“You are Peter – and on this rock I will build my Church”

A Sermon preached by Rev Graham Hamborg on Sunday 23 August 2020

New Testament Reading; Romans 12:1-8

Gospel Reading: Matthew 16:13-20

Matt 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

The experience of lockdown in recent months made us discover ways in which we could still be the Church even when we couldn’t come together physically. Livestreaming services, homegroups on Zoom, keeping in contact in all kinds of ways. And that was all good – and yet, it’s also good to be able to be together physically again, because human community and friendship is a key element of being the Church. And of course some of you are still taking part via the livestream – and we include you in our worshipping community this morning.

And this morning’s readings have a lot to say about the Church, and what and how we are meant to be.

Matthew 16:18 is a unique verse. It’s one of only two places, both in Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus uses this word “Church”. And in the account of Peter recognising that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, which is recorded in all of Matthew, Mark and Luke, this verse is not found in Mark or Luke, but only here in Matthew.

Jesus spoke little of the Church, therefore. Rather he spoke of the Kingdom of God. One nineteenth theologian said, a little provocatively, that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, but what we got was the Church. He meant it negatively. But actually there is positive truth in what he said.

When we read the letters of Paul and the others, and we read about the early years of the Christian faith in the book of Acts, we don’t find much proclamation of “The Kingdom of God is here.” What we find instead is proclamation of Jesus, and of course, he IS the bringer of the Kingdom.

And we do indeed also find a lot about the building of the Church. The Church and the Kingdom of God are not one and the same, far from it. God is active in all his creation, and the Kingdom of God is bigger than the Church.

Yet the Church has a vital place in God’s plans: the Church is to live by Kingdom values, and is to demonstrate and show what the Kingdom of God looks like. And the Church is to bear witness in its worship and in its mission to the name of Jesus as the one who brings the Kingdom of God to us.

And Matthew 16:18 says that as the Church is built, even the gates of Hades will not hold it back.

Now I remember that at one time I had such a static view of what the Church was, that I imagined it sitting there while these gates attacked it, and somehow it held firm. But of course gates don’t move, they are what is fixed. It’s the Church that is to be alive and moving and dynamic, and as the Church is open to God’s Spirit, it will be the Church that smashes through even the gates of Hades – no power, even the power of death, will stop us.

So how is the Church to be this dynamic, transforming body of people which will demonstrate and proclaim the presence of the Kingdom of God, and smash through the powers of evil and even of death? Two things:

Firstly, the Church needs to be built on Peter, the Rock. Roman Catholic interprets this to mean on Peter as first bishop of Rome – first pope, if you like. Unsurprisingly that interpretation has not commended itself to other Christian traditions! Rather the foundation of the Church, the rock on which it is to be built, bound up with what Peter shows us. Peter’s acknowledgement of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of the living God is the first recorded such confession. And our foundation on which we build is precisely that confession of Jesus as the Son of God.

Now we should be really encouraged by this. Because of all that Peter went on to do in terms of both successes and failures. In her sermon last week Eleanor Childs mentioned that she likes Simon Peter: he is impulsive, she said. He jumps in feet first, acting before thinking. And he gets things horribly wrong. So he denies three times ever knowing Jesus.

But also, of course, there is also the episode of Peter after Easter being restored by in that early morning encounter with the risen Jesus by the lakeside, in which three times Jesus tells him: “Feed my sheep.”

Peter shows us that this Christian life is not about living lives of perfection, it’s about our humanity – in all its weakness – and our forgiven-ness in Jesus.

Martin Luther said: “always a sinner, always justified.” Sometimes people outside the Church misunderstand us: they imagine that we come to church because we think we are holy or good people. We know that the truth is different. We are people who know we need regular and frequent forgiveness for all the things we get wrong – and we are here because we know that it is in Jesus that there is forgiveness and acceptance. And that’s the foundation on which the Church is built.

And then, secondly, we turn to Romans 12, where we find St Paul describing how the Church can function well as a body of people. The Church will demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom when it functions well in terms of its relationships and how it conducts its common life.

And Paul warns that some think of themselves too highly, They see themselves as highly gifted, and consequently fail to see the giftedness of others. It can be those who have been part of a church for a long time, who feel that they have an eternal right to run things – “it’s our church, we’re in control.” Take care, says Paul: don’t think of yourselves more highly than you should.

