“I will build my church.”
It’s a remarkable statement.
Here is Jesus, confronted with these obtuse, difficult, one- step-forward-three-steps-back people that he dignified with the title “disciples.” One of them gets the merest slice of insight into who he was and what he was doing (”You are the Christ” Matthew 16) and Jesus pounces on the remark, blesses the speaker and solemnly says “On this rock, I will build my church.” The joke is -as we all know- that the speaker’s name Peter is the same as petros, the Greek word for rock.
Now, Jesus’ blessing of Peter has to be balanced against his stern rebuke of the same man within the same chapter (”Get behind me, satan, you are concentrating on the things of men and not the things of God”).
Here’s the point on which we focus: what IS this church that Jesus promises to build? The reference in this passage is not so much to Peter’s role in the founding of the church as to Peter’s revelation. That is to say, that the revelation of who Jesus is and what he has done (and is doing) is the foundation of the church.
It’s still an odd remark though. What did Jesus mean by “church”? If Jesus was speaking Greek, he would have used the word ecclesia. In Acts 19:29, that word is used to describe the town assembly in Ephesus. It was a secular term, used of people who have been officially summoned and coming together for a specific purpose. If Jesus was speaking Hebrew or Aramaic, then the word of choice, qahal, would have meant pretty much the same thing. We know that, because qahal is translated ecclesia throughout the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament.
So when Jesus said “I will build my church” he was referring to a people, summoned by their lord, to come together for a specific purpose. The purpose was to know him, to recognise his authority (his right to call them) and bear witness to his life and work.
The “church” only existed in the act of coming together, like a chain only exists when the links are welded together.
What he didn’t mean, obviously, was a building of any sort or description. Otherwise the phrase conjures up a picture of someone hefting a bag of cement on to his shoulders, a glint of purpose in his eye: “I will build myself a church…”
On another page we’ll think about tradition, sacred spaces, sanctuary, revering the past. That discussion has its place. But here: just focus on the naked challenge of Jesus’ words. To be the church means to collectively answer his summons, to recognise his lordship and to witness to his salvation. To be the church is a recognition that HE is the builder. Be careful in your thinking about “church” to pay attention to the “things of God” and don’t get too wrapped up in “the ways of men.”