12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 27, 2017
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And 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. 18And 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. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. – Matthew 16:13-20
See also Exodus 1:8-2:10.
Listen to today’s sermon here:
*Credit for the underlying idea of this sermon goes to Rev. Christina Williams of the Hadley Congregational Church from her sermon at the Ecumenical Good Friday Service earlier this year in which she talked about Peter’s hitting rock bottom.
I’m not generally into watching construction sites, but I am always fascinated when I’m in a big city and they are preparing the foundations for a new skyscraper. They require by some measures rather large and deep foundations, and yet for the height that is accomplished, the holes in the earth and the steel and concrete pillars seem barely enough to hold a smaller building much less one rising 2000 feet into the air. I am never more aware of the foundation than when standing at the top of one of those super-tall buildings, feeling the slight sway that occurs on the top floors of such buildings. It boggles my mind that we have figured out how to support buildings thousands of feet high on relatively small foundations. But of course it requires a certain kind of foundation. That Manhattan is home to so many skyscrapers is at least in part a result of relatively accessible solid bedrock beneath what has become the Financial District and Midtown. Generally speaking you can’t build a skyscraper just anywhere.
The same goes for the church. Certainly you can plant a church or hold worship or go out and be the church in the world anywhere. But for the community that will grow from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it’s metaphorically, at least, going to require a foundation stronger than the world’s tallest buildings.
You almost imagine Jesus pondering just who might be that kind of foundation. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks his closest followers, and sits back to see what they say. A few safe answers, conveniently attributed to someone else, are floated, and at Jesus’ repetition of the question, Simon boldly risks a more radical answer: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” And with that Simon becomes Peter, Petros, Rocky one, bedrock for the church.
But let’s review Peter’s track record before and after this. Peter is the one who just a few weeks ago tried walking on water and failed. Peter is the one who always has something impetuous to say, a bit of a risk-taker. Peter is the one who will deny Jesus three times and desert him in his final hours. Peter is the one who in the early years of the church be part of the disagreements that have to be hashed out in Acts, and it takes a divine vision for him to finally see God’s point about welcoming others into the fold. Peter is a rocky foundation – in the worst sense of the word – and just because he risks this one answer and gets it right, Jesus is willing to stake something as big and risky as the whole church on the foundation of Peter?
Yes. Jesus does. Not because Peter is the best, and not even because Peter gets it right. But because God can build a skyscraper on darn near anything. Tied up in this whole conversation is the underlying truth that none of us is an adequate foundation for the church. If the church depends on Peter, or you or me for that matter, then we might as well give up now. If it depends on our right answers to the questions about Jesus’ identity, or the steadfastness to withstand anything that comes our way, or about our capacity to hold firm in the face of injustice and evil, then there wouldn’t be a church today.
Maybe Peter is Jesus’ choice for a foundation because Peter knows what it means to hit rock bottom. For all the aforementioned reasons and probably hundreds more that didn’t make the scriptural texts, Peter knows as well as any of us do that we aren’t the kind of solid rock we’d like to pretend we are. But it’s when we’ve been knocked flat down to nothing that we’re the most solid foundation for God to start something new.
If God can build the release of God’s people from the hands of slavery under the Egyptians from a story that starts, as we read this morning, with the slaughter of innocents and a baby sent downriver in a basket, then God can build the church on Peter and on us.
God can build a church on top of rocks that have been thrown in hatred and ignorance, or a church on top of buildings crumbled by bombs, creating a home for new life and resurrection on the foundation of the messes we have created for ourselves. Or God can build a church on toppled monuments that were once erected to intimidate others into submission, creating a space for hope and opened hearts. Or God can raise up a church on the flooded towns of Texas or on top of crumbled cities after earthquakes, putting us back together again when the natural world swallows us up. And God can even build up a church on a foundation of tombstones, those markers that proclaim in rocky permanence the grief we bear and the promise that we too will return to dust – on those God builds the great communion of resurrected saints. Because God has built up a church on that foundation – a whole church founded on Jesus’ rock-hewn grave burst open that first Easter.
It’s exactly when all we have and hold crumbles before us – our pride, our success, our accomplishments, our abilities, our anxieties and fears, our bodies and minds, our hearts and souls, our very lives – it’s when the walls that hold us up fall to pieces that the Holy Spirit wells up in us an awareness of the only one who can save us – the Messiah, the son of the living God. And whether such a confession falls eloquently from our lips or whether our sighs and groans speak that truth in ways we don’t always know and understand ourselves, that rock bottom place, the rockiness of our lives, is the kind of place Jesus stakes a claim and builds a church.
So here we are: church. Gathered around this table, nourished by this font, a living testament to the power of God to build a community of resurrected people on rocky foundations. We may not look like the shiniest, tallest, most impressive of skyscrapers, but we live secure, knowing the one who has placed us here can build us up and make us the foundation for the pouring out of grace into this rocky world.
-Pastor Steven Wilco