ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MAY 26, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
HOLY GROUND PART 1: THE ROCK
Ephesians 1: 15 – 23; Matthew 16: 13 – 18
Game of Thrones was a popular TV series, set in a fictional Kingdom. It followed the struggles among the noble families of the realm for the Iron Throne, and the plight of others who desired independence from it. It was a story of conquest and loss, life and death, duplicity and treachery, nobility and honor, conquest and triumph. In short, it’s the history of humanity set in a fantasy land: one group declares war, conquers the lands of another, and dominates them until another group rises up to cast them out. This describes the history of “The Holy Land” where nomadic tribes – the Canaanites, the Moabites, the Hittites, the Ammonites, the Jebusites, the Philistines and the Israelites – fought each other for control. Later the land and it’s people were conquered by the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians. Next came the Hellenists, the Hasmoneans, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Persians again, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire, and the British. For much of it’s history the land was controlled by one or another neighbouring country. And, of course, today, there are disputes over the land between the Palestinian population and Israel, involving Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. It reminds me of the game I’d play as a kid when you stack up your hands and the bottom hand pulls out from underneath so it can be placed on the top of the pile. It usually ended up with hands flapping and slapping everywhere. There was never a winner.
Along with a terrible waste of life, another tragedy of these conquests is that each oppressor would often tear down and build over the historical and religious sites of the previous civilization. It was a way of declaring “we rule” and “our god or gods are stronger, and therefore more real, than yours.” One example of this is the historic site of Banias Springs, at the foot of Mount Hermon. This significant site provided an oasis of clean, living water for people travelling from Egypt to Syria. During the reign of “Alexander the Great”, the Hellenists set this area apart and carved into the rock face a religious shrine to the Greek god, Pan. Time passed, the Hellenists fell and eventually the Romans came to power. King Herod the Great ruled in Israel by the grace and protection of Rome; as such, it was in his best interest to keep the Roman’s happy. He decided that Banias Springs was a perfect spot to build a tribute to Augustus Caesar. So, Herod eclipsed Pan’s pavilion with a bigger, better white marble temple with a monument to the Roman god, Zeus. A few years later, Herod’s son, Philip II (Philip the Tetrarch) renamed the site Caesarea Philippi. The very spot mentioned in today’s Gospel reading.
Fast forward 30 years. John the Baptizer gets beheaded by Philip’s brother, Herod Antipas. In response, Jesus and his disciples took refuge in the region east of Galilee, where Antipas has no jurisdiction. They come across this lush oasis with it’s haunting monuments. Stopping for a rest, Jesus asks his disciples, “What are people saying about me? Who do they say I am?” (Matthew 16: 13). This was not an idle question – there had been many opinions about John and with John gone, the focus on Jesus was increasing. The disciples responded, “Some say John the Baptizer, some say Elijah, some Jeremiah or one of the other prophets” (vs. 14) Jesus then asks them another, more crucial question, “And how about you? Who do you say I am?” (vs. 15). This question and it’s answer are so central to the gospel that both Matthew and Mark place this scene right in the middle of their biographies of Jesus. “… how about you? Who do you say I am?” (vs. 15). And here, by the Banias Springs, before the stone shrines of two idols, Peter answers, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (vs. 16).
This confession is so significant, even Jesus is awed. He tells Peter, “God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am” (vs. 17). Peter’s statement was one of divine insight, profession, and faith. God had broken through, into Peter’s consciousness, revealing this amazing truth to him. It was a gift. Peter had spoken it, and thereby claimed it, as his own reality. It was a declaration of faith.
It is a truth that the more clearly we know God, the more clearly we know ourselves. Jesus continued, “And now I’m going to tell you who you are, who you really are. You are Peter, a rock” (vs. 18) What changed the son of Jonah from Simon “the one who heard” to Peter “the rock”? The gift of faith. In this moment, Simon Peter had gone from hearing about Jesus to believing in Jesus. Faith was the transformative factor. Unlike some Christian traditions, Reformed Christians look beyond the individual to the gift of God. Without faith, Peter would have remained plain old Simon. Faith is the rock, the foundation, on which Jesus builds.
