Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rock of Faith

A Sermon based on Matthew 16:13-20
August 21, 2011

I’ve always been fascinated with rocks. As a kid I was interested in geology and in learning how different rocks formed. Some rocks were formed by volcanic forces, while others from layers of sediment.

As a kid I was also interested in ruins. I was curious how ancient peoples could build temples and houses and roads out of relatively basic materials like rock. And I found it amazing that people could build things thousands of years ago that are still standing to one degree or another today. Someday I’d like to see the Greco-Roman ruins in Europe, but I have seen many different Maya ruins. The Maya built temples out of huge limestone blocks, which they cut and carved to fit together perfectly.

Rock is everywhere. It’s natural, abundant, strong and makes a good building material. It is fitting that such a basic and strong word became Simon Peter’s new name in today’s gospel reading.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

 It seems that many people were thinking that Jesus was a kind of prophet – either a second John the Baptist or a second coming of a famous prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah. It’s not unusual that people would have thought that about Jesus. Jesus did kind of fit the mold for a prophet – he spoke with authority about people’s relationship with God and each other, the way people should live, and also Jesus had some kind of close connection to God that regular people did not seem to have. Jesus demonstrated power during his miracles, and prophets of old had signs and wonders attributed to them as well. If all that was important about Jesus was his teachings and his miracles then he would have been only a prophet – but Jesus was more than that.

Jesus asked Peter what Peter thought – “who do you say that I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."

This is one of the first times that Jesus praises Peter instead of criticizing him as one of little faith. Jesus blesses Peter for his answer and acknowledges that such an answer could not have come from Peter alone but must have been revealed to him by God. Jesus then gives Simon the name Peter, which means rock.

It is this passage that the Roman Catholic Church uses to stress the importance of Peter. They claim that Peter was the rock on which Jesus built his church. Peter was the first bishop of Rome and an important leader in the early church, but there were other bishops and other important leaders as well.

Scholars disagree on whether the rock on which the church is built that Jesus refers to in this passage is a reference to Peter or Peter’s confession of faith. We don’t have a recording of the Aramaic or Hebrew words that Jesus spoke on this occasion. What we have is a Greek account written years after the fact. Greek words have masculine, feminine and neuter forms. The Greek word for Rock changes gender forms in this passage, which suggests to many (mostly Protestant scholars) that it is not Peter but rather Peter’s confession that is the rock on which the church is built.

“And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

I’m sympathetic to that interpretation, that there is a play on words with Peter’s new name but it is Peter’s confession of faith that is the rock on which the church is built. I believe that Peter is one of the first rocks of the church, but not the foundation of our faith. The understanding of Jesus as Messiah and the Son of God is the foundation of the Christian faith.

Our closing hymn today reflects this belief. We will be singing one of my favorite hymns, The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.

Jesus may be the foundation of the church, but people like Peter, Paul, and you and me make up the building blocks that build on that foundation. We need the foundation of who came before us to keep building upon.

It’s a common thing for people to get tired of a design or want something bigger or grander. People might build an addition to their house, but many buildings are either gutted or completely torn down before building anew. The Maya were different. Instead of tearing the old temple and building a new one from scratch – the Maya would build right on top of the old temple. They tended to not destroy what came before but they preserved it and then covered it up with the new version. The old became the foundation for the new.

I think this is a good image for the church. We don’t have to tear down what came before, we acknowledge it and build whatever new that needs to be built.

Later in this service, Sophia will be baptized today. Sophia will become a member of the church, a new building block. She is lucky and won’t have to start from scratch. She already has the witness of Christians from the past two thousand years, the compilations of scriptures into a bible, prayers and hymns and whole liturgies. But Sophia and all of us today are new blocks, ready to build for a new church in a new age. There are always challenges, both new ones and old ones that return.

I've liked using the rock and building imagery, but Paul’s imagery of the body is more organic and better represents how the church is a living and growing thing.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”

We each are different people, but together we make up the church. We each have different abilities and gifts, but together we can accomplish wonderful things that we couldn't do alone. You may already know what gifts you have, and might already be utilizing them for the growth of the church and the Kingdom of God. If you don’t know your gifts, then this can be a time of discernment for you. This discernment can start individually in prayer but it is important to also discern with others in the community. Sometimes others can see gifts in ourselves that are difficult for us to see.

Every person in the church has been empowered by the Holy Spirit when we were baptized into Christ. This Holy Spirit is the same in everyone, even though it is manifested in different ways.When gifts are used for the common good, then we know that the Spirit of God is present within us. The work of the church is to work for good in the world, by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and also caring for those in need.

The beautiful thing about the church is that it is not a ruin of an ancient building, weathered by time and the elements but the church is instead a living, growing thing. We build on what came before, we grow from what grew before. Each of us can be a valued part of this, each in our own way. Peter was an important rock in the early church and serves as an example to us today, especially through his profound confession of faith. The church has grown immensely since then, but there is still more growing and building to do. Thanks be to God for all the opportunities for growth that Jesus brings our way – for individual growth but especially for growth together as the body of Christ.

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New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.