And we might add to what Paul says: Some, we might add, have the opposite problem – they think that they don’t count, that have nothing to offer. They think they’re a bit on the edge of things, perhaps, or simply that they don’t have any gifts to put into the mix. Equally wrong.

A healthy church will recognise that we all have different gifts, different strengths and weaknesses.

Paul lists eight gifts and qualities here: prophecy, faith, ministering to others, teaching, exhortation and encouragement, giving in generosity, leadership, and compassion. These are not exclusive. There are different lists of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.

Something that I find interesting about this particular list is those qualities which at one level we all need – and yet some it seems have them in abundance.

So surely we all need faith – and yet some are blessed with a particular strength of faith which will bless the whole church and perhaps help those for whom faith comes less readily.

Surely we should all be givers – yet it seems that there will be some who take a particular delight and pleasure in giving generously, beyond the average, and the Lord uses that.

Surely we are all meant to have compassion – yet there are some who seem to have a natural depth of empathy and concern for others which outshines the rest of us.

But the point is, we are all different. Thank goodness. It would be very dull if we were all the same.

The question this morning is: will we bring our own gifts to the service of Christ and his church, and use them? And will we value and recognise the gifts of others?

So how does this work in practice? I find it easiest just to think of Christians I have known.

In Twyford (Berkshire) where I was vicar, I think of George Roberts. I first met him painting the bannisters in the vicarage before we moved in. A slouching, dour Yorkshireman – who, I was to discover, was actually chair of ACAS. He chaired the PCC very effectively! In retirement he agreed to go as a church-appointed Governor on the Governing Body of our local church secondary school, and in due course they described him as the best governor they had ever had. Early on in my time as vicar George said to me: “Ah, you’re a Jesus person” – George wasn’t, he’d have been really embarrassed if asked to say what Jesus meant to him or how he came to faith. He had no interest in homegroups or anything too intense. I owe George a huge debt for supporting and advising me as a green and enthusiastic young vicar, and for bearing with me when I sometimes wanted to push things along faster than was wise.

Also there was Kathy. Kathy was definitely a Jesus person. She came from Texas, and her Thanksgiving barbecues were to die for. Kathy would readily talk about Jesus in her life, at any time in fact. She was a superb homegroup leader, and a person of prayer, and in due course trained as a Reader.

George and Kathy were as different as chalk and cheese. But they respected one another and others, and though people like them the Church was built up.

There will be equivalents to George and Kathy in many a local church.

So here at St Mary’s in Liss, we can function well together as the Church demonstrating the Kingdom as we manage not to think of ourselves too highly, nor to underestimate the gifts that the Lord has given us. As we avoid comparing ourselves to others, but recognise their gifts and our own gifts, and offer them and use them.

For some that may mean: can I offer to fill one of those vacant places on the PCC, even though I haven’t hitherto thought of myself as that kind of person? Or even be churchwarden? For others it may mean, can I offer to be trained in working this brilliant new audio-visual system which we now have? For others it may be: can I use my strong sense of compassion in the pastoral care of those in need? For others again it may be: how can I contribute to helping our financial situation through my own generosity, and also helping and stimulating others to be generous too? Others will be those who encourage and support those who are in the front line of ‘doing’.

We shan’t all do everything – but if we all bring what we have, then everything can get done.

And harmonious and productive relationships in the life of the Christian family are, in fact, a window into the Kingdom of God, and how a transformed community and a transformed world can be.

Let’s allow the message of this morning’s two readings to get to work on us: Jesus saying in Matthew 16 that on Peter’s confession of faith, and on the pattern of his life of weakness and failure followed by forgiveness and restoration, we have the foundation for building a church life which will witness to the presence of the Kingdom of God. And St Paul then saying in Romans 12 that this body, the Church, will function aright as we bring our gifts and service, and recognise the gifts and service of others.

We can do these things. They are not too hard for us. They are in fact the most natural things in the world for people seeking to be with Jesus, to become like Jesus, and to do what Jesus did. Let’s go for it. Let’s demonstrate how the Kingdom of God can be lived.