Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On Finding, Losing and Rewards

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost brings us to continue hearing words of Jesus that were primarily said to Peter. According to Saint Matthew, our Lord predicted his own suffering and death, and we hear that his disciple Peter declared alarm. A difference existed between them. Thus, Peter being an example of discipleship, gave opportunity for valuable illustration concerning the proper aims for the modern Christian church…

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
 And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”
 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.
 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:21-28)

Showing Us the Way…
In continuation from the previous conversation between our Lord and his disciples about the perception of both people and themselves, in this text Jesus created  a counterpoint example between the found and the lost. Differing from the earlier penned Markan acconnt of this conversation (c. 65-70A.D.), Matthew included something that Mark had omitted. Matthew’s gospel stated clearly that Jesus must go to Jerusalem. We emphasize the “must” expressed. Jesus told them using this word, therefore, that Jerusalem was the site not only of confrontation where the powers of this world was set over against him, but also the word contained an imperative ending that was written in stone. Jesus said that he “must” go. This last signified that the course unfolding was one that was laid out for our Lord from the very beginning of creation. As Savior, this was a role that he had accepted from the beginning. What was most profound was that the path was one pleasing to… and required… by the Father. We note with interest that Matthew was the only gospel writer telling this, who named the place of the imperative act. Thus it may be gathered that the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus that had occurred by the time of writing, was very important to the walk of the writer’s own community. It seems that he wanted his community to distance themselves from the central core of the Judaic government and temple cult.
 However, within this passionate statement we note that Jesus revealed to the disciples that his journey to Jerusalem was not going to include a pleasant reception. Suffering and death would be the outcome for him. Here we remember from last week’s lesson that Peter had just confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Having done so, Peter was praised by Jesus for confessing that which had been revealed to him by the Father. The praise from Jesus resounded across the centuries that “upon the Rock” of faith our Lord would build his church. We may gather that this  played well as told, as written and read in Antioch of Syria… the community wherein the Matthean gospel was written. You see, Peter had exerted much influence there.
 We find as this reading progressed, that Peter and Jesus had different thoughts which were unfolded. The difference seemed to center about just what “Messiah” meant to Peter. For Peter, it seems that he had futuristic visions of Jesus going to Jerusalem to rightfully claim rule of both government and temple… to restore the former earthly glory of the kingdom. which had been present in the days of David and Solomon.
 Readiug his motivations then, could we today say that in this way, Peter hoped the burden of Roman rule could be cast off from the chosen people of God? As the pebble named and eventually becoming a rock of faith, Peter at first had a differing vision for the Messiah, Therefore Peter “took” ( Greek – proslabomenous ) Jesus aside. Peter went “nose to nose” with our Lord. He upbraided our Lord, but in turn was firmly chastised. He received a distancing statement. Peter had provided an argument from sinful ambition. His statement had been provided to him by Satanic powers of the world. He therefore garnered the…  “Get behind me Satan!” retort.
 Suddenly the earlier Matthean image of the divinely-favored Petrine position was gone from the reading. Jesus told his leading disciple to get in line. In other words, Jesus was asking… “Whom shall you serve?” Why we might wonder?
 As the community knew by the time of this gospel’s writing, Peter was to serve God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and not the sinful appetites of humanity. At the time, Jesus turned to the whole audience of disciples. He clarified what the apostles were intended to be and do… and a great lesson was delivered to the later church. We see that for Matthew’s community, the founding voice of Peter had been put in its proper place. Centered then before them stood the words of Jesus, the Messiah. These were immovable! His conversation centered them around the carrying of the cross. In retrospect, glaringly meaningful was his message!

Addressing Factions!
 Striving within the early church was fierce, but here became revealed. Indeed, persons within the various roles of the early Matthean church life were tending to take Jesus aside. Though energetic and enthusiastic at first, these prophets, teachers and leaders were sometimes exerting forces which distracted and burdened the community. We read this in an admonition from the “Didache”, often rightly called the “Teaching of the Apostles of Jesus Christ”. Believed by many scholars to be written about 50 A.D…. some thirty years before Matthew’s gospel, within it we read much said about the guidelines concerning persons within the early church. Though written for the novice new to the faith, it gave both leaders and laypersons alike, certain behavioral standards…

“However, if a teacher has himself wandered from the right path and has begun to teach a teaching that is at odds with what is set out here, you should not listen to him. On the other hand, if his teaching promotes holiness and knowledge of the Lord, then you should welcome him as you would the Lord.(Didache 11.2)

