12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 27, 2017
Matthew 16: 13-20 You can click on this link to read the text in Oremus Bible Browser
Every day I read something about church growth – invigorating the small church, why millennials don’t come to church, the decline of churches, why the church is dying as an institution. I’ve come to distrust anything the reads like a formula – if you just did THIS then the church would come to life again. Just follow MY formula and your church will grow. Stop doing THAT and people will return to church attendance. I no longer believe there is any program other than what we hear this morning from Jesus as he hears Peter’s confession that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” What rock is he talking about? Is it Peter himself, as the Roman Church believes, the first Pope, the bishop of the whole church? I don’t believe it is a person – I believe it is the rock of Peter’s belief in Jesus as the Messiah on which the story of the church depends. People come to church because they need Jesus, and anything that we, as the church, do or say that does not lift up Jesus as God With Us makes us irrelevant. Today, if you want to help people in need, you don’t need church to do it. If you want to be part of a community, there are a thousand other ways to get there. If we are not proclaiming God’s love through Jesus, and the forgiveness and peace that offers, we are no use.
Because, here’s the thing: people come because God is always inviting them into a deeper and deeper relationship. St Augustine claimed that we are made with an emptiness that only God can fill.
You called and cried to me and broke upon my deafness;
and you sent forth your light and shone upon me,
and chased away my blindness;
You breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath:
I tasted you and I now hunger and thirst for you:
You touched me, and I have burned for your peace….
You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
And our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.
People come to church because they want to meet Jesus. And if the church does not offer them the promise of grace they seek in a weary, vicious, heartless world, they are not interested.
It is in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is named as Emmanuel, God with Us. And it is in Matthew’s writing that the word ekklesia is used – translated the church. Ekklesia literally means ‘called out.’ We are called out of the world to be the mystical Body of Christ, the place where we are gathered to celebrate God‘s presence.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom…” Our special calling as the church is to interpret scripture and administer the means of God’s grace. So we instruct our children and ourselves on how to live as God’s people, looking into the mirror of the Law to see what God wants us to do and be, and to see our inability to keep that law. And we listen to Scripture and partake of Communion and administer baptism to remind ourselves that we are saved by God’s gracious love that forgives our failure. It’s not that we cannot gain any of this knowledge or experience through our own study or spiritual work. It is that the church was given to us as a gift in which community becomes a communion of saints, and worship restores our hope and spirit before we meet the world on our own again.
It was in 1990, during a vacation with a friend in England that we came to Evensong at the Minster in York. We always preferred to experience cathedrals as spaces of worship instead of tourist attractions. Evensong that day was the occasion of the installation of a new Canon of the Cathedral. I had no idea what a Canon of the Cathedral was, but I was at home in the worship service, so similar in structure to my low church Lutheran tradition. As we came forward for the Eucharist, we were in a long line of worshippers. I suddenly felt as it that line stretched way behind me, back into the centuries to the first believers in Jesus who gathered to share bread and wine as Jesus body and blood. And then that the line stretched way beyond me into the future of worshippers who come forward each week to taste Jesus’ promises in bread and wine, just as I was.
“On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Our rock is our trust in Jesus’ promises to us of God’s abiding love and faithfulness. This is the rock on which we, the church, are built. It is in our gathering that we meet Jesus in and with each other, and fortify ourselves for our work in the world. The more rooted we are in God’s love for us, shown to us in Jesus, the more we, the church, thrive in the world. The Holy Spirit that invites, gathers, enlightens, and makes us holy makes us a gift to those who are also invited into God’s love but don’t know where to find it yet. And in spite of all the hand-wringing news about the state of the church, the gates of hell will not prevail against it when it proclaims God with Us in the presence of Jesus. That is the rock of our faith. Amen.