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Sunday Worship 27 August | Being the Church

Updated: Jan 12

Matthew 16:13-20 (NIV)
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Romans 12:1-8 (NIV)
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

The two readings we have heard this morning may not immediately seem like an obvious pairing, but they come together in teh lectionary, and I think they are linked by an interest in what it means to be the church. That is the thread I want us to follow through, but there is quite a lot going on in both passages, and we’ll try to pull out as much as we can. We’ll begin with the gospel text, which sees Jesus and his disciples travelling to Caesarea Phillipi, the northernmost border of his travels, and at the time quite a sparsely populated area. Given that he has recently been preaching to crowds of thousands, it may seem strange to bother with such an out of the way place, and even stranger to make it the site of such an important conversation, but Matthew says that Jesus preached in all of the towns and villages throughout Galilee, and it seems that nowhere was overlooked or undervalued.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus has already delivered the Sermon on the Mount and performed a number of miracles. He has attracted the attention of the common people and the religious authorities, and now he wants to know what people are saying about him. It made me think of one of the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, where the disciples sing “what's the buzz, tell me what's a-happening”, except that this time it’s Jesus who wants to know. Is he really unsure of his reputation? Or is he trying to lead the disciples somewhere? Given what I said about his encounter with the Canaanite woman last week, and given where this conversation goes, I’m inclined to think the latter.

Jesus actually starts by asking who people say the Son of Man is, but as he has used this title for himself previously in Matthew’s gospel, it seems fair to assume that he is really asking who people say he is. The disciples reply that some say he is John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah, and it’s not clear if they have misunderstood the question and are attributing the title Son of Man to these other figures, or if they are saying that people think that Jesus is in some way the return of one of the prophets. Someone has certainly got things wrong somewhere along the line, and so Jesus asks a more direct question: “who do you say I am?”

In what is sometimes known as the great confession, Peter boldly declares “you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, and Jesus congratulates him on his insight, which he says can only have come from God. This is not the first time these titles have been used or hinted at in Matthew’s gospel, but it is the first time Jesus has so clearly acknowledged and accepted them, and so it is a significant moment of revelation. It may seem odd then that Jesus ends this passage by telling his disciples not to tell people that he is the Messiah, but I wonder if it is perhaps because he wants people to get there for themselves as Peter did, understanding who he is through their own experience and the grace of God, not just because they have been told what they should believe.

That raises all sorts of questions for us. Who do we say Jesus is and how do we know? Is he a lived reality or a doctrinal statement? What does this mean for how we talk about Jesus to others? Perhaps ‘who we say Jesus is’ is something for us to work out for ourselves, but when it comes to sharing with others we need to be a little less tell and a little more show. As the hosts of the Pulpit Fiction podcast put it: "What if we followed the model of the gospel of Matthew, and didn’t go around proclaiming ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ but instead offered the signs of Jesus - the kindness, mercy, healing, forgiveness, abundance, justice... Instead of approaching someone with Jesus first, we approached them with Jesus’ way first”. I’m going to be sitting with that for a little while, and I invite you to do the same.

For now though, let’s get to that theme of what it means to be the church. Jesus declares “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. It’s easy to read this statement as being entirely about Peter and his role, but I think that in making him the foundation of the church, Jesus also makes him a representative for the church, and so what is true of Peter is also true of the church more broadly. Working from there, I think we learn three things about the church.

The church is rooted in acknowledgement of Jesus as Messiah. Jesus establishes the church on Peter directly after Peter names him as Messiah. This seems intentional and of course it makes perfect sense, because recognising Jesus as Messiah is ultimately what defines Christianity. There is much that we hold in common with other religions and philosophies, but it is this belief that is central to our identity and our practice as a community of faith. As obvious as that may sound, it does still bear repeating, less in terms of how we determine our boundaries, and more in terms of how we identify our core. In many ways I think the multiplicity of traditions that we find within the church is an honest representation of the truth that we are all muddling through and understanding things the best we can, and a glorious reflection of the beautiful diversity with which God made us. However we can get so focused on our differences that we find ourselves at odds with or drifting away from one another, and we need to be pulled back to our centre of gravity in Christ.