 The difference loomed large, therefore, between a pebble and a rock for the church. Peter, having been named as “Rock” was called to promote “holiness and knowledge of the Lord”. Therefore we emphasize from the writings of the earlier prophets, who spoke at the time before Israel’s exile, that leaders such as Peter should not be placed too highly. He, nor others, should stand as a hindrance to the gospel of deliverance through Jesus. Jesus alone is the Messiah. Rendering “hindrance” then more interpreted as a “stumbling block”, we read first from the prophet…

But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.  And he will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble thereon; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”  (Isaiah 8:13-15)

 Thus the church was warned by the witness of this Hebrew prophetic writing, from an ancient text they held dear. The prophet warned about any persons or things that would usurp the foundation laid forever by Jesus’ death and Resurrection. We read…

… therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘He who believes will not be in haste.’ And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.” (Isaiah 28:16)

 Within this context then, Jesus the Messiah pointed beyond that immediate day wherein he taught. Though he had not yet suffered the cross. it was indelibly cut into the foundation of the future Matthean church. The perfectly innocent Messiah had been crucified… and had Risen. They thus stood as admonished.
 In modern times, we too are to carry the image of that tortuous device of rejection,  persecution and death. This is a theology of the cross, rather than a theology of glory. By being asked to carry such, the early church after the Resurrection knew of the given promise that any who do adhere to the cross faithfully would give voice, fall… and rise again. In this way, they would imitate the walk of their Teacher and Savior. This exhortation and instruction, therefore, hindered those who foolishly considered gaining mortal power and influence over the church. Proper payment will be made taught Matthew. Judgment of deeds shall follow.

Carrying the Cross!
These words are hammered upon the spiritual rocks that lay beneath our baptismal stream. They reflect the faith of our ancestors brightly into the church today. We stumble forward. Surely we are assailed by some of the same powers that burdened the early church. We are rent by similar forces walking both in and out of our number. But, through this wondrous reading, we know that the way of the cross of Jesus is the path for us. We are blessed if we should so carry it.
 As baptized sinners, individually we often stumble and fall in our daily lives as we try to take Jesus aside. We stubbornly rankle at scriptural words and instructions, whenever Satanic forces and demons try to muddy the waters of the baptismal font. We see as the church moved through history that these same demonic powers were present and still do not relent. But we have heard that they shall not have the last word. For the day comes when our Lord shall demonstrate his authority and judgment.
 Consider that it is indeed Satanic that some in our number try to raise offices of their own ministry or laity to the power and authority of Jesus, the Messiah sent by God. They even try to challenge and change scripture, either Law and Gospel. We arrive then at the conclusion that demons still rage.
  If the answer empowered by the guidance of the Holy Spirit remains in the affirmation of our faith, the words bring we sinners back to the foot of the cross to ask forgiveness. We remain as blessed within the church. We can lift the cross high, for we are like our forebears in the faith! It is truly as our Lord said of his followers...

 “…some shall not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

  So it was when the church of Matthew approached the table of our Lord, and so it is with us even now. Click below to go to our church blog...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Foundational Rocks!

OUR SCRIPTURE reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Within it we hear how Jesus sought both the thoughts of the people and the awareness of his disciples. He questioned the apostles about his identity. Therefore as we hear the response of Peter, given to him by the Spirit, we find ourselves also pressed toward expression of our faith out into the world. The message of Matthew reads…

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20)

Confronted in Belief…
Our gospel author related that during our Lord’s work amongst the people, he took his disciples to an area surrounding the city of Caesarea Philippi, which was a city formerly called Paneas. Jesus took stock of his disciples there.
 Matthew and the other synoptic gospels (see Mark 8:27-30, Luke 9:18-21) wrote that he took his followers from beneath the argumentative scrutiny of the Sadducees and Pharisees. Together they went to a place where his followers could speak more freely. He began to ask them how people identified and his message. He asked their thoughts about the identity of the Son of Man… the person mentioned by the prophet Daniel...
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
                         (Daniel 7:13-14)

