Remembering the Rock

A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, and Matthew 16:13-20.

When I first began working at my former church, my office was in an unused room on the their floor of a building that was built in 1895. Parts of that building needed some work. But I loved the church, I loved the people I was working with, and I loved the ministry I felt I had begun— so an occasional mouse, frayed electrical cords, drafty windows, and make-do office equipment seemed of little consequence. Until the ceiling fell down.

There had been a long-unnoticed leak of a radiator in the room above. The water had made it way through the old plaster.

It’s for that reason that every time I walk down the narthex stairway into the undercroft, I look at the welcome table, and I immediately stop and wonder if the ceiling has fallen in. And then I remember the rocks.

There has been a small pile of rocks in the undercroft for several months now. It began as a show-and-tell demonstration by Dale Lewis, then junior warden, to begin to try to show us what is happening to some of the stone, that forms the walls, that make up our church building.

As I understand it (which may not be quite right), some years ago it seemed like a good thing to replace the mortar between the stones with cement, which would not have to be replaced. The problem with cement though is that it is not porous, and doesn’t allow any moisture or water to seep out from between the stones.

So when water gets in there (which it does), it has nowhere to go, so it works on the stone, cracking the already-brittle rock, and causing damage that is not only expensive, but also potentially dangerous. And so, on our list of things to do and to keep up, is the pointing of the stone around the church. It’s not a romantic use of money. It’s not easy to put a brass plaque on. But it’s essential and necessary.

Moving from physical rock, to symbolic rock—remembering the rock (that is in us) is one of the most important things we can do.

Isaiah, says, “Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the LORD; look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”

Isaiah pictures the Lord God as a rock. God doesn’t change. God is always there. God is immune to custom or convention. Water does not erode. Pollution does not damage. God provides shelter and represents strength and power and stability.

The people of Israel struggled with false idols. They got bored with rock and replaced the Rock of Ages with fake things, with pretty things, with things that charmed and wowed and took up time and money and attention. They struggled with the basic question—what lasts like rock? Is anything rock-solid?

Jesus put a question very much like this one to his disciples. He asks them: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Here, Jesus uses the Old Testament term, “Son of Man,” and it must have worked as a kind of verbal hyperlink for the disciples. It would have triggered all kinds of associations: Ezekiel is called Son of Man. Daniel is called Son of Man. It is a phrase that encompasses prophecy, a special chosen status by God, and more than a hint toward messiahship.

And so the disciples tell Jesus what the people are thinking about him. You’re a prophet. A great prophet, a mighty prophet. Some say you’re Elijah returned. Some say John the Baptist. It’s an insight for us into how people saw Jesus at this point. They don’t seem to have connected him with the Son of God, or the Messiah.

But Jesus questions on. Who do YOU say that I am.

And Peter, with clarity, with faith and with daring, says “You are the Christ. The Son of the Living God. “

And to Peter, whose name in Aramaic means Rock, Jesus says, “Your name means rock, and on you, the rock, will I build my church. And the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Jesus founds the Church upon Peter and the other apostles. He breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit. The term, “apostolic succession” points to this beginning. In its fiercest form, apostolic succession would insist that the church exists in a clear line drawn from Saint Peter through all the bishops of the church to this very day. But there’s another understanding of apostolic succession (especially championed by the early Church Fathers) that suggests faith is what is passed down, faith in Jesus handed down from community, to community, to community.

If we look at today’s Gospel closely, Jesus proclaims Peter the Rock on whom he will build the church, not because of Peter’s goodness or worthiness. Peter’s declaration of faith, “you are the Christ” becomes the foundation. The church will continue to be built on those who have this kind of faith, who believe that Jesus is the son of God, the way, the truth and the life, in whom is the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection to eternal life.

Peter is the rock. But if we think about, he’s not exactly the most solid rock. Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, and Peter in fact denied him three times, warming himself by the fire.

Sometimes we’re like Peter. We crumble, too– under stress, in doubt, in fear. Our faith is like Peter’s—it worries and wonders, and needs assurance.

But Peter gets that assurance. In the last conversation we have between Jesus and Peter, after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, Jesus shares breakfast on the beach with his disciples. He asks Peter, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep, Jesus says, Feed my sheep.” Peter gets assurance and we do too.

Jesus assures us that we, like Peter, can become stronger. We can be strengthened through Christ, and we can be strengthened through one another. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says; and be fed by my sheep. But Jesus might have just as easily said, “remember the rocks”—the rock that you are and the rocks that surround you. Peter seems to understand this as he writes, “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2). The real rock, the true church shows itself wherever faith is proclaimed—believe in Jesus as the Son of God, our savior and friend, the way of our eternal life.

The true church shows itself wherever that faith shows plays itself out in the feeding of the sheep. The tending of the lambs. The care of one another. At our baptism we are made rocks—not to stand alone, but rocks that need each other, like a well-built wall, and its in that way that we find the foundation we need for faithful living, and the way we begin to provide a faithful foundation for others.

There’s a wonderful old hymn that goes, ‘Built on the Rock the Church doth stand, even when steeples are falling.” The final stanza sings

We are God’s house of living stones, Builded for His habitation;

He through baptismal grace us owns Heirs of His wondrous salvation.

Were we but two His name to tell, Yet He would deign with us to dwell,

With all His grace and His favor.

May we always have faith to remember the rocks—remember the rock that is Our Lord Jesus Christ, and remember the rocks we are and are called to be, and to remember the rocks that surround us, offering strength and support.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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