August 24, 2014 - The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Ted Berktold
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Roman 12: 1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say I am?" Peter replied, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." (Mt. 16: 16) Although he occasionally blurted out regrettable things, some of Peter’s sayings are among the most sacred statements of Christian faith. Jesus was thrilled. Somebody understood. Whatever else they missed, that much they understood. And that was enough. "Blessed are you, Peter," says Jesus, "upon you we can build a community of the people of God. And let me tell you, even the powers of hell won't be able to defeat us. We've got it made." 

But do we? Is it enough to simply believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God? According to the New Testament, a person wishing to be a Christian needs to experience three conversions. The first is conversion to Jesus Christ, the way it happened for Peter, establishing a right relationship between us and God; accepting that Jesus reconciled us to the eternal, almighty God in a very special way. Some people only get that far, acknowledging that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. 

But that's not the whole Christian life as the Bible describes it. Secondly, we need to be converted to the Church. You can't be a Christian all by yourself. The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost, not just on one of them. You need to become a member of the Church. Some people are never converted to the Church, not realizing that you can only know Christ fully when you are in relationship with him as he is revealed today, and today he is revealed in the Church, in people like us, the members of Saint Mary's; in our sacraments and songs, our scriptures, what we say and do, and how we help others get to know God. Risky, but that's what God did. 

Some people, converted to the Church, stop there. The Church can be a great place of escape, a spiritual ghetto. It’s like having a good meal. No matter how much anyone enjoys food (and I certainly do), none of us exists to eat. You don’t eat twenty-four hours a day, and you don’t stay in church twenty-four hours a day. We need a third conversion. Christians need to be converted to the world. We are not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, says Paul to the Romans in today's epistle (12:2), but we must be converted to the world. There is a paradox at the root of this conversion. When we turn to Christ, we must turn away from the world, but we must also turn back to it. We need to turn away from the sin of the world, but we must turn the world to its own salvation. We must turn away from the life style of the world, if we hope to turn back and give the world the true life that it needs. It's not enough just to be saved, to be in the fellowship of God's holy people. The focus of Christian life is outward. Perhaps more than any other organization on earth, the Church exists for the sake of the people who are still outside of it. When we celebrate Christ's coming at Christmas, we sing "Joy to the World," not "Joy to the Church" or "Joy to all believers." That third conversion is important, for we are inclined to regard the Church as a sanctuary, a haven apart from the world. 

There are many things that close the Church in. Sometimes it is fear. That was justified for the early Christians, who hid when they worshipped to protect themselves from the hostile world outside, as they did on Pentecost. Scripture says they were locked away in a room out of fear, when Jesus came among them. I don't think we could claim that fear locks the door and shuts us in today. The threat of Christian martyrdom is a real possibility in some parts of the world, but not here. Not in Eugene, Oregon; not in Coleshill, England. It's possible that what paralyzes us is the fear of what other people will think if they know we are Christians. How many times have you heard, "I've known so and so for thirty years, and I never knew she was a church-goer, or that he went to St. Mary’s every Sunday." Perhaps we don't let others know about our faith because we don't want people to think we're fanatics. The desire to please people is so powerful we're willing to go against God over and over again. Its fear of what others will think of us that often locks the door and shuts the Church inside. 

Pre-occupation with ourselves, our own spiritual growth, our own way of doing things, can lock us in. We love our liturgy! It's the best! We've even learned to meditate in recent years, and feel good about it. Some people use the Church as an escape, a way to find meaning in an otherwise empty life, a way to avoid a boring job; a way to lock yourself in. You could get so busy serving God that you never saw the world in which you live and work and raise your family. 

That's not all. When you lock yourself in, you lock the world out. There are many good reasons to do that. The news we are fed each day says that the world around us is falling apart. There is a feeling that forces are unleashed which human beings cannot control. We thought we were in charge, but it looks like we aren't. Politically, many people feel it doesn't matter who is elected, or what party, because they're convinced the world can't be governed by anyone. In spite of the prosperity of the day, they believe that our economy is out of control; that we're on thin ice. As pollution chokes the world around us, we see an end of natural recourses looming in the not to distant future. The expansion of world population in our lifetimes is beyond comprehension. Where, and how, will it all end? There's good reason to want to shut the world out. 

But what about this business that "God so loved the world and gave an only-begotten Son?" Those comfortable words can be uncomfortable. The world is broken, it's corrupt, it's falling apart; but God loves the world. Jesus died for the world. He lived and died to bring it back into harmony with God. I used to ask myself, "What have I got to offer when I step out of my office or down from the pulpit, when I go where a clergy collar doesn't mean much?" Not that I'm retired, the question looms larger than ever. I'm just another old man in the check-out line at Safeway. What happens to you when you're among people for whom belonging to a church doesn't mean all that much? What happens to you? I know that I need to keep my eyes on Christ. He didn't come in a clergy collar or choir robe or carrying a diploma. He came in humility. He came by way of a manger, a carpenter's bench, a fisherman's boat, a cross, and a grave. When Jesus gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples at the first Pentecost, the Church stepped out into the world and the Kingdom of God began. 

Do you see the Church shut in and the world locked out? I'm afraid so, sometimes. Do you see Jesus step in and the Church step out; this church, Saint Mary's Episcopal Church? I hope so. That's what I always want to see here. We know Jesus Christ to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. We belong to the community he came to establish. We have been given the Holy Spirit, and commissioned to share that gift with the whole world. We can't sit back and do nothing, knowing what we know, belonging to this community, empowered by that Holy Spirit.

In closing, let us pray once again the Collect for today, found at the top of the bulletin insert. Collects try to give us a focus for each Sunday, a theme, if you will. Let's say it together:
Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.