First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
August 27, 2017
Listen to sermon audio
Listen to sermon audio
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
Listen to me, my people,
and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;
but my salvation will be for ever,
and my deliverance will never be ended.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
My family likes to watch this cartoon series on YouTube called “How it should have ended.” It pokes fun at all the contrived plot twists in movies, usually bookended with clips of Batman and Superman sitting in a dinner exchanging clever banter. The Batman character in this series has a habit of asking any new characters he encounters, “You want to know my secret identity?”
This is the image that came to mind for me this week as I read today’s text. Jesus, sitting around Caesarea Philippi, drinking some coffee and eating a muffin. And he suddenly turns to all his disciples and asks, “You want to know my secret identity?”
Okay, so he’s slightly more subtle than that. It’s more of a, “so, what’s the word on the street about this ‘Son of Man’ character? Anybody figure out who he is yet?” The disciples rattle off the list of possibilities from the media, law enforcement, religious fanatics, and conspiracy theorists. John the Baptist, back from the dead. Or the even more extremely dead characters of Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other ancient prophets.
And then Jesus gets right to the point. “So…who do YOU think I am?” Wink, wink.
And Peter suddenly puts all the pieces together. “Messiah Man! That’s YOU!”
Peter is rewarded for his revelation with a super-hero name of his own: Rock Man. Jesus calls him Peter, “Petros,” and tells him he will build his church upon this rock, “petra” in Greek. Clever, Jesus.
And then Messiah Man tells Rock Man that he is giving him the keys to the Batmobile. Okay, he gives him the keys to the kingdom, but it’s kind of the same thing.
Now, I shudder in anticipation of the day when I will hand my son the keys to an automobile. This machine capable of high speeds, this death-machine, in the hands of a teenager, is a terrifying thought. All of you parents who have passed this threshold know exactly what I’m talking about.
And here is Jesus, Messiah Man, giving Simon Peter, Rock Man, the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Talk about terrifying. I’m sure Simon Peter was a great guy and all, but he’s not exactly rock solid. You’ll remember he tried to walk on water – and sank. In the verses that immediately follow what we read today, Peter demands God forbid Jesus’ suffering and death, and Jesus gives Rock Man a new nickname: SATAN. Peter is also the one who will deny Jesus three times after his arrest. Yeah, not exactly rock solid. I don’t know that I’d feel super confident giving this guy the keys to my storage shed, much less the keys to the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.
And yet, this is exactly what Jesus the Messiah Man does. At the same time, Jesus expresses confidence that “the gates of Hades will not prevail” against the church built on this Rock Man. Now, this is not the gates of “hell,” as the King James Bible translates it. Jesus isn’t talking about demons attacking or souls of the damned. He specifically references Hades, the Greek mythological place of the dead, similar to the Jewish concept of Sheol. It’s where all the dead reside – good, bad, everybody. Basically, Jesus is claiming that death itself has no power over the church.
Those of us who spend a whole lot of time in the world of the church today might question Jesus’ confidence. Not in Peter, specifically, though, as we’ve discussed, there’s room for doubt there. But in the power and strength of the church. Sure, it’s had its moments. The Holy Roman Empire. The Age of Christendom. There have been some seasons when the church has wielded great power and authority and seemed impervious to death.
But it also sometimes used that power and authority like a sixteen-year-old behind the wheel of Corvette. It thought it was super cool, it lost control, mowed people down and pretty much wrecked everything.
And looking around the world of the church today, it kind of appears to be at death’s door. Those gates of Hades seem wide open. Pick your statistic of decline. From the metadata reflecting the dramatic decline of religious affiliation in America, particularly in younger generations, to our own denomination’s loss of almost 90,000 members and 191 congregations last year, the Christian church is practically on life support.
What happened to our super heroes? Where’s Messiah Man to the rescue? When will Rock Man drop in to save us?
Sometimes, when a church welcomes a new pastor, it feels kind of like the super hero has finally arrived. After the congregation has struggled for months, or even years, to fight off the forces of uncertainty, a new pastor rides into town like a knight in shining armor. The church celebrates. The people are relieved. Whatever problems the church faces will surely be solved now that Pastor-Man (or Woman) has arrived on the scene.
So…you want to know my secret identity? Completely Average Human Being. That’s what it is. I’m sorry if that’s a disappointment to anyone, but I think most of you were already on to me.
