Whose church is this?

A sermon on Matthew 16:13-23

I was all bundled up on a Chicago winter morning, riding the elevated train. My destination was a Roman Catholic Church, a few stops from the Episcopal Church I served. Clergy were exchanging pulpits that Sunday, like we did here last January, when All Saints' welcomed Rev. Ken, the senior pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church, and I went to Grace United Church of Christ. Last January Rev. Ken stood at the Historic Church altar with Fr. Tommy, sharing in the blessing of the bread and wine, then distributing communion. You may know that Methodists and Episcopalians are in a season of "interim Eucharistic sharing," which means Rev. Ken could stand at the altar with Fr. Tommy, but not all by himself. Not yet. Some day, the Episcopal and Methodist churches will probably be in full communion with each other, just as we have been with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for more than a decade.

But more than two decades ago, on that winter Sunday during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, there was no Eucharistic sharing between Roman Catholics and people of other denominations. Period. Today at most Catholic churches, although there are unofficial exceptions, there's still no official sharing allowed. Catholic doctrine is clear. And the Catholic "no sharing" policy was made crystal clear to me on that January Sunday, all those years ago. I learned when I arrived that Chicago's Cardinal had issued a clarifying letter to all Catholic parishes, reminding them that, even though Catholic monks had started the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity more than a century ago, Catholic teaching was clear: All non-Catholics, including non-Catholic guest preachers, like me, may NOT receive. Clearly embarrassed, the local parish priest showed me the Cardinal's letter and apologized profusely. I shrugged it off, saying "no big deal." I was happy just to be asked to preach there that day, I told him.

And that, I thought, was that. Until later. Later, after my sermon, I was escorted to a throne-like chair, way up high, in front of the old, stone altar. I sat there, on display, and I watched, while everyone else came forward to the altar below. Lay Eucharistic ministers were serving bread and wine to hundreds and hundreds of "authorized" Catholics. I looked down at those folks, and I realized that everyone was coming forward for Communion - EVERYONE, that is, except me. Slowly, I began to get in touch with just how lonely I felt, up there, far away, at a distance, the only one excluded from the table of the Lord. I felt hurt, and I began to get angry. I take it back, I thought. It WAS a big deal, now. Until then, I just hadn't had a clue about what it was like to feel so "outside" the church.

Today there are all kinds of people who come to church, looking for God's peace, love and forgiveness, longing for a spiritual connection, wanting to be part of a church family and, often, wondering if it's safe to be "inside" the church, rather than "outside." The painful things Christians have done to others in the name of Jesus Christ didn't end with the Crusades. In his book They Like Jesus, But Not The Church: Insights from Emerging Generations, Dan Kimball shows how, if we ask someone today if he or she likes Jesus, the answer is usually yes. "But ask if that person likes the church," he suggests, "and chances are, you will get a far less favorable response" (jacket). Isn't the church just organized religion that is politically motivated? Does the church take the entire Bible literally? Isn't the church racist, sexist and homophobic? Isn't the church judgmental and negative? Doesn't the church think all other religions are wrong? Isn't that arrogant?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes the church, even the Episcopal Church, gets it wrong. Sometimes the official leaders and followers of Jesus get it all wrong. At least once, the human Jesus got it wrong. If you were in church last Sunday you probably heard the Gospel story about Jesus telling a Canaanite woman, a non-Jew, that she was like a dog. "It is not fair to take the children (of Israel's) food and throw it to the dogs," he says. To which she replies, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." To which Jesus replies, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." This is not just a story of rude behavior corrected. Some have called this story of Jesus getting it wrong and being set right by an outsider "the conversion of Jesus." And today, we learn that, if Jesus can get it wrong, so can Peter. And so can the church.

After Simon's confession, Jesus gives him a new name: "You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church." Three centuries later, the Roman Church decided to claim that any Bishop of Rome, Peter having been the first, was now to be called "pope," the prime bishop of the worldwide Catholic church. And so, papal primacy began. More than a millennium later, during the Reformation, Martin Luther, John Calvin and others protested that the pope was not prime for them, that he was no longer going to be the boss of them. They also said that, rather than Peter himself, it was Peter's faith that was the rock on which Jesus built his church. That famous verse - "You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church" (Matthew 16:17) - is one of the most hotly contested, widely interpreted and mis-interpreted verses in the Bible.

