Romans 12:1-8 & Matthew 16.13-20
When you arrive in a church for the first time – whether you are a minister or a visitor, the vast richness of history is not necessarily apparent. I suppose when you walk in here and you see these late Victorian, maybe Edwardian, windows in this mid-century Alpine building you know there is a story. And when you see a huge wooden cross above the altar – you know there is a beautiful story behind it. And there is the unusual stone altar. You can’t just order up one of these in a church furnisher’s catalogue. Its unique identifying feature besides this is a beautiful wooden top which you will only see if you come to church on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday when the church is stripped bare, is the stone construction. I have talked to Nan Malone, Anke Geurtsen, Deb Ervin, Tess May and Gloria Nussberger about this altar – actually it was Tess’s idea to talk about the altar, the reason which will become apparent in a moment.
Every person has a slightly different story about how the altar was built. I heard it was someone named Dorothy’s husband, who was a stonemason, who built the altar. I heard that the stones were largely gathered from different members of the congregation – stones that might have a special significance – like one from Coventry Cathedral from the rubble after it was bombed by the Germans during World War II. Or the rocks were hewn from the ground where the foundation was laid to build this church. I heard they were from a field not too far away. My best guess is that all of those things are true: That this altar was made through the love and labor of many hands one way or another. Apparently, there is a loose stone in the altar somewhere that hides a letter that tells the story. This altar is a sign of our work together.
In our Gospel lesson for today we hear these famous words about Peter. Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Now we often think that what Jesus meant here was that Peter, the person, is the foundation stone of the whole church – thus St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. And that it is from St. Peter, there stands a great long line of people who were ordained in succession from him. The Episcopal Church holds, or really once held, a belief called the Apostolic Succession that refers to the belief that if we were able to trace my, or any clergyperson’s ordination back from generation to generation, we would eventually land at Peter. The original meaning of apostolic succession has largely been debunked and a newer, more historically accurate definitions has since been applied.*
But we all know that churches do not bloom and grow because of clergy- clergy are not the rocks. The congregation are the rocks and foundation of the parish.
But in way, this is a little beside the point. What Jesus is really saying here is that the real foundation of the church is not Peter himself, rather it is Peter’s proclamation, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That is the rock. It is this proclamation that Jesus will save us from all that threatens to kill us spiritually and emotionally in this life and will grant to us life ever after with him. And this proclamation means that Jesus was not just a great teacher, healer and moral exemplar from 2,000 years ago sent to us to emulate – but there is something mystical and miraculous that Christ is somehow present with us right here and right now – which is why we have Holy Communion each week to remind us that Jesus is with us now and always.
So this week as I was thinking about our altar, I was thinking, what are our rocks? What is our proclamation of faith? What is it that St. Michael’s is all about? What is our foundation of our church and our faith? What is it beyond this friendly community where we greet friends week by week, and share in fellowship that makes a difference?
As we have been talking about updating our website, and increasing our social media presence, and sharing our story with our communities, it is important to ask the question – why? what for? Why do we want to share this precious gift with others? And we know that having people attend our church is not about a fuller church, it is not about pledging units. It is about sharing the life we have with one another and with Christ here.
I invite you for a moment to think about what is the rock of your faith. And how does that faith get challenged or affirmed or refreshed or renewed each week? St. Paul says in the Epistle Lesson for today. Maybe even talk to your neighbor for a moment – and I invite you to take a rock that was given to you when you came into church this morning, and take the paint pen and write a word or two on a rock. If you could choose one word for today that would reflect your faith, and your relationship with St. Michael’s, what would it be?
(pause for two minutes for conversation)
What did you come up with?
Answers: Family, Love, Kindness, Service, Community, Peace, …
I just wrote Love on my rock – but in truth for me, attending church is all about the first lines of our Epistle Lesson this morning – I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect. Of course that is hard to put on a rock – it would have to be a boulder. But maybe for short I would choose the word renewal.
Each of the things that you thought of or wrote is why St. Michael’s is the church that it is. Whatever you wrote as being important to you, is important for the life of this church. That what we seek, is what God also gives us to share. As I said last week, the gifts that God gives to us, are meant to work through us. As the Epistle lesson ends this morning: 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. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
At coffee hour, I invite you to put you rock in the basket in the parish hall as an image of the way that we are the living stones of this church in this corner of Christendom. We are the body of Christ, and upon us, and those saints who went before us, is our church built. As you go through your week, I invite you to think about what you need, and I invite you to take the rock in the basket that has the word that will encourage you throughout the week.
*Apostolic now refers to: The Church is apostolic, because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people (from the BCP).