Walking away from my time spent in the Gospels this past week the one thing that struck me the most was Jesus was very decidedly initiating “the beginning of the end.” You couldn’t help but think that the end is near - there’s just a few things that need to be done and then the end will come. Right? Of course the very next thought that came to mind was why hasn‘t it? If the end seems so eminent there in the Gospels accounts 20-60 years after Christ was on the earth why are we still here 2000 years later.
So that led me to this haunting thought, maybe we are finding ourselves repeating a story from the Old Testament where God‘s delivered people were not experiencing God‘s promise and rest because of their disobedience to his commands. Maybe we in our unbelief are experiencing generation after generation who are wandering around in the wilderness never entering into God’s rest even though the Kingdom of God is at hand and our deliverance from sin has been completely provided.
So, if Christ said that He is going to build his church and the gates of hell are not going to prevail against it, maybe I've been looking at this passage with the wrong set of lens and trying to squeeze something out of it that’s not there. Maybe we've taken the word build and wrongly assumed that Christ was associating it with a construction metaphor for a physical structure. Maybe Christ’s use of the word build here is has nothing to do with a construction sense at all. Can one not build a reputation or a following much in the same way a modern band would seek to develop a fan base? What if Christ was building in this way? Wouldn't that explain much better the context of the immediate verse?
Here is the first distinction between “a place where” and “a people who”. There is always “a building” when church is defined and viewed as “a place where”. The building, as a physical structure, brings definition and a clarity to the task at hand. But a physical structure also brings restriction and a delusion to what kind of ministry can happen, with whom that ministry should involve, and how that ministry will be carried out. It causes you to focus on a specific location, to establish a particular order and routine, and to adopt a certain set of norms.
The building also makes demands. It requires large amounts of resources and energy to establish it. It requires a great measure of leadership so that it can be best leveraged as a resource on an ongoing basis. It requires that “insight into the future” be considered along with many detailed plans being drafted up so that what is built will accomplish what is expected or desired. And lastly it requires ongoing and progressive maintenance.
Not only does a building bring with it certain demands but it also makes certain assumptions. It causes everyone to assume that it be used as a resource on a frequent and regular basis. It assumes that proper stewardship be used in all aspects of the buildings potential. And also it assumes that a good reputation must be established and upheld.
It is from these things: definition and clarity, restriction and delusion, demands and assumptions that a very powerful following can be amassed for it brings comfort, purpose and commitment to people to be defined as “a place where”. Yet from the very beginning of the narrative that we find in the Scriptures we have always been prone to move from “a people who” towards “a place where”.
In the garden we find these two concepts in harmony. Adam and Eve are God’s people and He is their God. They are “a people who” in this way. But they are also put in “a place where” everything is as God would have it. It is only after sin enters the equation and Adam and Eve reject their status as “a people who” and God removes them from “a place where”. As the story progresses we find them seeking to redefine what type of people they will be and where they will establish themselves.
Ironically, as the narrative unfolds God is always reluctant to re-establish “a place where” until his crown of creation reaffirms that they are “a people who”. Time and time again God states his desire that we return and be His people and that we pledge allegiance to Him as our God. In fact many times this very core principle that “we are His people and He is our God” is what invokes great emotion from God - whether to jealousy, anger and the wrath of God, or pleasure, joy and the peace of God.
We do find that God desires that He lead His people to a promised land - “a place where”. But we also read that many times this place where is removed because they have refused to be a people who. In the end of the story God ultimately brings those who have proven that they are “a people who” into “a place where” they can come in and go out.
But we find ourselves in the interim struggle with a message brought to us by God’s own Son that says, “You must be a people who, and you will not have a place where until this age is over... but I will be with you always even to the end of the age!”
So in closing, maybe buildings are necessary at times but they are not essential to what Christ is building, and that as His people what is of primary importance is not a place where but, a people who!