There is another layer to this encounter that we shouldn’t miss. The location of this pronouncement is significant. Peter’s profession of faith not only identified Jesus as the Messiah, it identified him as the Son of the living God; the incarnation of the only animate God. Without a single act of aggression, the powerlessness and falseness of the idolized gods of Greece and Rome are exposed and Jesus, the son of the living God, takes their place. He usurps them. Jesus isn’t a god made of rock. He isn’t entombed in a grotto or housed in a man-made temple; he is the incarnation of the one, true living God. And isn’t a living, breathing, acting, teaching, healing, “God with us” more real and stronger than an effigy made with human hands and set up to appease political oppressors? For centuries, various conquerors had tried to wipe out the religious monuments of the people before them, by building their own. At this place of living water, they were all wiped out with a single declaration of faith in a living God who needs no temples, shrines or monuments. Through that statement of faith, all the former gods are brought down, and Jesus is exalted. He, metaphorically, builds over them. This has significant consequences, Jesus declared, “This (faith) is the rock on which I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out” (vs. 18). In other words, the Son of the living God and our faith in him, will never be ripped down, or built over. Jesus is the last, the ultimate revelation of God, and his church – those who believe in him – will endure. The Church is unstoppable. Not even hell can conquer Christ’s body of faithful believers.
Being in this spot and being given this insight into the scripture was amazing. However, insights come with a purpose – they confront us. So, this place and this passage of scripture caused me to reflect in 3 ways and I’m going to pass those on to you. What’s a congregation for if not to help me bear my spiritual challenges?
The first is: What about you? Who do you say Jesus is? We live in a cynical time. People think we’re crazy to believe someone could rise from the dead. Some say Jesus wasn’t “the Son of the living God”; he was, perhaps, a remarkable man or maybe just a man like any other. Some say he never existed. They try to build over his church with their doubt and contempt. Do you share the faith of Peter? Are you a rock on which Christ can build his powerful, enduring legacy? Who is Christ to you and what does that mean for your life?
Secondly: Do you believe the Church is so expansive with the energy of the Holy Spirit that not even the gates of hell can resist it’s power”? We live in a discouraging time. People no longer make worship a priority. The Church is criticized and condemned. The past sins of long dead Christians are thrown in our face. The present sins of some, shame us. We’ve lost our edge – accusations of imperialism block our energy for mission and evangelism. Churches are shrinking, struggling, dying, closing all around us. Our congregation has our own challenges – children, family and youth programmes that need new life and a need for leaders and volunteers. The question is: do we trust Jesus’ words? Do we believe there is not only hope for the Church, but assurance that we will prevail? Are we open to the fresh energy of the Spirit? Are we psyched for victory? According to Jesus, if we have faith, it will happen. He’s already ransacked hell and imprisoned the prince of evil. Do we have the faith to continue his campaign? Is our faith quicksand or is it rock?
Finally, what are our temples and monuments? It was interesting in Israel that on almost every site related to Jesus life, death and resurrection, the Church has felt a need to build a place of worship – a monument to the event. Not exactly a monument to Christ, because the living God can’t be confined, or enshrined in a building of stone. In the early Church, Christians met in homes and other gathering places. As we grew and became more structured, we began to build our own meeting places. Eventually, Christians stopped seeing ourselves as the Church and began to see our buildings as churches. We stopped being the Church and started going to church. The living body of Christ – that’s you and me – was exchanged for a shrine, at first to God’s glory but in time, to our ancestors and our memories, to the beauty of the buildings themselves and to the structure they represented. Now we have these entities, to which we’re so committed, that we’d rather close up shop than let them go. All our buildings will degrade. Some will be taken over by another organization or business and they’ll be either taken down or renovated. They’ll become a monument to something else. Others will rot. But the Son of the living God and the living Church he builds will go on. We will exist, in Christ, forever. We are a living witness, his hands and feet and face in our world. Buildings serve the Church; the Church doesn’t exist for our buildings and our buildings are not the Church. The true Church will be here, because the Church isn’t physical, we’re spiritual; a living organism that nothing can take down, build over or destroy.
When we know Christ, we discover who we are. We are a people of faith, a rock, blessed by God himself, who reveals the truth of Christ to us. We are the Church which will endure forever. We are sons and daughters – heirs – of the living God, and conquerors in Christ. And, in Christ, that is who we truly are.