Building on a broken rock

What are we to make of a Church that was built upon a foundation that is both rock and stumbling-block? And what does this mean for our churches as we move forward in unprecedented times?

Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20/ Proper 16A / by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / preached to the congregation of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA / August 23, 2020

The ledge

I’d like to tell you this morning about the ground upon which my house sits. My house sits on the side of a mountain. About 50 feet away from the house, the underlying rock juts out from underneath the soil and grass to form a ledge with an impressive semi-circle of boulders.

This rock formation seems sturdy and reliable.

But when I get up close, I can see that the rock isn’t granite. I don’t know much about geology. As far as I can tell, this rock is some sort of foliated schist – meaning that these seemingly sturdy boulders — which hold up the soil and grass and trees, are comprised of flaky scales.

Its layers easily break away. I don’t even have to get out a chisel and hammer. I can just push my fingers into one of the existing crevices and pull, and off comes a chunk. A big chunk. I can break off a small piece and crumble it up in my fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs.

And this is the rock foundation upon which my mountain house stands.

A cracked rock

In today’s gospel, Jesus asks the disciples about what the people are saying about him. “Who do they say that I am?”

And then he drills down. “Well, who do YOU say that I am?”

Peter is the only one brave enough to answer. You are the Messiah. The son of the living God.

This confession – this acknowledgement by the disciples of who Jesus really is  – occurs in other gospels. But only in Matthew does Jesus connect this statement with the formation of his church.

He blesses Peter.  And furthermore, bestows some sort of authority upon Peter. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build this Church.”

Jesus is doing a bit of word play here with Simon Peter’s nickname. Peter is Petros in Greek. And Petros is related to the Greek word Petra, which means rock, cliff or ledge. 

It’s a solid metaphorical association. Who else to base the foundation of a church upon other than the Rock?

I gotta say though…. perhaps, it’s a questionable choice.

Peter is an imperfect, flawed disciple who struggles to understand Jesus. Peter, who attempted to walk on water, faltered when he didn’t trust what was happening and sank like a stone. Peter who will promise to stand to the end with Jesus, ends up denying Jesus three times.

Yes, Peter has this moment of great clarity in this morning’s gospel. “You are the Messiah!” In today’s reading, Peter stands a witness to who Jesus is and this confession is the thing upon which the church will be built.

But Peter, in the very next passage will fixate on the wrong things, so much so that an exasperated Jesus will compare him to Satan.

Peter may be a rock, but he is a rock with deep cracks in it. He is a rock that Jesus will all too-soon call a stumbling block.

Upon what?

“Upon this rock I will build my church” is a long-contested statement. 

A couple of centuries into Christianity, this statement was interpreted by the Catholic church as the basis for the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. The rock is Peter. The rock metaphor became the basis for Apostolic Succession. Authority for the church was given to Peter, the first bishop of Rome, and authority was passed on in an unbroken chain of succession.

Protestants, on the other hand, have taken this rock metaphor to be a reference to the faith statement of Peter, not to Peter himself. The rock, in this view, is not Peter but rather Peter’s testimony. The Church was built upon this confession and faith in the Messiah.

Other biblical commentators further argue that in Matthew’s gospel, “Peter is not portrayed as just an individual, but as a stand-in for the entire Christian community.” Peter, as the representative of all the people before God, becomes the chief cornerstone, the first of the building blocks among many.

Whichever way you wish to interpret this text, clearly there is a connection between the declaration of who Jesus is, and the significance of that meaning for who the Church is.

And what are we to make of a Church that was built upon a foundation that is both rock and stumbling-block? The Church has certainly embodied both of those characteristics in its 2,000 year history.

Imperfection

I’m fascinated by the idea that Jesus at the outset picked a flawed and imperfect man.

But I am sure of this: God built his church using imperfect, flawed people.

The church was not built upon perfect people – thanks be to God – because it would not have survived its very first generation of believers. 

We are living in an unprecedented time. A time of uncertainty and a time of opportunity. We are five months into a global pandemic and the race for a vaccine is on. Tack onto this a climate of hyper-partisan politics and a significant racial justice movement and – yes! –  tensions are very high and things feel unsettled.

This is an unprecedented time for churches too. It feels like the foundations upon which our faith traditions were built have shifted underneath us. But if we are looking for the perfect person to save us, we will not find him or her.

Not one of us is perfect. We could pick apart every single minister, every single vestry member, every single church volunteer, every single church member we have ever known and pinpoint their sins and flaws of the past.

All of at times have been rocks upon which good things are built, and all of us at times have been stumbling blocks.

We don’t need perfection, not in our public life as a community of faith. What we need are people who are honest, and authentic, and willing to be vulnerable. We, the Church, need people who are willing to learn, and to forgive, and to humbly emulate the servant leadership of Jesus Christ.

There are some large and looming tasks for us on the horizon for us as a faith community. Already at St. Francis, we are wondering about the financial impacts of pandemic and separation upon our church budget. Already we are thinking about a time when we can regather and imagining what that might look like, and how we can do so and remain safe. Already we are imagining new ways of living into the Great Commission, going into the world and making disciples of all.There is a lot of work to do in the next six months. Too much really for any one of us.

Not one of us is perfect. And no one person can be all things that we need as a church community. But luckily no one of us has to be.

Together, we have what we need. This is what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Romans. Together we become the Body of Christ. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ.”

Together, we have what we need. The gifts of prophecy, teaching, giving, leadership, and compassion.

We are living in unprecedented times that will require creative solutions upon which Jesus will build his church in a new reality.

Together we have what we need: the gifts of finance and business skills, the gift of technological savvy to reach people in new ways, the gift of visioning how to welcome and invite people in a digital world.

I am not worried about my house sitting upon a foundation of rocks. Last Sunday, a 5.1 earthquake struck about 100 miles away. The whole house shook for 2 or 3 seconds. And that was it. The foundation held.

I am not worried about our church, or the Church, as we move forward into an unknown time. God builds his church using imperfect, flawed people and God gives us everything we need.

© 2020 Tracey Kelly. All rights reserved.

Photo credits: “Carolina schist” © Tracey Kelly; “Concrete Expression” by Martin Robles on Unsplash

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