Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Foundation of the Church

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 16, RCL)
Exodus 1:8-2:10;Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Sunday, August 24, 2008 – St. Mark’s, Fort Dodge, IA and Good Shepherd, Webster City, IA

Today’s Gospel lesson is, in many ways, one of the most important stories in the evolution of the Christian Church. It occurs at a pivotal moment in Matthew’s account of the formation of the Church. In Matthew’s Gospel, today’s lesson is the central or middle part of a larger, three part story. Up to this point, the Gospel tells about the growing opposition of the old, established religious and political communities to Jesus’ growing movement. Looking at the story to this point, we see this opposition taking the form of Jesus being rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. We see John the Baptist beheaded. We witness Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman who challenges his seemingly narrow religious views. And we see the tensions between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, with the Pharisees and Sadducees testing Jesus, and Jesus engaging in public and private criticisms of these authorities.

In the third and final part of the story, which we will hear in subsequent weeks, we have a foretaste of what the new kingdom will be like. We experience the Transfiguration, with Jesus being glorified as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. We learn important lessons about temptation and forgiveness. We learn about the power of faith. And we learn just how this new kingdom will be accomplished, with the death and resurrection of Jesus. And, in the process, we glimpse the glory of God revealed to his new kingdom through Jesus Christ.

In between, we have the pivotal middle piece, of which today’s story is a part. We have the part of the story that provides the transition from the old community of faith based on Jewish legalism, to the new community of faith based on the grace and mercy of God that extends even to Gentiles. In this critical, middle piece, we have two incredibly important events that make the transition possible. The first of these is revelation. It is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and Jesus’ affirmation that this is indeed the case. The second is the blessing, naming, and commissioning of Peter.

The first of these is certainly important to our faith. Up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel, there have been hints that Jesus may be the Messiah. There are suggestions, rather strong ones, that Jesus is the Son of God. But Peter’s confession is the first time that someone put it all together and makes a definitive statement about Jesus’ identity. And this is the first time that Jesus confirms that, yes, he is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. Our entire faith tradition flows from this central fact. All other events in the story of Jesus are built round this central tenant – the extraordinary manner of his birth, his teachings, the miraculous healings he performed, right up to his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

But that’s not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on the second part of this pivotal account. I want to focus on how Jesus responds to Peter in the wake of this revelation – on the role he gives to Peter – that Peter is to be the rock, the foundation, on which Jesus will build his church. This is critical to the development of the Church. This is a moment in the formation of the Church that is perhaps second only to Pentecost. While Pentecost may be the birthday of the Church, Jesus’ proclamation following Peter’s confession sets the stage for the impending birth of the Church. It is the moment of conception, if you will. With that simple commissioning, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” Jesus literally lays the foundation for what would become Christianity.

This moment is also important because it tells us what Jesus envisions for his Church. In his commissioning of Peter, Jesus is emphatically stating that the Church is not founded on buildings. It is not founded on doctrine or dogma. It is not founded on political position. Rather, it is founded on a person – on Peter.

