On this rock
It’s a deeply held truth in the Goringe household – and I know that we are not alone in this – that when a man becomes a father, he loses all ability to judge the quality of a joke. In my case, many of those jokes involve a play on words; I can’t resist a good pun. Problem is, I can’t resist a bad pun either, and I generally can’t tell the difference.
I do remember a pun a bilingual friend told me at school. It went like this: Two potatoes crossed the road. One of them was ran over, and the other said: “Oh my goodness”. The pun, of course, doesn’t work in translation. Hold that idea for a moment.
Today’s gospel reading brings us perhaps the most influential pun in human history. Having declared that Simon’s proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the living God, came to him not from human wisdom, but by divine revelation, Jesus says “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church”. The pun, of course, is in the Greek – the similar sounds of the name Peter (Petros) and the word rock (Petra). “You are Petros, and on this Petra I will build by Church”.
But what is interesting is that just as the pun doesn’t translate into English, it doesn’t work in Aramaic, either. In the language Jesus spoke, the pun doesn’t work.
So this pun, found only in Matthew’s gospel, is a wordplay that works in his writing, but wouldn’t have worked when spoken. Which might lead one to suspect that these words were an addition, from the pen of Matthew – so as was the case last week, we find ourselves asking “why did Matthew tell the story the way he did?”
One possibility is that he intended to boost the status of Peter in the debates that we know raged within the early Church – in particular the debate between Jewish and Gentile Christianity.
And of course, the boosting of the role of Peter is exactly the way the pun has been used throughout history, in the establishment of what became the papacy and of the authority of the hierarchy of the Church.
Peter, we are often told, means “the rock”; Jesus gives Simon that name and declares that he is the rock on which the Church will be built.
But there are just one or two problems…
But the word Petros, Peter, doesn’t mean rock. It means stone. The word Jesus uses when he says: “on this rock I will build my Church” (and elsewhere – for instance, the wise man who builds his house on a rock), is petra, which means a large mass of connected rock – bedrock, cliff, mountain. Petros, by contrast, means an isolated piece of rock, a stone, something someone could throw.
Without wanting to put too much emphasis on such details, it’s far from clear that the words recorded in Matthew’s gospel were intended to establish Peter as the “rock” on which the Church would be built.
Simon, having made his declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, is to the foundations on which Jesus will build as a stone is to the mountain – made of the right stuff, but only a fragment of the real thing.
Simon – Peter – is stone now, for he has had revealed to him the truth of who Jesus is. But God’s Church will be built not on one small stone, but on the mass of connected rock of which he is just one small part.
And then we read on – “on this rock I will build my Church”.
It’s again something that we miss because of hindsight – for building the Church is exactly what did happen, and Peter was right at the heart of it. But this is almost the only place in the gospels where Jesus refers to “the Church”. But here – and in just one other place in the gospels – Jesus speaks of “Church”, the ekklesia, the gathering of a religious congregation.
When Jesus speaks of his mission, of what it is he has come to create, to build, to establish, the word he uses is basileia – “kingdom”, or “reign”. Matthew records Jesus using that word more than fifty times – ekklesia – church, just twice.
The thing that Jesus is going to build on this rock of which Peter is a stone, is the Church. The human institution, the gathering of those who share a faith. But it isn’t the kingdom, the reign of God.
And I think that difference matters.
Last week we talked about the way that our assumptions about what it means to be God’s people might need to be re-examined.
Just as the Jewish followers of Jesus in his day needed to rediscover something in their heritage, their tradition – that they were called to be God’s people not as an end, but as means to the end, of all the nations coming to know what God was like, coming to worship God – so we might need to rediscover something in our heritage, in our gospels, that reminds us of the same.
That the Church is not the point. It is not the end. It is, at best, a means toward the end. That Jesus here in Matthew’s Gospel declared that he would build the Church, but spoke a hundred times more often about bringing close the Kingdom, the Reign of God.
That Jesus’ teaching leads us to lives of love and grace and inclusion and welcome which make known God’s love, God’s grace, God’s inclusion, God’s welcome.
That we live under the reign of God, and invite others to do so too.
That Jesus never commanded us to build a Church – but he did command us to proclaim the good news of God’s reign, and he did command us to make disciples, to encourage others to follow him.
In the early twentieth century Archbishop William Temple pointed out that “The Church exists primarily for the sake of those who are still outside it”. The Church’s has always existed for this: to serve those who are still outside it, and by doing so, to show them the nature of God, to teach them the story of Jesus, and by doing so, draw them into that story. To offer them the chance of being disciples of Jesus, co-workers in the reign of God.
The Church matters, really, only to the extent that it enables us to share the story of Jesus, and the love and welcome of Jesus, with those who aren’t part of it yet, who haven’t experienced it yet. When it does that – when the Church is a place where we can learn, and be supported by others, a place where we can receive care and love and blessing in order that together we can go out and share those things with the world – then it’s playing its role. That’s what human institutions are for – to enable us together to do more than we could do as individuals.
And that is reason enough to seek to draw people into the Church.
But that’s not the end.
The end is offering others the chance to experience the love and welcome of Jesus, and the chance to become disciples of Jesus.
So when we think that there is no way that our friends would want to come to Church – because of what they think Church is, or because of their past experiences, or because whatever, let’s remember: that that, even if true, is only a rejection of the human institution. That what we really have to offer them isn’t a Church, but a story.
A story of a God who loves and welcomes them.
A story of a Rabbi who turned the world upside-down with his teaching.
A story in which we have found meaning, purpose, forgiveness, reconciliation, power, grace – whatever it is that we have found of God.
A story in which there is a place for them, and in which they can truly be the people that God created them to be.
That’s what Jesus came to draw us into. Not Church.