And so I tell you, Peter: you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able to overcome it.
The most intriguing word in this scripture is the word “Church”. What did Jesus want Peter to build? What is it, exactly, is this thing that can overcome death? In these days of generalized church decline, I think we need to know. Maybe we have built the wrong thing.
I grew up within a traditional small town United Methodist Church. There was a lot of emphasis on social responsibility and missions. Later on I joined a church in Chicago o that was traditional United Methodist when I got there and multi-racial, multi-cultural charismatic contemporary when I left. (How’s that for a description?) The emphasis there was on fellowship, worship, and prayer. Now I’m in an ELCA Lutheran Church. We are engaged in a lot of hands-on local social justice ministries.
Over the years my husband and I have visited many different kinds of churches – traditional, contemporary, blended, high, low, evangelical, charismatic, and everything in between. Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Vineyard, Full Gospel, Assembly of God, Lutheran, Baptist, United Pentecostal, Free Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, United Church of Christ, Catch the Fire, various independent churches, house churches and probably a bunch more that I can’t remember. Also, just for fun, I’ve worshiped at a Jewish synagogue, sat in on a Muslim prayer service, had a very informative two-hour tour of a Greek Orthodox Church, visited a bunch of cathedrals in northern Italy, and dined with devotees at a Hindu retreat center.
Almost all of the Christian churches are pretty much the same. Mostly they meet one, maybe two days a week for an hour or two. They have music, scripture reading, some kind of sermon, symbols, rituals, and a consistent pattern of worship that usually includes an offering (weekly) and Holy Communion (either weekly or monthly). Worship is led by a paid a pastor or priest. Worship takes place in a specially designated worship space that can be elaborately decorated or defiantly austere. They all say that the building is not the church. They say the church is the people, but in their hearts they know that they wouldn’t continue to gather together if their building went away. In their hearts they know that they would drift off and try to find another building. All the churches I’ve ever seen are supported by the offerings and various fundraising activities.
You would think with all the petty squabbling that goes on among Christian denominations that there would be some really significant variations in either worship or theology, but that hasn’t been my experience. The main difference among churches is in the tone, the feel, the mood of the gathering. Some are joyful and light-hearted, others are somber and serious. Some are gracious and welcoming, others are exclusive and exacting. Some are practical and efficient, others are lofty and idealistic. But these qualitative differences are unique to the particular church and are not necessarily reflective of the denomination. In general, I assert that all churches are really pretty much the same.
Is this what Jesus wanted Peter to build, this thing we call church?
The Roman Catholic Church believes that they got it absolutely right. They assert that they have taken this scripture literally because they initiated the practice of appointing a supreme leader called “the Pope” who they believe is Peter’s divinely appointed successor. The Roman Catholic and various Orthodox Churches established monarchial, institutional, ecclesiastical theocracies that operate like political monarchies. Their worship model co-opted a lot of aspects of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem – like altars (where sacrifices would have been made), priests, vestments, offerings, candles, symbols, holy water, etc.
So who was Peter and what did Peter he build during his lifetime to fulfill the vision of Jesus? Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
The author of the Acts of the Apostles portrays Peter as an extremely important figure within the early Christian community, with Peter delivering a significant open-air sermon during Pentecost. According to the same book, Peter took the lead in selecting a replacement for Judas Iscariot.[Acts 1:15] He was twice arraigned, with John, before the Sanhedrin and directly defied them.[Acts 4:7-22] [5:18-42] He undertook a missionary journey to Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea,[9:32-10:2] becoming instrumental in the decision to evangelise the Gentiles. About halfway through, the Acts of the Apostles turns its attention away from Peter and to the activities of Paul, and the Bible is mostly silent on what occurred to Peter afterwards.
Acts 12 tells how Peter was put into prison by King Herod, but was rescued by an angel. At the Council of Jerusalem (c. 50), the early Church, Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem church met and decided to embrace Gentile converts. Acts portrays Peter as successfully opposing the Christian Pharisees who insisted on circumcision.
In a strong tradition of the Early Church, Peter is said to have founded the church in Rome with Paul, served as its bishop, authored two epistles, and then met martyrdom there along with Paul. However the traditional Catholic interpretation that his role was analogous to that of later Popes is questioned or rejected by many historians and by other Christian denominations.
So it doesn’t sound like Peter tried to establish himself as a Christian King or Pope or whatever so maybe the Roman church didn’t really get it right. If the early church didn’t look like the Catholic/Orthodox models, what did it like? What was it like to be a member of a first century church in the time of Peter? We get an idea about what the original group was doing under Paul’s leadership in the Book of Acts:
Many miracles and wonders were being done through the apostles, and everyone was filled with awe. All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the Temple, and they had their meals together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts, praising God, and enjoying the good will of all the people. And every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43-47).
The group of believers was one in mind and heart. None of them said that any of their belongings were their own, but they all shared with one another everything they had. With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God poured rich blessings on them all. There was no one in the group who was in need. Those who owned fields or houses would sell them, bring the money received from the sale, and turn it over to the apostles; and the money was distributed according to the needs of the people. (Acts 4:32-35).
