Alt- Empire

A sermon delivered August 27, 2017 at Parkwood Presbyterian Church, Jenison MI.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Romans 12:1-8 NRS

 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.

Matthew 16:13-20


It’s a familiar quote, isn’t it? Who do you say that I am?” Often it’s used in evangelism to push for an answer, a decision. We ask it presuming there is a right and a wrong answer. We use it assuming this story in Matthew is simply about being able to correctly identify Jesus.

That is part of the story but there is much more going on here as well. I’m always amazed at how much the Gospel writers can pack into 8 verses! I want to spend a little time looking closely at these verses.

The first thing to notice is the location. For those of us who have not been to the Holy Land, it is easy to overlook where things are in relation to each other and what the locations contribute to the story.

Remember that Jesus and all the Jews lived in a land occupied by a foreign power, the Roman Empire. And the empire brought and imposed its laws, customs and religion. Caesarea Philippi was a town that was renamed by Herod the Great after he built a temple there to Caesar Augustus. In the Roman Empire, by this time, Emperors were declared to be gods either shortly after their death or when they were still alive and in power. Worship of the emperor,the emperor cult, was a real religion and was real politics as well.

Politics and religion were not held apart, they were inseparable.- for both Romans and Jews. It’s important for us to remember that.

Jesus and the disciples are, metaphorically if not literally standing in the shadow of the emperor’s Temple when Jesus asks a couple of questions.

The first, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  He is not asking about issues of personal piety.

The response?  The people believe he is a prophet. Remember prophets tell the truth about who is actually in charge of the world to those who mistakenly think they are in charge.

Prophets confront, prophets call to account, prophets bring the word of the Lord to the people and their rulers. Notice the response isn’t Jesus is like John the Baptist, or like Elijah, or like Jeremiah. The people say Jesus is John the Baptist, or is Elijah or is Jeremiah.

So “the people” have an interesting and high opinion of Jesus. They see him as a resurrected prophet. But as high an opinion as this is, the people don’t have it quite right.

So then Jesus asks the disciples. “But who do you say that I am?” and the “you” here is plural. In the gospels, when Peter speaks or acts, he is often speaking or acting on behalf of all the disciples. Peter answers, for all of them. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

This is of course a statement of faith. Interestingly, it is not the first time in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is identified as the Messiah, the Son of God. At Jesus’ baptism the voice of God reveals Jesus to be God’s son. And after Jesus walks on the water, the disciples worship him and say “Truly you are the Son of God.”

As my seminary professor used to tell us, “If it’s repeated, it must be important. If it’s repeated, it must be important.” So what’s happening with this declaration?

Why is it repeated?

It’s important we don’t stop reading here. Jesus has more he wants the disciples and us to understand. We need to look closely at what comes next.

First, this knowledge given to Peter about Jesus isn’t from human knowing. It was revealed by God.

Then the word play, you are Petros and on this petra I will build my church. For your Bible fun fact today, Peter was not a person’s name then, as it is now. People weren’t called Peter either in Greek or Aramaic before this.  It’s an uncommon, even a new name.

But more important remember than when God changes a person’s name that means something significant is happening. Abram/Abraham,  Sari /Sarah, Jacob/Israel,  Saul/Paul…

The word “church” is interesting as well. Notice Jesus doesn’t say Synagogue, a word he could have used. He says church. The Greek word is ekklesia which means “called out”, an assembly, as in a civil, political gathering. These were often events to reinforce the Roman political and social status quo. Saying that he is building an ekklesia, positions Jesus and the church in distinction to the Roman Empire. He’s not setting the church in opposition to the synagogue but to the empire.

What is Jesus building?  Sounds like a counter empire? We might call it, in today’s terms, the alt- empire.

Then Jesus tells us some things about this alt empire, the ekklesia, using images and idioms of the time.

One, it will be involved in struggle, we don’t avoid the power of Hades, but that power will not win, it will not prevail.

By the way, Hades was mostly not understood to be a place of punishment, it was realm of the dead,- where dead people were. But Jesus may also be referring  to gates/portals of underworld where powers of evil/devil could emerge.

