Isaiah 51:1-6 Psalm 138 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
When I was in grade school my father took a trip to the Holy Lands. After I was older, my parents took my grandfather, so both of my parents went to Jerusalem and toured the sacred sites were Jesus walked. After seeing their pictures and hearing about their experiences, Israel made my list of places I wanted to go at some point in my life. After seminary two priests I know, attended St. George’s College in Jerusalem and took the course The Palestine of Jesus. Both spoke so highly of St. George’s and what it describes as a pilgrimage rather than a tour, that I applied for a grant to attend during a sabbatical I was planning. I didn’t get the grant, but after my mother died in December of 2013, just over a year after my father had died, I received some money from their estate and decided they would approve of me using a portion of it to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. So that is what I did, just after Easter in 2015.
At St. George’s College in Jerusalem there were individuals, couples and church groups from various nations attending with me. We heard lectures and we visited various sites in roughly the order in which the stories of Jesus appear in the Gospels. We boarded a bus nearly every morning and we went to the same places as the tours, but I do believe the faculty and the structure of the course made it more than a mere tour.
One of the places we went was Caesarea Philippi, where today’s gospel story takes place. At the base of Mount Hermon, carved into the stone are the ruins of a temple built for the Gentiles to worship the Greek god, Pan. Sitting in this park, Br. Mark Brown of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, lead our worship that morning. We heard today’s gospel story, then, in his message he said, that when Jesus said to Peter, “on this rock, I will build my church . . . ” he was talking about Peter. Peter’s name means rock, and rather than build his church out of stone – as had been done for all the other gods, Christ’s church would be built of people.
We are sitting in a beautiful church building, built of stone, but this building is not the church – we are. Christ’s Church is not built with stone, but with people. Sitting in the park with the ruins visible behind Brother Brown, I thought this concept must have been a radical one for Peter and the disciples to hear. Yes, they have followed Jesus, and yes, they know Jesus as the Messiah, but in the Jewish faith, the Messiah ushers in the kingdom of God and kingdoms are associate with territory. Kingdoms are about place, not people. The Holy City of Jerusalem is Holy because it was where the Temple stood – and the kingdom of God is sometimes referred to as the New Jerusalem.
We, of course, think of St. Paul’s as our Church, but it is not. It is, instead, our place of worship, our meeting house. It is no more our church than a house is a family. Certainly, it is to valued and appreciated, and it is our responsibility as members to care for it – but more important than its walls are what is in it today.
The Apostle Paul is writing about the church in his letter to the Romans, when he says, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.” He is comparing us as members of the church to parts of our bodies. It is a metaphor he uses elsewhere and a good one to communicate the importance of every member. No matter how much we value our minds, a mind cannot survive without a circulatory, respiratory, and digestive system to support it. It is true that we can survive without every member presence, but we can do so much more when we are all involved in whatever it is we are doing.
The Sunday’s the church is full, I hear comments about how wonderful it is. The energy we bring to worship seems to increase with attendance which reinforces what I believe. Christians need other Christians. There is no question that we can experience God’s presence anywhere – but when we worship together, we are offering our support to one another at the same time we deepen our own relationship with God.
Of course, I would say this – I’m a priest. But the truth is I am a priest because of what I experienced in worship. Many people come to church seeking God, I came seeking people and found God. I became part of the Body of Christ and grew in faith until I heard God’s call. I did try to ignore it, for many years in fact. Then, when I finally responded, I took a number of years to complete the process.
I could not have become a priest on my own. I needed the help of others. And today, as your priest, I can honestly still say that I cannot be your priest on my own. I need your help. Did you know that although a priest is required to celebrate the Eucharist, a priest is not permitted to celebrate it alone? Others must be present. In the scripture, we are taught that when two are more gathered in the name Christ, he is with us. We do know that Christ is in each of us, but this teaching reminds us of the importance of living and worshiping in community.
Growing up in the Methodist Church, when someone joined, they were asked to pledge to support the church with their time, talents, gifts, and service. Coming here to St. Paul’s I have found that many of our members do just that – they give of all four. Some however give only of their time or their gifts. That is what they can offer and we need to be grateful for whatever anyone can give. Paul says that we are members of the one body, and it is important to remember that every gift to St. Paul’s helps us to be the Body of Christ. Still his message challenges us to do everything we can to support our body of believers.
I continue to give thanks for my call to serve here and feel blessed to be a part of this parish. My prayer is that this church will grow in faith and in numbers that we might continue to be known in the community as a church that seeks to share the love of God.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, we give you thanks for St. Paul’s and the love and support it offers to us so that we too might share the abundance of your love with others. Grant us your peace. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.