God speaks. Things happen.
That’s one way you could sum up the Bible – that through the many twists and turns of life in covenant with a complicated people, when God speaks things happen. We see it in Genesis, when God formed the world out of chaos and spoke the good creation into being. We see it throughout the Old Testament as God constantly speaks and creates in and through a staggering assortment of unpredictable characters. And then Jesus shows up and continues the tradition – calling disciples by name and creating life with a word. Our human limitations make it hard to speak definitively about God, but one thing we can say for sure is that when God speaks, creation happens.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading the Gospel of Matthew a chapter at a time. Maybe it is because I haven’t read it in a while or it is just where I am in life and ministry, but each morning as I sip my coffee and read the Gospel, I find that I am being cut to the heart.
That happened again last week when I experienced another moment with Jesus and his creative word. It came in Matthew 16 where Jesus and the disciples are walking and he asks them the question, the one the whole Gospel has been building to – “Who do you say that I am?” To the surprise of no one Peter volunteers, but to the surprise of everyone he actually gets it right when he answers – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
It’s at this moment that Jesus calls Peter again – you are my rock and on you, I will build my church. I’ve read this all my life, but it hit me something fierce when I read again what he said after that, “and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Jesus speaks the church into existence with a promise. It’s here that the church is created, long before sermon and Spirit meet at Pentecost.
I read that as I was preparing for a meeting that I feared was going to skip frustrating and painful and go straight to discouraging and heartbreaking. As part of the annual meeting of pastors in our annual conference, we were scheduled to have a conversation around human sexuality and the division in our church. There were all sorts of reasons I was dreading it, ones that are pretty easy to imagine. I knew that if I was going to be there – and I was required to be there – I had better read, I had better listen, and I had better pray. In the middle of all these fears and emotions swirling that morning I received Jesus’ words about the church – the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
For those of us who live and move and try to have our being in the midst of 21st Century Institutional Christianity, fear is a constant companion. Fear that comes from declining attendance and an aging population. Fear that takes root in financial worries – of not having enough. Fear from divisions that seem to foster behavior more rooted in House of Cards than the fruit of the Spirit.
When you are surrounded by these fears, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by them, to become resigned to lament, defeat and destruction. Because we are scared, we forget the old, important things in favor of chasing newer, shinier things. Because we are afraid, we convince ourselves that salvation will come from strategy sessions and the next great leader. Because we live with dread, we find books and consultants with the right buzzwords in the hope they will save us. If we can just find the right people and the right innovation and if we try hard enough and work hard enough our thinking goes, gosh darn it people will like us again.
That’s what happens when forget the important words of Jesus and like those Old Testament kings, who sought salvation in foreign alliances and military strength, place our hope in human power and strategic potential. But the hope of the church isn’t in the faithful’s creativity, strategic vision, leadership tools or analytical analysis. The hope of the church comes in the One who continually creates by speaking words of life, words like the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
What Jesus has to say to us today is that even when the church has less people, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. He says that even when the church wonders how to pay the bills, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. He says that when we aren’t sure how we are going to thread the needle on the hard issues, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
It might be that the church will have to change and that our way of being Christ’s body will look different. It might be that our thinking will have to evolve. It might be that our buildings will be smaller and might look more like houses than traditional houses of worship. It might be that we will have to think about how to be more effective with less. These changes, whatever they are, will hurt and have consequences. We shouldn’t trivialize them, because they will impact people of faith, families who love God and communities who hurt and need the hope and the power of the ministry of the church.
But whatever changes come and whatever shape the church takes, the truth we need to remember is the one that gives us hope – the church’s survival isn’t a human task. It doesn’t depend on my ability to craft a catchy sermon series, implement a cutting-edge evangelism strategy or develop and maintain programs that will attract every child, youth and young adult in a 5-mile radius. That’s because the church was created by God, spoken into being by Jesus, and powered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
“The church is of God, and will be preserved to the end of time for the conduct of worship and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world.”
We say that in one of our baptismal liturgies in the United Methodist Church, and say what you will about liturgy but sometimes the work of the people speaks and speaks well. It reminds us that the church doesn’t endure because the disciples were the smartest guys in the room – the Bible paints the opposite picture actually. And it doesn’t endure because Peter preached a world-rocking sermon at Pentecost. No, the church endures because it is established by God with Jesus’ promise. And the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.