Sunday, 27 August 2017

Building my faith on
a rock-solid foundation

The Hill of the Areopagos and the Agora of Athens seen from the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 27 August 2017,

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity:


9.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Castletown Church, Kilcornan, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer.

Readings: Exodus 1: 8 - 2: 10; Psalm 124; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20.

In the name of + the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last weekend in Athens, I stood at the top of Acropolis (Ἀκρόπολις), taking in the breath-taking views in every direction across the city and out to the port of Piraeus.

The Acropolis is the highest point in Athens. It stands on an extremely rocky outcrop and on it the ancient Greeks built several significant buildings. The most famous of these is the Parthenon. This flat-topped rock rises 150 metres (490 ft) above sea level and has a surface area of about 3 hectares (7.4 acres).

Below me, immediately north-west of the Acropolis, was the Areopagus, another prominent, but relatively smaller, rocky outcrop. Its English name comes from its Greek name, Ἄρειος Πάγος (Areios Págos), the ‘Rock of Ares,’ known to the Romans as the Hill of Mars.

In classical Athens, this functioned as the court for trying deliberate homicide. It was said Ares was put on trial here for deicide, the murder of the son of the god Poseidon. In the play The Eumenides (458 BC) by Aeschylus, the Areopagus is the site of the trial of Orestes for killing his mother.

Later, murderers would seek shelter here in the hope of a fair hearing.

Here too the Athenians had altar to the unknown god, and it was here the Apostle Paul delivered his most famous speech and sermon, in which he identified the ‘unknown god’ with ‘the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth’ (Acts 17: 24), for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (verse 28).

This is the most dramatic and fullest reported sermon or speech by the Apostle Paul. He quotes the Greek philosopher Epimenides, and he must have known that the location of his speech had important cultural contexts, including associations with justice, deicide and the hidden God.

The Acropolis seen from the new Acropolis Museum, standing on a large rocky outcrop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The origin of the name of the Areopagus is found in the ancient Greek, πάγος ( pagos), meaning a ‘big piece of rock.’

Another word, λιθος (lithos) was used for a small rock, a stone, or even a pebble – it is the Greek word that gives us words like lithograph and megalithic, meaning Great Stone Age.

When you see breath-taking sights like these, you understand how culturally relevant it was for Christ to talk about the wise man building his house on a rock rather than on sand (Matthew 7: 24-26) – a Gospel reading we have missed this year in the Lectionary readings that take us through Saint Matthew’s Gospel Sunday-by-Sunday.

Ordinary domestic buildings might have been built to last a generation or two, at most. But building on rock, building into rock, building into massive rock formations like the Acropolis, was laying the foundations for major works of cultural, political and religious significance that would last long after those who had built them had been forgotten.

And so, when Christ says to Peter in our Gospel reading this morning that the Church is going to be built on a rock, he is talking about the foundations for a movement, an institution, an organisation, a community that is going to have lasting, everlasting significance.

In the past, Christians have got tied up in knots in silly arguments about this morning’s Gospel story. Some of us shy away from dealing with this story, knowing that in the past it was used to bolster not so much the claims of the Papacy, but all the packages that goes with those claims. In other words, it was argued by some in the past that the meaning of this passage was explicit: if you accepted this narrow meaning, you accepted the Papacy; if you accepted the Papacy, then you also accepted Papal infallibility, Papal claims to universal jurisdiction, and Papal teachings on celibacy, birth control, the immaculate conception and the assumption of the Virgin Mary.

And that is more than just a leap and a jump from what is being taught in our Gospel reading this morning. But to counter those great leaps of logic, Protestant theologians in the past put forward contorted arguments about the meaning of the rock and the rock of faith in this passage. Some have tried to argue that the word used for Peter, Πητρος (Petros), is the word for a small pebble, but that faith is described with a different word, πητρα (petra), meaning a giant rock, the sort of rock on which the Greeks built the Acropolis or carved out the Areopagus.

But they were silly arguments. The distinction between these words existed in Attic Greek in the classical days, but not in the Greek spoken at the time of Christ or at the time Saint Matthew was writing his Gospel. Πητρος (Petros) was the male name derived from a rock, πητρα (petra) was a rock, a massive rock like Petra in Jordan or the rocks of the Acropolis or the Areopagus, and the word lithos (λιθος) was used for a small rock, a stone, or even a pebble.

And Saint Peter is a rock, his faith is a rock, a rock that is solid enough to provide the foundations for Christ’s great work that is the Church.

How could Saint Peter or his faith be so great? This is the same Peter who in last week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 15: 21-28; 20 August 2017) wanted Christ to send away the desperate Canaanite woman because ‘she keeps shouting at us.’

