Peter wanted a private club – Jesus gave us the Church

Matthew 16:13-20

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! 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…(Read the whole passage)

Last week, I had a brush with fame. If you happened to be listening to the local Christian music station on Thursday after around 5pm, you would have heard me do a brief two part interview. Yes, I know, I know… for anyone that is wondering I will sign autographs in addition to shaking hands on the way of out church… and no, this hasn’t gone to my head.

In all seriousness, the reason that I was interviewed was for an article that I had written and that was published by Christian Week magazine…a locally founded but national/ecumenical publication in Canada.

The article was about something that I mentioned in my sermon last week, Why White Supremacy is a Sin. After the events of Charlottesville two weeks ago, the article was my attempt at articulating why the ideology White Supremacy is sinful.

At its foundation, Christian White Supremacy takes the idea that faith and church confer a special status and power to us to extreme ends. That being a follower of Jesus or a Christian makes a special group, a special in-crowd, that the church is only about who is on the inside, rather than reaching those outside. For White Supremacists, only white skinned people are those special ones.

Now, what does that have to do with the Jesus and Peter today?… well in a way, Jesus is naming that same attitude among the disciples – the idea that being a follower of Jesus confers special status and special power.

Jesus and the disciples are out in gentile lands again. Last week they were in the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus encountered and eventually healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter… but only after she convinced him that she, a gentile and a woman, was worthy of his compassion.

Today, Jesus has travelled inland to the region of Caesarea Philippi where he takes the opportunity to ask the disciples a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This gets a few different answers, mostly comparisons to the prophets of old. But Jesus isn’t satisfied and takes it a step further. “But who do you say that I am?”

When none of the other disciples have an answer, Simon offers a guess. “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” Not a dead prophet but son of the living God.

And for that Jesus gives Simon a new name – Peter. Peter which means rock, the rock on which Jesus will build his church, giving the church the power loose and bind sins.

That is a quite the journey from “Who do you say that I am?”

This story of this encounter between Jesus and his disciples that we hear today, is a passage we tend to place a lot of meaning on.

The Roman Catholic church reads this story as Jesus’ choosing Peter to be the first among the disciples… the first Bishop of the church, the Bishop’s office whose has become the office of Popes through the centuries. The Pope, they say, is the successor to Peter. The Papal symbol is two keys.

Others find in this passage an important question, one that is more relevant today than ever. Who do we say that Jesus is? Many church leaders today would contend that this question is at the core of what it means to follow Jesus and how we answer this question in a world of suffering, violence, hatred, division, conflict, war and death determines the character of our faith.

And perhaps for us here at Good Shepherd, our answer to the question of who Jesus is would impact significantly how we minister to the community around us.

But perhaps neither of these concerns are truly what this passage is about.

As usual, there seems to be something else going on.

And getting at that involves asking the question why.

Why does Jesus ask his disciples, far from home and in gentile territory who people say that he is. And why does Jesus give Simon a new name with new responsibilities.

On regular occasion, the disciples get caught up in the perks of being disciples, rather than the reality. They want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands. They want power to heal and power over demons. They get jealous of others who do works of power in Jesus’ name. They get impatient with people who come to Jesus for healing, much like the Canaanite woman last week.

And so when Jesus asks the disciples, who they think he is… it isn’t because Jesus is wondering what people think of him. It is because he wants the disciples to connect with reality.

They are followers of Jesus. Jesus who is the Messiah. Jesus who is then son of the Living God. The Messiah who has come to save the whole world, sent by the Living God, the God of all creation. The forgiveness that they proclaim is not a power they hold over others, but a responsibility they now carry. The New Life that they preach is not privilege bestowed to a few, but a gift given to all.

Like the disciples, the church, including us, has fallen into the same trap again and again. And while it isn’t usually as extreme or destructive as White Supremacy… it is something we struggle with.

For many churches and communities of faith in North America these days it has been the norm to see ourselves firstly as centres of community. Faith families who love and care for each other. Groups who exist for the benefit of our members. Clubs with special privileges.

And yes, in some ways those definitions do apply to us. But they do not define us. They are not the why. They are not our first and primary purpose for existing. The Church is not a community of the privileged, but a community of the burdened. A community given responsibility. A body tasked to preach and proclaim the story of the one whose name we bear – to tell the world about Christ.

When Jesus gives Simon a new name today… it is first a reminder of who Jesus is. In the Old Testament the only person who ever changed someone’s name was God.

When Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on whom he will build his church, it is a reminder that this community of faith is the Messiah’s. It is a community rooted in the forgiveness of sins for sinners, mercy for the suffering, and resurrection of the dead.

