Wow – this has been an incredible week of change and upheaval for me. From the great farewell service at the Worthington church last Sunday, to having my younger daughter leave for university studies in Switzerland the very next day, to packing up the car and leaving Columbus the day after that, almost 30 years to the day that I first called it home, and then starting work here the very next day, planning today’s service and starting pastoral care work and meeting more people and trying to get the email to work right, and getting settled into the farmhouse and doing some grocery shopping and trying to figure out where I packed my black socks, and a bunch of other things as well, I’ve barely had time to catch my breath; which is all my long-winded way of saying… don’t expect a heck of a lot from this week’s sermon.
Seriously, it has been a time of real transition for me. And it’s a time of real, important transition for all of you, too. And in an important way, transition is an important part of today’s gospel lesson, too.
This is the story of Jesus and the disciples visiting Caesarea Philippi, a city in the north of modern-day Israel, near the Golan Heights and the border with Syria and Lebanon. Herod the Great had tried to kiss up to his boss, the Caesar, in Rome by renaming the city it in honor of him, but for centuries before, and since, the city was called Panias, named for the Greek god Pan. In the city, there was a large, impressive temple built in honor of Pan, built over the outlet of a massive natural spring that gushed out of the mouth of a small cave there. The temple was designed so that the spring flowed right out the front of the temple, down a spillway in the center of the marble steps, and out into the countryside, actually going on to form the Jordan River beyond. People would come from miles round to worship Pan and other Greek gods here. It was a very important hub of ancient religious activity. So it makes sense that Jesus and the disciples would get into this kind of discussion as they were visiting there, asking what the people thought of him.
So what’s the transitional aspect of this story?
Well, it’s important to recognize that this same story is told in one way or another in all four of the gospels. Each one of them was written from a particular viewpoint, with a particular purpose, and to a particular audience. And when we get multiple versions of the same story, we can compare the different ways each writer tells it – what parts of the story did they all keep? What did they emphasize, or de-emphasize? What did they leave out? What did they add? When we do that, we can get a lot better picture of what point or message the particular writer was interested in getting across. And when we do that with this story, there’s one thing that Matthew includes that the others don’t, that ends up sticking out like a sore thumb: this is the only version of the story that talks about the Church. In fact, there are only two places in all the gospels where Jesus is quoted as talking about the Church, and they’re both in Matthew’s gospel, and this is the first of them. And that’s the important transitional piece here: it’s right at this point that Matthew’s story shifts, from being about Jesus’ wandering earthly ministry, to now becoming about his final journey to Jerusalem, his crucifixion and resurrection, and what Jesus’ followers are supposed to do after that. It’s right here that he story starts to become directly about the Church. The Church, and what it’s supposed to be like, how it’s supposed to act, is very important to the author of Matthew.
So with that in mind, let’s look again at Jesus’ words. First, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter blurts out that he’s the Messiah, the Son of God. Now according to Matthew, Peter’s a day late and a dollar short in this big announcement, since all the disciples had already said the same thing a couple chapters earlier. You can almost imagine the other disciples looking at Peter after he’d said that, and saying “Well duh, where have you been, Captain Obvious? Welcome to the party.” Or maybe they thought that Peter was being a bit of a brown-noser, trying to score points with the boss.
But whatever the disciples might have been thinking, Jesus compliments Peter for his profession of faith in Jesus. And he says that it’s this faith in him that will be the bedrock, the very foundation, of the Church across all time.
And then, Jesus talks about what the Church built on that kind of faith will be like. He says that the gates of Hades won’t be able to prevail against that Church. It’s a subtle, but very important distinction he makes here. Some people see the Church as a kind of fortress, a fixed thing with strong, thick walls that’s supposed to stay put and protect its holiness and truth from the onslaught of the forces of evil in the world trying to attack it. But to Jesus, according to his words here, the situation is actually the exact opposite: it’s Hades, the forces of evil, that’s the fixed, static thing, and the Church is supposed to be the one on the move, prevailing against it. Did you catch that in Jesus’ words?
According to Matthew, Jesus says that the faith of the Church isn’t just about words spoken, but if the words that we speak about our faith are true, then they’ll result in real, concrete action. It will result in a Church that’s constantly on the move – a Church that doesn’t rely solely on its past, but one that’s always looking forward. A Church that’s always trying to determine what of its past is still valid, and what has to change, based on where it finds itself, here and now. A Church that’s always trying to understand how, and where, and in what ways, God is leading it, as it tries to proclaim God’s message of love, and mercy, and justice to all, until the very gates of Hell are rattling and giving way on their hinges. That, according to Jesus, is the whole mission and purpose of the Church. So for us, the question isn’t just “Who do you say that I am?” but “How do you say it?”
Well, Christians have been trying to figure out the answer to those questions since before Matthew’s gospel was ever put down to papyrus; probably since the very night of Jesus’ arrest. And now, all of us here are dealing with those same questions. In this transitional time for WPC, we’re called to reexamine how we’ve been the church, and how we’re being called to be the church into the future. We’re supposed to think about our mission, but it’s probably more helpful for us to think about that in terms of what is God’s mission – where is God already at work, in Auburn and in our congregation, and how do we best tap into that and help it along? We have to come up with the answer to “Who do you say/How do you say” for our time, here and now.
The problem is that we can, and often have, gotten the answer to that question wrong. There have been times in the past, and the present, when the Church, even with the best of intentions, has really messed up the answer to the question of how we’re supposed to be the church. We’ve messed up in the past, and we’ll certainly mess up again.
But despite the possibility of getting things wrong, God still calls us forward, and to keep trying to find that answer, and so we will. Together, you and I will work together, pray together, live, love, and laugh together, probably cry together, as we try to live out our faith and discern where God is leading us. And we can do it with hope and joy, because God has promised to be with us, and guide us, and help us every step of the way – and even, when we make a wrong turn and fall, to pick us up and point us in the right direction again.
That’s the challenge that God has given to you, and to me, and to the entire Church. Even though sometimes it can be a little uncertain, and even a little scary, it’s still a great challenge. Greater than the Ice Bucket challenge, even. So together, let’s see where that challenge, God’s challenge, is going to take us next. I’m ready. Are you ready?
Thanks be to God.