A house built on the rock…of doctrine

Thursday in the first week of Advent
Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 118:19-24; Matthew 7:21-27

House on a RockMatthew 7:24-27
Jesus said, “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!”

From John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew (Homily XXIV)
“For the rain descended,” saith Christ, “the floods came, the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon the rock.”

By “rain” here, and “floods,” and “winds,” he is expressing metaphorically the calamities and afflictions that befall men; such as false accusations, plots, bereavements, deaths, loss of friends, vexations from strangers, all the ills in our life that any one could mention. “But to none of these,” saith he, “doth such a soul give way; and the cause is, it is founded on the rock.” He calls the stedfastness of his doctrine a rock; because in truth his commands are stronger than any rock, setting one above all the waves of human affairs. For he who keeps these things strictly, will not have the advantage of men only when they are vexing him, but even of the very devils plotting against him. And that it is not vain boasting so to speak, Job is our witness, who received all the assaults of the devil, and stood unmoveable; and the apostles too are our witnesses, for that when the waves of the whole world were beating against them, when both nations and princes, both their own people and strangers, both the evil spirits, and the devil, and every engine was set in motion, they stood firmer than a rock, and dispersed it all.

And now, what can be happier than this kind of life? For this, not wealth, not strength of body, not glory, not power, nor ought else will be able to secure, but only the possession of virtue. For there is not, nay there is not another life we may find free from all evils, but this alone.

This parable invites any number of useful readings. Today I am captivated by John Chrysostom’s reading — that the rock of which Jesus speaks is doctrine. It’s not a usual reading of this parable in today’s church.

At the risk of sounding horribly retrograde to some of my readers, I wonder if we might attend to what is being said here. Many congregations are withering, for one reason or another. We’ve tended to focus on works (what we often call “mission” but which really means us imagining that we are ourselves doing God’s work in the world, and that God depends on us) or on narrow readings of Jesus’ invitation to new life (these people can be Christians, but those people cannot). It’s an age-old challenge, from the Torah up through today’s church.

Maybe we would do well to focus more on doctrine in our churches, in our preaching, in our teaching, in our study, and in our actions. Jesus does indeed invite everyone to hear the Good News and to be transformed by it, but he also expects transformation. There’s no such thing as status quo Christianity. At the same time, our salvation cannot be earned by any number of noble deeds, and God does not depend on us. We depend on God.

Rather than building our house on what we do — or on who we’re with — let us build our house on the radical, transformational Gospel of Jesus Christ. And if that sounds easy, I don’t think we’re paying attention yet. Building a house on rock is easy to say, and hard to do!

In the end though, as John Chrysostom says, it’s well worth it. As an individual disciple, I won’t know true happiness through money, fame, or external success, but only through the love of God. As a church, we won’t know true joy through gimmicks, do-gooder accomplishments, or self-righteousness, but only through following Jesus Christ in both joy and humility.

Illustration from here.

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4 Responses

  1. Lavonne Seifert says:

    I agree with your premise, Scott, but am pondering your comment that we are “imagining we’re doing God’s work in the world.” Is that not a part of our calling? I do agree God is NOT dependent on us. Jesus is indeed calling us to transformed lives and as we ourselves are transformed, do we not see with God’s eyes the brokenness of this world? And are we not called to help transform, to heal that brokenness (even as little as we can)? Say more, please, about what it would look like to “build our house on the radical, transformational Gospel of Jesus Christ.” I completely agree with your suggestion that we should preach, teach, etc., more about our foundational doctrine.

  2. Read Dorothy Sayer’s “Creed or Chaos”. Adherence to doctrine, as stated in the creeds and Church councils will keep the church on an even keel. We need less “management” and more dedication to the Creeds of the Church and to the mission to be Christ’s body.

  3. Lavonne Seifert says:

    William, your definition of “the mission to be Christ’s body” is…?

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    Lavonne, sorry for my lack of clarity. This is one of the dangers of writing very brief meditations and doing it very quickly.

    Too often I hear people talk about our mission work as if we alone are doing it, in a way that reduces the reality of God to whatever we get done. That talk suggests that God needs us to do certain things.

    In my view, we do mission work out of gratitude for God’s call to us, in a way that proclaims the kingdom. We do it not to get on God’s good side or because God relies on us, but because we can’t help ourselves but to share God’s love with the world.

    As for the transformational Gospel, I think that means preaching repentance for ourselves and others, the idea that we really do have to change, or perhaps that the Gospel changes us. That is imperative.

    The church really isn’t about the institution itself or about buildings or, God help us, about comfort and security. It’s rather a great and often risky adventure, and the church is a company of disciples who are embarking on this adventure together.

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