 The response came immediately from his followers. The disciples said that some persons said that he was John, Elijah, or Jeremiah returned… or another prophet. The disciples said that some persons had even given their own opinions about the prophetic identity of the Son of Man.
 Nailing his catch of gathered fish to the board then… Jesus immediately co-identified himself as he asked what his own followers said of him. Jesus asked… “Who do you say that I am?” As leader amongst the disciples, Peter offered answer.
 We note historically that Peter had been instrumental in the history of Matthew’s faith community. However, we note a change here in the comparative gospel record. In the earlier written Markan gospel, Peter had just replied, “You are the Christ.” This declaration of Jesus as the Christ in Mark stood as identical in the Lukan statement written about two decades later. In Matthew, however, we read that the addition also defines Jesus as “the Son of the living God”.
 This written difference challenges that the latter was not said in the original conversation but was added solely by the Matthean writer. Thus certain scholars accuse that Matthew by the authority of the Holy Spirit, put words into the conversation which were not originally used, but rather are justified in testimony as the Spirit cultivated the early church.
 While I hear their argument, I counter this thought by saying that the earlier gospel had brevity as one of its priorities. This could have been omitted due to the need for a shorter account due to lesser parchment availability. I consider that since Matthew worked on a larger abundance of materials and wrote at a later date, we find that these details were more easily added.
 These differences also had become more important. They are indeed evidence that Matthew’s scribal efforts were inclusive of important material that began to emerge. They describe the very nature of Jesus, the Christ… as the “Son of God”. You see, by the latter part of the first century the theological stance concerning the dual nature of Christ was heatedly debated. The early church was struggling to clarify that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Through this declaration, faith began to come upon them that Jesus was indeed the one promised from times gone past… and would be present forevermore…
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
 The text thus recalled the words of the prophets to the infant church. Additionally, at that time arguments explaining the Trinitarian identity were being formed, guided rightly in development by the Holy Spirit. Thus it was that Peter’s words were remembered by this community. They had personally received his ministry, wherein his presence was more distant to the people of Luke’s churches.
 Jesus is firmly described as the “Son of the living God”. Surely, we first must consider that for the disciples of Matthew, God the Father is considered as yet living. God yet stood strong for them amid a diverse society where many of the ancient gods were thought of as dead. Second, we must consider that by knowing God as the “living” God means that he does not rule in absentia through emissaries that can skew authority. The authority of God’s Word is revealed as present always in scripture and stands amid us forever.
 What follows is that Jesus’ authoritative declaration about Peter though not originally found in Markan witness… is found by us as no less valid. Simon was named as “Peter”, and Jesus declared his faith declaration as a rock. Named as such, a great dualistic meaning came into effect. In Peter, the Rock… the collective disciples’ witness... was prophetically made as immovable throughout history. The apostolic witness is so solid that the powers and minions of hell would not prevail against it. That Matthew raised this Petrine witness to the fore should be expected by the reader, for wasn’t it at the very beginning of the gospel telling… that our scribe related the identity of Jesus as the Christ. (as seen in Matthew 1:16).

Challenged Church?
We note that the gospel writer used a word in this reading that did not appear in the other gospel witnesses. The word “church” (Greek – ecclesian) appears in this gospel not just once… but twice. In its infancy, therefore, the concept of the church developed as a community. This community had already existed before the writer’s time. The church existed not as one individual, but as a group of persons chosen by baptism to faithfully follow in Peter’s footsteps.
 You see, by the end of Matthew’s telling about Peter having received the keys of the kingdom, they would find themselves sharing these with the whole church. Church is a community of people given faith by the Holy Spirit; a gathering collectively governed by God. At this writing, the church born during the Pentecost feast was a spread-out community that had already been in existence for about fifty years. Coming into its own consciousness in Matthew then, we find the formulation of such as the doctrine of the Trinity. This was beginning to be hammered out, not to be tumultuously smashed on rocks of unbelief. We read from Matthew…

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:15-21)

 We see here that the doctrine of the church was also being understood and noted by the Matthean community. Peter’s witness, therefore… came from a sinful man yet saved by God's grace and developed over a period of time. As the modern church, therefore, we today also need to keep the sinful humanity of Peter in clear perspective. Certainly, we are represented truly by this leader of the apostles. Remember… this is Peter, who in faith given by the Spirit made this profound, rock solid statement. This is Peter, deliberately named the “Rock” by our Lord, who represents the faith of the immovable church.
 Surely by the Spirit of God, Peter received the knowledge that Jesus is the Father’s only begotten Son. But, let us always remember as well… lest our co-identification with him drive us to think too much of ourselves… that this was truly Peter, the Galilean fisherman. It is he, the leader of the disciples, who soon after this event denied our Lord. But, be careful here! Let us not judge his walk of faith for we differ not in human sin. For you see what wondrous grace was certainly shown to him… and now to us! Though sinful and doubting, except Judas, the loving power of our Lord provided by the Holy Spirit caused Peter and his fellow disciples to become the foundation of our Lord’s church. The faith given to them by God though his Son was passed through the centuries to us by such as Matthew. This astounding gift of faith we must hold rightly and tightly… for we are yet called to share this good news profusely with the world around us. So it was then.., and so it is now. Thanks be to God!

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