When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But you, who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he commanded the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. (EHV)
Dear Friends in Christ,
The number of professing Christians in America is decreasing, as I’m sure you know. The COVID lockdowns seem to have accelerated that trend. The vast majority of American churches have a Sunday attendance under 100 and feel a great deal of pressure to stave off decline. Where churches grow, growth is not the way it was back in the day.
I remember a ladies’ Mission Rally we hosted at our church in Carthage almost 10 years ag0 where a WELS pastor from Wichita, Kansas told the ladies in his opening remarks how his grandma would regularly call him and ask, “How big have you grown your church?” Even though his church was, in fact, gradually and steadily growing, she was always unsatisfied with his answer. “That’s all?” she’d say. “What are you doing wrong?”
Pastors feel pressure to grow their churches. That’s one reason I find great comfort in our text, especially in these words that Christ spoke: “I will build My church.” You see, it is Christ’s Church, not ours. And He says He will build it.
“I” will build “My” Church
Of course, it’s true that there are always many things we want to do as a congregation to try to get the Word out and bring more people in to hear the Gospel. Christ is not giving us an excuse to be lazy or to be cheap. Through the years, it’s clear Our Saviour Lutheran has recognized that, starting with the first purchase of this property, to the building of this beautiful sanctuary and even the huge investment in Christian education. Motivated Christians have put sweat equity and financial sacrifices into building Christ’s Church here in town through the years, and throughout the synod and the world through mission offerings. Certainly there’s always more we can do. In fact, next winter we’re going to host a seminar on how we can do better at welcoming guests and getting the word out about what we have to offer, namely the most biblical teaching in town, based on the Bible from beginning to end.
Still, when there’s too much emphasis on what “we” must do, or on why it’s not “working” better, or when grandmas call and say “Why isn’t ‘your church’ growing faster?” or when neighbors brag about the megachurch they’ve started attending “because it offers so much more than one of those little churches,” we can start getting stressed out and take our eyes off the comforting reassurance of our Savior this morning: “I will build My church.”
What is Jesus’ church, anyways? It’s the Communion of Saints—it is not the sum total of people whose names are written in human record books on manmade paper in brick-and-mortar church offices. The Holy Christian Church—God’s Church—is made up of the names He has written in His Book of Life—the one that will be opened and read aloud on the Last Day.
As human beings living in a flesh and blood world, it’s tempting for us to focus and even obsess over what we can see: how big someone’s church building and parking lot is, how many TV viewers some famous preacher has each week, or the latest big Mormon Temple being erected, and then compare those numbers to one of our relatively small, confessional Lutheran congregations. But if we do, it can lead us to forget Jesus’ very important words: “I will build My church.”
Garrison Keillor on his radio show Prairie Home Companion once spun the tale of Pastor Ingquist from mythical Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church in rural Minnesota taking a vacation to Rome with his wife. As they sat at a café across from St. Peter’s Basilica sipping coffee, pastor Ingquist said to his wife, “Just look at the beauty and size of that church. Maybe it’s the true church after all.”
No, Pastor Ingquist, Jesus’ Church is all those who believe in Him alone for salvation, and the true visible church—the one we want to belong to on earth—is the church that confesses and teaches all the truths of the Bible. That’s the church that’s Built on the Rock.
Built on the Rock
Since it’s Jesus’ Church, and since He’s the one who is building it, you’d rightly expect that He will only build His Church on the truth, all the truth, and nothing but the truth. You heard Jesus ask His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and you heard their answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Notice, none of these answers is particularly offensive. They’re not calling Jesus bad, or a liar, or Beelzebub. They are simply calling Him far less than Who He actually is. Their beliefs are not enough. They miss the point.
When it comes to the Savior of the world, we’ve got to get this answer right. “But you, who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked them. 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it.
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God—and the correct confession of who He is, is the Rock on which Jesus says He will build His church. St. Paul described it this way: “…You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household. 20 You have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the Cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19b–20).
The prophetic and apostolic foundation on which Jesus builds His Church is the Bible, Old and New Testaments which the apostles and prophets wrote by inspiration. Every word of it is from God, and therefore every word of it is important and essential. “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). If the Church is to be true and solid, it must be built on the solid truth—that Rock that is Jesus Christ and the true confession of His Name. What is the whole Great Commission? “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).
Paul clarifies how important this “everything” is: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the teaching that you learned, and keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving Christ our Lord but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery, they seduce the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:17–18).
What a strong temptation there is to build on things other than the Rock. The temptation is even stronger to build part way on the rock, but not all the way; to skip the harder teachings. I’ve often thought to myself what a miracle it is that anyone at all becomes a confessional Lutheran. There are teachings on every page of the catechism that are countercultural even in churched areas of our country, whether it’s infant baptism, the true nature of the Lord’s Supper, women’s ordination, the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, the six-day creation, and the list goes on and on. But it’s Jesus’ Church, not ours, and He wants His own church built on the Rock—on Himself and His Word.
Through the Keys
Finally, Jesus tells us exactly how He goes about building His Church. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The Ministry of the Keys, as it’s called in our catechism, is proclaiming Law and Gospel in Christ’s Name, by His authority, according to His Word—in other words, telling the impenitent that they need to repent of their sins and turn to Jesus for forgiveness, and teaching how Jesus paid for the world’s sins on the cross, and that through faith in Him alone, we receive forgiveness and eternal salvation. This is how Christ Builds His Church, and this is where we fit in. He works through us. As long as we’re doing what He told us to do, that is using, counting on, and relying not on earthly means, but on the divine Means of Grace, He will grow His Church at His own pace in His own timing. The devil would like us to mistrust the simple Means of Grace—the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. He’d like us to rely on human ideas and earthly means. But this is the truth we Lutherans confess, in the Augsburg Confession: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.”
If we preach Christ, the Rock, and not ourselves, then Jesus will not only build, but also prosper and protect His Church in His own way and His own time. St. Paul wrote, “Therefore, since we have this ministry as a result of the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. 2 On the contrary, we have renounced shameful, underhanded methods. We do not operate in a deceitful way, and we do not distort the word of God. Instead, by proclaiming the truth clearly, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled among those who are perishing. 4 In the case of those people, the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from clearly seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is God’s image. 5 Indeed, we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:1–5).
What a comfort it is to know that the Church is Christ’s Church and that He is the one who builds it, where and when He wills.
What a further comfort, to know that Christ truly is our solid, sure, unmovable Rock and Redeemer! Yes, church buildings fall, steeples crash— “crumbled have spires in every land” as we sang. I’ve seen firsthand 4000 lb. bells lying in memorial where they fell during the firebombing of Lübeck Germany in 1945. Don’t cling to preachers, who are human, or feelings, which change. All these things fail. But if the true Christ alone is the center and foundation of our church and our personal faith, then we will overcome. “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it.” Let this be our prayer, then: “Dear God, this is Your church. Grow it! Keep it strong! Use us as your instruments and continue to Build Your Church, both here and throughout the world. Amen.