I stood at the bedside a few days ago as one of our beloved was lowered into a body bag.
He had died an hour or more before and so quickly his face, his limbs, showed the obvious signs that whatever had held ‘life’ even moments before, even with staggered breathing, was no longer.
Family stood alongside also, wanting to stay with him right up to and when he was carried to the hearse and taken away.
The one next to me, a long time staff member who I have worked alongside for more than a decade, seemed to catch something in my expression that I did not even know was there, and he put his arm lightly around my shoulders.
It came to me later that the body bag was the same, maybe even the exact same one, that the frail body of my mother had been lifted into a few months ago, for it was the same funeral home. Indeed, my own fragility in the face of this tangible reminder was apparently evident to others standing near, if not quite yet to myself.
And so it is that I am reminded again and again of how very frail the human body is. That for all of our gifts, for all the difference we may and can and do make in the world, it would be foolhardy for Jesus to build his church on anything as fragile as a human being. No, not even Peter with his clear gifts of leadership and his deep faith and his powerful way of sharing it. For the truth is that Peter also died, and if what is passed on has any truth to it, it was a gruesome death at the hands of the emperor of Rome. (One artist’s depiction is offered here.)
No, not even Peter, nor any one of us who have come after could possibly alone bear the weight of which Jesus speaks today. And haven’t we witnessed the tragic consequences of thinking otherwise again and again in church scandals and horrendous abuse of vulnerable ones and on and on?
So no, I cannot be counted among those who believe that Jesus was actually speaking of “Peter the rock” as he spoke of the foundation on which he would build his church. Rather, it seems to me truer to say that the ‘rock’ on which the church is built is the rock solid truth of Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity or even, perhaps, the commission which Peter and the others and all of us are extended in the call to root all that we do in forgiveness and in the hard work of discernment which leads to that. Indeed, Jesus himself confirms this when he says right before, declaring that ‘you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,’ that ‘flesh and blood had not revealed the truth of who Jesus was to Peter, but that rather his Father in heaven had!’
- So again, yes, these marvelous gifts of God often are or can be known or experienced in and through our short lived human lives in powerful ways, using what is so very frail as a conduit for this wonder.
- The words we speak and the gifts we are called to share, tangible and otherwise, all simply find their source and strength and energy and power there.
- But we, ourselves, are not the foundation, nor the source of that strength, that power, that energy, that hope, that joy.
- Indeed, that ‘rock’ is the very heart of God.
I don’t know about you, but these days I find this to be more and more a source of comfort and hope. For it is too much my inclination to try to carry more than I should. No doubt it is the habit of many congregations to, if not put that responsibility on the pastor or church staff intentionally, then to just step back until we too much pick it up out of a deep sense that if we don’t do it (whatever it is) it won’t get done. More than this, as I look back now on decades of ministry which have included enthusiastically entering new calls and then some years later leaving them, it is wondrous truth to realize that what good has happened has not ultimately been about me or because of me. Churches and the larger community too much think of a church as so-and-so’s or to identify all that happens there with a key leader, when really, it has so little to do with us except perhaps insofar as we are open enough to be a conduit to what God is already doing. For isn’t this so? If Peter wasn’t enough for Jesus to build a church on, how could you or I possibly be? And that is powerful good news, isn’t it?
So won’t you wonder with me now what it might look like to re-vision the church as not about us, but about God and God’s doing in Jesus?
- As our foundation being a powerful and simple witness about who Jesus was and is, so easily passed down along from person to person, from generation to generation, regardless of our own very human frailty.
- As our foundation being how we live out our faith between us — always rooted in forgiveness.
- And oh, don’t these have the sort of strength that even the most powerful forces we know cannot beat?
Now we are not only tempted to confuse key leaders like Peter as our foundation, it seems to me, although this is huge it seems to me. I, for one, have often experienced a tinge of despair when the stalwart fade and die or when active church members move away or simply are called to put more energy elsewhere. And yet, somehow the work and the witness continue, if not in the same ways, then in new ways that are meant for the time.
But we also rely on tradition, on how things have always been, don’t we. In my setting, for instance, we are currently in a dilemma about what to do about Sunday School among families for whom the old model no longer seems to work. And about when to gather leaders and how to raise up new ones who are so busy with work and running children to sporting events and on and on. You name it, it is all in flux now. How much better off might we be led into what’s next if we focused on the foundations Jesus speaks of now: the certainty that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and that forgiveness is at the heart of all of it, whatever is next!
Indeed, you and I live and serve in a time when it can feel like all of our foundations are shifting. And indeed, they are, if we forget what that foundation actually is.
And so, what might it look like for you and me and for our congregations to simply and consistently return to the truth of Who and what our foundation actually is and has been all along?
Not anyone as human as Peter or you or me or the best leader your congregation can remember.
Not the traditions which seemed to serve so well those generations before us, but are faltering now.
No, not even the way we did things a few short years ago.
So again, I wonder now:
- What would it look like if we simply lived deep into the promise laden in this week’s Gospel?
- What if we considered again who and what our true foundation actually is?
- How might we be called to live and serve together in new ways?
- What unnecessary burdens might be lifted if we did so?
- Indeed, what new things might we then see God doing among us if we just began here?