But here’s the great thing about my secret identity: it was also Peter’s secret identity. And, I suspect, a number of you also share this secret identity. Jesus might have called Peter Rock Man, but he was nothing special. He was just your average Jewish fisherman, not smart enough for rabbinical school, not clever enough for politics. He wasn’t especially skilled or gifted or popular.
But Peter guessed Jesus’ secret identity. And was blessed for it.
So how’d he do it? When all the other disciples floundered, throwing out wrong answers, how did Peter get it right? How did he guess Jesus’ secret identity and get promoted to the rock of the church and get the keys to the kingdom?
I think he paid attention. He knew what to look for. He trusted his experience. Jesus did and said those things the Messiah was supposed to do and say. He taught with authority. He forgave sins and overturned unjust social systems that oppressed the poor and marginalized those held captive by illness. He brought healing and wholeness and life to everyone around him. And he upheld the law, the Torah, by loving God with his whole being and loving his neighbors as himself.
In super hero movies, secret identities are never discovered by the investigative journalist or law enforcement. The revelation always occurs when someone experiences the Completely Average Human Being doing something or saying something that ties them directly to the super hero. Experience exposes the secret identity.
Peter might have been a Completely Average Human Being, but people in the early church caught him boldly proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. People experienced him healing with super-human power and leading with wisdom and courage. And so, Peter was revealed to be Rock Man after all, and his origin story was recorded by the gospel writer Matthew.
And this is what really gives me hope. Peter, the Completely Average Human Being, turns out to be Rock Man. So what about us? Sure, We’re Completely Average Human Beings. But we are also the Church, built on the Rock Man. What if we really have another secret identity? What if we only look Completely Average?
Our church size is average. Our attendance and giving are, I’m happy to tell you, a little above average. But still. We’re not known for doing anything super, right? Nothing that would turn heads, cause people to wonder.
But maybe, we’re just keeping our secret identity a little too secret.
The church is the body of Christ in the world. So it seems like the things that would reveal the church’s secret identity are those same things that revealed Jesus to be Messiah Man. Teaching with authority. Being an agent of grace and forgiveness. Overturning unjust social systems. Bringing healing and wholeness and life to those around us. Loving God and neighbor.
I imagine all of us here today have, at some point, witnessed the church’s secret identity. We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t experienced the church being the church, doing those things we’d expect only the true church could do. Perhaps you have learned something that changed the direction of your life or helped you repair a relationship. Perhaps you’ve been transformed by an experience of unconditional love or amazing grace. Perhaps you’ve watched the church stand up and speak truth to power. Perhaps you’ve been healed by the balm of the beloved community. Perhaps you’ve worshipped in a way that authentically expresses love for God and inspires and equips you to serve our neighbors.
I know I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know that this church is absolutely the body of Christ in this place. I’ve heard some of your stories. I’ve been with you only a short time, but I’ve witnessed signs of our secret identity. It is sometimes a well-kept secret. But if people are paying attention, they will experience this church doing and saying those things that only the body of Christ can do and say.
And so I’m confident that, in fact, the gates of Hades will not prevail against this church, or against the church in the wider world. Death has no power here.
The Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), J. Herbert Nelson, asserts that our denomination is not dying. It’s reforming. As Pollyanna as that may sound at a time like this, it is a bold and faithful statement. It acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of God’s Word in the church, even as it calls us to action. The great watch cry of the Reformation, “the church reformed, always being reformed, according to the Word of God,” echoes true today, 500 years later.
The church will not die, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. But it may not look the way it always has. In another 500 years, there may not be a Presbyterian church. This building may not be here. Perhaps churches won’t have buildings at all. But there will still be a church. Christ will still be present and active in the world through the body of his followers.
For now, the church must bind and loosen, re-interpret and re-envision. It must renovate and innovate. The church must do these things so that people can experience our secret identity. We might look like any other historic church in a mainline denomination. Lovely building. Nice people. We come here on Sundays and have meetings during the week. But those who look closely will see much more. They will see compassionate visitors healing the sick and the lonely. They will see a community that wraps around the homeless and advocates for the marginalized. They will hear a congregation that lifts their hearts to up God in worship. They will find people transformed by the renewing of their minds.
“You want to know my secret identity?” We are the church, the body of Christ. And I think the secret is getting out. Amen.