!” And then, while some of our own experts worked with the engineers to figure out some other options for a more affordable solution, some of us began to imagine what would happen if we just couldn’t fix it.
Would we have to tear the building down? Could we move worship into the gymnasium for a few years or even forever? Could we rebuild something similar, or something more accessible, or build something with a worship space on the ground level and affordable housing units above? Could we sell the whole property and move into a new smaller space somewhere else? Share space with another congregation? Or explore different ways of being the church without a big, old building to maintain?
These were simultaneously hopeful and scary possibilities, recognizing that such changes would be difficult, stressful, and expensive, but also might free us to focus more on our mission and ministry, and less on the building.
Little did we know that a few weeks later a global pandemic would be announced. We were soon out of the building anyway, worshipping together online only for quite a long time, if you remember. And while the less expensive solution to our foundation problem was put in place in the summer of 2020, adding steal beams to support several walls, hardly anyone even noticed the construction because we were all staying home and staying safe.
We learned during the pandemic that the foundation of our ministry and mission is not synonymous with the foundation of this building. It didn’t matter whether we livestreamed worship from inside the sanctuary with a few leaders present or we livestreamed worship by Zoom from the homes of the leaders. Although we missed being together in person, sharing food, and hugs, it became quite clear that the foundation of this building was not the foundation of our church.
In our Gospel text this morning, Jesus speaks about the foundation of the church he intended to build. After Simon declares his conviction that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus replies with a blessing and the affirmation that this truth about Jesus’ identity has been revealed to Simon by God-self.
And then Jesus gives Simon a new name. He says, “You are Peter (meaning rock), and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Commentator, Lance Pape, explains that “For centuries, the debate about this passage has turned on the question of what Jesus was referring to when he promised that he would build the church on ‘this rock’ (v.18). Roman Catholic interpretation has seen in this story the origin of and justification for the authoritative papal office that extends forward from Peter in an unbroken line of succession.”
It makes sense because Jesus gives Simon the new name, “Peter” meaning “rock.” So he must be the rock, or the foundation of the church going forward, right? Maybe.
If the Catholics got the church structure and hierarchy of leadership right, then Peter and all his successors (the Popes) could be the foundation on which Christ builds his church. Certainly, they can be unifying figures for the worldwide church, making clear the connection of Communion between Christian communities throughout time and space.
But it’s hard to imagine that Jesus had such a formal structure and hierarchy in mind when he spoke of building his church. The Greek word used in the text here is “ecclesia” meaning a gathering of people for a purpose. If you break down the Greek word, you find it is made up of the word “Kaleo” meaning “called” with the prefix “ek” meaning “out.” So it literally means “the called out ones.” The ecclesia of Christ, as we would say today, the church, is the people who are called out by Jesus. We are people who are called out for a purpose. We have a mission to share the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ with the world.
“Protestant interpreters, resisting the authority of the pope, have insisted that the ‘rock’ Jesus refers to as the foundation of the church has nothing to do with Peter, but points instead to the confession of faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God (v.16).”
So the faith that Simon expressed is what makes him the rock. And so maybe it’s not him as a person that is to be the foundation, but his faith that others will come to share.
Reading it that way, I might find inspiration and encouragement in this text. Although I’m not in a direct line of succession from Peter, I am a church leader. And I might notice that the church of Jesus Christ is not built on the talents, skills, or super-human abilities of its leaders, but rather on their faith. And that faith itself is not an accomplishment to be praised, but a simple gift given by God, a truth revealed to us by God’s grace.
Before Catholics and Protestants started to debate their varying interpretations of this text during the Reformation, there was another widespread interpretation. Lance Pape notes that “during the Middle Ages, the reading most familiar to Catholic piety (for example, as found in sermons) was that the “rock” that provides the foundation for the church is Christ himself… an interpretation that goes back to Augustine.”
The Apostle Paul, when writing to the Corinthians, also uses the metaphor of a building when talking about the church. And Paul says, “No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:11)
So, I don’t think it’s about particular leaders, or lines of succession, or church hierarchies and structures, any more than it’s about the physical buildings in which we tend to gather for worship. The foundation of the church, the ecclesia, the gathering of people called out by Christ to share in his mission to the world, is Jesus and our faith in him.
But that raises the question of what it means to have faith. When Peter first confessed his faith, he said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And a few hundred years later, the church would add a lot more details to that. They wrote Confessions of Faith that would come to be called “creeds” that confirmed our shared beliefs about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the connections between them. The creeds created a boundary between what was acceptable orthodox belief about God and what was not.
But I’m not sure that Jesus was quite so concerned about his followers believing all the right things. I think he just wanted Simon and the others to trust him, to have faith in him, and to follow him in the Way that God intends for us all.
Lance Pape points out that Peter’s confession of faith was that “Jesus is the Messiah (one anointed by God for a special purpose) and that Jesus is the Son of God (a way of expressing his close relationship to God, and the perfect alignment of his actions with the purposes of God).”
There’s not a lot of detail in that confession, and no concern for how to properly express Jesus’ divinity and simultaneous humanity, or any of the other theological debates of the later church. It was a gift from God that Simon had come to trust Jesus, and that is the gift that we have received also. Not just Popes, and not just Moderators or Ministers, but all of us who together form the church that Jesus built.
It’s that faith in Jesus, who is himself the foundation of the church, that sustained us when we wondered if our building was going to fall down, and that held us together when we couldn’t gather in the same place during the pandemic.
It’s that faith in Jesus that carries us through times of illness, grief, and difficulty, and that gives us hope when we observe all the troubles and trials of the world around us.
And when our individual faith feels somewhat fragile and shaky, we need to come together as the church, as the ecclesia, the people of God who are called out for a purpose to share in Jesus’ mission of love for the world. Because this faith that we share, this trust in Jesus our Lord, is the sure foundation. We need not be afraid.