Our scriptures utilize two re-occurring and beloved images.
Our Romans scripture emphasizes the imagery of the church as a body, specifically the body of Christ. Paul settles on the language to describe diverse members with differing functions incorporated into a single entity, inter-connected for a common purpose and mission.
While our Gospel scripture embraces word play with the imagery of a rock, a solid foundation upon which the church will be built. However, church is an assembly not a building, as Martin Luther wrote:
The scriptures speak plainly about the church and use the word in one sense only… the community or assembly of all believers in Christ on earth… This community or assembly includes everyone who lives in true faith, hope, and love. So it is the essence, the life, the nature of the church to be an assembly of hearts united in faith, not an assembly of bodies… It is a spiritual unity… but the blind Romanist makes it into an external community like any other.
(The Papacy in Rome).
Since the church is an assembly of hearts spiritually united, shall we explore the rock it is built upon?
There are three prominent interpretations.
One. Peter is the rock upon which the church is built.
Peter is derived from Petros, a masculine term for a small rock, hence the teasing about him being as dense as a rock or even sinking like a rock. Our Roman Catholic siblings teach that the church is built upon Peter, who was the first Pope; and thus, every single Pope, Cardinal, Bishop, and Priest within the tradition should be able to trace their priestly heritage directly to Peter.
Two. Jesus the Christ is the rock upon which the church is built.
Although this interpretation is not rooted within the language of Matthew 16, the messianic scriptures of the Hebrew Bible references the messiah as the cornerstone and the New Testament proclaims Jesus as said cornerstone. The cornerstone was the first to be laid in the construction, or building process, and all other bricks would be positioned in respect to it.
Three. The confession of faith, as proclaimed by Peter,
is the rock upon which the church is built.
The grammatical Greek supports that this might have been the intention for Jesus states the church will be built on Petra, or a feminine term used for a massive rock. The confession provides a massive, theological foundation proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, and the Son of the Living God. This seems to be a rock-solid foundation for the church universal to be built upon.
Despite the popularity of these images, I have another that combines the diverse unity of the body with the well-established foundation. It is the church universal as a family tree.
The church universal is a complex family system well-rooted in the rich soil that is the Triune God, who was embodied in the human flesh of Jesus. Our understanding of Jesus as the Christ, Messiah, and Son of the Living God, informs our experience of the divine as well as our interactions with one another and the entire creation.
The modern church universal has a shared trunk, or core, which is Pauline Christianity. Our understanding of the earliest church is derived from the letters Paul wrote to congregations throughout the Roman Empire; and thus, it is a further foundation in our shared experience of being church together.
Yet, the church universal as a family has experienced dysfunction, separations, and feuds impacting the whole, resulting in countless branches beginning with the Great Schism in 1054 of the Eastern (Orthodox) Church and the Western (Roman Catholic) Church. The new growth of branches, or denominations, continues within our time.
As I ponder our relationship among the church universal, I recall a memory from Seminary.
Our professor posed the question: are you a Christian Lutheran or a Lutheran Christian?
Although the room filled with puzzled expressions, I understood the question and the difference. You might say, the devil is in the details, and those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are slightly detail orientated.
Christian and Lutheran can be used as either nouns or adjectives depending on their position within the statement or question. In the English language, the adjective proceeds the noun.
Thus, are you a Lutheran (noun) who identifies as such through a Christian (adjective) lens OR are you a Christian (noun) who identifies as such through a Lutheran (adjective) lens?
If we are Christians with a Lutheran perspective, we need to embrace our shared foundation and link arm in arm… metaphorically because of COVID19… with our siblings to be church together in our shared Christian vocation to:
Proclaim Christ in word and deed;
Act with compassion and mercy; and
Love and serve all persons, but especially the most vulnerable.
If we are Christians with a Lutheran perspective, we need to embrace those within the church universal family tree as we are able, including the estranged parents or siblings, the odd cousins, and the crazy aunts and uncles, for the sake of the church universal, all persons, and the entire creation.
May the church universal, and those within it, uplift the diverse unity that is the body of Christ.
May the church universal, and those within it, be built upon the rock that proclaims Jesus is the Christ.
May the church universal, and those within it, be well-rooted in the being of the Triune God.
May it be so for the sake of the church, the church universal, all persons, and the Kingdom to Come.
Scriptures were Romans 12: 1-8 and Matthew 16: 13-20.
Originally preached 23 August 2020 for Trinity Lutheran (Union City, IN).