Sunday 21 • 27 Aug 2017

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

I wonder what your experience of the church is like. Has it been one which has been full of warmth and meaning? Has it been one that has nurtured your life, giving you meaning, a sense of purpose – that feeling that you belong to the body of Christ? Has it been one that has carried you through those darker moments of life – those moments when hymn like – (i). Be still my soul, the Lord is on your side; (ii). abide with me, I need thee every passing hour: (iii).Lead kindly light – I do not ask to see the distant scene – one step enough for me – when those kind of hymns sung in services of worship or in the silence of the self sustained you?

Has being a part of the church made you feel like you belong to something much bigger, crossing and time place – (i). for all the saints who from their labours rest, who to the world their Lord by faith confessed? (ii). The day you gave us, Lord is ended, Across each continent and island as dawn leads on another day, the voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away?

Has being a part of the church inspired you – encouraged you to make a stand on behalf of someone else, a neighbour in need? Has it led to you act wisely, justly, in a compassionate and merciful way mindful of those who are vulnerable? Has it made room for you and excited within you a vision of for humankind, indeed, the whole creation within the household of God’s purposes – the kingdom of God? Has it been a place of forgiveness and forgivingness?

Or has the church been something else? Has it been one of those places where you have raised high expectations that could not be delivered? Has it been one of the place where sometimes things have taken an unusual turn – where someone has said a harsh word – or the church at any one of a number of levels - a presbytery, synod or assembly level - has done something with which you do not agree – or has indeed dealt you a wound – and yet you have remained inside this self-professed body of Christ in spite of – nevertheless?

What has been your experience?

How each one of us tells our story will differ. My wife some years ago wrote the lyrics of a hymn that that speaks about the church. It does through metaphors of weaving and tapestry. She would have us sing to the familiar tune of Regent Square:

God calls each in common purpose
Weaving individual threads,
Forming with our varied colours
Tapestries of life widespread,
Integrating strength and weakness
Picturing God's love unsaid.
Thus our lives are interwoven,
Friend with stranger, young with old,
Softer colours forming balance
With those strands more strong and bold
Linking threads from all our histories
To a future yet untold.

As for me I was raised in the church – in a small town just north of Dunedin in Aotearoa-New Zealand. It might come as a surprise to you but that small town was first established by settlers escaping life in Sydney. There was a Maori village nearby but at some point in the 1830s these hardy would-be pioneers crossed the Tasman and under the leadership of a Sydney whaler-cum-entrepreneur, Johnny Jones, they set up a whaling station and the first farm in the South Island. For a while their township was a port of entry and went by the name of Hawksbury, a name borrowed from this part of the world.

Johnny Jones would fund the Anglican church in which I grew up: St. John’s a lovely timber church, the oldest in the South Island. There Mrs Oldham would be my Sunday School teacher; and, at the grand age of 10, I became a server who carried the cross and assisted the vicar during the Communion – handing him the bread and wine to do what was ever necessary. I remember thinking one day that if the vicar dropped down dead, no one need bother as I knew the service back to front and just take over; in later years I wondered if that might have been the first intimations of a call to ministry though I never suggested to the church’s selection panel.

And in the intervening years I have seen the church go through good times – when it said and did things that seemed to act out the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news – and, at other times, I have seen hurts, wounds; misunderstandings, violations of proper processes. I have attended some awful meetings where voices have been raised, doors slammed and it has left me wondering what has this to do with the way of Jesus Christ and the life of discipleship to which we are called. I have been part of a congregational-based working group that published a booklet called “Good God, they’re gay” – and one of those involved in the project had said right from the start that her daughter is lesbian, that her acceptance in the wider society was (at that time) the most important matter in their life as a family and the one place they had not been able to talk about it – up until that point – was the church.

In the light of my experience I am privy to why people can be warmly disposed to the church; I can also well understand why the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert has written about what he calls ‘the trauma of the church’ (he waited until he had retired). I can understand why some folk shy away from a triumphant overly confident church - a church whose hymns are expressed in a major key – and prefer to dwell upon what they call the shadow side of the church, an understanding that is mediated through tunes played in a minor key.

And, of course, in recent times the church in general has been rocked by stories of inappropriate sexual misconduct – so much so that we might say it is now faced with a major public relations problem.

All of which is a far cry from our reading taken from the gospel of Matthew this morning. This is a passage that brings together two quite discrete things and does so in a way that is peculiar to this gospel. If, for instance, you made a comparison with the gospel of Mark, yes there would be these two questions posed: who do people say that I am? And, then “who do you say that I am?” That “you” in the Greek text is in the plural: it is like asking, the members of the Crows Nest church, who do you (as a group rather than as individual) who do say this Jesus of Nazareth is?

In response to that first question – “who do people say that I am?” - Matthew adds “Jeremiah” which none of the other gospels do. And there is something of an irony here as well. Of all the gospels Matthew arranges his telling of the story along the lines of Jesus being rather like a variation of Moses rather than Jeremiah. Like Moses the infant Jesus in Matthew had to be hidden away in Egypt; his family will need to bring him back out of Jesus, an exodus of sorts, when the time; he will be tempted in the wilderness for 40 days rather than wandering for 40 years; and, instead of going up Mount Sinai and coming down with the ten commandments, Jesus preaches the sermon on the mount. But, in this gospel story, the disciples suggest that some folk think he is more of a Jeremiah than a second Moses.