And then there is the part about the keys. The one who keeps the keys is not doorkeeper to heaven. We need to read carefully- It’s not the keys “to” the kingdom, but the keys ‘of’ the kingdom. Traditionally the keeper of the keys had authority as administrator and teacher.

Remember the crowds exclaiming that Jesus taught as one with authority? This was an important claim. Binding and loosing is rabbinic language for authoritative teaching. Jesus is sharing, passing on his authority to interpret and teach.  

Rabbis taught Torah but they also interpreted Torah, helped people live faithfully in their particular time and situation. Similarly,  in Greek political life, while laws and rules could not be abolished, they could be changed to adapt to new circumstances.

And then, heaven and earth. In ancient world, heaven and earth mirrored each other. Heaven was not where the good people go after death. Heaven is where God/gods live. What happened on earth, happened in heaven and vice versa. That’s what’s going on when we pray “on earth as it is in heaven”. These are parallel and in the future connected, interlocking realms.

Having the keys of the kingdom of heaven and authority to bind and loose have to do with teaching and interpreting and enacting life in the reign of God.We might imagine Peter’s keys keeping the gates of heaven open for God’s reign to be manifest on earth. And- make no mistake- everyone in Jesus time understood this was in opposition to the reign of Rome.

God’s reign originates in heaven, is made manifest on earth and built by Jesus on the foundation, the rock, of the disciples-church.  

Not a text as we sometimes think, about who gets into heaven, and who decides who gets into heaven. This is a text about who knows the real truth,who teaches the real truth- it’s not Rome and it’s not Rome’s truth.

It’s God’s truth.

We commonly think of “birth” of church occuring in Acts, but I suspect we also find it here. Jesus gives a name, a blessing, and authority to Peter/disciples. At this point they are not yet quite ready to be church – hence the don’t tell anyone. But they are given a clue, important information about what they are supposed to be becoming.

That seminary professor who use to say, If it’s repeated…, also used to say, “So what?”. This is all very interesting but so what? What do we do with this? Author and pastor Eugene Peterson suggests we ask, “How do we obey”? Does this old story have anything to do with us?

Last winter, a colleague of mine in campus ministry wanted to avoid becoming “political”. But, you know, as I reminded him, the gospel is political. (It’s not partisan, but it is unavoidably political)

What folks in the ancient world knew, what our society tries not to know and we Christians often forget, is that all reality, everything, is also spiritual. There are not two states of being, the physical and the spiritual- distinct and unconnected.  Politics is not only physical. The church is not only spiritual. They don’t belong to different realities. There is just one reality. The physical and the spiritual are aspects of that one reality.

Our world of politics, and business, and technology doesn’t typically acknowledge this. In fact they typically deny the spiritual.

But that’s not the worldview of the Bible. And that’s not to be our worldview. The spiritual is everywhere and part of  everything.  Churches, certainly, but also our schools, Grand Valley, Kendall College of Art and Design, GRCC, our banks, our gas stations our grocery stores. Microsoft and Apple. GM and Con Agra. The cities of Grand Rapids and Jennison. The state of Michigan. The United States Congress and the presidency. All have both spiritual and material aspects.

I’m not naming those spirits as good or bad, I’m just reminding us that all these “real” things also have a spiritual component.  Theologian Walter Wink, who we have a quote from in the bulletin, names that spiritual dimension the Powers.

We do commonly acknowledge their existence. We talk about economic powers and forces. The power of the market is not a material thing but it has material outcomes and effects. Political power is not a material thing but it has real, physical effects.

Peer pressure. Crowd dynamics. Have you ever found yourself at a game cheering for a team, when actually you weren’t particularly a fan? Or get caught up in the mood  at a concert?  We talk about groups and organizations being a force for good. The idea that the spiritual is in and around everything shouldn’t really be a novel idea. Particularly for Christians.

If the Powers are created by God, as everything is, then they have a divine purpose, a divine vocation. But they can forget that, the powers can lose sight of that vocation.

We know that powers can be good or bad, or more likely a mixture of both. And the good news is that powers, as part of creation, just like people, can be redeemed.  And that is the task of the assembly ekklesia that Jesus builds-  that’s our task recalling the powers to their divine vocation.

