Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8
I think you could see today’s Gospel reading as the end of a long series of stories leading up to it. In the chapters before this reading, Jesus has walked on the water and called his friend Peter to do the same. He’s redefined Jewish law about what truly defiles a person. He’s come to acknowledge a non-Jew as a person of faith, redefining the rules of inclusion and exclusion in God’s eyes. By curing many people, he’s fulfilled the prophet Isaiah’s vision about the blind regaining their sight and the lame walking (Isaiah 35:6ff). He’s fed thousands of people from a few loaves and fish, not once but twice. And he’s stood up to the religious authorities, calling them out for protecting their own power at the people’s expense. All these scenes beg the question: Just who does this guy think he is?
I imagine the disciples are asking themselves the same question. But Jesus turns it around and asks them first. He sort of eases into it: Who do people say that I am? So the disciples report what they’ve heard people saying – that Jesus is one of the prophets sent to get people ready for the coming of the king. But then Jesus pushes his friends just a little harder: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).
The Gospel story doesn’t tell us how long it took before anyone said anything, but I imagine there might have been some awkward silence. It’s not an answer they wanted to get wrong, especially with the teacher right there, staring them down. So finally Simon, the brother of Andrew, dares to say what he’s thinking: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus himself is the anointed king sent to inaugurate God’s rule on earth and build God’s beloved community. Jesus isn’t just getting people ready for God’s decisive action in the world; Jesus is God’s decisive action in the world. Simon nails it, despite the fact he often stumbles and blunders his way through his relationship with Jesus. And as a result, Simon the dunderhead gets a new name, one that recognizes both his greatest liability and his greatest asset: “You are Peter,” Jesus says – a name we would translate as “Rocky” because the Greek word for rock is petra. It implies just what you might think – that this guy’s maybe not the brightest light in the room, maybe not the guy who knows which fork to use at the club. But Jesus hears Peter’s solid proclamation as a sign that he’ll be solid for the long term, at least eventually. “You are Peter,” Jesus says, “and on this rock I will build my church, and [even] the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (16:18)
You may find it interesting that this is one of only two times in the Gospels that the word “church” shows up. What did it mean then? And what do we think it means now?
The word in Greek is ecclesia, and it means “assembly.” Initially, that meant an assembly of citizens come together for public deliberation. In the context of Christianity, it came to describe followers of Jesus on both the micro and macro levels: the assembly of his followers in a particular place, the whole body of Christians in the world, and the assembly of the faithful gathered in heaven from across time and space. Regardless of the level where it’s applied, the word “church” means people following Jesus Christ.
That may seem obvious, but I would say it’s important to remember this meaning very explicitly – especially for us in our time and place. Because when we say “church,” we’re often not thinking about people first. For us, “church” may mean a denominational brand, as in, “I attend the Episcopal Church.” Or “church” may mean the spiritual aspect of public discourse, as in the “separation of church and state.” Or “church” may mean an institution, as in, “The church’s membership is declining.” Or “church” may mean a building, as in, “The church is full of water.” All these aspects of the word “church” matter. But none of them is what Jesus the Messiah had in mind when he commissioned his friend Rocky to be the foundation of the holy community he was creating.
This likely isn’t news to you either, that the church is about people – not a building, or an institution, or a brand. We know that, intellectually at least. But what do we do with it? How does it affect us? If “church” means the beloved community of Jesus’ followers, how does that affect how I act and who I am?
What we think something is drives our expectations about what that thing should do. If “church” means a brand, we expect it to attract customers. And for decades in our culture, that sort of worked. If you wanted fiery preaching based on Scripture, you looked for the Baptist brand. If you wanted a strong salvation message but with a little less heat, you looked for the Methodist or Presbyterian brand. If you wanted tradition, Sacraments, and central authority, you looked for the Roman Catholic brand. If you wanted a nice mix of Word and Sacrament, Protestant and Catholic – and really good manners to boot – well, you looked for the Episcopal brand. And so long as nearly everybody felt the social expectation to go to some church, the denominational-brand approach worked. Anymore? Not so much.
So, what if “church” means the spiritual side of public life, in contrast to “state”? Well, then, it’s tempting to see church being divorced from the “real world” of politics and government and business, relegated to the sidelines and brought to mind only one part of one day of the week – if we’re lucky. Or, looking at the other side of the same coin, we might see this meaning of “church” as something in conflict with the real world, with its leaders constantly calling us to change our ways and follow their particular version of the Good News more faithfully.
So, what if “church” means an institution? Well, then, we expect it, first and foremost, to run well and to meet its constituents’ needs. And, of course, there’s truth in that – a church absolutely needs to run well and meet its constituents’ needs, just like a school or a hospital or a club. But I think there’s more to our call than that.
So, what if “church” means a building? Well, then, our focus is on maintaining, protecting, and improving that physical structure as best we can. Again, we certainly need to steward this beautiful “house of prayer for all people,” but I think there’s more to our call than that, too.
But what if the church is the beloved community of the followers of Jesus Christ, the Messiah who embodies God’s decisive action in the world? How would that change how we see ourselves and how we hear Jesus calling us to live?
I think Jesus is calling us not just to go to church but to be the church. You’ll be hearing that idea a lot through this fall, the theme that will bind together all that we do. Don’t just go to church; be the church.
So, what does that look like? I think it’s three primary actions.
First, the church remembers. That’s what we do here every week – remembering the stories and teachings of Jesus, remembering through prayer our call to love God and love neighbor, and actively re-membering Jesus in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. To be the church is to remember who God has made us to be and how God asks us to live, now and through eternity. So first, the church remembers.
Second, the church practices. We practice love for God and neighbor in hundreds of ways, each of which forms us as followers of Jesus. We learn to pray daily, to make prayer not an appointment with God but a way of life. We steward the gifts God gives us, gifts of time and talent and treasure, to direct God’s resources toward accomplishing God’s purposes. We explore questions and dive deeper into our relationship with God, looking for divine fingerprints on our lives and responding to the Holy Spirit’s nudges. And we build relationships with the members of our family here, loving and caring for each other just as God loves and cares for each of us. So second, the church practices.
And third, the church serves. We serve each other in worship, and pastoral care, and maintenance, and event planning, and committee work, and a hundred other ministries that our common life requires. We serve “the least” of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, going into the world to feed people, or read to children, or grow vegetables in a school’s garden, or help children learn in Haiti, or empower a mother for a living-wage job, or advocate for the strangers our culture tends to demonize or forget. And we serve the people God puts in our own paths by inviting them into this beloved community, telling them our stories about how life is better when you have a relationship with God and asking them to come along this journey with us.
As Jesus’ followers, we remember, we practice, and we serve. And as we do, we change the world, one life at a time – nothing less. That’s what it means not just to go to church but to be the church – changing the world, one life at a time.
And you know, through that faithful work, Jesus keeps on building his church, a work in progress for thousands of years now. It isn’t yet what he dreams for it to be, just as none of us has mastered this whole discipleship thing quite yet. But our Lord has literally all the time in the world … and time beyond that, too. And he is patiently persistent and insistent that this work-in-progress of the church can be more than it has yet been. We have what it takes to be whom Jesus needs us to be, if we are willing to “present ourselves as [the] living sacrifice” he desires (Romans 12:1). As the one body of the church, “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to [each of] us” (Romans 12:6). So what that means is this: Every last one of us is essential. Every last one of us has a part of play in the well-being of this body of St. Andrew’s. Every last one of you is a rock on which Jesus is still building his church. And despite all the reports of the church’s coming demise, even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.