St Andrews Ealing
Sunday 23rd August 2020 Preacher: Revd Dr Elizabeth Welch
Introduction: The names we give to Jesus
In the Gospel for today, we read firstly of Jesus asking a question of his disciples as to the views of the crowds around him: ‘who do people say the Son of Man is?’
Then he goes on to ask the disciples, ‘who do you say that I am?’
The first question gets an interesting response, from the different historical and faith perspectives of the people listening: Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, there’s even one who says Jeremiah (here’s a new one, and the only place Jeremiah is referred to in response to this question in the NT.) Still others generalise and say ‘one of the prophets.’
Their responses reflect back on all who had spoken over many centuries, in many different ways, of God’s promise of fulfilment for the people of Israel, and the way in which Jesus was seen as the fulfilment of God’s promise in person.
Then Jesus turns to the disciples, thinking that they might have a different take on this, out of their particular knowledge and experience of him.
It’s interesting to reflect on all the ways in which they could have answered.
Son of Mary? Shepherd? Teacher? Healer?
Would they have come as far as Saviour? What about Messiah, Son of God, and the particular implications this carries?
Peter gave the answer that was most deeply descriptive, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’ As a result of his faith in Jesus, he receives Jesus’ blessing, and Jesus’ commission.
We’ll hear more about how Jesus responds to Peter later on in the service.
But now, a moment or two in silence, to ask ourselves ‘who do I say that Jesus is?’ What are the names by which I most helpfully know him?
Period of silence for reflection.
The discussion about the names of Jesus is a discussion that’s continued over the centuries and still goes on today. How we refer to Jesus points to the nature of our faith and how we interpret the faith. How we interpret the faith affects the whole of our lives – what we believe and how we live, as the reading from Romans reminds us.
As well as the words we use to refer to Jesus, there’s also the way we see Jesus as part of the triune God – one in three and three in one, and how we hold on to the mystery of who God is, as well as the sense of God as the creator of all things and the need to care for the whole of creation.
Today, our focus is on the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, and in particular, the way in which Peter responded to Jesus’ question ‘who do you say that I am?’ Peter’s answer ‘you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’, evokes Jesus’ affirmation ‘Blessed are you….you are the rock on which I will build my church’.
There’s much in this passage which needs further unpacking. Why was Jesus referring to Peter as Simon, the son of Jonah – did he actually mean son of John? Was Jesus doing the equivalent of giving Peter a baptismal name, that changes from his original name to show his new life? What does it mean to say that the gates of Hades, or of hell, will not prevail against the church? Is this possible? What precisely are the keys of the kingdom of heaven through which Peter is given such power? Can such keys be readily identified today?
These are questions for a detailed bible study!
Today I want to refer briefly to the biggest source of difference in the way this passage has been interpreted over the centuries. I will then go on to speak about Peter’s personal faith and what Jesus’ affirmation of him says to us today, followed by a reflection on what it means to be the rock on which Jesus builds the church.
At one level, the interpretation of these verses has divided the church. In the Roman Catholic Church, the words have been taken to point to the role of the Holy Father, the Pope. Peter’s not only important for who he was and what he affirmed about Jesus. He’s also seen as significant for the way that his authority might be shared in the church over the centuries, through a particular designated role, carrying authority for the whole church.
In the Protestant tradition the interpretation focuses on the faith of Peter, as revealed to him by God. Here the argument goes that this faith, and the way it is held, provide the rock for the church. Peter and the apostles are of key significance in carrying the faith forward, but their example provides a basis for many others to participate in being rocks. (and not just those who are named Peter!)
It’s also interesting to see in this passage that Jesus says, ‘on this rock I will build my church’. It’s still Jesus building the church. It’s God who we look to, to give us the life and strength and faith that we need to be God’s people in today’s world.
I want to focus this morning on two further points: firstly, the particular character of Peter and the personal nature of his faith, and what it says to us today as people of character and faith; and secondly what this passage says to us as a Christian community. I look at both of these in the context of the circumstances that are so challenging at present – the presence of the pandemic and the uncertainty about what lies ahead.
Peter was quite a character, full of a mixture of strengths and weaknesses:
- He was impetuous. He leapt in to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Jesus begins to teach about his suffering and death, and Peter immediately takes him off to one side and begins to tell him off. Jesus responds with words that have rung harshly down the generations ‘get behind me, Satan’
- He was a leader – and one of the inner core of the three disciples. He shared the privilege of being present at the Transfiguration. Nevertheless, he immediately misinterprets what has happened, and tries to pin it all down with the suggestion that they erect three tents to mark the spot.
