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Everything That Has Breath
Prayer and Confession
Bible Reading: Matthew 16:21-28
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
by Liz Williams
Today’s reading follows on from the previous chapter where Peter declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God (Matthew 15:16). Jesus answered this declaration to affirm to Peter that he will be the rock on which he will build his church (v 18). There has been a lot written to try and understand what Jesus meant by this. Who or what is the “rock”? In the Old Testament Abraham was said to be the rock on which the nation and purpose of God were founded. However, it was clear that God alone was the true rock of his defence and salvation. This word “rock” therefore is important and is seen as a compliment. The idea of a rock can be picked up on through the New Testament. One commentator believes that the rock was thought of in different ways i.e. as Jesus himself, or the truth that Jesus Christ is the Living God, or Peter’s faith on which the church is founded. There is a belief that God is the first rock and as Peter was the first to recognise who Jesus was, he is the first person to make that “leap of faith, making him the first member of the church and then the whole church is built on him.
Because of this it can be agreed that the church should not be viewed as a building. This church has prophets and apostles as the foundations, but it is their work and witness that the church depends on, a gathering of his people rather than materials.
This is particularly pertinent today as we are not able, yet, to meet physically in a building. Some of us have managed to find ways to gather – the words Zoom, and Skype were fairly alien to me in March, and I certainly did not think I would carry out meetings and family chats that way! I realise that some of you may not have been able to meet with others in this way, but perhaps were able to make contact other ways. However, we are still people of God, and are still a valued and important part of the church whether we are gathered or scattered (temporarily). The fabric of the church and the ways we meet may have changed but we are still one body.
In 1 Peter 2:4-8 we are told that all Christians are living stones who are to be built into the fabric of the church with Christ as the cornerstone:
The Living Stone and a Chosen People
4As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
7Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8and,
“A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
In 1 Corinthians 3:11 we are reminded as to who should be our foundation stone: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ”.
In Matthew 16 Jesus is starting to lay out to his disciples exactly what it means to have Christ as our cornerstone and follow him as Messiah. By foretelling his death and resurrection in the way he did from v 21 onwards he is making it clear that being a disciple, or follower, of his would not be easy. They had been expecting a conquering Messiah or a warrior king, (although may have understood he would suffer). He had to make sure they were aware that the Messiah they were getting would be the exact opposite of what they expected. He said that this Messiah will appear to suffer defeat, and the chief priests and legal experts would appear to win the battle. He knew the bigger picture of what was to happen and wanted to ensure they did not get their own ideas of what would happen. As followers of him they had to be clear on the path ahead of them. This is why Jesus reacted in the way he did to Peter who tried to protect Jesus from this path when he said: (v22) “This must never happen to you”.
Jesus was wounded by these words, they took him back to the temptations he had already faced in the wilderness, but now they were now coming from someone close to him.
In the wilderness Jesus had been tempted to take the easy way, the way of power, and ambition by commanding stones into bread, to throw himself off the temple so the angels would protect him, and to take all the the kingdoms of the world by turning away from God’s plan to save his people. Here he was finding that Peter was whispering the same things to him – ideas of the way of ease, human ideas rather than the plans of God. Peter may have done it with the best intentions, to protect Jesus from an awful death, a protecting love, but Jesus did not want to hear it. This protective kind of love can be heard today when listening to others telling us to take an easier path, or by following the world’s values, as a way of protecting us from the strenuousness of taking the pathway of the kingdom of God. This often happens by compromising our standards. We are often tempted to follow our human desires rather than the imperative of God to build the things of heaven. At this point we can see how Peter, kindly and inadvertently, became a stumbling block to Jesus. He was trying to deflect Jesus from his God-given path to the cross. In 1 Corinthians we are warned against such a stumbling block for ourselves, or by protecting others, if we stray from the set path:
“A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
This is a challenge to us. If we are on a path directed by God, we need to be sure of the message and not listen to others or be deflected.
It is often difficult in today’s world to know which path we are treading as there are so many decisions and choices we are asked to make. We need to be assured we are following God’s plan and follow the things of heaven, not of earth. We can only do this by taking time to listen to what God is telling us through prayer and his teachings. One of the more positive aspects, for some of us, during this time of lockdown and isolation is we have had chance to pray and reflect as to who and in what we are placing our trust. Many of our own plans have been wiped away during this time both as a country and as individuals. We are starting to see what is actually important in life. We are starting to see who we can put our trust in, what values we embrace and those who value truth. We have seen how inequality has been highlighted in our society, and we have been challenged on how we care for others, how we work together and how we look after all of creation. I wonder if anyone has changed their own views from all that we have seen and witnessed? Have we seen God at work even at the toughest times? Perhaps we have a chance to be witnesses in a way we have not been able to previously? There has been evidence that many people are now joining online churches, there has been an increase of interest in religious matters and many appear to be seeking “something”, perhaps to make sense of how the world has changed. We have a great opportunity to help meet those needs. I also just wonder whether we have, in some way and inadvertently, been a stumbling block for those seeking some meaning or purpose to their lives? To help answer some of these questions we need to look to what God wants from us and all that he teaches us. In v24 Jesus tells us what it means to follow him, as people of faith: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.
One (unnamed) writer explained what this means for us today: “The self-denial of which Jesus speaks is not easy to grasp. It is one thing to deny ourselves today so that we can splurge tomorrow, but Jesus is not explaining the benefits of compound interest so that we can enjoy an affluent retirement. Denying oneself involves sacrificing one’s own interests in favour of serving Christ. I have friends who embody that principle—missionaries who live very simply in primitive parts of the world—an investment banker who gave up a six-figure salary to go to seminary. The interesting thing is that the people who actually practice self-denial say (honestly so, in my opinion) that they haven’t sacrificed anything—that they are far happier and more fulfilled than when they were pursuing materialistic or selfish goals. As Jim Elliot (who was killed by natives on the mission field) put it, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.””
This resonated with me at a time when many have been forced to re-evaluate the goals they are pursuing. There has been a shift, for some, from those looking toward materialistic or selfish goals but found they did not give them the true peace and happiness they thought they would. Jesus has shown us in his teachings that the kingdom of heaven is a place where our human values do not apply. We are often slow to hear this message, but we are in good company. The disciples also did not fully understand during their time with Jesus even with all the teaching they received. We too can be slow to understand what is being said to us and sometimes it takes something major for us to be shaken out of complacency and to truly listen. Be assured that whilst our spiritual growth can be very slow, our spiritual journey will take a lifetime. We need to keep checking and listening to ensure we are still on the right path.
So, as we start to move to what seems to be the “the new normal” whatever that may mean, let us not be people looking to take the easy path. Jesus was subjected to temptation to take the easy way, the way of power, ambition and following human desire. He saw a better, but harder way, witnessing to God’s plan for him and the world leading to his death but also to his resurrection. As Jesus said in v 26 “26What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
I have asked a number of questions in this talk. If you are able – take time to reflect, to pray, to ask God to highlight any areas in your own walk with him as to the way forward in your life. As we step back to what will become our own “new normal” remember that whilst we are scattered currently we are still one in Christ and each one of us has a God given plan for our lives.
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