Sunday, August 21, 2005

Fourteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek Jehovah: look unto the rock whence ye were hewn, and to the hold of the pit whence ye were digged.

The image in today's Old Testament lesson of rocks reminded me of the many historical ruins we visited while living in England. We also visited buildings that were still standing, some a thousand years old. Yet, there was something particularly poignant about the sites that were left bare from years of destruction, neglect and theft.

One of the most interesting places we visited was the Abbey ruins in Bury St. Edmunds. The abbey was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for many years because St. Edmund was the patron saint of England for a time and there are many miracles attributed to him. The market town of Bury St. Edmunds was quite wealthy from wool trade and tourists seeking to visit the relics of the East Angles king. Edmund was a hero of the British people because in the middle of the ninth century he stood up against the Danes to save his throne and the Christian faith. The Danes viciously tortured and killed the king, then went on to ravage the land, destroying all the churches they found.

The abbey that housed his relics was a grand complex with a magnificent church and buildings for the business of the abbey. The church of St. Edmund itself was more than five hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide. It was at the site of the old ruins that I really began to understand the methods the medieval builders used to create the abbeys and churches we still visit today.

The builders wanted the churches to last forever, so it was necessary to create thick walls that would survive weather, enemies and time. They also wanted the buildings to be impressive, with the most beautiful stone, carvings and towers. All this cost money and though the abbey had great wealth they did not limit their desires to what they could afford. They were no different than us today. It seems to be human nature to always reach just beyond our resources so that we can have bigger and better things.

To make the entire building out of the best stone would have been beyond the resources of the abbey. So rather than making the walls solid with hewn stone, they laid a foundation, built a layer of the fine crafted stone on the outside and inside of the wall and then filled between these layers a mixture of mortar and discarded stone. Though the walls were several feet thick, only a foot or so of expensive stone was used to create the beautiful face of the walls. The garbage in the middle was never seen – until the abbey fell.

A few of the buildings remain, but much of the abbey is now in ruins, with little remaining but the foundation and a few walls. The walls are no longer covered with the beautiful hewn stone, but are towers of stones bound together by mortar. They look like statues of cobblestone towers. What is most amazing is that there is little left of what was once there. It makes you wonder what happened to all that stone.

When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the abbey was abandoned and left to fall. It did not take long before the stone from these buildings were stolen by the locals to be used in the construction of their homes and divider walls. In some cases it was the king himself who stole the stone, to be used in the building of other buildings. No one wanted the junk, they just wanted to beautiful stone. The walls were left standing to face the test of time and environment. Some of the walls incredibly still stand as a testament to what was hidden underneath the hewn stone.

As we look at the passage from Isaiah, we see the image of God's people being stone, rocks hewn from a quarry. Isaiah reminds the people to look to the foundation of their faith as a people, to their father and their mother – Abraham and Sarah. God's people were founded in the promises given to Abraham and manifest through Sarah. Though Abraham was old, God provided him with a son that would become the father of many. Abraham's seed would extend far beyond one man into many nations.

On the inside we don't look much like a beautiful stone. I would say that we look more like those cobblestone towers that are left behind. We are sinners and no matter how good we seem to look on the outside, we can't hide what's on the inside from our Father in heaven. Even God's chosen people made mistakes; they turned from God and worshipped others. They did not do justice in the world. They were unable to keep the Law. Their disobedience left them in ruins, the beautiful faηade stolen away over time.

The passage from Isaiah offers a promise, not only to the people in his day, but to us even today. Isaiah writes, "For Jehovah hath comforted Zion; he hath comforted all her waste places, and hath made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Jehovah; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody." In this passage these is a future promise, a promise that was fulfilled in Jesus. "My righteousness is near, my salvation is gone forth, and mine arms shall judge the peoples; the isles shall wait for me, and on mine arm shall they trust." We are called to look toward the heavens and rest in the promise, "But my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished."

Though we might appear to be nothing more than the garbage the builders used to make the walls of those ancient cathedrals look bigger, we are hewn stones hewn by God Himself. We see an example of this in today's Gospel message. This year we are following the stories of Jesus from Matthew through the season of Pentecost. In the past few weeks we have seen some miraculous events – Jesus fed thousands, He walked on water, He healed a Canaanite woman. Word of His works was getting around. A few weeks ago we heard that Herod suspected that He might be John the Baptist resurrected. Behind the scenes the people were whispering other possibilities. "Maybe he's Elijah." "He could be Jeremiah." "Perhaps he's one of the prophets."

His actions were certainly gaining the attention of the temple leaders. He had gained a following and there was something extraordinary about this man Jesus. There'd been other would-be messiahs, political and religious zealots trying to lead the people into some sort of revolt. They were easily disregarded because they had no authority. However, Jesus spoke with power that seemed to come from God Himself.

Earlier in chapter sixteen of Matthew, the Pharisees and Sadducees approached Jesus and demanded that He show them a sign. Certainly they had heard of the miraculous healings and the feast of bread and fish. They may even have heard about Jesus' walking on water, but it was not enough for them to hear about the miracles. They wanted proof, they wanted to see it for themselves. Jesus was unwilling to be tested. He was not a trained monkey who would respond to the whims of the crowd. His miracles came with faith, not by command.

Instead Jesus offered them only one sign – the sign of Jonah. That comment may not have made sense to the disciples or the Pharisees in His time, but post resurrection eyes we know that Jesus was referring to His death and burial. After this conversation Jesus warned the disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees. They did not understand Him at first, but they soon realized that Jesus was referring to their teaching. The Pharisees were, in essence, like those townspeople that stole the stone from the Church of St. Edmunds. They took what was beautiful and used it to their own purpose.

