Some elements of Pastor Noah Washington’s original sermon have been preserved in the text that comprises this article.—Eds.
The Lord has been dealing with me for the past four months, on some issues related to the church—His church: what it means, what it’s supposed to be doing, where we’re at in this COVID season. So I hope you hear a bit of my frustration today.
I’m reading these famous words of Peter and Jesus.
Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon comes back with an awesome answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15, 16). And Jesus responds: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (verse 17).
I want to hang my hat today on Jesus’ climactic words that come next: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (verses 17, 18).
For many years now I’ve been intrigued by this thing called church. I grew up in it. But over time, after you’ve lived a bit, the routine and regimen of coming to a building all your life strikes you a little different. You get to a place in your spiritual journey where you start thinking, There has to be more than what I’m currently experiencing. As much as I love music, good preaching, fellowship; as much as I love corporate prayer and the powerful impact it has; and as much as we have missed church fellowship, I’m now at a place in my spiritual journey where I want more. And the gaping difference between what Jesus meant and where we are threatens to expose the Christian church as irrelevant, and, in too many cases, impotent. What is the church to be in these times like we have never seen before?
Today we’re watching human hearts fail for fear of what’s going on. We’re seeing things we thought impossible, manifold things, and all in the same season: compounded deaths of people that we have been in personal relationship with; insurrectionists taking over and storming America’s Capitol; unprovoked war; personal tragedies of family breakdown and emotional fragility; continued racial disharmony, furious debates about sexual orientation and identity, and, simultaneously, threats of financial collapse, or, at the very least, a wildly unsteady market.
Church, God’s church, is tasked with the responsibility of being the hands and feet of Jesus. But so much that I’ve heard in this season is from people who can’t wait to get back to church, as if what the church was doing prior to COVID was working in the first place. For me, I go back much further. I go to the place where Jesus introduces a concept, “church,” to His beloved disciples; a concept that would literally change the world.
You and I may have known “church” all our lives. But for the disciples the concept was foreign. Matthew’s Gospel was written to show how the Jewish man named Jesus would bring salvation to the world. His messiahship meets with rejection and opposition by religious leadership, demonic forces, and even His own relatives and followers, including His closest company—His chosen disciples. So when they arrive at Caesarea Philippi, after witnessing another intense exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, Jesus asks the disciples, “What’s the word on the street about Me? Who are people saying I am?”
“You’re John the Baptist; or maybe Jeremiah, or Isaiah, or some other prophet.”
“So what about you? Who do you, brothers, say I am?”
Simon Peter speaks up and declares Jesus the Christ, Son of the living God. And because of his declaration, it seems, Jesus is impressed to share His unforgettable announcement: “On this rock, I’m going to build My church. And hell’s gates won’t be able to prevail against it.”
What was Jesus talking about when He said, “My church”?
Today, church has become listening to music. Or good church has become sitting down, listening to a sermon, an inspiring praise team, or sensing the presence of God. To you and me, church has become totally subjective.
Meaning that you and I are the subjects, and also the audience. If we like it, then that’s good church. If we don’t like it, then God (probably) doesn’t either. By and large, we relegate church to what happens during the worship service. But when Jesus introduces the concept of church, He has something way bigger in mind.
The Greek noun ekklesia derives from the verb ekkaleo, to call out, a common term back then, used for those who assembled in the public affairs of a free state or body of free citizens called together. The Christian community’s designation by the term ekklesia denoted freedom, liberation that came from being called out. It denoted people now free because they had been called out. So there’s something very problematic for the contemporary church, because “church” is really supposed to be a group of people who are free because they’ve been called out. Maybe too many of us aren’t excited about the idea because we’re really not part of the church of the living God. We don’t really know too much about “called out.” But God’s church is a group of people that Jesus has called out.
That Jesus would open his mouth and call you by name and call you to Himself...! If I were Jesus, . . . ! But Jesus calls. And look whom He’s calling! He’s calling out people who have been in bondage to the enemy. A few of us know what it means to be called out by Jesus from bondage; and those who come out are sent to call other people out. The people of God are people called out by Jesus from bondage to the enemy, then sent to call out other people who’ve been in bondage to the enemy, to declare to them their freedom.
And you know what? It’s easy to spot people who are part of the church of the living God. Because once you start talking about deliverance, about how the Lord brought you out, about being set free from an enemy who used to have your mind, body, or spirit—once they hear that, they always have a response. Redeemed people always have a response to the Redeemer.
Anybody knows what it means to be called out—apart from the two of you who’ve been pure since you were born? God bless you. But the rest of us in here know what it means to be in the grip of the enemy, lost even in the house. But then Jesus called us out, and it’s amazing. That God would call you and now say, “Can you go call somebody else out?”—that’s amazing! It’s amazing that God would trust me with anything. But when you’ve been pulled out from enslavement, you’re so excited that you’re not in bondage anymore, that when you see other people in bondage, you cry out, “Lord, help me pull them out!”
