“You are Peter. And on this rock I will build my church.”
And the debate goes on, doesn’t it. What or who was Jesus pointing to when he uttered these words? Was it, in fact, Peter himself as some of our friends from different traditions have long understood or was it the the profession of faith offered just a moment before?
It doesn’t help, of course, that Simon was renamed Peter meaning ‘rock.’ And as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t much help now that Jesus uses such concrete words to make his point. ‘Rock,’ for instance. Or even ‘build.’ Because, you see, for as long as I have been serving in the church the conversation (when we even have it) isn’t about the church’s foundation, unless the church building’s actual physical foundation is in question. Rather, for the most part we have leapt to our own too concrete understanding of ‘church.’ Much of the time we don’t even get to foundations or sources. We just think of ‘the church’ as the building itself.
And so it seems to me fitting and especially important for us now to return to this and passages like it as we reflect on the nature and meaning of ‘the church.’ No doubt this is particularly so in these days when many do not find ourselves gathering ‘inside a building’ as was taken for granted not so many months ago. Indeed, perhaps it is at least a little helpful to remember that when Jesus first uttered these words to Peter, church buildings as we know them now would have been the furthest thing from his imagination.
For I know you agree with me here. In spite of the fact that for centuries, we have thought of ‘the church’ as ‘the building,’ as a physical place to which we go, we know deep down that this is not really so, cannot be so, had better not be so. The ‘church’ must be so much more than this if the faith we share has any hope of thriving, or perhaps even of surviving.
Indeed, by now I have served a number of congregations and in every case, and I mean every one, the building was aging. Roofs have had to be replaced. Tuck pointing has had to be repaired. Basements have flooded, toilets have backed up, windows have been repaired, resurfaced, replaced and furnaces have crashed at particularly unhelpful times. Buildings break down and need constant attention. It is just a fact.
And perhaps as much as this, buildings are built for a particular need in a particular time and place and suddenly we turn around:
- And what worked as a classroom in 1960 doesn’t really work even ten years later, much less sixty years.
- Or a kitchen which was state of the art a half a century ago is not outfitted to meet today’s needs.
- Or we suddenly realize that to have to carry an elderly parishioner down the stairs into the social hall because she is no longer able to navigate the stairs (true story from my memory) is really demeaning and certainly discourages others in the same stage of life or circumstance from fully participating in the life of the congregation! And so buildings are rethought and elevators are installed, only to require more and more advanced upkeep and care.
And yet, we do love this understanding of ‘church,’ I know that we do, I know that I do. There is something about the space itself which evokes often warm memories. We can step inside and hear the echoes of the pipe organ (or other instruments) and choirs and congregational singing, even now when it has been months since their music has sounded in person at least. We can almost smell the Easter lilies, picture the Christmas poinsettias, feel the energy of the children, sense our faces softening at the memory of babies sitting nearby.
And so it is, as I am writing now, I am taken back decades to the first ‘church’ which shaped, or perhaps more accurately, who shaped me in my faith. This is how it was:
I grew up in a mission congregation. And objectively speaking, that church’s first building was entirely functional, yes, but it was not exactly beautiful:
- We had ‘stained glass’ which was colored, yes, but that was about it.
- The floor beneath our feet was a simple tile.
- We sat in cold folding chairs.
- There was no fancy pipe organ, although it worked for what we needed.
- The altar was made out of plywood. It was always covered by paraments, so it didn’t much matter anyway.
It was, quite simply, not exactly aesthetically pleasing at all.
Even so, I remember it as rich and good and full. Yes, even beautiful — no doubt made so by the lively faith of those gathered week after week.
It was many years later, long after I was grown and gone, that this congregation was finally able to afford to build a much more outwardly lovely space and so they did, expanding on the opposite end of the building from their first worship space. When they did so that original space was turned over to the preschool. I don’t know what became of the folding chairs or the organ, but I remember hearing that the old altar wound up in storage in someone’s garage.
And not long after, this:
One of the older members who had been there from the start refused to enter and worship in the new space. This was one whose children had been confirmed and married in front of that now moth balled altar and whose husband had been buried from that space. Indeed, the depth of her grief at leaving that old space behind was great. And she hung her grief on the fact that the old altar, piece of plywood that it was, had, to her mind, been disrespectfully shoved into the back of someone’s garage.
For this is so. We love our buildings. They become imbued with ‘the holy’ for us. Sometimes it is tied up with all the important events of one’s life as was at least partly the case in the story I offer here. And often it is something more. Something perhaps harder to pin down. Something to do with the moving of the Spirit resulting in the growth of one’s faith that gets associated with a particular space that we remember as ‘church.’
