Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2020
It’s that time again. The season for national political party conventions. Time for polling data, time for balloting and nominating and electioneering. You can’t turn on the TV, look at Facebook, or listen to the radio without getting hit over the head with all the ads and posts and comments. We’re all getting text messages and the phone calls asking what we think about this candidate or the other, about this policy or another. And my goodness, it’s only August.
But I get it. I really do. I understand that political candidates, of all stripes, want to know their voters. They want want to know what’s going on in their minds. They want to know how, if, and when they are going to vote. They want to know if their message is getting across. But most importantly, all those campaigns want to know what the people think about their candidate. Depending on your level of cynicism you might call it narcissism, being in touch, or campaigning, but it’s all the same thing. And it’s not necessarily wrong.
I mean, Jesus does it. The story we just read begins like this, “now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’” (Matthew 16:13). “How am I polling? What are they saying about me? Which way is this place leaning?” Jesus’ disciples, his campaign volunteers respond – “well, it’s kind of split,” they say. “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (16:14). In our twenty-first century political environment, you could hear the campaign strategy meeting. “You know Jesus, you got to work on your messaging if you want people to know exactly who you are and what you stand for.”
Then Jesus turns the question right back on them. “But who do you say that I am?” (16:15). Let’s get past the debates and campaign ads and poll numbers and go straight to the heart of the issue. Peter, the campaign manager, says those mighty words, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Notice what Peter doesn’t say – he doesn’t say, “I think you’re the Messiah.” “I believe you’re the Messiah.” It’s not a statement of opinion or an internal poll – it is the truth revealed for all time. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God whether we say so or not. The campaign, the mission of the church, the evangelism on the part of the disciples – it’s not about making this thing into a reality – it’s about communicating the reality that is already there. Even if no one on that day in Caesarea Philippi believed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, he still is. This is what makes Jesus so graciously different from our political realities. Jesus does not need an election, Jesus does not need our vote to be the Messiah. He simply is.
But then we get to the heart of the passage. Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (16:18). Some have said that more has been written on this single verse than any other piece of the entire Bible.* I believe it – I was writing papers in college about this text. And here I am preaching about it.
Now, it’s this passage where some receive the tradition of Peter as the first Bishop of Rome. “And on this rock,” or “petra,” “I will build my church.” Obviously, Peter as a person is massively influential in the early church. And obviously, this is a critical scene in the Gospel of Matthew. But let’s not get too carried away. James was the head of the early church in Jerusalem, not Peter. Paul was the great missionary and writer in the ancient church, not Peter. Mary Magdalene first spoke with Jesus on Easter morning, not Peter. So what’s going on here? Why is Peter the rock?
Well, here’s what I think. I think that when Jesus says he will build his church upon this rock, he is not referring just to the person of Peter. Rather, I think he is referring to what Peter said – that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The rock upon which the church is built is a creed, not a person. The church is not built upon Peter, or any bishop, or me, or you. The church is based upon that eternal truth – Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. That is the rock of our church and our faith.
This all has a point. A point that is made even more apparent during this time of politicking and campaigning. You know as well as I do people disagree on things. That is simply a fact of life and that is why we vote – to give some direction to our disagreements. It is also a fact of life that people in our church also disagree on things. I bet that if I asked about any particular issue or policy, I would get as many different opinions as there are people watching. Trouble, and conflict, and tension are simply part of what it means to be the church. Because we don’t all agree and we all have different opinions about everything under the sun. It sure makes things messy, doesn’t it?
But the good news is that our church is not built upon issues or policies. Our church is built upon the one eternal truth that was revealed to Peter – Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The hard work of the church, then, is to figure out how to argue and disagree on a spectrum of other issues while holding fast to one another because we all believe in this one, true core creed.
This is what the Church has to offer the world in such a divided time. We can show the world that yes, people of varying opinions and beliefs can live together in harmony. Not because we all have the same opinions, but rather because we believe those opinions to be secondary to our absolute core value. This is not weakness, this is strength. The Church is stronger when we are diverse while remaining united on the one big thing. Imagine if our world was like that. Imagine how beautiful, how lovely, how tremendously gracious that would be. Imagine the world living with difference in harmony because we are collectively committed to the the only thing that actually matters. Well, that is the vision of the Kingdom of God – a place where each of us, including me – can sit and listen bravely to people who disagree with us because we agree one the one thing. As Christians, we cannot sit down with our brothers and sisters and count them out or label them as this, that, or the other. Instead we have to love our brothers and sisters, even the ones who don’t agree with us, because they too believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. That is the rock, the rock that our church is built upon.
And here’s the other thing – if you would like to find a church, or a community, or a group of friends that believes exactly as you believe on every single issue – you will find yourself terribly alone. Because you’ll lose everybody except yourself. A Church of one is no church at all. The grace, the gift of the Church is that we are bound together because of our commitment to the one big thing.
In this time when we are divvied up, when we have become percentage points in a poll – resist that division. Keep your eyes on the prize, that grand vision that is the Kingdom of God. Live in peace with your brothers and sisters. Do not build your life upon those shifting sands of elections and campaigns that come and go. Give your life to the church which is built upon a solid rock – Jesus the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
* “Matthew,” Hauerwas, 151.