When Jesus tells Peter that he will be given the keys to kingdom and that what he binds on earth is bound in heaven, and what he looses on earth is loosed in heaven… it is a re-orientation of the privileged and self centred attitudes of the disciples.

The power to forgive, the power to grant mercy, the power of resurrection and new life… these are powers NOT to be used as Peter, the disciples and the church desires. But rather responsibilities and tasks to be undertaken. Forgiveness is not to withheld, but given. Mercy is not to be given with discretion but with wild abandon. And new life… well God’s answer to all death is resurrection and new life.

When Jesus re-names Simon, and makes him the rock of the church, and gives him the keys to the Kingdom… it is not a moment of granting privilege or benefits… It is a moment of reminding Peter, the disciples and us of the responsibility we bear.

That we are firstly a community of faith. Faith is not a by-product of our community, but rather community and our love and care for one another is a by-product of our faith. Forgiveness is not a power the church wields over people, but rather something we are not to withhold. We are to forgive sinners. Period. And new life… well resurrection and new life is the story that we tell… or rather that Jesus tells through us, week after week, year after year.

Through Peter, through the disciples, through us, Christ proclaims again and again that death does not have the final word. Christ proclaims through us New Life given for all and for us.

Today, Jesus asks a pretty simple question to the disciples and to us. But the result is a reminder, again, of just how Christ is re-naming and transforming Peter and us, into the his body. Into the Body of Christ giving forgiveness, mercy and new life to the world.

Advertisements

The Canaanite Woman and Charlottesville

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Read the whole passage)

The early church had a problem. It didn’t know what to do with the gentiles. Within a just a few decades of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension the small but growing communities of followers of Jesus the Messiah, didn’t know if or how they could include gentiles or non-Jewish people among their ranks. This question of inclusion vs exclusion caused a lot of struggle and conflict for those early faith congregations.

Today, we continue in this long season of ordinary time to hear the stories and episodes of Jesus’ ministry. And while it may seem like the gospel stories have been conveniently arranged in way that allows us to tell the story of Jesus throughout our liturgical year… that is not the case today.

The purpose behind the story of Jesus’ and the Canaanite woman’s encounter was about addressing the gentile problem of the early church more so than our need for a collection of vignettes of Jesus’ ministry to read throughout our summer church services.

And while it isn’t all that often that the stories of gospels have distinct and significant purpose other than telling the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, today we encounter one of the few texts that is included in the gospels for a particular reason.

As Jesus and the disciples are travelling about the countryside, they enter the district of Tyre and Sidon – Gentile territory near what we know today and Syria and Lebanon. As Jesus and the disciples a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and begins to shout,

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…”

Now it is important to know that 1st century Galilee and the surrounding gentile regions were not pluralistic and multicultural in the way Canada is today. While there were people of different ethnicities, religions, and class, their world was no a tolerant place. Jews, like Jesus and his disciples, were careful not to mix with the gentiles. They did not speak to, eat with, or even touch gentiles unless absolutely necessary. If they did, they would become ritually unclean and need to become ritually clean again.

This practice of avoidance of gentiles led to enthno-centric attitudes… what we would call racist today. Gentiles were often perceived to be less than human. In fact, to call someone a “Canannite” was not a description of their ancestry but derogatory term that Matthew, the gospel writer, uses for the woman (Mark identifies her as Syrophoenician or Syrian). In the OT, God was believed to had commanded the genocide of the Canaanites, and so Canaanite became the slur used for all gentiles, with the connotation that Canaanites weren’t even worthy of being alive.

The Canaanite woman’s problems were of course worsened by the fact that she was a woman… a person not even permitted to be alone in public, let alone speak to a man, let alone a Jewish man. And to top if off, the Canaanite woman had a demon-possessed daughter… and by association would be completely and totally unclean.

And so when Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman who comes to him asking for mercy… his response of calling her a dog, while sounding pretty bad to our ears, would be nearly the maximum amount of compassion that someone could show such an undesirable person under Jewish law.

The Canaanite woman and Jesus are constrained and limited by the cultural systems that existed around them. The woman lived in world where she couldn’t even be considered human by Jesus… and Jesus’ world didn’t allow him to consider this woman, seeking mercy for her sick daughter, as a human being.

