By Justin S. Holcomb
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
— Matthew 16:18
When reading this passage, many people focus on figuring out who or what the “rock” is upon which Jesus builds his Church. The options are: Peter, Peter’s confession (Matt. 16:16), Jesus, or the apostles. This is important, but there is so much more happening in this verse. Keep in mind that these are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in response to Peter’s powerful declaration that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Beginning with “and I tell you” gives a hint that what Jesus is about to say is very important: he is explaining the significance of being the Christ. Jesus announces that, as the Christ, his intention and task are to build his Church. And Jesus makes it personal with the first-person pronouns: “I will build my church.”
This very personal pronouncement also reveals that there will be cosmic conflict involved — “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the Church Jesus is building.
How Does Jesus Build his Church?
Jesus is the great Church builder, and he has a clear strategy from the beginning of his earthy ministry to create a new community. The Church is a specific community with a specific purpose.
Mark 3:13-15 serves as an example of how Jesus builds his Church: “And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”
Jesus builds his Church by “spiraling”: he gathers, constitutes, and sends. Jesus draws in people and gathers them to himself. He then constitutes them as his community. And then he sends out his people to the world: “As you send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18).
This spiraling pattern with his disciples in Mark 3 is repeated after his resurrection: Matthew 28:16-20, Luke 24: 36-53, and John 20:19-21. In Acts, Jesus tells the apostles to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit fills them. And then they are constituted as a new community that is sent to the world. This spiraling pattern is repeated after his ascension.
Let’s be clear what Jesus’ actions are in building his Church. Jesus gathers people to himself. He constitutes them as a community. And then he sends them to the world on mission. Jesus sending his Church to the world is the means by which he gathers more people to himself who are then constituted as his church and sent to the world. Spiraling.
What is our response to Jesus’ Church-building work? Jesus gathers us so we can worship the triune God in Spirit and truth. This includes our liturgy of Word and sacraments. Jesus constitutes us as a community so we are nurtured and nourished by fellowship, education, and spiritual care. When we are sent on mission, we are evangelizing, offering hospitality, and participating in community service.
The effect of this spiraling is that we experience the love of God in worship, we embody the love of God in community, and we extend the love of God in mission.
Instead of being at odds with each other, worship, community, and mission work together as the means by which Jesus is building his Church through us in the power of the Spirit. Practically, this means we do not need to pick between our wonderful liturgical worship or evangelism. Nor do we need to pick between nurturing a warm and inviting community and inviting people not yet part of our communities to join us.
The Great Church Builder
God has always built a place for his own dwelling: Moses built the tabernacle, Solomon built the temple, and Jesus is Immanuel (“God with us”). But God doesn’t stop there as he builds his Church.
The Church is his Church and he has committed to build it, despite all the strategies of the enemy. Jesus is the great Church builder who joyfully invites us to be not only recipients of his ministry but also agents of his ministry.