The church is set in the context of conflict. Jesus says that the gates of Hades will not overcome it, but that does make it sound like they will try. It is worth noting that in this context, Hades should be understood as the realm of death, rather than a place of eternal damnation, so I don’t think we need to be imagining legions of demons or the damned battering on the doors of the church, but rather the church church standing against the reality of suffering and death, which so often threatens to overcome us. To slightly misquote the monk-turned-lawyer-turned-author William Broderick, “We have to be candles, burning between hope and despair, faith and doubt, life and death, all the opposites. That is the disquieting place where people must always find us. And if our life means anything, if what we are goes beyond the [church] walls and does some good, it is that somehow, by being here, at peace, we help the world cope with what it cannot understand”.

The church is given the keys to the kingdom and the power to bind and to loose. Jesus gives the keys and the power to Peter, but as I suggested before, I think he has taken on a corporate identity at this point. I think we should understand the keys and the power as being held by him on behalf of the church, and therefore as now being held by the church collectively. The image of Peter holding the keys to the kingdom has sometimes been taken very literally, and he has been depicted as a kind of heavenly bouncer, deciding who gets let in and who gets locked out, but perhaps we ought to see him (and by extension us) as something more like a celestial greeter, opening the gates ever wider and receiving everyone with joy. The power to bind and loose is also worth unpacking a little, as it refers to the way in which religious leaders would interpret the law, forbidding or allowing something. What I think we see here is Jesus giving the whole church permission to take part in that process of working out what it means to live well both now and in eternity, not usurping God by doing things our way, but creatively engaging with God as we work out how to do things the kingdom way.

We’ve already dug quite a lot out of the gospel, so let’s move on to the passage from Romans now. It begins with the word “therefore”, so it is obviously the next stage in a developing thought process, and it may then be helpful to recap what has come before. Paul’s message to the Romans is that they have sinned (Romans 1-2) but Jesus has revealed that they are not defined by that sin (Romans 3), and even though they have done nothing to earn God’s grace (Romans 4), they are offered forgiveness and reconciliation (Romans 5) and called to joyfully respond to God’s grace through a sanctified life of love (Romans 6). Nothing anyone or anything does can separate them from God (Romans 8) because God’s promises are forever and for all people (Romans 9-11)...and so they should offer themselves as living sacrifices.

It is clearly no small thing to ask someone to sacrifice themselves, and so Paul has spent eleven chapters leading up to that point, in order to present it as a true response to God’s grace. When I have read this passage before, my focus has landed on the word ‘sacrifice’ and the sense that it means giving something up, but this time my attention was drawn to the word ‘living’ and the sense that it means still being connected to the world. Sacrifices were usually dead or inanimate to begin with, and having served their purpose they were consumed or disposed of, but that’s emphatically not the kind of sacrifice we are called to. Sacrifice is not an end but a beginning.

That becomes even clearer when Paul speaks of being “transformed by the renewing of your mind”, especially if we understand this renewal as ongoing, which surely it must be because the Spirit that renews us is always changing and always moving. That’s why the Spirit is pictured as wind and water and fire. Offering ourselves as living sacrifices is our true and proper worship because it is in giving ourselves over to God’s good and perfect will that we become all we can be, and bring blessing to others and glory to God as we prayed earlier.

Sacrifice may feel like a very personal thing, but Paul quickly moves on to a more corporate sense, and here we return to that thread of what it means to be the church. The church as the body of Christ is one of Paul’s favourite themes, and while it does have its limitations, it speaks powerfully of the need for mutual care and respect within the community of the church, and emphasises that our gifts are for the good of all. To be the church is to be part of something bigger than ourselves, sustained by others and sustaining others in turn, offering something that only we can. I love the list of gifts that Paul offers here. It’s clearly not meant to be exhaustive, because he speaks of other gifts elsewhere, but it gives a taste of the great variety of blessings that are in the church.

I wonder what gifts we recognise in ourselves and in others. My son certainly has the gift of encouragement. He loves to cheer people on and congratulate them on even the smallest of achievements. I like to think we’ve modelled that to some extent by encouraging him, but there is something in the way he does it that feels deeply instinctive, and it is a wonderful thing to be on the receiving end of. It delights me no end that as he grows in confidence he will offer that gift to the church and beyond. It is a grace that has been given to him and there is a grace that has been given to all of us, and to be the church is to discover that grace and to nurture it and to bring blessing through it.

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