Mixed interpretations and mis-interpretations of the Bible often happen when people and churches take a verse all by itself and don't listen to other ones - like the last three verses we've just heard today. After talking primarily to Peter, Jesus has begun to speak to all his disciples, rather than the crowds. Why? Because he is preparing them for something. It's something that only his official followers, those who have been closest to him, might possibly be able to hear and understand. But it's something Peter doesn't want to hear and understand.

Jesus says that he "must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes" (in other words, the religious leaders, both ordained and lay), "and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Matthew 16:21). Peter, the rock of the church of Jesus Christ, begins to crumble. "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." It's as if he said, No, Jesus, NO! Tell me it isn't so - please! Tell me all that won't happen to you. Stop saying that suffering and death must go hand in glove with blessing and life. Stop saying that, because it means that, if I follow you, I'll get some of the same treatment!

We learn at the end of today's Gospel story that Peter, the rock, can trip and stumble over himself, becoming his own worst enemy. In another famous verse, Jesus dares to call Peter the Enemy, with a capital E: "Get behind me, Satan!" Or as Eugene Peterson's rendering of Jesus' words in his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message puts it, "(Peter), you have no idea how God works."

Did Peter have any idea how God works? Do we? Sure, he did. Sure, we do. But not every time. No sooner did Peter confess his faith in Jesus as the "Messiah, the son of the living God," than he lost his faith in a moment of confusion, panic and deep devotion to this Jesus, whom he loved imperfectly.

In our Gospel reading today we learn that Jesus is, for those who believe, both Son of God and suffering Son of Man. Peter is both the rock of the church and the stumbling stone. And we are the imperfect church, and people don't always like us. Sometimes, we trip, stumble and even fall. And sometimes, we trip up others, making them stumble and fall. Sometimes we forget who we are, why we're here, what we're supposed to do. And when that happens, it's time to get back to basics. An old church camp song begins, "I am the church / you are the church / we are the church together." The bridge between of that song begins, "The church is not a building / The church is not a steeple." We could add, "The church is not a 'clustered spire' / The church is the people . . . "

During our Capital Campaign we used a phrase to describe what we were doing and who we were. That phrase, that image was "living stones," taken from one of Peter's New Testament letters (II Peter 2:5). We are sometimes imperfect people, sometimes stumbling stones. But by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are living stones, the church of Jesus Christ. With God's help, we are the church together. On the rock called Peter and the stones that are you and me, Jesus keeps building his church. HIS church. That's right: it's not your church. And it's not my church. By the grace of God, it's OUR church. But first, last and always, it's the church of Jesus Christ. We can call All Saints' Episcopal Church, this church "ours" only by the grace, mercy and love of God.

On that January day more than twenty years ago, I was hurt and angry, watching all those "insiders" receive communion. Suddenly, I saw a woman leave the line and come on up, toward me. Uh-oh, I thought. What are they going to do to me now? As she got close enough for me to see her face, there were tears, pouring down her cheeks. And she came close, and she took my hand, and she looked me square in the eye, and she said, "I want you to know that there are lots of people here today, people like me, who don't understand why you cannot receive Communion with us." Tears rolled down my face, too. I found myself saying words I did not know I had within me: "That's all right. You have just given me communion. Thank you."

Whose church is this? Whose table is this? Whose communion is this? Let's remember to stop, look and listen to Jesus, and try not to trip, stumble and fall. And let's thank God for Peter - sometimes the rock, sometimes the stumbling block - who reminds us of who we are . . . and whose we are. We are imperfect Christians, not yet getting it all right, and yet marked as Christ's own forever. We are doing the best we can, trying to live our lives as followers of Jesus, the living stone, who got it wrong at least once. We are trying to carry on in the footsteps of Peter, who got it wrong lots of times. Strangely, that gives me hope for the church. All that imperfection, all that humanity makes me like the human church, makes me love God's church, a little more.

How about you?

—Fr. Tom