A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Matthew 16:13-20

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     Today’s Gospel reading happens to be one of the most formative and influential passages of the Bible, for both Protestants and Catholics.  But both groups would disagree on the most important part of the story.


    Protestants say it is Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” that is the most important part of the story.  Peter’s dramatic answer is “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”  We call it “Peter’s confession,” and we think of it as the highlight of the story.


     On the other hand, for Roman Catholics, the most important part of the story is Jesus’ follow-up statement “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  It’s like Jesus was making Peter the foundation of the church and a sign that Peter would be the first pope. 

     For Protestants, especially among conservative evangelical circles in this country, the most important thing about Christianity is for you to accept Jesus as your personal Savior, that you’re able to say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  Often when you see in the news that some criminal, white-collar or otherwise, is being brought to justice, they often try to reassure us that they’re really nice people after all, even good Christians, because they’ve accepted Jesus as their personal Savior.  

     So the dramatic part of the story for Protestants is Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?,” and Peter’s answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”  Wow, what a wonderful confession, we say.  Yet the part we forget in this story is that Jesus doesn’t want Peter to tell anyone else what he just said.  He’s to keep his opinion about Jesus to himself – because, we’ll soon find out in the following verses, Peter has the wrong idea.  There’s more to being a disciple of Jesus than just mouthing a confession out loud.

     For Catholics, on the other hand, the dramatic point in this story is when Jesus gives his disciple Simon the name “Peter” (which means “Rock”), and tells him that he will be the one on whom Jesus’ church will be built.  For Catholics this is a founding moment for the church:  it is founded on Peter, and Jesus gives him the keys to heaven itself, and tells him that he gets to decide who will get in and who will get left out.  “To you (i.e. Peter) I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

     Catholics also see in this passage the entire developing history of the Western Church, a church that must look to Peter and his successors as the dominant authority in their lives.  The office of the Bishop of Rome is called “the chair of St. Peter,” and the Pope “the successor of St. Peter.”  And throughout the history of the Western Church that authority and those keys have been wielded.  In the year 1054 the Bishop of Rome closed heaven to all of Eastern Orthodox Christianity by excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople, and a wound opened between Eastern and Western Christianity that has not been healed to this day.  A host of others in the West, including Martin Luther, are still officially supposed to be standing outside heaven and looking in.  In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, who was head of the Church of England, and the breach between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church became complete.  In 1896 Pope Leo XIII declared the ordinations in the Church of England invalid.   One wonders if all that was originally meant by Jesus when he said “On you I will build my church.”  

     Maybe when Jesus told his disciples to be quiet about all this he already knew what they would do with his church until they learned a few other things.  Maybe he realized that there would be people who would lie, cheat, steal, kill, and defame others and still think they could be great members of his church if they would just say they love Jesus.  Maybe he realized that once given the authority to forgive sins they would wind up splitting his church into countless denominations, where people who want to learn about him don’t know where to begin.  Maybe that’s why Jesus initially told his disciples to keep their grandiose opinions about him to themselves.  Maybe he knew from the beginning what we would do with his church once we got hold of it.

     That’s why it is important for all of us Christians throughout the world to read the same passages together on this day, and especially to hear St. Paul’s words in our second lesson for today:

“By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  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, and individually we are members one of another.”  (Romans 12:3-5)

That was not just Paul’s idea.  Jesus also prayed that his followers might all be one, and he connected that unity to the mission of his church:  “Father, I pray that they may all be one, so that they world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21).  St. Paul knew that when our egos get in the way, the unity of Christ’s church will be fractured.  

     I love the story told by the late great rabbi Alexander Schindler, who left his hotel room in Jerusalem one morning to go pray at the Wailing Wall.  When he got out of his taxi, he noticed that he had forgotten to bring his yarmulke, the small skullcap that is a sign of humility before God when Jews pray.  When he approached the Wall, a young boy was standing there carrying a box of yarmulkes for sale, and the boy pulled at the edge of the rabbi’s jacket and said, “Sir, you forgot your yarmulke.”  Schindler thought to himself, “I can finesse this kid.”  So he said to the boy, “Oh no I haven’t.  Do you see that sky up there that God has made?  It stretches from horizon to horizon.  That beautiful sky is my yarmulke today.”  The boy looked up at the sky, thought for a second, and said to the rabbi, “Such a big yarmulke for such a little head.”

     What a big yarmulke Jesus placed on his followers’ heads when he said, “On you I will build my church.”  What a huge yarmulke when he gave them the power to forgive sins, that what they would bind and loose on earth would be bound and loosed in heaven.  But that’s how he said he would build his church, and it is those three words that are the most important part of today’s Gospel:  “build my church,” he said.

     First of all, Jesus could not conceive of any other church except his church.  It is his church because he does not want to give it away to anyone else.  He does not want to give you away to anyone else.  “On you,” he said to his disciple, “I will build my church.”  That means that his followers are not to mouth their confession of him as their Messiah only to lie, cheat, steal, kill, defame, and exclude others from his church.  He is the one who drew all people to himself; he was the friend of tax collectors and sinners, and when people chided him about that, he said, “I haven’t come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).  And why?  To offer them the forgiveness of sins, so that they can experience a loving God in the midst of a loving church.  

     So whenever we think of our church as “our” church, we need to remind ourselves that it is not “our” church at all, because it has never been “our” church.  It is Christ’s church and it will always be Christ’s church, even when we are gone.  And whatever time is still left to us on this earth we are to do what we can to make Christ preeminent in our church, to let his plans for it unfold, and to set our own egos aside so that people are able to see Christ here in our midst.  It will be a church that will always remind others of what Jesus himself said:  “By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

     “My church,” he said.  So what about his own ego?  Well, we know the answer to that.  He took his own ego to the cross and gave it up, and now we get a chance to participate in that.  Our baptism into his death and resurrection allows us to put our own designs aside and look for his plan, his way, his mission, that we might engage in the real building of Christ’s own church.

     A second thing we need to hear again and again is that Jesus wants to build his church.  “On you,” he said, “I will build my church.”  That’s the mission he gives us, the big yarmulke he places on our heads.  To build his church.  You know, that is a task that is never done.  Just because we’ve erected a building here at this spot is not the end of the task, but just the beginning.  The church is not a building, but people.  “On you,” he said, “I will build my church.”  That job is never done.  Generations come and go, people die, people move, people come and people go – but the task remains the same, and we are given a big yarmulke, to build Jesus’ church.  And remember, the yarmulke is a sign of humility before God.  To build Christ’s church is something that must be done with humility.

     Each one of us is invited to take part in building Christ’s church.  Each one of us must ask “what am I doing to help build Christ’s church?  Are my wants and my desires getting in the way of building Christ’s church?  After all, in the long run, it is not we who build it, but Christ himself.  “On you,” he said, “I will build my church.”  And how does Christ do this?  He does it by sending us to each other with the most precious gift he can give, namely the forgiveness of sins.  And he tells us to share it – to participate in opening heaven to people.  It is not a gift that we keep for ourselves, but a gift that we share with others.  That’s how the church is built:  with the love of God.  “I will build my church on you,” he said, “and to do that I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

     So ask yourselves, what have I done to help build the church?  What can I do?  What can I do to build unity among Christians, among my own congregation?  What can I do to help build unity among Christians in the worldwide Body of Christ?  How can I see myself in Jesus’ promise:  “On you I will build my church”?  Think of it:  we’ve been invited to build, and we’ve been given the gifts to do so.  So let’s use them and we will witness the fulfillment of that promise:  “On you I will build my church.”

                                                                                                              -- Richard L. Jeske, 8/27/17