This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2002. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.
That Jesus was a teacher should be fairly obvious. Most of the time He was giving the disciples and followers stories and parables about life. But He also spent a great deal of time questioning. Questions about the parables, about the lessons that they learned. Today’s Gospel reading was an example of such questioning.
Jesus wasn’t so much interested in what the masses were saying but rather what the disciples themselves were thinking. “Who do you say I am?” was the central question. But the disciples, still thinking like the others who followed him, could only answer in terms of the masses, “You are another prophet” or “You are one of the old prophets, come back in another form.” It was still very difficult for them to see Jesus, as He really was, the Messiah; all that it is, except for Peter.
Peter, then known as Simon, has always been characterized as impetuous, quick to move, no matter what the consequence of his actions. Confident in his answer, Simon claims that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus responds by renaming Simon Peter, the rock. In naming him Peter, Jesus states this is the rock, the cornerstone upon which the church will be built.
It is important for us to realize that while Peter assumed leadership of the new church, he was still one of twelve and an equal among equals. The foundation of the church was not Peter’s personality but his faith.
Jesus always made sure that we understand the role faith would play in our lives. In last week’s Gospel reading it was the faith of the woman from Sidon that was central to the story. This woman, a Gentile, came to Jesus seeking help for her sick daughter. Though He first ignored her, Jesus ultimately acknowledged her and her faith. It was through her faith in Jesus that her daughter was saved.
These are and have been times when our faith is tested. All around us we see examples that suggest that our faith is not sufficient for the task; that God has forgotten or deserted us. At times like these we are not certain who we can turn to or who we can listen to.
We may turn away from God, feeling that because he has deserted us, there must be other alternatives. But we must always remember that God will never turn away and that no matter how bad things get, He will never desert us.
For the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, things looked pretty bad. The reasons for being in Egypt were long forgotten, both by the Egyptians and the Israelites themselves. And now, because things were not going well, the Pharaoh looked for a reason for the crisis. Because the Pharaoh feared the Israelites, it was easy to blame them for the problems of the country. So it was very easy to have the first born son of each family killed as a means of removing the Israelite threat to Egypt.
So it was that Moses was born. But instead of being killed, Moses is saved. Saved not by just anyone but by the Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses’ name serves as a reminder that Moses was pulled out of the water at a time when all the sons of Israel were being killed.
God wanted the Israelites to know that even though they were enslaved and far from their home, they had not been forgotten. He also constantly reminds us that we cannot ever be far from him.
Ezekiel had stood up against the evil in his country and had to run for his live. But God reminded Ezekiel, alone in the wilderness and convinced that he is the last, that there were others, that there would always be a small core that would stand up against what was wrong in the world.
Things may seem bleak. I think that it must have been that way for Ezekiel, alone in the wilderness, questioning his call to be God’s prophet. It certainly had to be for Peter, who denied Christ not just once but three times and then remembered that Christ has told him that would be the case. How desolate must Peter have felt to realize that Christ knew him better than he knew himself? But yet, when they met after the resurrection Christ forgave Peter and commanded him to lead the church and take it beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem.
We may see the world and feel that all is lost; there is nothing to be gained by being a part of the world. There have been times in our history where withdrawing from society has seemed to be the way to save the church. During the Dark Ages, it was those monks who had withdrawn from society that protected the treasures of society. But protecting the treasures did not enable the society to grow. That required that the monks ventured outside the safety of their monasteries. And to this day, there is no group of Christians who has been successful in withdrawing from the world.
For when you withdraw from the world in order to protect what you have, you are not able to grow what you have. The Shakers, from whom we get such wonderful hymns as “Simple Gifts”, sought to survive by withdrawing from the world. But the Shakers went the way of all whom sought to withdraw and ultimately disappeared from view. Ironically, though the Shakers as a group are nothing more than a footnote in history, the works they did survive today.
Each person, who seeks to withdraw, choosing to follow a solitary way of life ultimately will find out that nothing is gained. In fact, those who seek solitary contemplation as way of find Christ often find only those things which they wish to get away from.
Being Christ is very much a personal thing. Each person’s relationship with Christ is unique and what works for one does not necessarily work for another. But it is not important that others duplicate what works for some. I think churches fail in today’s society because they insist that everyone follow the same line rather than following Jesus. This was certainly the case with the Pharisees and Scribes; they were more interested in people doing what they perceived was the law required rather than what God required.
Paul speaks to the uniqueness and differences of individuals in his letter to the Romans. Do not look upon your way as the only way but one of many, he told the Romans. Remember that we are a community of believers, bonded together by the single fact that Jesus died for our sins, and united in our being able to use all of our skills to accomplish the goals of the church.
Thomas Paine once wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The battle for freedom is a never-ending battle. Paine was writing of a political freedom. But now we are faced with another battle; the battle for our own soul. The question is how we will face the struggles before us, be they internal and only know to us individually or external and the ones we face as a society. We can face them alone and know that we will lose the battle. But we can take Christ into our hearts and realize that we are not alone and that we Christ, along with the community we call the church, be successful.
That is the question we faced today. Shall we be together or alone?