Matthew 16:13-20 – “I will build my church…” – Jesus.
Reflection by Josh Olds
For a large part of my life, my dad was in the police force. He went in when I was a baby and only retired from the police a few years ago. I found that there were many pluses and minuses in having a dad as a police officer – as a kid it was pretty cool to be able to threaten anyone who annoyed me that I could have them arrested with the snap of a finger, however on the flip side as a teenager learning to drive, being reminded to stop for 3 seconds at every single stop sign got old pretty quick. All in all, it wasn’t bad. One of the things that I always found funny, was the nickname that my dad had among his colleagues – they all called him “God.” When you graduate from police college, you’re given a police ID number and your ID would start with your initials – which for my dad is G.O. It just so happened that the G.O in his ID number was followed by a D. When I was in high school, I had a part-time job at Dominos Pizza, and one time when I was working a couple of my dad’s colleagues happened to stop by, one them must have thought I looked familiar because, just like in the gospel reading we’ve just heard, they exclaimed to the whole store – “Hey, your God’s son!” I didn’t quite know what to say! I should have said, “Blessed are you constable Smith, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father…” Rest assured I explained to my coworkers that this man was not publicly confessing his faith, because I was not, in fact, the Messiah, but just the son of a dad with an odd nickname!
All jokes aside, it isn’t all that easy to confess our faith in Jesus in the day and age we live in is it? Some of us have no problem discussing our faith with others, but many of us are reluctant to be completely open about our faith. Why? Perhaps it is because we don’t know what to say given the way that the church and Christianity in general are often portrayed. There is an American journalist named Jessica Grose who recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times titled: ‘Christianity’s Got a Branding Problem.’ As the name suggests, she writes about how people are distancing themselves from Christianity because of the things it’s associated (or misassociated!) with. Unfortunately, the church tends to be known by its headlines in the media, which of course don’t always paint the best picture. The difficult part is that often the stories of the church that make the news, amplify the voices of a few that don’t necessarily represent the whole! What does it mean to confess our faith in this environment? How do we want the church to be perceived in our context?
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Jesus asks his disciples. They ramble off a few names of some of the renowned prophets – Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist – in other words, people don’t agree. If we were to pose that question to people today, what answers might we hear? Some would probably say that Jesus was a sage and a wise teacher, some might say he was a Rabbi and a prophet, and others might question if he really did exist. Of course, some would say well, Jesus is Lord, but I suspect many wouldn’t quite know how to respond. Peter on the other hand was quite certain of his answer, when Jesus turned the question to the disciples themselves – “Who do you say that I am?” Peter comes right out with his confession of faith – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Of course, this isn’t really news to us. From our privileged position in history, we take Peter’s answer as apparent, from the centuries of well-developed Christian thought and writings we might take for granted the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. But for Peter, in the moment, this was a profound insight. Jesus says as much – Blessed are you! This isn’t human insight, it’s divine!
In fact, Jesus responds to Peter with sort of a confession of his own in verse 18, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Now, what exactly Jesus means here has been hotly debated for centuries. The debate surrounding this verse has turned on the question of what rock, in particular, Jesus intended to build his church upon. Some have concluded that Jesus was referring specifically to Peter in a play on words, as his name literally translates to rock. However, others have raised questions about this interpretation suggesting that it doesn’t actually fit grammatically and that Jesus was likely referring to either the physical geographic place where his identity was correctly named, or even more likely that it was upon Peter’s confession itself – that Jesus is Lord, that the church would be built. While an interesting rabbit hole to explore, I do wonder if this debate sidetracks us from a fundamental point that is important for us to grasp. Regardless of the rock, the part that is clear is that first and foremost the church belongs to Jesus and that he is ultimately responsible for establishing and sustaining it. “I will build my church…”
At one level, we can find comfort in this statement. It sort of takes a bit of pressure off, doesn’t it? We’re reminded that while we might have a part to play, ultimately the church is God’s to sustain and grow. But at another level, it’s difficult to align this sentiment with the current realities of the church. It can be easy to despair over the state of the church, can’t it? In the time and space we find ourselves it often feels as though the church is becoming less and less relevant and more and more maligned. Things aren’t what they used to be… we’re constantly confronted by the fact that we are in decline – in attendance, in giving, in energy. This hits particularly close to home for us this morning as the Village, where those connected to our Redwood site are gathering together for their final Sunday morning service. How do final services fit into the plan of Jesus building his church? It’s easy for it to all feel a bit bleak isn’t it? To wonder how much longer things can be sustained. To make matters worse, there constantly seems to be controversy connected to the church in one way or another which adds to the ‘branding problem.’