As happens in Mark and Luke, in Matthew Peter takes the initiative and responds. He seems to be speaking on behalf of the other disciples. He will declare Jesus to be the Christ, the anointed one of God, the Messiah. Matthew will also have Peter say that Jesus is the son of the living God (which the others don’t do). And then something really strange happens.

In the gospels of Mark and Luke this set of questions and Peter’s response is followed with a call to take up your cross, the rebuking Peter and sayings to do with saving your life and losing it for my sake. And yes - we can find that in Matthew but there is something else as well. Where Matthew breaks rank is in that declaration to do with the church. Of all the gospels only Matthew ever refers to the church and it happens in conjunction with a change of name. Simon will become Peter – from the Greek word Petros meaning a “rock”, in Aramaic Cephas.

Peter’s confession of Jesus being the Messiah and the Son of God is not something that he has worked out for himself. It is not like he was sitting on a JNC waiting for the right candidate to come along; Jesus seems surprised. He believes that this impulsive confession of Peter’s is an act of God. Peter is to be the rock upon which the church is to be built; it will endure and it has a God-given function symbolized by the bestowal of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

No other gospel does this. It is peculiar to Matthew. And this particular reference is, of course, one that has a special meaning and role within the Roman Catholic church. Here the pope is reckoned to be in a line of succession which goes back to Peter; the papal basilica in the Vatican is known as St Peter’s – the word basilica is taken from the Greek word for king. And you may have had experience of the power of those keys Matthew refers to when, for instance, at a service in a Roman Catholic church, you may not have been allowed to participate in the Communion.

Times have changed, of course – and especially so under Pope Francis. As he has written in one of his encyclicals “we must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion and mistrust, and turn our face to what we are all seeking”.

Why Matthew should place this talk about Peter being the rock alongside those questions to do with who Jesus is and what it means to follow him is not clear. What was it that provoked him to be the only gospel writer to include a specific reference to the church? The fact of the matter is that is there – and we are called to respond to its inclusion. And that is a worthwhile task – on a number of grounds. Let me explain.

Of particular importance for us is that reference to who builds the church. In our congregations, in our presbyteries, our zones, our synods, we spend a lot of time on denominational business; we seek to care for, preserve and hand on what we have received; we do things; we do a lot of things and many of those things need to be done if rosters are to be filled, commitments met, expectations and hopes realized. Emma Percy is an English theologian who draws upon the work of the philosopher Hannah Arendt to argue that any institution needs what she calls some basic labouring work for it to function. That is what is going on here.

But that is only part of the story. For Hannah Arendt there are a couple of other spheres that distinguish the purpose of an institution and Emma Percy believes they are for the church to grasp. The next sphere is its capacity to produce and deliver the goods.

For a body like the church that might mean the work that is done for the sake of the well-being refugees, the care of the aged, the disabled, children at risk and all those various forms of advocacy that the Uniting Church is good at; that it is well known for; - that is, if I went to church. And all of that work needs to be done if our faith is to be more than words, if indeed our faith seeks to love our neighbour as ourselves, if our faith is to be accompanied with appropriate works.
And while we might baulk at the language of the production of goods – it makes us sound like a factory – then maybe we might remember the advice that the apostle Paul gave to the Galatians, with whom he was not pleased, - do good to all.

What might then be this third realm, this third sphere Emma Percy takes from Hannah Arendt? Here we are in the territory of what is reckoned to be communion. Now what is meant here is not our participation in the bread and the wine like what we will do during the communion service next Sunday. That is part of it but it is not the whole story. For Hannah Arendt the purpose of an institution is to transmit, hand on its cultural practices and a way of life.

For the church it is about what it means for us across time and place to be the people of God, a fellowship of the Spirit, the body of Christ witnessing to the breaking in the kingdom of God. It is concerned with those things which make us more than just another NGO, just another voluntary society, or just another business organisation that can change the goods delivers in order to maximise its profits for its shareholder.

According to the gospel of Matthew the church is instituted by Jesus; he is its builder, not some mega company or developer. And the values and way of life it seeks to participate in belong to Jesus in a rather unique way – and, in a way which folk who say, “yes” to Jesus but “no” to the church might well do to ponder upon.

The secret lies in our English word church. In German the word is kirche; in Scotland it is not the church but the kirk. Here those ch’s in the English word are replaced with k’s. All of these words go back for their origins into the Greek language and the words kyriarke which means ‘belonging to the Lord’. By definition, by is very name, the church belongs to the Lord – and so there is no separation here between Jesus yes, church, maybe, no, perhaps.

The calling of the church then is to proclaim the good news of Christ Jesus. It is to imitate the way of Christ. It is to become a community of forgiveness. It is to bear witness not to itself but to the kingdom of God. It does these things because we, the church, belong to the Lord. But that does not, of course, mean we are a perfect society. We know we’re not. We are an all too human body of people; we make mistakes; we fail; and so we can perhaps find some comfort in the fact not long after Jesus declares that Pete is the rock on which he build his church – just moments later he will rebuke Peter who takes issue with Jesus’ claim that he will be handed over and put to death.

The church has never been perfect; it never will be perfect. it is always called to be better than it is; it is nevertheless the body of Christ; we belong to the Lord. We do so because of our name.

Kingdom of god