And while we would like to have a smug feeling about how backward the world was with their complicated efforts to excludes and dehumanize each other 2000 years ago… we have been witnesses this week to examples of the ways in which not much has changed.
As the events of Charlottesville played out last weekend over the news, we saw the incredible and terrible lengths that human beings can go to just to exclude, denigrate and dehumanize anyone who looks different. As White Nationalists – or really White Supremacists – marched in the streets with weapons and violent intentions for the sake of a statue glorifying the racist history of African American slavery… we saw what a racist culture looks like in action. A culture very similar to what we read about in the gospel today.

Just as the Canaanite woman and Jesus were trapped and constrained by the cultural systems around them… we see how the extraordinary lengths that people go to in order segregation, excludes and dehumanize fellow human beings, trap and constrain them too. Traps them in their hatred, traps them in their intolerance… traps them in cycles of conflict and violence that never seem to end.

As the Canaanite woman comes seeking mercy from Jesus she persists. Even as Jesus insists that she is not one of the ones he has come for, not one of the children of Israel, she continues to ask for mercy.

And in what could have been a White Nationalist quoted in the news this week, Jesus says,

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”

And with that the woman should have got the message, she should have realized that she wasn’t one of the chosen, she was simply not the right colour, or religion, or gender, or clean enough or human enough to receive mercy…

But she persists still…

She persists with Jesus.

Because she has heard that Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent by God, the one who is God’s mercy in flesh, walking the streets of her town.

And if Jesus is the Messiah, than the woman’s identity doesn’t matter. This isn’t about whether or not she is included or excluded, it isn’t about whether she is the right race, wether she worships God in the right way, whether she is the right gender, wether she is clean…

It is about Jesus and what it means for him to be the Messiah.

Because God’s mercy is not based in human cultural systems. God’s mercy isn’t given based on arbitrary categories like skin colour or gender or ritual cleanliness.

God’s mercy is given outside of the systems we live by. God’s mercy transcends race, gender, class and all other divisions of human invention.

The woman persists, asking Jesus for mercy for her daughter, because encountering God’s mercy in flesh has already transformed the Canaanite woman. God’s mercy personified in Christ transforms the world simply by being recognized and known.

And so the woman reminds Jesus that there are enough table scraps for even the dogs. That in Christ, God’s mercy in flesh, there is more than enough. More mercy than the children of Israel need, and enough mercy for even the dogs.

Yet by encountering God’s mercy in flesh, by seeking out the God of Mercy, the Lord, Son of David… the Canaanite woman is no longer less than human. Or rather, Jesus and the woman come into a relationship beyond what the cultural ethnocentric rules say. Jesus and the woman are no longer defined by human categories, but by God’s categories.

As Jesus acknowledges her and finally giving her the mercy and healing she seeks for her daughter, Jesus gives this woman a place in the Kingdom. Jesus acknowledges that this untouchable woman is, indeed, worthy of God’s mercy. Because God has declared her so.

And even though her world says she is less than human, God’s mercy given for her declares that she is, in fact, a child of God.

Just as God’s mercy comes and changes the world from the outside of racist cultural systems for Jesus and the Canaanite woman, this is the same place where God is at work among us. At work in Charlottesville, in Barcelona, at work in the all the places where we try to exclude rather than include. At work in the early church who eventually included gentiles in God’s kingdom.

As White Nationalists waked the streets of Charlottesville, as religious extremists committed acts of violence rooted in the division of race… Christ comes to us. Not proposing alternate systems, not telling us that we can solve this problems of division and hatred simply by “doing better.”

Instead, as the daughter of the Canaanite woman is healed and as the woman is humanized by Jesus’ turn towards compassion… we are reminded that the solution to our problems of race and religion can only be solved the One who comes to us from the outside.

We can only experience true mercy when God’s mercy in flesh walks our streets and frees us from systems and categories and idea that tell us some are more important, more human than others.

God’s mercy in flesh, walking our streets, comes to Charlottesville, comes to Barcelona, comes to all the places where we would try to call others less than human…

And God’s mercy in flesh, walking our streets, declares that God’s mercy is given, for us and for all.

Why White Supremacy is a Sin

The events of Charlottesville, VA over the weekend were truly tragic and deplorable. One of the things that struck me was just how groundless and arbitrary the reasons were for white nationalists to gather for a rally. How pointless was the violence and death inflicted on people over a statue?

Even here in Canada, this kind of open display of hatred evoked a visceral reaction. To see nazis and klan members taking the streets was surreal. This is something that used to belong only in historical source footage and fictionalized movies. And yet there it was, in my newsfeed along side the regular photos of friends on holidays, recipe videos, cat pics and other news articles.

As a white Christian, I cannot help but feel outraged and shamed by the images and videos of white men who look just like me “rallied” thinking they were standing up for themselves. There is simply no excuse or moral justification for what took place in Charlottesville.

