The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 16 A (Revised Lectionary)

24 August 2008

Saint John’s

Memphis, Tennessee

John W. Sewell

Who do you say I am?  Jesus asked.  We all have questions?  We really want answers don’t we?  We want answers to the deep questions of why?  And how?  When we achieve any maturity at all we know that for many things there are no answers.  What I needed, I discovered, is better questions?

It is profoundly different if I wake in the morning and ask, “What must I do today to take advantage of my neighbor?” If I ask, “How today can I have more integrity?”  You see that each of those questions leads to very different outcomes.

In today’s Gospel Jesus asks a carefully chosen question?

Who do you say I am?  You are the Christ (the anointed one) of the living God!

As Fritz Kunkel puts it, “This is the turning point of human history.  In spite of all his failures and relapses, suddenly the disciple (Peter) is able to see the truth.  His eyes, for a great and blissful moment, penetrate the physical world like spiritual X-rays.  Peter gazes through Jesus into the infinite.  Where Jesus stood, there is now a new consciousness, able to faced the eternal essence of the Hunan soul.  The Beyond looks at the Beyond recognizing its identity.” Creation Continues – [p. 186]

On the insight of Peter and those after him who have that moment of insight that changes everything – everything rests!

The word “Christ” appears five times in Matthew’s text before this use, but only in the narrative, used retrospectively.  It never occurs in any conversation prior to this passage.   Here it is – the question that changes everything.

Jesus’ response confirms the radical significance of Peter’s insight.

“Upon this rock – I will build my ekkesia  – community – assembly – we use the word church.

In secular Greek meant an assembly, primarily of citizen in a self-governing city.  It comes to have a particular meaning among the followers of Jesus.  It remains the name of the assembly until about the year 200.

In the writings of Clement of Alexandria I found this interesting passage,

“ Women and men should go to church decently attired, with natural step, clinging in silence, possessing genuine love, being pure in body and pure in heart, and fit to offer prayers to God.”

This is the first recorded expression “go to church” dating from just before 200 AD – a move from church as group of people to church as place.

The church is a place and it is the people who inhabit that place.  When the place is destroyed that does not destroy the community as the natural disasters of the past decade have shown.

There were lots of groups in the ancient world – everything from clubs, interest groups, philosophical societies. Often these met in homes and were sponsored by someone of means.  This form was filled with biblical images, biblical practices and biblical faith.

A new thing was born – a current but transformed social pattern was made the bearer of an ancient biblical hope, just as the bread of the Eucharist was current bread conjoined with the lively biblical Word.  The assembly was marked by both continuity and transformation.

Ignatius of Antioch: “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic ekkesia

We moved from scroll to book, from club to church, from this world to the next – continuity and transformation – human relationships filled with divine content.

This is the matrix of faith. This is the context of movement from sin to life by the catalyst of grace – the free of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ.

1,          CONTINUITY – What we received from the Apostles we proclaim today.  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  As I say regularly the important thing to know is that God is like Jesus!

The good news of Jesus as the expression of God’s love is the thread that binds us together with the first Christians and will knit us to those who come after us until the last believers are joined with the first at the marriage feast of the Lamb.

2.          TRANSFORMATION — Forgiveness and celebration are at the heart of community.  These are the two faces of love.  Celebration is a communal experience of joy, a song of thanksgiving.  We celebrate that fact of being together; we give thanks for the gifts we have been given.  Celebration nourishes us, restores hope, and brings us the strength to live with the suffering and difficulties of everyday life.

This is not easy!

A mother knocked on the door of her son’s bedroom and said, “Wake up dear, its time you got up and went to church.”  “I’m not going?”  “Give me two reasons why you should not go to church?”  “O.K.  I don’t like the people in the church and they don’t like me!”  “Well,” his mother said, “I can give you two good reasons why you are going.”  “What two reasons,” her son asked?  “Well,” she said, “One is that you are forty-seven years old. And the second is that you are the rector of the place.”

Simon Tugwell – “Christianity has to be disappointing, precisely because it is not a mechanism of r accomplishing all our human ambitions and aspirations, it is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God. The first disciples were disappointed because Jesus turned out not to be the kind of Messiah they wanted. Even after the resurrection St Luke shows us how the apostles were still dreaming of a political restoration of the kingdom of Israel.  They had to be disappointed.  When people turn away fro the church, because they find more satisfaction elsewhere, it is important not to assume that we, as Christians, ought to be providing such satisfaction ourselves; it is much more urgent that we take yet another look at just what it is that we have genuinely been given in the church. We may indeed say that Christianity does direct us towards the fulfillment of all our desires and hopes; but we shall only say this correctly if we understand it to mean that a great many of the desires and hopes we are conscious of will eventually turn out to be foolish and misconceived. It is God who knows how to makes us happy, better than we know ourselves. Christianity necessarily involves a remaking of our hopes. And our disappointments are an unavoidable part of the process.”

We are not perfect!  We live in a laboratory of faith.  We don’t get it right a lot of the time but we can and will and must begin again and again.

“If the church is not a divine institution it will turn into an Elk’s Club.” – Flannery O’Connor

As long as we refuse to accept that we are a mixture of light and darkness, of positive qualities and failings, of love and hate, of altruism and egocentricity, of maturity and immaturity, and that we are all children of the same Father, we will continue to divide the world into enemies (the ‘baddies’) and friends (‘the goodies’).  We will go on throwing up barriers around ourselves and our communities, spreading prejudice.”

(p. 37) Community is the place of forgiveness.  In spite of all the trust we may have in each other, there are always words that wound, self-promoting attitudes, situations where susceptibilities clash.  That is why living together implies a cross, a constant effort, an acceptance which is daily, and mutual forgiveness. Too many people come into community to find something, to belong to a dynamic group, to discover a life, which approaches the ideal.  If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to learn to forgive and be forgiven seven times seventy-seven times, we will soon be disappointed. …(p. 38) To forgive is to recognize once again – after separation – the covenant which binds us together with those we do not get along with well; it is to be open and listening to them once again.  It is to give them space in our hearts.  That is why it is never easy to forgive.  We too must change.  We must learn to forgive and forgive and forgive every day, day after day.  We need the power of the Holy Spirit in order to open up like that.”

And yet when we do open to the movement of grace something quite amazing happens.  It is like sugar!

Sugar is made up of three molecules – oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. Where is the sweetness?  The sweetness is in the relationship. It is not a quality in any element of sugar. It is an emergent quality that resides only in the system as a whole. The sweetness is not in any one of us. The sweetness is in the molecular cohesiveness of the Holy Spirit. Our relationships are made sweet in spite of our best attempts. It’s grace.

Who do they say I am, “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” And THAT in the end is all that matters.


Sugar is made up of three molecules – oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. Where is the sweetness? The sweetness is in the relationship. It is not a quality in any element of sugar. It is an emergent quality that resides only in the system as a whole.
The “sweetness” of our relationships is not in any one of us. The sweetness is in the molecular cohesiveness of the Holy Spirit. Our relationships are made sweet in spite of our best attempts. It’s grace.

What Was That On The Menu?

Jack London has it about right in his quote from Seawolf. Humans like to think that we are somehow immune to such but it comes as a shock when we become food for something. I think the horror of a shark or bear or tiger attack is in part because we like to think ourselves as that which eats not is eaten. The dread of the term “man-eater” is only from our perspective. To the other we may be looked upon as companion perhaps but also as food. The Tiger who eats a human is only eating prey. What would be truly horrible to the Tiger a “Tiger-eater” as cannibalism is the true perversion.

Perhaps we are not as removed from the cycle of things as we imagine in our denial. JWS