Revelation, Risk…and the Rocks in the Way
August 24, 2014
After a long illness, a woman died and arrived at the Gates of Heaven. While shewas waiting for Saint Peter to greet her, she peeked through the Gates. She saw abanquet table overflowing with delicious food, streets paved with gold and winged angels sitting on clouds, playing harps.
When Saint Peter came by, the woman said to him, "This is such a wonderfulplace! How do I get in?
"You have to spell a word,” Saint Peter told her.
"Which word?" the woman asked.
The woman correctly spelled LOVE and Saint Peter welcomed her into Heaven.
About three years later, Saint Peter came to the woman and asked her to watch the Gates of Heaven for him that day. While the woman was guarding the Gates of Heaven, her husband arrived.
"I'm surprised to see you," the woman said. "How have you been?"
"Oh, I've been doing pretty well since you died," her husband told her. "I married the beautiful young nurse who took care of you while you were ill. I sold our little house and used your insurance money to buy a big mansion.
Then I won the lottery. My new wife and I traveled all around the world. We were on vacation and I went water skiing today. I fell, the ski hit my head, and here I am. How do I get in?"
"You have to spell a word", the woman told him.
"Which word?" her husband asked.
It is largely because of the Gospel of Matthew – and today’s reading from it - that we have all those jokes about St. Peter at the pearly gates.
It is only in Matthew that Peter is handed the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Mark and Luke record that Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah. But only in the First Gospel does Jesus say: “And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church…I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
In fact, that is why Matthew is the first gospel – it’s not because he wrote before the others. Church leaders ordered the books of the Bible in the 4th C century, by which time the church was an institution, with clergy and buildings and power and authority to preserve. Matthew’s gospel emphasizes and supports the institution of the church, so it got top billing.
The traditional Roman Catholic interpretation of verse 18 – the line about Peterbeing the rock upon which the church is built – is that it establishes the leader of the church in Rome – Peter’s church – as the head of Christianity: the Bishop of Rome is the Pope. The second half of the verse “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” is the foundation for the doctrine of papal infallibility – the assertion that in matters of church doctrine the Pope cannot be wrong.
During the Reformation of the 16th C, Protestants rejected the part of the interpretation of that verse that elevated the Bishop of Rome. But they were just as happy to use it to claim the authority of the church as an organization. It is Peter’s faith, not Peter himself, upon which the church is built says the Protestant understanding. And they were happy to keep the keys for themselves, too. No one gets through those pearly gates without going through the church. The ultimate job security!
We’ve spent this summer with the Gospel of Matthew. With today’s reading we move from the parables, teaching and healing stories of the first half of the Gospel, to the second half in which Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and his death.
The disciples had seen him feed thousands of people; they’d seen him heal people no one else would touch; learn from someone who came from the other side of tracks; upset people who had power; and walk without fear despite stormy seas that would swamp the rest of us.
•Jesus wasn’t establishing an institution; he was starting a movement. •He wasn’t writing doctrine; he was pointing to a God that could never be adequately described with words, but could be loved through action. •He wasn’t building a fortress that had his name carved in stone over the doorway; he was showing us the way to a kingdom of where justice flowed down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
What Peter and the other disciples witnessed is a man on fire with the love of God, a man willing to risk public scorn, religious condemnation, and his own life in order to share that love and that God. A man whose own willingness and ability torisk it all is not just the best example of what God wants, it is the manifestation of who God is. He is the Messiah, the Word of God, the Son of God…
This is what Peter recognizes, looking back at what Jesus has done, the hunger he has fed, the brokenness he has healed, the truth he has proclaimed, the risks he has taken. “Oh! I get it! I see God through you; I understand more about God because of you; I receive what God offers me because I receive what you offer me. You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Can you hear the relief in Jesus’ voice? Someone gets it; someone gets him. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”
In the very next passage – which Pastor Bill will preach about next week – Jesus has to take it all back. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus will say to Peter. “You are a stumbling block to me.” Peter gets it, and then he blows it. He understands, and then he misunderstands. He shows keen insight, and then pure blockheadedness. He is a rock, and he is a stumbling block.
This should give us reason for hope, brothers and sisters, because in the end, Peter really did get it. And we are just like him.
•Give us a mission, we’ll form a committee. •Inspire us with passion, we’ll argue over what to call it.•Give us something to do, we’ll ask why God didn’t take care of this for us. •Give us the chance to learn humility or patience, we’ll ask why we’re not in charge.•Give us unity, we’ll find the differences. Give us diversity, we’ll wonder why we aren’t more unified.
