We depart from our Old Testament series this morning because it is a very special day in the life of this church, the day when we ordain and install new officers for our Session and Diaconate, and the Gospel lesson for today fits this occasion so well. These new officers have been in classes all summer, they have served a shelter meal, they have gotten to know each other and Chris and Taylor and me as they prepare to be leaders for you in the next few years. Some of them may come with confidence, but many come wondering why they were called, yet all are ready to serve.
Surely the first disciples of Christ must have felt the same way. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, and saw two brothers, Simon, and Andrew, who were fishermen by trade. Jesus called them to follow him, and they, without further thought or any goodbyes to family or friends, got up and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22). Jesus called others too as he gathered around himself twelve disciples. Disciple, by the way, means “pupil,” or “learner.” It is not the same as an apostle, which denotes one who is sent, like a messenger or ambassador. A disciple can become an apostle, as these called by Jesus did after his death and resurrection of.
If we follow the Gospel of Matthew, we see that the disciples heard Jesus teach and preach the Sermon on the Mount, which includes the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. They witnessed him healing blind people and lepers and even a girl who had died. They saw him feed 5000 people, and heal Simon’s mother-in-law. They marveled when he calmed a storm and walked on water. And when Peter tried to walk on water too, he sank, yet Jesus caught him (Matthew 14:22-33).
So Simon and the other disciples were learning and watching this teacher and healer when Jesus asked them who people were saying he was. The disciples answered that they saw him as one of the great prophets who had gone before him – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another. But, Jesus wanted more. “Who do you say that I am?” He asked the disciples gathered with him. And Simon, often the leader, spoke up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
According to Tom Long, this is a pivotal point in the Gospel of Matthew. We see other passages, like the Transfiguration in chapter 17, as more pivotal. But this little passage, which some scholars even question as authentic to the gospel, establishes the beginnings of a church centered around Jesus as the Christ. The word for church, ecclesia, is used only twice in the Gospels, believe it or not, here and in chapter 18 of this gospel. “Church” is used a lot in Acts and in the letters of the New Testament, but not in the Gospels. For Jesus was not about establishing a building or an organization, but a people. Jesus was building a church based on the rock of a follower, and it was not even a solid rock.
Jesus renamed Simon as Peter, which means “rock,” the rock upon which the church would be built, he said. Peter was not a perfect man. The gospels depict him as a leader of the disciples, but also as impulsive, maybe even a bit volatile, and less than perfect. Yet Jesus called him the rock. Peter fell to the ground in fear at the Transfiguration, and Peter was the one to ask Jesus what the disciples would get as a reward for leaving everything behind and following him (Matt. 19:27). Peter was, of course, the one who denied knowing Jesus three time after Jesus as arrested. Yet Peter was the rock upon whom Christ said the church would be built.
In our passage, we hear Jesus tell Peter that this gift of understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, was not even something of Peter’s own doing. It was not that Peter was such a good student and had figured this out all on his own. God revealed it to him, said Jesus. And when Jesus said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against this church, this rock, he did not say that the church would not be pummeled by controversy, by division, by disasters. He simply said the church would withstand it all. In present days, when many question the future existence of church, especially the mainline denominations like ours, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, it is reassuring to hear Jesus remind us that the true church of God will not fall.
Jesus gave Peter keys, though not literal keys like we see in many pictures of Peter. The keys for the kingdom of heaven do not mean really mean that St. Peter will be standing at the gates of heaven when you and I approach to see if we can get in. The keys of the kingdom of heaven refer more to the work that needs to be done here on earth to help bring the kingdom into being for all creation, for all people. Jesus says that whatever the church does on earth is connected with God, reflects the kingdom, for good or for bad. There is responsibility in following Jesus, a responsibility to bear out all that he teaches and preaches in the name of the living God. Jesus gives all the disciples the same authority later in this gospel (Matthew 18:18), thus giving it to all of us as well.
At the end of our passage, Jesus “sternly” told the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Though this occurs often in the gospels, especially in Mark, it astounds us. Why not tell everyone? Why not shout it from the mountaintops? It is likely that Jesus told them to keep it quiet because he knew they, and others who would hear it, would not fully understand what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. The Messiah that the Jews had expected for centuries would be a warrior king, defeating the oppressors and ruling with wisdom, power and righteousness. It was obvious from the reaction of Peter just after this passage to Jesus that they did not get it quite yet. Jesus told them that he would go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, be killed, and be raised three days later. And when he said this, Peter took him aside from the rest of the disciples and said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus really fussed back at him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
So, new officers, and really all of us, we can be assured by this call of Peter to be the rock, the foundation, of the church. Peter was far from perfect. He did not get it right all the time. He reacted and spoke inapropriately at times. And yet he led the floundering new Christian church through many tumultuous years as best and as loyally as he could. Maybe that is all we need as we seek to follow Christ and to lead one another – that loyalty, that striving, that imperfection that we all have but through which God can act to create good. We have to trust in that as we move forward as disciples. We are all called, and we all have gifts to contribute to the body of Christ, as the church seeks to bring the kingdom of heaven to a world that sorely needs it.
A few weekends ago, I went to Presbyterian Mecca, Montreat, for a short but powerful conference called the Women’s Connection. About 300 women, most but not all Presbyterian, gathered at this mountain retreat to talk about a book called Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. We met the author, Rachel Held Evans, and she is a young mother, humble, funny, irreverent at times, passionate, and she has surprisingly strong theology for such a young person. She is delightful. The book emerged from her blogs as the struggled with church. She became disillusioned with all the politics, the hypocrisy, the scandals, the big budget fights. She did not see these as signs of people who were following the teachings of Jesus. Yet something kept drawing her back to church, she said, and she and some friends ended up establishing a new church. She challenges the church to be more real, to be more like Jesus.
In a chapter entitled simply “Hands,” she says this about following Jesus:
“Ultimately, all are commissioned. All are called. All belong to the holy order of God’s beloved. The hands that pass the peace can pass a meal to a man on the street. The hands that cup together to receive Christ in the bread will extend to receive Christ in the immigrant, the refugee, the lonely or the sick. Hands plant and uproot, and cook, and caress. They repair, and dress wounds. Hands tickle giggling children and wipe away tears. Hands rub heaving bellies of big, ugly dogs. Hands sanctify all sorts of ordinary things and make them holy. Through touch, God gave us the power to injure or to heal, to wage war or to wash feet. Let us not forget the gravity of that. Let us not forget the call.” (Evans, p. 98)
So, new officers, old officers, every one of us, let us not forget this call of Christ. We are less than perfect. We are who we are. And yet we, and God through us, can do much to move the kingdom of heaven a bit closer to earth, if we but just follow this one called Christ, the Son of the Living God. One of the new officers, in the Statement of Faith that they all write, said, “First and foremost, I believe that how I live my life matters – A LOT! And mostly not to me.” Yes, that’s right, how we live our lives matters a lot to God, because, when we follow, we can and we will accomplish much, especially when we do it together as a community, a covenant people.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Evans, Rachel Held, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Nelson Books, TN, 2015)
Long, Thomas G., Matthew (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1997)