- He was stubborn. At the Last Supper, he either wanted none of his body to be washed or his whole body to be washed. There were no halfway measures here. Jesus once more had to talk firmly to him to say that having his feet washed was sufficient.
- He got tired. He fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane. At the crucial time of waiting he couldn’t keep awake.
- He got angry. When he does wake up in the garden of Gethsemane, John’s Gospel identifies him as the one who cut off the ear of the high priests slave. Such was his anger at Jesus’ arrest.
- He went back on his word. He said that he would keep faithful to Jesus whatever happened, but then, as soon as the crunch came, he denied his Lord three times.
And yet, and yet…
- He was the rock on which the church was to be built, supremely privileged above the other disciples and entrusted with certain powers.
- He was given a great task. After the Resurrection, Jesus tested him three times, and finding him faithful, commissioned him three times. It’s as if Jesus is completely wiping out the sense of Peter’s denial.
Peter was a complex character, full of high points and low points. Yet his faith was strong, and Jesus saw him as a rock, despite all his ups and downs.
If Jesus could choose such a one as him to be the foundation of his church, is there not hope for us as well, in all our strengths and weaknesses.
- We too can rush in and say things that we regret. Which one of us hasn’t had the experience of opening our mouth and put our foot right in?
- We too can make mistakes. Which one of us can claim to be perfect?
- We too can lack the courage of our convictions and be deniers. Which one of us has never faltered in proclaiming our faith?
Peter comes as an encouragement to us today, to share in being rocks upon whom Jesus builds the church.
Jesus didn’t choose Peter as this rock ‘despite his weaknesses’. Jesus chose him as his was, strengths and weaknesses all in together. We can have confidence that God still chooses each one of us today, not because we are strong, but in the midst of our strengths and weaknesses.
Jesus accepted Peter as he was. The promise is that God accepts us as we are. It is as we know that we are loved and accepted by God, that we can reach out in love and accept other people, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, however much they much differ fro, us.
The passage we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Romans gives a particular focus to the kind of people we are meant to be. It speaks of presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, being transformed by the renewing of our minds and not thinking of ourselves too highly.
The church is to be the place where the worth of each person is celebrated, and their gifts affirmed. Sometimes we need to affirm people’s gifts for them, because it is hard to do this for ourselves.
These characteristics in Romans point to what we as Christian people have to offer the world in these changing and challenging times.
Being a living sacrifice, and not thinking of ourselves too highly – not just thinking of ourselves, but thinking of the needs of others. I’ve been struck by the way that people have been so surprised at the outpouring of kindness during these last few months. If we were still a Christian country, I suspect that people would have thought that the outpouring of kindness was still the norm.
Renewing our minds – sometimes it feels that there’s so much emphasis on panic and living in the moment about what’s been going on, that we are unable to step back and think again, deeply and seriously, about what’s happening, and take the long view ahead.
Peter is affirmed as the rock – not only for individuals, but for the church, the gathered people of faith, the Christian community.
There are two challenges that Jesus’ affirmation about the church bring home to me today.
The first is that the church is primarily about people of faith, and secondarily about buildings. Buildings are great gathering places – except at these present times when we can’t easily meet together! Buildings are also wonderful places from which to serve and witness to the local community – as in all the work that goes on here at St Andrews. But Jesus words reminds us that the church is first and foremost the people, people of all kinds and ages and backgrounds, people who share a common faith in God.
The Romans reading brings this home. It reminds us that there are many gifts and abilities given to different people in the church. [what would we do if everyone was a musician? But what would we do if we had no musicians?] As people offer their different gifts to the common life, so the church is built. No one gift is greater than another. Each gift contributes to the whole. Together, all are one body, the body of Christ, here for the sake of the world.
The second challenge is to hear the words that Jesus said as referring to ‘the church’ and not to ‘churches’. We live in a divided world in which the presence of many different churches, sometimes at odds with one another, doesn’t always help our shared witness. I’ve been struck that there haven’t been more national days of mourning for those who’ve died, especially those who’ve died without family or friends around them. I’ve been struck also by the need for churches to speak and work and wrestle with difficult issues, together, in this time of pandemic, in order to offer a more positive and loving reaction to the nation in the midst of a damaged world.
If we are to recapture the essence of what it means to be church, being God’s faithful people, living in renewed human communities, we need to do so together with each other, sharing insights and learning from each other.
I pray that the church today will be one which will bear the marks of Peter – strong as a rock, yet open to change and to new ways of broadening the horizons of God’s Kingdom.
Silence for reflection on ‘who is my rock?’ and ‘to whom am I a rock?