This is how I remember that particular story finally being resolved. I was in a conversation with the congregation’s pastor at the time who shared his own grief as he told me how she was staying away and how nothing he could think to say seemed to make a difference. Until this. Until he and his leaders came up with a creative perhaps Spirit inspired way to help her, and no doubt others, resolve some of their grief. They pulled that old altar from the back of someone’s garage. They called upon the gifts of a woodworker from the congregation and he went to work and shaped small crosses from that old altar and they gave them away to anyone and everyone who wanted to carry with them a piece of what had been. Thankfully, by honoring and transforming the ‘old’ in this way, it did exactly what they had hoped and more. Pretty soon this long time member found her way into the new pews in the new worship space. But even more than this, it seems to me. All together they found a way to demonstrate the truth that the church is not found in any one physical space, that our faith is not confined to or represented by any one piece of worship furnishing — no matter how beautiful. Or not. Rather it is something that lives in each of us, carried by each of us into the world. Like those pieces of the old altar. Like those small crosses. Indeed, like Peter professed so long ago.
For this we know, don’t we? That any physical building not filled by those animated by the confession of faith which Peter offers now is downright void of anything that matters.
And that confession of faith is always alive and it always lives in those who carry it in our hearts and live it in our lives:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
As much as we love our buildings, and yes as convenient as they are as gathering places for God’s people, these are not actually the ‘church’ itself. Indeed, ‘the church’ is built on the hearts, the lives, the living confession of those who have been claimed and named by Jesus. Which has nothing to do finally with brick and mortar, wood and marble, glass and stone, or even plywood! And just as Peter named Jesus the ‘Son of the living God,’ Christ’s church is built on the hope and promise that you and I are also ‘alive in our faith’ in a way no building can ever be.
In some ways, in comparison, actual buildings are easy, of course. It’s a whole lot simpler to measure whether a building is in good repair, whether it is functioning in ways which are still helpful. But it is not and never will be ‘alive.’ No, that life is only found in those who confess Jesus as the one they follow and then step by step, day by day, seek to live like this is so.
As I say above, this is a particularly critical time, it seems to me, to be sharing in this conversation. In our case, we haven’t been ‘in the building’ — at least not as we were — for five months. And it is so, as the memes suggest, that the Church never closed. That while we may not be ‘in the building,’ God’s people are active in the world, caring for each other, giving to the poor, reaching out to the suffering, working for justice, and continuing to grow in faith. So then, isn’t this a particularly appropriate time for us to go deep and to discern together just what it means to be a church centered on a confession of faith and not only one that gathers in a building which too often becomes synonymous with ‘the church’ itself. Although these plans are still being formed, in the place where I serve, here are a couple of ways we are moving ahead with furthering that conversation:
- We will be gathering people several times a week to Dwell in the Word using Luke 10:1-12 as our foundation. (If you are not familiar with it, you can find a resource to help you in learning this practice in the Church Innovations store.) We will spend this time listening to the Word and to one another, seeking to more deeply listen for God’s voice, focusing on the question of what it means to be the church now and in the future. Especially in this time of pandemic. Since we cannot yet gather in person we will be using Zoom to bring folks into conversation.
- We will be giving small grants of $50 to families (to start) and inviting them to explore ways of being Church in the World and then to come back and tell us what they learned. (This may mean developing a relationship with a food pantry, a homeless shelter, a nursing home. It may mean something a whole lot more creative than that.)
We hope to do all we can to keep to leaning into the question every day as to what God has in mind that is bigger than what we can yet imagine as we live into each new day. As the ‘church.’
Perhaps in your place you are also trying to sort through these questions. What are you doing to facilitate such listening for God’s leading for where you are?
- I have offered a story of one person who was so attached to a particular ‘building,’ she was unable to navigation the transition to another one. Where have you seen such an attachment to a physical structure stand in or take over for the lively faith that Peter confesses?
- The leaders’ solution in that case was to literally break up one symbol of the old space and send it out into the world. Those were still ‘physical representations of the faith,’ yes, but to me it at least gets closer to my understanding of ‘church’ built on the rock of faith/confession. At least they were not then confined to one space but were scattered and shared to hopefully strengthen the faith of those who carried them out. What do you think? Although inadequate, does this at least come close?
- How are you navigating this time of wondering about the nature, the meaning, the purpose of ‘the church?’ How are you finding ways to deepen the faith/confession — both your own and that of others, in a time when perhaps you also cannot be ‘together in one place’ as you once were? Is this a time of opportunity to better learn to live what Peter confessed and Jesus commended so long ago?