The reason this is so important is that at the time of our text, He was speaking to people who knew only synagogue, an experience that makes Jesus’ “church” idea problematic. Beyond the Temple in Jerusalem where daily sacrifices were offered, where prayer and various other meetings happened, most Jews, at the time of our texts, were engaged with their local synagogue: if at least 10 male Jews were in a town or village, they could start a synagogue.
In the synagogue the officiant would read from the Old Testament scrolls. They would sing songs, primarily the psalms; they would offer prayers. Basically, they engaged in a variety of religious traditions, good traditions—fellowship, songs, Scripture reading, prayer—all good.
But here’s where contemporary church gets to be a problem: there’s really not much difference between what happened in the synagogue and what we engage in today that we call church. COVID notwithstanding, tell me what has changed from that synagogue ministry in first-century Palestine to contemporary church ministry all over the world? Repetition week to week. Pressing the repeat button, playing the same thing again and again for years. Then Jesus shows up and makes the declaration, “On this rock I’ll build My church, and the gates of hell won’t be able to prevail against it.” Jesus’ declaration is about moving on—dynamically, irresistibly, something the kingdom of darkness isn’t able to stop.
The replay and replay brand of church doesn’t frighten the devil, because that brand goes nowhere: it doesn’t have any power.
Jesus in the synagogue, on the other hand, was consistently disruptive: changing a mindset, expelling a demon (Mark 1:21-34), freeing somebody from 18 years of sickness (Luke 13:10-17). Jesus’ church is not simply “sit down and take it in.” He never went to the synagogue to spectate, because the church is never supposed to play defense. It plays only offense. Jesus went into the synagogue to change the mindset. Mark 1:22 says that Jesus teaching in the synagogue brought amazement to His audience: He taught with authority.
Take a look at Luke 4:18: Jesus is teaching in the synagogue that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon” Him, empowering spiritual and social justice, ministering to the eternal salvation and the existential plight of people. And I’m wondering, with all the pandemic rage, and so many ailing church members, and all the hospital visitations we’ve got to do, and all the deaths taking place, and all the people dealing with mental fragility, where is the power in the church to heal, or to set free, or to change the mindset?
Instead, our big, big worry is about coming to fellowship, to read Scripture, to pray, to follow traditions that we imagine are godly, when God Himself has had to say sometimes, “I’m not endorsing it; it’s all in vain” (Mark 7:7); “Don’t be bringing it before Me” (Isa. 1:13). Your churches aren’t even good hospitals. In hospitals, at least, people get delivered and people get discharged. But churches are really more like hospice centers where you go to die.
Every time Jesus did His works of God in the synagogue, people got upset: the fellowship, singing, Scripture reading, and praying was fine— no miracles, no healings, no breakthroughs, no restoration, no deliverance, no shift, no change, no release, no chains broken. But Jesus was disruptive.
When you asked people, pre-COVID, “How was church?” the answer always referenced things we do. We didn’t talk about what the power of God did, because we were so locked into what we love and like about church. We didn’t even give the Spirit of God time to do what He really wanted to do. How about coming to church broken? Have you ever come to church needing God to touch you? You were sick; or you needed God to touch your mind; or you were dealing with “the crazies” on your job; or you needed God to touch your child. And you’d given up, and thrown in the towel because you didn’t know what to do. And you were putting all your expectations on the pastor’s sermon and the praise team set. And no one looked for the Spirit of God to do what He promised He would do.
Leaving the parking lot: “How was church?” Answer: something mediocre like “Church was all right. The pastor was all right.” And what did God’s Holy Spirit do? Did He change your mind? Was He trying to talk to you? Was God the Holy Spirit in the house? Why isn’t everybody saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this”?
“On this rock I’ll build My church,” Jesus says. And He wasn’t talking about Peter, as some say. He was talking about a place. And He wasn’t talking about somewhere near where He was. This was not specifically about Mount Hermon.
Mount Hermon used to be a seat of both Hellenism and demonic activity. So to some degree He was including Mount Hermon. Because Jesus wants His church, His called-out and delivered people, to be in the very places and spaces where His presence is lacking, where the enemy has people most in bondage! He wants those He’s called out to go and call out more of His people. And tragically, Jesus’ church is greatly challenged on that point: Church Leaders magazine says that 95 percent of church members have never led one person to Jesus.
We’re content with being around sick people and people who need the Lord. We walk over by and around them and mutter, “Hope they get to Jesus,” not realizing that Jesus, who called me out, means for me to see them as my responsibility, to grab them out of the fire. And the text says that when God’s people do this, the gates of hell won’t be able to stop us. The force of the text is that hell’s gates won’t have strength against us.
I was worrying about my sports team losing; about some other team running up high scores against them. But then God’s Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, “I know you’re upset at your little team; but I need you to get that about the church. When the church becomes the church, and the church moves forward, it doesn’t matter what the devil tries. It doesn’t matter what defense the devil sets up. It doesn’t matter what schemes he changes. When My church becomes the church, the gates of hell can’t stop you.”
Am I talking to any redeemed people? Am I talking to any church folk that know that once you become the church, the devil can’t stop you? The devil can’t stop God’s church, folks.
Noah Washington is associate pastor of the Emmanuel Brinklow Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Ashton, Maryland.