As a pastor, I struggled with how to address the events of the weekend. And I confess, that I did not re-write or change my sermon to address the issue of white nationalism (I did address Charlottesville in the intercessory prayers). But still I agreed with the many calls for pastors – white pastors in particular – to name the sin of white supremacy and racism. This article in particular named the need for pastors to speak out very well.

But one thing I noticed that was largely absent or only briefly address are the reasons why white supremacy is a sin. And while it may seem obvious to many or most people that this kind of hatred is sinful, I don’t think it is understood by or obvious to all.

In fact, I quite honestly doubt that those who espouse white supremacy and Christian faith understand why the two are incompatible. While some may choose to hate knowing that it is ‘wrong,’ I think many simply don’t understand that this hatred is, in fact, wrong and sinful.

So hopefully to add some clarity to the call to name white supremacy as a sin, here is the  why:

Sin

To begin with, we need to understand what is sin. So often we think of sins as “bad things” that we do. This is only a surface and passing understanding. To better understand sin, it needs to be more deeply understood in two ways. First, sin is distortion in our relationship with God. Second, sin is distortion in our relationships with other people and creation.

Sin is when we put ourselves first. When we put ourselves above God, trying to be God in God’s place (Commandments 1-3 in the Lutheran order). It is also when we put ourselves above others and creation, tying to be God over others and creation (Commandments 4-10 in the Lutheran order).

The sin of hierarchy

White supremacy is a sin because it elevates some people above other people for arbitrary reasons. It attempts to claim that some (white people) are more fully human, while others (people of colour) are less human. This is a violation of commandments 4-10 meant to keep our relationships with others and creation in balance. This is also a violation of commandments 1-3 meant to remind us of who is God, and that God alone defines our humanity.

The sin of trying to be like God

White supremacy is also a sin because it also tries to claim who is worthy of God’s love and favour, saying that God has arbitrarily chosen some people (white people) over others (people of colour). God alone chooses who is worthy of God’s love and favour, and God has chosen all peoples and all nations.

The sin of limiting the Gospel

And finally, the most important, white supremacy is a sin a because it tries to constrain and control the gospel, and ultimately to control and constrain God. God in Christ has declared that grace is given for all people. To restrict the Gospel or the Good News is to attempt to confine and control God, to be God in God’s place.

Trying to be God in God’ place is at the root of all sin.

The Gospel overcomes sin and death

God became incarnate in flesh to show us (all humanity) that the New Life given in Christ is given for all people. And there is no ideology based on arbitrary differences (like skin colour) that can constrain that Good News.

And in the face of racism and white supremacy, the Good News is that Christ is not controlled or restricted by white supremacists (not matter what they claim) or any others who would claim to limit Christ’s saving act of dying on the cross and rising to New Life so that New Life may be given for all.

The Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is something that God has given to all peoples and no one can change that.

So as pastors and other leaders in faith continue on through this week and into next Sunday naming and condemning the sin of white supremacy, my hope is that we also take the time to say why.

Because in saying why white supremacy is sinful, we also remind people that God’s love, mercy and grace is given for all.

The scary thing isn’t sinking, but walking on water.

Matthew 14:22-33

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him… (Read the whole passage)

What a quick turnaround from last week. As we go with the disciples into the stormy waters, we have and they have just been feeding the masses with Jesus. With five loaves and two small fish, Jesus fed the 5000 and there was enough for all.

Yet, within moments of enjoying a feast with the great crowd, Jesus sends the disciples  in a boat to the other side of the lake, while goes by himself to pray. And then follows one of the most famous stories in the bible, where Jesus while walking on the water, invites Peter to walk on water with him.

As the disciples are out on the water in a storm, it is not the first time these experienced fisherman have found themselves in bad weather. The first time in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was with them in the boat. With but a few divine words he calmed the storm and the fears of the disciples.

So this time, as the storm comes upon the hapless group of Jesus’ followers, they are not afraid of the wind and the waves. Instead, it is the apparition of Jesus on the water that brings out their fears. They are not certain of what or who they see. Some think it is a ghost.

Jesus approaches the boat and calms the disciples fears. “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”. Jesus calms the disciples, who are storming within, by speaking words that alleviate their fears. But Jesus’ words to the disciples are reminiscent of words spoken to another disciple. As Moses approached the burning bush, the Lord God told him to not be afraid. And Jesus echoes the name that God gave himself. When Moses asked the burning bush by what name should he call the one who was sending him to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God said, “Tell them, I AM who I AM sent you”.