God's Word, His Law, is beautiful. The Law demands an impossible righteousness, but God grants those who live by faith a righteousness like that of Abraham. We see God revealed through His Word. It is a gift that brings joy and peace to those who believe, but it has been abused and misused by every generation since the beginning of time. It has been used to oppress and manipulate. The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees bound people and revealed to them a false understanding of God. With such teaching, that Jesus is the Messiah is hidden from the teachers and all those who they teach because they blind and unable to see Him.

In today's lesson Jesus asks His disciples, "So, what are they saying about me out there?" They told Him what they'd heard. Then He turned the question around. "What about you? Who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." Isn't it wonderful to finally see Peter get something right? It didn't last long because as we will hear next week, moments later he rebuked Jesus for talking about suffering and death. But for just one moment, Peter saw Jesus clearly and confessed faith in the Savior of the world.

Jesus answered Peter's confession, "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven." Peter's confession of faith was not something parroted from what other people thought about Jesus. It was not from the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees, it was not a fearful assumption from a king and it was not a guess from those who knew the stories of the Old Testament. It was a confession of faith hewn by God's own hands. And on that rock, Christ would build His church.

Isn't it interesting that Jesus calls Peter Simon Bar-jonah? We read in the scriptures that Peter is the son of a man named John and scholars recognize Jonah as a variant of that name. Surely Jesus could have been identifying Peter in the same manner Peter identified Jesus – as the son of His Father. In such a formal title Jesus is accentuating the truth of Peter's confession. Jesus is the Son of God.

Yet, I wonder if there isn't some play on words in that address. Earlier in the chapter Jesus said the only sign they would see is the sign of Jonah – three nights in the belly of a whale. We know that this sign refers to His death and resurrection. Though Peter is definitely the son of John, in faith Peter will be made a son of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is on the cross that the salvation of God is made eternal, the promise found in Isaiah fulfilled.

It is really lovely imagery to think of ourselves as a church like that which was built in Bury St. Edmunds to honor the patron saint and hero of the English. However, the truth is that we are nothing more than that garbage which is found between the layers of hewn stone. Without those carefully cut and polished stones, the abbey looks like a bunch of cobblestone towers with no purpose. Without Christ, we are exactly the same. Peter didn't confess faith by His own knowledge or ability – it was God Himself that revealed the truth to him. Neither can we come to such a bold profession without God granting us the faith to believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord.

Peter is given a great deal of credit in this moment in time for this confession of faith. According to the story, it almost seems as though Peter were the only one who made the confession. While he was the first, Peter is also seen as standing in for the rest of the disciples. He is the representative of the whole. The others may have come to the realization at a later time, but we can see from the history of the church that all but Judas did come to that understanding eventually as revealed to them by God. The disciples saw Jesus as the revealed Word of God in flesh, the Savior, the Son. They became sons of God by faith, hewn by God's own hand.

While God covers all our garbage by clothing us with Christ, we often think of this in terms of the individual. Paul reminds us that our faith brings us into relationship not only with Christ, but also with others who are in Christ. We are made into one body. On the foundation of the promises of God, the hewn stone of Jesus Christ is laid and we are poured into the walls, coming together as one Church through one faith and one baptism.

Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves. For some folk who built that cathedral or financed the construction, the building itself became like a god. For some it reflected their faith – not in God, but in themselves. Even worse, it began to reflect them. It no longer honored God as it was meant to do, but rather it became a symbol of their power and their wealth. That's what had happened to God's good and perfect Word by the time Jesus lived in Jerusalem. It no longer reflected God, but rather became a symbol of the power the teachers had over the people.

Paul calls us to think of ourselves with sober judgment according to the faith we have received. We are individuals, each one gifted by God according to His good and perfect will. As individuals in faith we are joined together by the Holy Spirit as one body to glorify God and build up one another as the church.

Paul writes, "And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting: he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness." What would we be without one another?

We certainly could talk about the different gifts, what they mean and try to discern how they are manifest in the church today. It is a task we should all undergo, to discover how God wants us to live out His grace in this world while we wait the fulfillment of that eternal promise. However, there is an even more important question to ask today. Jesus said to the disciples, "What about you? Who do you say that I am?" This may seem like a simple question, but it can only be truly answered with the measure of faith to which you have been given. Do you see Jesus as Peter saw Him that day? Is He the Messiah, the Son of the Living God?

Believing Him to be the Savior means accepting that we are little more than the stones and mortar hidden behind the beautiful hewn stones on that cathedral in Bury St. Edmunds. However, believing in Him also means that we are covered with His righteousness. We look to the rock from which we have come and see the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is there we find the strength to live and love and rejoice.

The psalmist sings praise to God in thanksgiving for answered prayer. "I will worship toward thy holy temple, And give thanks unto thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name." God revealed to those first disciples that Jesus was the Word which was exalted above all else. They might have wondered about Jesus, His identity and purpose, but once He was revealed to them as the Messiah, everything changed. They began a new journey, a journey that would lead them into danger. Peter would fail, and fail miserably, but he was given a measure of faith that would not fail in the end. They can join in the chorus of praise to God, "Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me; Thou wilt stretch forth thy hand against the wrath of mine enemies, And thy right hand will save me." We can rest in this promise, for God is faithful and we can go forth in faith knowing that God will fulfill His purpose for each of us. Let us join in the chorus of thanksgiving and praise for Lord that has hewn out of the solid rock and given us the foundation of faith to see Him as He truly is. Thanks be to God.

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