So the new believers ate together, shared everything they owned, and went to the Temple every day. In Acts it also says that Peter and the other apostles traveled around healing people, witnessing to what they had seen, teaching what Jesus had taught them, performing miracles, and baptizing people. This actually looks a lot like the ministry of Jesus. It says in Matthew 4:23, “Jesus went all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the Good News about the Kingdom, and healing people who had all kinds of disease and sickness.”
So these are the things we know from the Bible. We also know from history that the followers of Jesus were eventually rejected by the larger Jewish community and banned from entering the Temple. Finally, we know from history that they then established “house churches” throughout the Holy Land and the rest of the Mediterranean region.
I guess Peter did a pretty good job establishing something that reflected the ministry of Jesus. But was that what Jesus wanted? It certainly doesn’t look like today’s church. This instance is one of only two times where Jesus uses the word “church.” What was his probable understanding of the word “church” based on common usage back then? What did the word mean back in that time, before there were and “churches” as we know them?
The word in the original Greek text was “ekklesia”. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines it like this:
ἐκκλησία, ἐκκλεσιας; properly, a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly.
Among the Greeks from Thucydides down, an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberating.
In the time of Jesus this word described a simple assembly of citizens. At the time he spoke these words it had no “religious” connotation. It simply referred to people getting together to plan and organize and speak out. More like New England town meeting. It is a very democratic concept. The word “church” is used quite extensively throughout the book of Acts, never referring to a building. It is always used to describe either small or large groups of people who were followers of Jesus. So, based on the meaning of the word, it seems like Peter had it right. He encouraged people to assemble and plan and organize and speak out.
But based on the meaning of the word, it seems hard to justify what it evolved into – the establishment of little “mini-temples,” ornate buildings with altars, candles, paid priests or pastors, costumes, crosses, rituals, paid staff and everything else we normally associate with the word. We have taken his word and changed it into something very different. Mini-temples.
Maybe God doesn’t want mini temples. Maybe he just wants people, gathering together to talk about God, to talk about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. To talk about Jesus and reflect on scripture. To talk about their personal faith journeys and share their stories. To encourage each other. To love each other.
Jesus doesn’t say much about worship. What he really wants of his followers is full obedience to the will of God. In Matthew 15:8-9 he quotes the prophet Isaiah (who is quoting God), “These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!’”
We often quote that Jesus says he wants a “house of prayer” as a justification for building projects. Actually Jesus makes it very clear that he doesn’t like the Temple and Temple worship. And he didn’t come up with the “house of prayer” thing. He is quoting again from Isaiah, where God says that he doesn’t particularly like what goes on the “holy” building the people have built for their use: Jesus went into the Temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the stools of those who sold pigeons, and said to them, “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it a hideout for thieves!”
As for building a public place for prayer, Jesus says prayer ought to be done in private: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites! They love to stand up and pray in the houses of worship and on the street corners, so that everyone will see them. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. But when you pray, go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6).
I think the buildings and all of the associated bells and whistles have done more harm than good. I am part of a really great small group that was organized by my friend Lynn. It feels like a really authentic Christian experience. We eat, study, and pray together in our homes using ordinary language while dressed in ordinary clothes. We have even gone on little trips together. Our busy schedules enable us to get together a couple of times a month (maximum, sometimes less). I wish we could do it more often, but we are all committed Christians and we are too busy trying to keep our mini-temple churches going when we aren’t working at our regular jobs.
Like I said at the beginning of this reflection, I was raised in a traditional church and it has been a very important part of my life. I have learned a lot and had many transcendent experiences within the walls of those buildings we call the church. But I think I have learned even more by being in continual dialogue with the pastor I’m married to. I’ve also been immensely blessed by the relationships that I’ve established through the church – real relationships that aren’t just based on church. Real friends.
Way back on Day 99 I reflected on Christendom. In my opinion it is a very poor substitute for the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is what Jesus wanted to see established; Christendom is what we built instead. If you read this scripture carefully, Jesus doesn’t want Peter to build anything. He wants to do it himself, using Peter. I think Peter was faithful to the task, but a lot of power-hungry men later seized it away from Jesus and built an earthly kingdom instead.
In my opinion the future of the church is bleak unless we learn to dig deeper and give more of ourselves to each other. We need to reflect more on the life of Jesus and his disciples. We need to think about life of the early Christians in Acts and figure out how to create the “church” that Jesus wanted Peter to lead for him. We need to do a better job imitating Jesus and doing what he did. We need to take the Kingdom of God much more seriously. Personally, as much as I love the traditional church, I’d kick it to the curb in a red hot minute for citizenship in the Kingdom of God. That’s what I really long for, what I really need, and what Jesus wanted for all of us.
What does this scripture say to you?
PS – If you want to know more about the use of the word Ekklesia and its meaning here’s a good article: