I preached my first sermon as pastor of the Wake Forest Vineyard this past Sunday (podcast of it is here) and my text was the statement Jesus made in Matt. 16.18: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” (Most modern translations use “on” but for some reason I like “upon” – sounds more, I don’t know, more solid somehow.)
I made a couple of obvious points and one less obvious. First, the obvious:
1. I will build my… Jesus is the center of focus here, as both the subject of the verb and possessor of the object. What happens here is Jesus builds and what Jesus builds, Jesus owns.
2. I will build… Growth and development are essential to the life of church. The activity Jesus engages in is building, developing, progressing. We can (of course) get too fixated on numbers, but it seems almost self-evident that if a church is not growing, then Jesus is not building, i.e., something has gone wrong with the foundation upon which Jesus builds. I take growth/building to mean both numerical growth and growth in spiritual maturity (with neither being exclusively possible if what we have is the church Jesus is building). Also, not only is growth essential, it is guaranteed. When the foundation is there, Jesus will build.
This brings us to the less than obvious point: what in the world does “upon this rock” mean – what is the foundation on which Jesus builds? The interpretation that first became widespread was that the rock was the person of Peter, and then later his direct successors, the bishops of Rome, who became the popes. Here is an overview of the Roman Catholic argument for the primacy of Peter and here is a scriptural defense of that position. Of course, the Protestant Reformation rejected this interpretation and understood the rock to be the truth Peter uttered (“You are the Christ”), the foundation being doctrine itself, instead of the person. Here is a pretty standard expression of that position.
What I am suggesting is that both of these positions have merit, that both Peter and the content of his confession are essential to laying the foundation that Jesus builds on. Taken alone, each side misses something important, and even taken together, they do not capture the whole picture. The rock that Jesus builds on is nothing less than this entire revelation-obedience event. The Father reveals to Peter that Jesus is the Christ, Peter internalizes what is revealed, and then acts in obedience to confess what the Father told him. Revelation is essential, Peter is essential, the content and its focus on Christ are essential – the entire thing is the foundation upon which Jesus builds.
This is not limited to Peter. The revelation-obedience event recurs again and again. Paul on the Damascus Road, Cornelius sending for Peter, you nudged in the grocery line to pray for the person in front of you – over and over the followers of Jesus receive bits of revelation from the Father (through the Spirit). And those bits of revelation always come with a requirement, some form of obedience, something you have to do with the bit you get. It might be as small as changing how you think about something (small but hard), or it might be something that really puts you out there (like Peter did here), but revelation always comes with an anticipated act of obedience.
Two more things (I didn’t get to these in the sermon as much as I wanted): those acts always point to Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ, the one who comes in power and they will usually be hard or at least feel hard at the time. Peter could have been stoned to death for saying what he did. We know the whole story so well, we lose sight of how risky that moment was for Peter (none of the other eleven said anything). It will cost you something to obey. It will be totally worth it (when Jesus builds on your foundation!) but it will cost you something.
So, I know this sounds very Vineyardish and is a nice application of the radical middle approach and all, but the claim I am making here is a tad bigger. I think this is the foundation upon which the individual Christian life is built and on which the church is built. To the extent that we build on something other than widespread and ongoing revelation-obedience events, we are building something other than Jesus’ church. Only Jesus can build his church and he only builds on this foundation.
Love to read your thoughts on this.