On Peter? Couldn’t Jesus have made a better choice? I mean, have you ever stopped to consider just what Peter was like? We know he is a fisherman, which for that time and place would have actually been a pretty lucrative business. But even so, as a fisherman he is still in the lower social strata. And furthermore, we are told he is uneducated (Acts 4:13). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Scripture indicates that Peter has a certain amount of humility. After all, he recognizes and willingly confesses to Jesus that he is a sinful man (Lk 5:8). But at the same time, he can be kind of gutsy, even arrogant. After all, he has the nerve to rebuke Jesus when he foretells that he will undergo great suffering and be killed (Mt 16:22). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Scripture indicates that Peter is a bit idealistic. After all, he wants to stay on the Mount of the Transfiguration and worship at the feet of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Mt 17:4). Yet, he can also be impulsive. After all, he jumps into the sea, thinking he can walk on water, just like Jesus (Mt 14:28). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Scripture indicates that Peter is conscientious. He is diligent about living according to the Law and is concerned with the specific requirements of the Law (cf Mt 18:21). But sometimes, he can be a little rigid in its application. Such as when he initially refuses to eat something he considers unclean, even though God said it’s okay (cf Acts 10:10 ff). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Peter repeatedly shows himself to be obedient (cf Jn 21:11). But when he hears things he does not particularly like, he can get a little whiney (cf Mt 19:27). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Peter is certainly a loyal follower of Jesus. After all, he does promise Jesus that he will not desert him (Mt 26:33). But when push comes to shove, he is more concerned with his own wellbeing and denies Jesus three times (Mt 26:69 ff). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Peter definitely has some very good qualities. But he also has some less than desirable qualities. As I look at this little psychological profile we have built of Peter, straight out of the pages of the New Testament, I see something startling. I see a lot of qualities that I have. I see a lot of qualities that are present in nearly everyone I know. What I see in this profile of Peter is a pretty good cross-section of human strengths and human frailties – of those qualities that make us strong, but also those qualities that make us difficult to live with. In short, I see all the qualities that make us human.

Peter is not selected to be the foundation of the Church because he is some sort of superman, some sort of spiritual giant. He is selected precisely because of who he appears to be in Scripture, warts and all. He is selected precisely because he is very human – because he shares the very traits and characteristics of the people who will comprise the Church. In this respect, Peter represents all Christians. He is the archetypal Christian. He is us. As one of my parishioners said regarding Peter, “I find it encouraging for us that Peter was the way he was.” In other words, the Church has been able to survive because we can relate to Peter. With all due respect to our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who see the papacy as the heir and successor of Peter, this is too narrow a perspective. By virtue of our baptisms, we are all heirs to the foundation laid by Peter. In that respect, the story of Peter is the story of all of us who bear the name “Christian.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who think that Christians should be perfect. I remember a woman who attended the church I went to in high school. Her name was Scottie. Scottie was very faithful. She attended church every Sunday. She worked on committees and helped out with various projects. Despite all this, she wouldn’t become a member of the church. One Sunday after church, Scottie went out to the parking lot. She ran into my father, who had gone to the parking lot for a smoke. Seeing my father smoke completely changed her perception about what it meant to be a Christian. Here was a man who was an elder, a member of the board of trustees, a pillar of the congregation. And he was smoking. It turns out the reason that Scottie did not become a member of the church was that she was a smoker herself and she honestly felt that because of that, she could not join the church. She felt that because of her vice, she was not good enough to be a member of the church. Her encounter with my father helped her to see God’s grace and unending love, that all are welcome in the church, that all are invited into full membership in the Body of Christ, no matter who they are, what they are, or what they do. The following Sunday, Scottie officially joined the church and became a member of First Christian Church in Riverside, California.

God does not require that we be perfect in order to be Christians. God only asks us to be faithful. That was obvious in the choice of Peter to be the foundation of the Church. God, through Jesus, chose to establish the Church on a flawed human being – the Church that would be comprised of flawed human beings. Why? Because ours is an incarnational religion. Jesus, the Son of God, fully divine, was incarnated, became human so that he might know us flesh to flesh, and so that we might know him flesh to flesh. For the Church, which would be the Body of Christ, to be of any value, it too would have to be incarnational, human, flesh to flesh. Otherwise, we simply wouldn’t be able to relate. We saw that from the Old Testament experience. We simply could not relate to a God whom we could not experience face to face, flesh to flesh. Hence, Christ’s incarnation. Hence, the Body of Christ, the Church, built upon a very real, sometimes flawed, person. An institution for very real, sometimes flawed, people.

Jesus showed a great deal of faith by entrusting his Church, the institution that would be his Body on Earth, to a bunch of flawed beings. He showed a great deal of faith by entrusting to us the task of taking his message of love and mercy to a broken world. We talk about our faith in Jesus. But we generally forget that faith runs both ways. Today’s Gospel lesson shows us that the truly Good News is that Jesus has faith in us. Let’s not let him down.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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