Jesus invokes the same divine name. Jesus words to the disciples from the side of the boat could have been translated, “Take heart. I AM. Do not be afraid”.

The disciples realize, this is no ghost. This is God at the side of the boat, walking on the water. But Peter still has some questions… is it Jesus? And I can walk with him?

Now I don’t know about you, but getting out to walk on the water does not seem like the obvious thing to do in this situation. The disciples are sailing in the middle of storm, and this is the moment that Peter decides to see if he can also do what Jesus is doing. Maybe Peter would have been smarter to start with multiplying some bread and fish into enough food for thousands…disappointed dinner guests, and not drowning, would be the worst possible outcome.

Yet, Peter steps out. In the hopes of meeting Jesus on top of the water, the hopes of having the power over creation too.

Most of us are probably not as daring or foolish as Peter… but at the same time, there are moments in our lives and in our faith where we are compelled to step out of the boat. To take a risk, to chance losing everything. Whether it is a individuals or as a community of faith, there are moments when we have to stop worrying about the worst possible outcomes and see what happens on the waters, outside the safety of the boat.  We are faced with trying something new, venturing into the unknown, exploring places we wouldn’t have dared go before.

Peter’s question is the question that we all must ask before stepping out of the boat. It is the question of identity. Who will meet me on the other side of this great risk? Who am I to take this risk?

So many of the sermons preached on this text tell us that if we want to know the answer to that question, if we keep our eyes on the one walking on the water, than we will not drown or sink. Just have enough faith, and everything will be alright. Just take the risk with faith, and walking on water should not be a problem.

But the difficult part of stepping out of the boat and stepping into the unknown is that we do not know where we will end up. We do not know what is on the other side.

Peter steps out of the boat… and in a way, he shows us what indeed almost always happens to us in those moments of risking it all.

We sink.

Stepping out of the boat is to sink.

Stepping out of the boat means is to get wet.

Stepping out of the boat means we will need to be saved.

The drama of the story is that when Peter steps out onto the water and he begins to sink. His risky choice seemed like it had potential, and it seemed to be going well at first. But Peter does what we so often do. He self-sabotages. He becomes afraid of the unimportant things, not the water, not sinking, not the lack of a boat under his feet. He is frightened by the wind, by something that should have no impact on his ability to walk on water.

And how often is this what we do too. When trying something new begins to work, we become not afraid of failure but of success. We stop wondering whether we will sink, but what it means to discover that Jesus did actually invite us into something new and different. Something that means we will be forever changed…  Like Peter, we let the inconsequential sink us. The wind, the thing that is a sign that we are on top of the water is what makes us sink.

Yet, just as Peter begins to sink, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter.”

You see, this is part of the story where we finally find out who we are. Where we finally find out who it is that is calling to us from the other side of boat. Jesus knows very well that Peter will sink, but Jesus still says, “Come”. Before Peter steps out of the boat, he wants to know if it really is Jesus walking on the water. But once he begins to sink, Peter knows exactly who he is calling to, “Lord, Save me”.

Inside the boat, we forget who we are and who Jesus is. But on the outside, with the water rising quickly around us, we know that we need to be saved, we know that only Jesus is the one – the ONLY one – who can do the saving.

Hopping over that edge and onto or into the water is a part of life. As human beings, as communities of faith, as sinners in need of saving, we need to hop over the edge every so often. We need to discover what it is like to be on the outside of the boat, to experience the unknown and to find out where we are going.

But in the end we will always sink. In the end there is always the wind, the thing of little importance that we can blame for our fear of succeeding, our fear of change and newness.

But even as we sink, Jesus is there. Right there, immediately grabbing us by the hand and pulling us from the stormy waters.

Jesus is right there knowing that our problem is not wind, nor the water, not the missing boat. Jesus knows that we are our own problem… but Jesus also knows that we will never save ourselves. And so Jesus pulls us out. He doesn’t make the wind go away, or throw us backwards into the boat, or even tell is to stop waling on the water… Jesus brings us through. Jesus pulls us out of sinking death, into unexpected new life on top of the water. New Life on the other side of risk, on the other side of the safety of the boat. New life on the other side of change and new ways of being.

That is the promise of Jesus walking on the water. That is the promise of God who says, “Tell them I AM who I AM sent you”. That is the promise of our Lord and Saviour. No matter where we are. In the boat, on dry land, or sinking like a stone. Jesus is there, reaching out to us, pulling us from the waters, saving us from ourselves, saving us no matter where we go or where we end up.

Reaching out and pulling us into new Life.