Lectionary: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Note: This sermon can also be viewed on my website
En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.
As many of you know, I co-founded a nonprofit dedicated to enabling churches to be agile and resilient in changing times. When we formed this nonprofit three years ago, my partner and I were addressing the steady decline churches were experiencing.
Even then there was hand-wringing and perturbation about the long-term consequences of downward trending church statistics and the rise of the generation of the “nones.” The future of the church as we have known it has been uncertain for decades.
Then the pandemic hit and now so much more has become uncertain. How do we educate and socialize our children if schools are closed and sports leagues are canceled? How do poorer children without iPads and internet access connect with online learning? How do parents get to work if their children are at home? How long can businesses survive continued quarantine? As the economic impact continues, how will our society cope with rapidly rising numbers of unemployed, evicted, and hungry people and families?
In the midst of all of this, what is becoming clearer is that the church as we knew it is gone. It isn’t likely we’ll ever return to the way things were in February, but that isn’t a bad thing, just a true thing. I see this moment in our history as church as an opportunity for us to be like Peter, Son of Jonah.
You know, in all of these years studying this Scripture, I never noticed how significant it was that Jesus called Peter the Son of Jonah. I was preoccupied with Jesus changing Simon’s name to Peter and giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
I rejoiced in Jesus’ promise that not even the gates of Hades could prevail against the church he was birthing in that moment - a hope, by the way, I repeat often as a facilitator of church vitality - and as a church leader in the midst of a pandemic.
I’ve was so attentive to Jesus praising, blessing, and empowering Peter for his future ministry, that I missed that each of them had renamed the other. Peter calls Jesus “The Son of the Living God,” which represents a hugely transformed understanding of his rabbi-friend.
Jesus calls Peter the “Son of Jonah.” But Peter’s father was named John, not Jonah.
How did I never notice that before? Jesus called Peter the Son of Jonah - you know Jonah - the prophet who refused to bring God’s salvation to the people of Nineveh because he didn’t want God to save them! Jonah, who sat down in defiance, refusing to respond to God’s call to him to serve by loving the unlovable. Jonah, who eventually acquiesced and did what God asked of him partnering with God for the salvation of a whole community of people.
To be named in Jewish culture is to be claimed, to have a declared relationship. By this encounter, Jesus and Peter have entered into a mutually declared, claimed relationship. Here’s why that’s significant.
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Peter used the authority Jesus gave him to keep the door to heaven closed to the Gentiles. It wasn’t until God spoke to Peter in a dream that Peter acquiesced, let go his old way of thinking, and declared that God showed no partiality, and neither would he or the church Jesus entrusted to his leadership.
We are Peter today. In what ways is God speaking to us and leading us to change our old ways of thinking so that we can open wider the gates of heaven in our ministries on earth?
Something else I noticed from this encounter with Jesus and Peter is that Jesus says, ‘you are Peter (Petros - which means rock) and upon this rock (petra which means foundation) I will build my church. For years, I heard that as the church taught me to hear it: as Jesus giving Peter ecclesial authority, hence the church tradition of popes and bishops.
What if this statement wasn’t referring to what Jesus had just said, but to what he was about to say? What if the foundation Jesus was referring to was his giving the keys of the kingdom of heaven to his representatives on earth?
That is the foundation upon which we stand today, is it not? In our sacrament of Baptism, we affirm that we continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. (BCP, 304) This is the foundation of the church: Jesus, who reconciled the whole world to God by the forgiveness of sin. He is the key that opens the gate of the kingdom of heaven - and he has given himself to us.
Jesus was not giving ecclesial, institutional power which Peter and the church could wield, he was giving the church the ability and the commission to show forth God’s power among all peoples, as our Collect says.
And what is God’s power? Love. The abundant, forgiving, reconciling love of Jesus, the Christ.
Our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to serve the way Jesus served: forgiving as radically as Jesus did from his cross, and reconciling all to God - even the bandits to our left or our right.
Having the keys to heaven, however, comes with this warning from Jesus: what the church holds bound on earth would be held bound in heaven, and what the church looses on earth would be loosed in heaven.
The church will be accountable for what it teaches is right and wrong, for what is forgiven and what isn’t - so we must choose wisely and compassionately, in the manner and power of Jesus.
What is so amazing and comforting to me is that despite all of Peter’s demonstrated thick-headed, dim-wittedness, Jesus chose and trusted Peter. In the same way, Jesus has chosen us and trusts us to serve.
The church is undergoing a huge transformative moment, ushered in by the pandemic and the revelations we have witnessed on a global level, about the destructive nature of the -isms that bind us. We’ve discussed racism, sexism, and classism recently.
Today it is individualism that our Scripture lifts up for our contemplation - individualism that infects our churches and our society like a plague.
Paul addresses this -ism so beautifully and effectively in his metaphor of the church as a body, connected and unified by the Spirit of God into one magnificent, mystical whole.
Paul says, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” We are members of one another - not the church, not Christianity or our branch of it, the Episcopal Church. We are members of one another.
The sin of individualism is the temptation to believe that “I” matter most, that looking out for number one is morally or spiritually acceptable. It is not.
I have never worried about the survival of the church. Jesus promised that no matter how wide the gates of death open, the church will stand firm bringing life, eternal life in Jesus Christ, to all.
So rather than worry, we who follow Jesus can focus our vision and energy on the opportunities that are emerging for us in this moment. In what ways is God calling and strengthening us right now? What gifts are we discerning in ourselves and in our faith community?
Gifts are given for the purpose of serving God’s people in God’s name. The gifts we have change and adapt as the needs of God’s people change. The church, our church, is the repository of these gifts. The church is where our gifts are discovered, nurtured, and sent out to serve.
The uncertainties we face now are nothing to fear. Rather they are our signal, an alert message that God is calling to us and has a plan for us to implement. This plan, however, may be very different from the one we thought we were supposed to be doing. Like Peter, Son of Jonah, we may have to radically change how we think and act, but also like Peter, we have been chosen by God who trusts us to do just that.
Let us pray: God of love, we thank you for your trust in us, for the gifts you give us, and the call to serve. Help us discern how you are strengthening us right now that we may glorify you by using the keys you have given us to open wide the gates of heaven on earth, ministering to your people as Jesus did - with compassion, forgiveness, and reconciling love. It is in your holy name we pray. Amen.