This is the same Peter who a week before (Matthew 14: 22-33; 13 August), tried to walk on water and almost drowned, and Christ said to the same Peter: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ (verse 31).

This is the same Peter who, in the week before that (Matthew 14: 13-21, 6 August), was among the disciples who wanted to send away the crowd and let them buy food for themselves (verse 15).

This is the same Peter who seems to get it wrong constantly. Later in this Gospel, he denies Christ three times at the Crucifixion (Matthew 26: 75). After the Resurrection, Christ has to put the question three times to Peter before Peter confesses that Christ knows everything, and Christ then calls him with the words: ‘Follow me’ (John 21: 15-19).

Saint Peter is so like me. He trips and stumbles constantly. He often gets it wrong, even later on in life. He gives the wrong answers, he comes up with silly ideas, he easily stumbles on the pebbles and stones that are strewn across the pathway of life.

But eventually, it is not his own judgment, his own failing judgment that marks him out as someone special. No. It is his faith, his rock solid faith.

Despite all his human failings, despite his often-tactless behaviour, despite all his weaknesses, he is able to say who Christ is for him. He has a simple but rock-solid faith, summarised in that simple, direct statement: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ (verse 16).

Robert Spence (1871-1964), ‘Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield,’ depicts George Fox preaching barefooted in the Market Square in Lichfield 1651 … George Fox challenged his followers to say who Christ is for them (Lichfield Heritage Centre)

Who do you say Christ is?

Who is Christ for you?

I spend much of my time off in Lichfield, where I once worked. George Fox, the founding Quaker, once walked barefoot through the streets of Lichfield. But he also challenged his contemporaries with these words: ‘You may say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?’

Who is Christ for you? Is he a personal saviour? One who comforts you? Or is he more than that for you? Who do you say Christ is?

It is a question that challenges Peter in this morning’s Gospel reading. Not who do others say he is, but who do you say Christ is?

Peter’s faith is a faith that proves to be so rock-solid that you could say it is blessed, it is foundational. Not gritty, pebbly, pain-on-the-foot sort of faith. But the foundational faith on which you could build a house, carve out a temple or monastery, or a place to seek justice and sanctuary, rock-solid faith that provides the foundation for the Church.

There are other people in the Bible and in Jewish tradition who are commended for their rock-solid faith, including Abraham and Sarah (see Isaiah 51: 1f).

It is the sort of faith that will bring people into the Church, and even the most cunning, ambitious, evil schemes, even death itself, will not be able to destroy this sort of faith (verse 18).

Throughout the Bible, as people set out on great journeys of faith, their new beginning in faith is marked by God giving them a new name: Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul, and Simon son of Jonah is blessed with a new name too as he becomes Cephas or Peter, the rock-solid, reliable guy, whose faith becomes a role model for the new community of faith, for each and every one of us.

Why would Christ pick me or you? Well, why would he pick a simple fisherman from a small provincial town?

It is not how others see us that matters. It is our faith and commitment to Christ that matters. God always sees us as he made us, in God’s own image and likeness, and loves us like that.

The faith that the Church must look to as its foundation, the faith that we must depend on, that we must live by, is not some self-determined, whimsical decision, but the faith that the Apostles had in the Christ who calls them, that rock-solid, spirit-filled faith in Christ, of which Saint Peter’s confession this morning is the most direct yet sublime and solid example.

Apostolic faith like Saint Peter’s is the foundation stone on which the Church is built, the foundation stone of the new Jerusalem, with Christ as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2: 20; Revelation 21: 14).

It does not matter that Saint Peter was capable of some dreadful gaffes and misjudgements. I am like that too … constantly.

But Christ calls us in our weaknesses. And in our weaknesses, he finds our strengths. So that, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in our Epistle reading this morning, the Church is then built up by the gifts that each one of us has to offer, ‘each according to the measure of faith that Christ has assigned’ (Romans 12: 3).

Our weaknesses can be turned to strengths if we accept the unique gifts each of us has been given by God and joyfully use them, lovingly use them, in God’s service, for building up his kingdom.

Let us not be afraid of our weaknesses. Let us not be afraid of the mistakes we inevitably make. But let us accept the gifts God has given us. Let us use those to build up our faith, to build up the Church, and to serve Christ and the world.

And so, may all we think, do and say be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 27 August 2017.

The Apostle Peter in an icon on Mount Athos (1546): so often he gets it wrong, like I do, but his faith is rock-solid

Collect:

O God,
you declare your almighty power
most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
Mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace,
that we, running the way of your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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