These are challenging times, and it is easy to become overwhelmed, paralyzed by the amount and complexity of the problems in the world. Reading the news is often frightening. It can lead us to despair.

It is easier to distract ourselves with video games, and TV and sports, shopping, eating, and whatever.  (Not that these are in and of themselves bad things- but they also have powers too, for both good and bad)

What is the ekklesia to do? What are we as members of the ekklesia to do?

This is where Paul, writing in Romans (and other places) offers a picture of how this works.

We are members of one body. And by members Paul doesn’t mean participants, like members of a club. He means members like body parts. A hand, an ear, a foot. That is how closely we are connected to Jesus and to each other.

And that living sacrifice part- isn’t about death and destruction. In the ancient world offering a sacrifice meant offering God your very best. We’re to offer God our best selves, our transformed selves. Not in an arrogant, boastful way but with sober judgment. With wisdom about what is good and acceptable and perfect. About what is God’s will.

We can’t each take responsibility for all the powers. I can’t fix everything and neither can you. In most places I have essentially no influence,  in some places I have a little,  a few places I have a significant amount. As do you, both as individuals and as Parkwood Presbyterian Church.

Our ongoing task is to identify those powers and spirits in our day to day encounters and to discern how we should interact with them and then bring our living sacrifice, our best efforts to this work.

God’s work can  certainly be dramatic, but mostly God seems to work with daily matters, daily bread, raising babies, feeding hungry people, healing sick people, respecting all people. God works with our daily lives, at work, at school, at home. The day in day out stuff of life makes up our daily following  of Jesus  

Part of what today’s gospel story tells us is that what we do matters.  It really does.Our day to day lives matter. The mundane, the ordinary, the regular stuff of life. Our task/calling to live into reign of God. To work toward it. To live it into reality.

We, like the first disciples, are called to be about the work of Jesus. What being a disciple looks like for you all here, I wouldn’t presume to tell you- other than to remind us all of the basics. How these get worked out here in this church in this community, you need to discern. That’s part of the task of being the church. You may well end up being  told you are being political.

Because like the disciples and the great cloud of saints and witnesses that came before us, being about the work that Jesus calls us to will place us in opposition to the Powers. We will struggle with the powers but they will not ultimately prevail.

So what does being a disciple look like here? What does the ekklesia, the church look like here? What thing is God calling you to? What makes your heart break? What makes your spirits soar?

Some of you are marchers, some letter writers, some of you feed people, some heal people, some teach, some listen.

Some of you listen very well. Ask the people who show up every week at the Listening Post at GVSU. They have some wonderful stories to tell you.

I can tell you my own stories from the Listening Post at GRCC.  The very first student I listened to talked about the biopsy results she was waiting for and how hard it was to wait and that she didn’t have anyone to tell that to.

We’ve been the practice audience for speeches and oral reports, giving feedback and encouragement. We’ve talked about mental illness and racism. I listened to a young man whose brother had recently died. We hear about good grades and new jobs and new relationships too.

Your presence at GVSU is a blessing to that community.

Why do you listen so carefully and well? Because you believe Jesus when he says that all people matter. You don’t believe the powers, that try to tell us some don’t matter, that tell us some are a threat.

You have listened to Jesus . You thought about your gifts. And you considered where you could be agents of transformation. The transformation that happens one person at a time as they are seen and heard and respected.

Honestly, I don’t know what else you all do here. I don’t know this place that well. And it’s not my job to tell you what to do.

I’m here to ask, What does being a disciple look like here? What thing is God calling you to? What makes your heart break? What makes you spirit soar? How are you the rock on which Jesus builds his ekklesia, his church here in Jenison?

2 thoughts on “Alt- Empire

  1. Trish and I both loved this. It’s terrific!

    On Mon, Sep 4, 2017 at 6:14 PM, Conversation in Faith Weblog wrote:

    > Nancy posted: “A sermon delivered August 27, 2017 at Parkwood Presbyterian > Church, Jenison MI. I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the > mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and > acceptable to God, which is your spiritual w” >

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