How then are we to reconcile these things? How do we make sense of Jesus’ words in our passage in light of the realities of the church that we know and see? We might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Jesus is currently on smoko from his church-building work! I think reconciling Jesus’ words here, and the current reality of the church begins with doing a bit of unpacking. First, it’s worth pointing out that the narrative of church decline that we often hear thrown around really only applies to the Western world. It’s easy to think that because we observe the church in decline in our context, it’s the same everywhere else, but this is simply not true. In particular, both Africa and Asia are seeing rapid growth of the church. In 1900 twice as many Christians lived in Europe than in the rest of the world combined, today, more Christians live in Africa than in any other continent. Over the past 40 years, Christianity has grown faster in China than anywhere else in the world. It’s estimated that in that period the Christian community in China has grown from 1 million to 100 million. Those are not the numbers of a church in decline.
It’s also worth reflecting on what exactly we mean when we say church. The word that Jesus used here for church, ‘ekklesia,’ is a word for community, for a group of people. Now of course we all know it’s kind of the in thing to remind each other that “the church is the people, not the building.” Which is of course true, and what Jesus is saying here. So what we need to be clear about then is the distinction between the community from the form. We are the church, but, as the church we form and structure, and organise ourselves in particular ways. The form is not the church, it is the people, the global community of God’s people across time and space, and it’s important we don’t confuse the two. Jesus didn’t promise to build a particular form of church, he promised to build a community. 16th century French Theologian John Calvin had a way of describing this distinction, he referred to the visible and the invisible church. The visible church is the form – the church is the physical, organised institution that we know and see. The invisible church is the global community of God’s people regardless of their affiliation with the visible church. If our view of the church is confined only to the visible church, we’re limiting our view, we’re not seeing the full picture.
Barna research group, who do lots of work tracking how the church and the Christian faith is faring, have recently described a trend that they’re noticing – largely in the US, but I think to some degree probably translates to our context – that there is a growing number of people who in their words “Love Jesus, but not the church…” What they’re specifically referring to, is the growing number of people who still hold a personal faith, and would identify as Christian, but who aren’t formally connected to a conventional form of church, those we might say are part of the invisible church, without being connected to the visible form of church. What this research is essentially saying is that the declining attendance on Sunday mornings isn’t necessarily as indicative of the decline of the Christian faith as we might think. Now, to be clear I’m not suggesting that our current form of church is outdated, or not fit for purpose, but what I am saying is that when we only consider church in the conventional form it takes, we miss how Jesus is building his church beyond the form of church that we know. If we broaden our perspective and take into account the church in other parts of the world, and also those who we might say are part of the ‘invisible’ church – I think the picture begins to not look as bleak. That’s not to discount the experience that we have in a context where our form of church does appear to be in decline. I’m sure many at Redwood this morning will feel a deep sadness as they gather in that space for the last time. Yet, in this blend of reality and hope, what is clear is that Jesus is still building his church. Its shape might be changing a wee bit, but the global community of his people is still very much alive. The question for us to consider then is what is our part to play? While Jesus might be holding the architect’s plans, we are by no means bystanders. The Bible tells a story of God constantly inviting people into partnership with him, to join him in his way in the world. So what is God inviting us to do? How is God shaping us as a community? What does it truly mean for us to be the church in the context we inhabit? In all the uncertainties we face as the church in our context, we do so with the enduring truth that Jesus is Lord. May our confession of this be eloquently spoken, not just in words, but in the way we live and love. Amen.
 Grose, Jessica. “Christianity’s Got a Branding Problem.” New York Times. May 10, 2023.