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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (proper 16): August 21, 2005.

Isaiah 51:1-6

Psalm 138

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20
I give you thanks, O Lord,
with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise.
--Psalm 138:1

First Reading

St. Paul's appeal to the Roman Christians "to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" is a good starting point for the consideration of today's texts. Life as worship, or ora et labora as the Benedictines like to put it, is a fruitful way of viewing our daily baptismal calling. Formed by leitourgia in our gathering as ekklesia we then scatter to perform our "public work" as the church scattered in praise of the One God "before the gods" of the everyday world, as the psalmist sings.

This way of doing worship "somatically" results in ways of believing and behaving, of thinking and doing, that are not "conformed" to this world but rather are "transformed," or, in Greek, "metamorphosed." This is the same word translated as "transfigured" when used of Jesus' encounter with Moses and Elijah and the Voice on the mountaintop. The result of such renewed and transformed lives is, as Flannery O'Connor is reputed to have said in paraphrase of Jesus' words in John's Gospel, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd." The odd, eccentric, foolish character of the church's calling into the world is a matter, I'm afraid, to which we pay insufficient attention in our well-meaning efforts to be evangelically appealing and missionally successful.

Second Isaiah's counsel is for God's faithful ("you that pursue righteousness") to go back to first principles and consider their origins. "Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug" suggests an alternative metaphor for being the descendants of the seed of Abraham and Sarah, progeny promised to be as numerous as the "stars of the sky." Remembering whose we are, whence we have come, and what we are called to be lies at the foundation of identity and vocation as the light-bearers of the good news of what is variously called God's "justice," "salvation," and "deliverance."

Pastoral Reflection

Opinion polls have a biblical origin, it seems. Jesus poses a question to his disciples: "Who do people say that the Son of Man [Jesus' favorite self-reference] is?" Answers vary, his disciples report. "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Some kind of prophet seems to have been the general consensus.

"But who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks, turning from mere reportage to an avowal of personal commitment.

Why should we be surprised that it is Peter who steps forward to utter the words that together with the following story of the transfiguration serve as a kind of hinge in Matthew's Gospel? For here Jesus figuratively turns his face toward Jerusalem and the destiny that awaits him there, which he will anticipate in his lamentation over the city: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!" (24:37).

"You are the Messiah," Peter confesses, "the Son of the living God"--a christological high point in Matthew's Gospel concerning which (as in the ensuing story of the transfiguration) Jesus will urge secrecy upon his disciples.

But first Jesus will bless Peter for his confession, while attesting that this was not really Peter's own doing ("flesh and blood have not revealed this to you") but God's. Then follows Jesus' words not found in the other synoptics that have bedeviled interpreters and the church itself through the ages: "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." This is followed by words about Peter being given "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (from which derive subsequent Christian art's identification of Peter as the guy with the keys) and the authority of binding and loosing to which we'll return in our Gospel reading in two weeks.

The pun in Greek, of course, is intended. While "church" does seem to be an anachronistic intrusion of Matthew's into the text, the wordplay regarding Peter's naming has always seemed to me characteristic of Jesus' own sense of humor. Petra, the Greek word for "rock," here becomes Jesus' nickname for his impetuous, quicksilver disciple who will not live up to his name in Jesus' time of trial. Peter will prove anything but a "rock" but will nonetheless serve as de facto leader of the twelve. The early traditioning of the church in which Peter will eventually be martyred in Rome, where he had become the originating episkopos, sees today's Gospel as its authenticating link.

I well remember how self-consciously Protestant interpreters used to insist that the "rock" to which Jesus refers, upon which he intends to build his church, was the foundation stone of faith alone, Peter's own God-given confession. See Nikolai Grundtvig's classical Lutheran hymn "Built on a Rock the Church Shall Stand" (LBW #365) for an example.

Rather than the rock imagery of our readings from Isaiah and Matthew for the ekklesia of the faithful, Paul invokes the organic image of the body, which he'd previously used to good effect in his Corinthian correspondence. Here Paul argues a diversity of function within the "one body of Christ" of which individually we are "members one of another." Such diverse functions are to be seen as "gifts that differ according to the grace given to us" and include such wide-ranging endowments as prophecy, ministry (literally, serving), teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and being compassionate. That these gifts are found distributed throughout the members of the "body of Christ" and evident in the nonconforming, transformed behaviors of the church bear a family resemblance to Jesus' own way of being in the world--the original "body of Christ."

The hymn "God of Change and Glory" (The New Century Hymnal [Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1995] #177) sings well of this reality as does Ruth Duck's "In Christ Called to Baptize" (Renewing Worship Songbook #R223), commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Lutheran World Federation celebrated in Hong Kong in 1997. JR
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Preaching Helps
Author:Rollefson, John
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Previous Article:Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (proper 15): August 14, 2005.
Next Article:Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (proper 17): August 28, 2005.

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