Make us a rock, and put us in the river to mark the river’s flow… and we’ll join upwith other rocks to become a pile; then we’ll fill in gaps between us until we become a wall: a wall that actually stops the flow of the river we were meant to point to. We’ll become an obstacle, a stumbling block to God’s movement in the world.
I don’t know who first said this, but someone put it this way: Jesus came preaching the kingdom; what he got was the church.
Last week, the School for Pastoral Ministry was held up the road at the Kellogg Center. 3 days of education and inspiration sponsored by our Conference and the DAC. One of the speakers this year was Bishop Robert Schnase, who’s written extensively about the future of the church. Methodism, Bishop Schnase said,began with Go To instincts (Wesley’s ultimate concern was for those who weren’t being reached by the Church of England). But it has become a Come To denomination, expecting that people will find us.
Writer and lecturer Phyllis Tickle has a theory that about every 500 years, a globalupheaval occurs that changes the entire nature of church. So at the turn of the first millennium AD, the split between western and eastern branches of Christianity took place. About 500 years later, the Protestant Reformation changed the global picture once again. Now, she says, it’s time for something new again. Something much, much bigger than any one church or denomination or culture. We are not sure what it will be, but surely it has to do with the realization of “Come To” churches that they need to do and be something very different if they’re going to be around for 500 years.
I don’t know if Tickle is right in her prediction. I don’t know if Schnase is entirely correct in calling us a “Come To” denomination. I am certainly blessed to be part of a congregation that Goes To many people and many places.
But I do agree that the times, they are changing. Attending church is no longer something people just do. And regularly attending church no longer means comingevery week. If UUMC is going to continue to be “a beacon for Christ,” we, like all other churches, are going to have to adjust and adapt; we’re going to have to take a hard look at ourselves and ask how we might be blocking the flow of God’s spirit and how we can do things differently to be part of it, instead.
Last week’s challenge – ask someone who doesn’t go to church why they don’t go to church. I received 3 responses! The three responses I’ve heard.
1.The services and music are boring. 2.Most of the people in church are old, and there are not enough activities for young people3.Many people in church seem to be resistant to change " this is the way it has always been done so why change it".
#2 – I used to, I know I should, maybe I’ll get around to it someday.
#3 - Chris Mathis at church booth at PRIDE Festival yesterday was a master evangelist. “May I ask why you don’t go to church?” he asked many people. In that setting we heard more than a few responses about how individuals had been hurt and rejected by their church homes, and had never considered trying again.
The impetus is on us to invite, to share our stories, to listen to theirs, to welcome, to allow God’s spirit to flow freely, even in ways we’ve never seen before. BishopSchnase: We must move from asking “how can we get other people to change?” to asking “What changes are we willing to make?”
In two weeks, on September 7, we will celebrate Kick-Off Sunday! Sunday School classes, children, Chancel Choir, students. Pews will be full and we will have visitors and returnees who have decided it’s worth getting up earlier than usual, skipping their leisurely morning coffee and crossword puzzle, and summoned the courage to walk into a strange sanctuary, filled with unfamiliar faces and ways of doing things: you can wear your name tag.
•How many people have their name tags on right now? Give yourselves a pat on the back. You are part of making University Church a welcoming, inviting, Go To congregation.•How many people have their name tags back in their church mailboxes? •How many left them at home? •How many have no clue where theirs are? (See Shirley Lowery.)
You are Peter, Susan, Gary, Toni… On you I am building my church. How can we be rocks, but not stumbling blocks? How can we be the church and the kingdom? How can we make Methodism’s “Go To” instincts relevant for the 21st century?
A cab driver reaches the pearly gates. St. Peter looks him up in his Big Book and tells him to pick up a gold staff and a silk robe and proceed into Heaven.
Next in line is a preacher. St. Peter looks her up in his Big Book, furrows his brow and says, "Okay, we'll let you in, but take that cloth robe and wooden staff."
The preacher is shocked and replies, "But I am a woman of the cloth. You gave that cab driver a gold staff and a silk robe. Surely I rate higher than a cabbie!"
St. Peter responds matter-of-factly, "This is Heaven and up here, we are interested in results. When you preached, people slept. When the cabbie drove his taxi, people prayed."
Stan Duncan. “Rock, Paper, Kingdom.” Posted on If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now. 2014.http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2014/08/rock-paper-kingdom.html
Douglas R.A. Hare. Matthew in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press. 1993.