I Will Build my Church

The Church - 2

‘I Will Build my Church’
Jesus’ Founding of the Church
(Matthew 16:13-20)

The Christian church often gives God a bad press, by its shameful compromise, judgemental attitudes, and moral failures. Yet Jesus promises that this flawed, fallible and all-too-human community will be the instrument of his redeeming purpose in the world. The triumph of the church is one of the great paradoxes of human history, bearing witness, even in its weakness, to the grace and faithfulness of God. Rob Yule preached this message, second in a series on ‘The Church’, at the Annual Meeting of St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 8 August 1999.

When we look at the church, we see many obvious faults and failings. Terrible things have been done in Christ’s name. In the past: Crusades, pogroms, forced baptisms, inquisitions, witch hunts, coercion. Today: leaders falling into immorality, or denying fundamental Christian doctrines; lay Christians becoming either materialistic and comfortable, or hardline and judgmental. The Ned Flanders wet-around-the-ears milksop Christian, also gives Christ a bad name. The sins of the church are many, obvious, and easily seized upon by our critics.

This raises a fundamental and perplexing problem. How can God use such a fallible and flawed group of people as the instrument of his redeeming purpose in the world?

The Church is a Divine Mystery

There is a divine side to the church, hidden from the eyes of its secular critics and observers. We could call this ‘the glory of the church.’ The church reveals a divine mystery. This is powerfully expressed in Jesus’ commendation of Peter. ‘Good for you, Simon, son of John! For this truth did not come to you from any human being, but it was given to you directly by my Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 16:17).

‘Peter, you haven’t worked this out by going to going to university. You haven’t sussed this through human ingenuity or wisdom. This has been revealed to you by my heavenly Father.’ In other words, the church is not a merely human creation. It is an instrument of God’s divine purpose, revealed by God, to human beings, through faith.

The church’s stupendous claims and cosmic significance are based on its divine calling. The Bible calls the church - not some university - the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15). The Bible calls the church - not Star Trek or The Matrix- ‘the mystery hidden throughout the ages and generations and now revealed to the saints’ (Colossians 1:26). It’s the church - not monetarist economics- that holds the future of humanity in its hands.

The Church is a Human Society

But the church also has a human side: it is made up of fallible human beings. Sometimes we’re ashamed of the church. We could call this aspect ‘the shame of the church.’

Peter graphically represents this aspect of the church. This Galilean fisherman has no sooner been commended for his faith, than he is being rebuked for his failure. ‘Get away from me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my way, because these thoughts of yours don’t come from God, but from man.’ (Matthew 16:22-23).

Peter is just like us. One moment he expresses a profound insight into the divine nature of Jesus and his saving purpose through the church. Then shortly after he is expressing very human motives in trying to dissuade Jesus from going to that date with destiny through which that saving purpose would be accomplished.

We are no different from Peter. We are fickle. We fail our Lord often. We are fearful, and out of our love of comfort put obstacles in the way of the sacrifices necessary to fulfil our Lord’s will on earth. The church is made up of people just like ourselves: fickle, fearful, faithless; easily tempted, often lazy or selfish or lustful, bringing our Lord’s name into dishonour and his work into disrepute.

The Church is What God Uses

God is at work in the church. The church is what God uses. Despite all its faults, God has chosen to work out his saving purpose for the world through the church, this unique divine-human society, called of God but comprised of weak and sinful human beings like ourselves.

Jesus makes Peter an amazing promise. ‘I tell you Peter, you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will be able to overcome it.’ (Matthew 16:18). Jesus promises to build an invincible, unconquerable, triumphant church - on this rock of Peter’s faith, on his confession of Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah and Saviour of the world.

The church will be triumphant - not because of itself, but because of Christ’s promise; not because it isn’t fallible, but because God is faithful; not because it isn’t imperfect, but because God is able to fetch glory to himself from imperfect people. The church is like a rag rug, or a patchwork quilt. It’s made up of odds and ends, bits and pieces; but together, they make a work of art, a bold and splendid tapestry.

Jesus’ promise is the basis of the church’s calling, the reason why the church will ultimately triumph. Through all our failures, God is working out his purpose. ‘In all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28).

The Church will Ultimately Triumph

The church will ultimately triumph, whatever appearances to the contrary. A vivid illustration, through weakness and appalling adversity, is the church’s triumph over atheistic Communism. For two generations, from 1917 to 1987, the church in the Soviet Union was persecuted, savaged, slaughtered, exiled, and deprived of legal existence, in a massive, state-sponsored atheistic campaign, the likes of which the world had never seen before.

Nicolas Zernov was a member of that group of Russian emigres who fled to the West just after the Russian Revolution. He later became Spalding Lecturer in Slavonic and East European Studies at Oxford University. In a series of lectures in 1942, when the outcome of the Second Word War was far from decided, let alone the struggle with Communism, he said these words:

‘The strength of the Church lies, not in the ability of its leaders, not in their learning, not in organisation, but solely and uniquely in personal knowledge of Christ. For as long as Church members are in communion with him, every one of them is a living example of Christ’s victory over disunity, disease and death, and there is no power on earth or in heaven which can separate these human beings from the source of divine life. The atheists in Russia have been defeated because they met a force which is stronger than man. All those things which are human in the life of the church they destroyed at one stroke, but when they expected the church to collapse as a result of their easy victory, their hopes were frustrated, for they were confronted no longer by men and man-built organisation, but by the church of the living God . . . giving them personal experience of Christ’s life.’ (Three Russian Prophets, London, 1944, p. 166)

Jesus’ promise, ‘I will build my church’, is our hope. Some Christian leaders may deny Christ’s divinity or resurrection. Other Christian leaders may betray him by their actions, by immorality, abuse of power, neglect of their sacred calling. Ordinary Christians can give God a bad press, by their prejudices, by being judgmental, by uncaring or crusading attitudes, by moral failures, by intellectual pride, by laziness or complacency. But Jesus has promised that he will build his church on the rock of faith in his divine purpose - despite our sins and failures. It is his church. He is building it. Death and hell itself cannot defeat it. Jesus’ church - ‘the church of the living God’ (1 Timothy 3:15) - will surely triumph.

Rob Yule
8 August 1999

© 1999, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand