Built on a rock the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.Nikolai Grundtvig
We sang the hymn, “Built on a Rock,” in worship recently, and I have been pondering its words ever since. Here is its first verse:
Built on a rock the church shall stand
even when steeples are falling;
crumbled have spires in ev'ry land,
bells still are chiming and calling -
calling the young and old to rest,
calling the souls of those distressed,
longing for life everlasting.
The church seems to be going through many challenges these days. The pandemic has accelerated some changes that were already at work, and the current division in our world is making it difficult for us to come together “with the same mind” (Philippians 2). The pandemic’s threat may be lessening (at last), but our churches are not filling up, and many of our faithful are concerned. The churches’ steeples may not be falling, but many of us cannot help but wonder whether its bells are still able to call and appeal to “the souls of those distressed” in the same way they once did.
The church, to put it bluntly, seems to be less important in our world than it once was. We can ponder the reasons for this, and I suspect there are many, but I want to go in a different direction in this post – I want to think about the rock on which the church is built, the rock which this hymn so powerfully praises. Because this rock is where I find my hope for the church, and also where I find needed direction as we move forward. This rock – an image from the Gospel of Matthew – has both of these important qualities: it reminds us of our hope, and it shows us how to continue our mission.
On This Rock I Will Build My Church
The first of these meanings of the rock – our hope – is found in the promise of Jesus to Peter:
Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”Matthew 16:18
Jesus tells Peter, and all who have followed, that he builds his church on the rock (Greek – Petra) that is Peter (Greek – Petros). Peter is the rock – his clear confession of faith and his leadership after Jesus’ ascension would be the rock foundation on which Jesus would build his church. And when built on this rock, Jesus assures us, even the gates of Hades would not be able to prevail against it.
History has shown us, time and time again, that nothing can prevail against the church. World wars have not destroyed the church, nor have pandemics, or the rise and fall of governments. The church has had many enemies who have tried to destroy it, but none have prevailed. Even the power of sin has not destroyed the church – there have been scandals and immoral leaders too numerous to count (which grieves me greatly), but the church still continues on, sharing the hope of the gospel with all. The church remains one of the few institutions in the history of our world that has been able to survive all of these challenges. The church, to use Jesus’ words, has survived all that the “gates of Hades” have thrown at it.
But I should capitalize “church,” shouldn’t I? Because while the Church has survived it all, not all individual congregations or denominations have survived. History teaches us this lesson, too. Many congregations have perished, for many reasons. One memorable example of this for me is from a few years back, when my adult daughter and I were on a self-guided pilgrimage in the Holy Land. One day, as we were driving our rental car to Mount Tabor, we came across a sign that said “Nain” and “Widow’s Son.” Here it is:
I was excited to see the place where one of the great miracles of Jesus took place – the very place where he raised the widow’s son to life, even as the widow and her community were on the way to his burial (Luke 7:11-17). So, we followed the sign and drove into Nain. We found a very small town there (in 2019 it had a population 1,876), with what appeared to be an abandoned church. It was rather disappointing.
How could a church in the town of Nain not survive? The answers are complex, but the fact remains: The gates of Hades may not be able to prevail against the Church, but there is no such promise for individual congregations.
I suspect that many of us can think of congregations that are no longer with us. When I was in seminary, I preached at a congregation whose membership was down to seven active members – they told me that they did want to close its doors permanently because they were concerned about what would happen to their church cemetery. I suspect that this church is now closed. These days, I drive by a Lutheran church building with a “For Sale” sign that also reminds me that individuals congregations are not promised to be around forever:
Built on a rock the Church shall stand. Yes, I believe that. It fills me with hope, even now, as I remember the promise that there will always be church bells “calling the souls of those distressed, longing for life everlasting.” There will always be a place where God’s people can gather to be reminded of God’s presence among us, where we can find the nourishment that our souls long for, and where we can be fed the bread of life through the Word of God and the sacraments. This is a wonderful promise. But this does not mean that any particular congregation should rest on that promise.
Building Our House on Rock
And that brings me to the next important meaning, to me, of the “rock” on which the church is built. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, long before the promise to Peter to build his church on the rock, Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount with these words:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” – Matthew 7:24-27
When we hear Jesus’ words and act on them, we are building our house on rock. That is true for us as individuals, but isn’t it also true for our congregations? Our congregations are also being called to hear these words of Jesus, at all times and in every generation, and to act on them. That is the rock foundation on which we build our lives, and our congregations. In the midst of all the challenges facing our world, this is the rock foundation that can anchor us in the storm, and guide us on our way.
There is a lot happening in our world that is out of our control, that is affecting all of us in a variety of ways, and that is offering tremendous challenges to all of our congregations. It can be disheartening. But in the midst of it, we can remember these promises from Jesus. That when we listen to him and do what he commands, the house will not fall, no matter the storm. The house built on this rock will survive. And the church built on this rock will survive, too. The church that Jesus himself promises to build.
Nothing will prevail against the Church, as long as we do what he commands, and trust in his promises. And isn’t that enough? We can do now as generations of Christians have always done – listen to Jesus, do as he asks, wait on his promises, and trust that even when there is death, resurrection always follows. The widow’s son in Nain reminds us of that, even now, centuries after this great miracle. The church there may not be active, but the miraculous event that took place there continues to fill us with hope. “Built on a rock the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.” Thanks be to God.
The words of this hymn are well worth your devotional time. Here they are, as found in the hymnal that our congregation uses (Evangelical Lutheran Worship):
Built On a Rock
Built on a rock the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling;
crumbled have spires in ev'ry land, bells still are chiming and calling -
calling the young and old to rest, calling the souls of those distressed,
longing for life everlasting.
Surely, in temples made with hands God the Most High is not dwelling -
high in the heav'ns his temple stands, all earthly temples excelling.
Yet he who dwells in heav'n above deigns to abide with us in love,
making our bodies his temple.
Christ builds a house of living stones: we are his own habitation;
he fills our hearts, his humble thrones, granting us life and salvation.
Where two or three will seek his face, he in their midst will show his grace,
blessings upon them bestowing.
Yet in this house, an earthly frame, Jesus the children is blessing;
hither we come to praise his name, faith in our Savior confessing.
Jesus to us his Spirit sent, making with us his covenant,
granting his children the kingdom.
Through all the passing years, O Lord, grant that, when church bells are ringing,
many may come to hear your Word, who here this promise is bringing:
"I know my own, my own know me; you, not the world, my face shall see;
my peace I leave with you. Amen."