Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pentecost 10A: You are Petros

Lectionary: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

How many of you are familiar with the story, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams (Unicorn Publishing, NJ)? It’s the story of a stuffed toy rabbit that lived with a small boy. The boy had lots of toys in his nursery - there were mechanical toys “full of modern ideas” who “looked down on” all the other toys; there was a model boat who “caught the tone” from the mechanical toys and held himself superior to the others; there was a jointed wooden lion who “pretended he was connected to the Government” and therefore, was a very important toy. When the Velveteen Rabbit arrived, the other toys made him feel common and unimportant – except for the wise, old Skin Horse, who “had lived longer in the nursery than any of the other [toys].”

One day, the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse what it meant to be REAL. Does is mean “having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle” like the mechanical toys? Does it mean being important like the wooden lion?

No, said the Skin Horse. “Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you... [when you’re loved] for a long, long, time."

“Does it happen all at once… or bit by bit?” the Velveteen Rabbit asked. “It doesn’t happen all at once” the Skin Horse replied. “You become. It takes a long time.”

The same is true about being Christian. We become. And it takes our whole lives.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, the apostle we know by his nickname, Peter, experiences a moment of divine revelation. Jesus and his disciples have been discussing who people say he is, and Jesus asks: But who do YOU say that I am? And Simon Peter answers: “You are the Messiah. The Son of the living God.” Jesus blesses Peter, then clarifies to all who are listening (including us) that this revelation of truth came to Peter as a gift from God, and was not the product of his own understanding or experience.

Then Jesus gives his disciple his now famous nick-name: “You are Peter” Jesus says. ‘Petros’ in Greek; ‘Cephas’ in Aramaic, and it means ‘stone or rock.’

It’s a bit of word-play with a purpose. This particular nick-name is also an identity and a call to mission. “You are Petros (a stone, a single part of a greater whole) and upon this petra (foundation) I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Did you hear that? Not even death - and Jesus is talking here about his own death which is about to happen – not even death will prevail against the church I build.

So - who is the builder of the church? Jesus says, “…I will build my church…” God in Christ is the builder. It isn’t the vestry, or the rector, or the bishop – or even the most involved members. We don’t build the church. God does. So when we consider our tithes and our budget, our worship and music, our leadership and programs, and our path into the future, it is important for us to remember that God is the builder of this church. We are individually Petros whom God graces and unifies and forms into petra, the foundation on upon which the church is built.

This is not a new concept. In the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, God says to the people: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.”

God did it. Abraham and Sara were Petros-es whom God graced and unified into petra and through whom God built a people so numerous that our numbers are greater than the number of stars in the skies.

Ours isn’t a church built on or by a single stone (person). It’s a church built by God through each of us who is Petros, who receives the grace of God into our lives and uses it according to and for God’s purpose. That is what Peter did that day, and that’s why Jesus said Peter had the keys to the kingdom.

Many understand this to mean that Peter is the one who reveals the mystery of the kingdom, or decides who gets to enter the pearly gates of heaven. But the gospel story makes clear that revelation comes from God, not from any human. And it isn’t likely that God needs a guard at the gate of heaven.

So what does it mean? To have a key is to have the means of opening a locked door. Jesus is giving to his disciples, and to all of us who are Petros, the means by which to open the doors of the kingdom to those who are locked out.

The last bit of the gospel story about binding and loosing is a rabbinical instruction. In those days, rabbis were responsible for establishing the rules for their followers. For us, these would be the canons of TEC and the diocese.

Jesus, the rabbi, is instructing Peter and the other disciples (the word in Greek is plural) in the ways of a rabbi. Jesus says - Now y’all decide what to bind (that is, what not to allow) and what to loose (…what to allow). I’ve got your back. I will guide you in this. Remember you are Petros. I am the builder. I have the big picture in mind. You don’t. You can’t.

Keep in mind that this gospel story takes place right after Peter has failed in his attempt to walk on water and right before he denies Jesus three times at the trial, which shows us that being Petros means that we are becoming as God would have us be. It means we are continually opening to whatever grace God chooses to give us at this moment in our journey, knowing that the gift isn’t for us alone – it’s for the petra - the unified foundation formed by God from each of us and our gifts for the building of the church, the body of Christ, on earth.

As St. Paul says, 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 by God. That’s why Paul cautions us “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think.”

If we separate ourselves from the others in the petra, we impede God’s building of the church. If we withhold the gifts given to us (our money, talents, and time), we impede God’s building of the church. If we use the gifts given to us for our own purpose instead of for God’s purpose, we impede God’s building of the church. If we judge someone else’s gift as common or unimportant or our own as superior, we are wrong and impeding God’s building of the church.

Our church, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, is a partial expression of the petra. We are incomplete and still becoming. We still are being formed by God. Everyone here, each Petros, is meant to be here. Everyone here has a gift and a purpose designed by God, which God desires to use. And everyone who comes to us brings a gift and a purpose designed by God and meant to be part of the petra upon which God continues to build the church in our time – right here at Redeemer.

This brings to mind a quote I saw on Facebook last week, posted by our own Kheresa Harmon. She quoted Douglas Webster, Ph.D. as saying: "We think of hospitality as giving to others, but what if hospitality is the Lord's way of bringing people into our lives who will give to us: the foreign student who enlarges our world, the homeless person who deepens our compassion, the missionary who causes us to pray more earnestly, the single mom who increases our family, and the neighbor whose next-door presence trains us in practical love?"

Practicing hospitality as Dr. Webster describes it will change us, transform us as St. Paul says, and that might be a bit uncomfortable. But that’s all part of our becoming.

When the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse if becoming Real hurt, the Skin Horse replied, “‘Sometimes,’ for he was always truthful [but] ‘when you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Jesus showed us the truth of that when he gave up his life on the cross. Now it’s up to us to hear and be transformed by Jesus’ words: You are Petros and upon this petra I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.